Zionism has, in recent years, become an increasingly pejorative term. It was, for example, unremarkable for Alexei Sayle to write in the Independent: “If the Zionists wanted a homeland, why didn’t they take a piece of Germany? The answer is, of course, that Arabs, then and now, were not considered fully human by the Zionists… and therefore could be murdered without qualms.”
Sayle’s day job is stand-up comedian and his political views are therefore of less significance than his jokes, but his comments represent a profound and probably widespread ignorance.
Peace Now, the grassroots mass movement which has a long history of protest against Israeli government support for Jewish settlements on the West Bank, is emphatically Zionist — though never characterised as such. Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo Accords and the Geneva Agreement, has unequivocally stated he is a Zionist. Members of “Courage to Refuse”, the conscripts who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza during the intifada, also do not disavow Zionism.
Zionism is a defining feature of a large section of the Israeli peace camp, yet is often portrayed in the western media as synonymous with occupation, violation of human rights and military aggression.
Even within the Jewish peace camp, there is insufficient attempt to respond to the frequent historical distortions. This is partly due to fear of upsetting relationships with Palestinians and partly indicative of that peace camp’s fragmentation.
In the 1980s, British supporters of the Israeli right would label those who disagreed with Begin and Shamir as “self-hating Jews” or as Chamberlain-like appeasers. Oslo changed all that. It also persuaded Likud supporters that they, too, could criticise an Israeli government.
On the eve of the intifada, the late Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, and a former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Moshe Raviv, spoke on a Peace Now platform to a packed, well-heeled audience from Jewish suburbia. Today, the British peace movement is different again.
There are those who exclusively support the Palestinians and turn a blind eye to suicide bombings. Others are concerned solely with Israeli human rights violations.
Some confuse attacking “the Jewish establishment” with fighting for peace. Yet others have given up on the pettiness of “shtetl politics” and confine their efforts to helping the Israeli peace camp directly.
Finally, there are those who are disturbed by Israel’s military prowess — used for good or ill — since it contrasts dramatically with the self-image of the “civil” diaspora Jew.
In Britain, a clear point of division within the Jewish peace camp has been the emergence of Islamism and its fellow travellers within the British left. Some have chosen to ignore the rise of Hamas and Hizbollah as if this was still the era of Arafat. Some believe that Islamism is either progressive or will be short-lived. Other Jews believe that, on the contrary, the Islamic world has entered a new period of religious intensity and that the hatches should be battened down until this theological storm passes.
Meanwhile, the Israeli peace camp has remained ineffectual because the campaign of suicide bombing by the Islamists has undermined its standing among the Israeli public.
In these circumstances, does not blanket criticism of Israel, far from hurting the Israeli government, aid the cause of those who wish to delegitimise the state? With this in mind, some suggest we should keep our collective mouth shut. But isn’t this intellectually dishonest and a denigration of our commitment to Israel? There is a difference between specific criticism of the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon and general, naive talk of a one-state solution without considering how Israelis might respond to such a proposal.
Most people like to deal in black and white. The Israel-Palestine conflict, however, is complex. This conditions criticism of Israeli policy, but it does not mean that it should be avoided.
With the state firmly established, the task of post-revolutionary Zionism is to correct the distortions that have occurred over the years; to strive for an agreed and just solution to the conflict with the Palestinians; and to resist those who would reverse history and confine the Jews once more to the ghetto.
Zionism is a dynamic, flexible but maligned and misunderstood concept. It is time to restore some clarity, rescue it from its pariah status, and differentiate between implacable enemies and critical friends.
Jewish Chronicle 4 January 2007