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Worth reading: “Reclaiming the Z Word” (i.e., Zionism)

On Sunday, I am going to argue that it is important to start answering the claims of educated anti-Zionists with cogent, calm and respectful arguments, rather than engaging in frenzied efforts to deny them platforms. In the meantime, the following essay by Chris MacDonald-Dennis on why he calls himself a Zionist is worth reading. It has appeared on a number of web sites that are also worth reviewing, including those of Ameinu and ENGAGE UK

I don’t agree with everything in this piece and I don’t think it is likely to sway people who are convinced that the establishment of a Jewish state was an irredeemably evil act. But this is the kind of American Jewish voice –and spirit– that often gets drowned out in both the mainstream Jewish community and the American left.

Reclaiming the Z Word …or why I can care about my own people and others at the same time

By Christopher MacDonald-Dennis

When I identify myself publicly as a Zionist, I often get asked the same question: “you are a what?” Generally the person knows that I subscribe to a left-wing world view and is frankly stymied. Their image of a Zionist is a right-wing jingoist who claims that Israel is perfect and that the situation she is in is the fault of only the Palestinians or the larger Arab world. They are incredulous and often take a step back as if they are seeing me for the first time.

Yes, Virginia, there are progressive Zionists.

Many people will ask why I want to utilize a term that is synonymous with reactionary and racist to many. Zionism, for those who automatically think of the right-winger described above, is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Zionists come in many stripes, including cultural Zionists, labor Zionists, and revisionist Zionists to name but a few. By using that moniker, I do not claim to follow any political line. However, I do firmly stand for one thing: the need for a Jewish homeland.

Too often, some on the left characterize Zionists as frothing racists who hate Palestinians and want to oppress others. Many also view Zionism incorrectly as an attempt to reclaim biblical Israel. I am not the type of Zionist who harbors triumphalist visions of greater Israel. Although I am a religious Jew, my Zionism is as secular as that of the original Zionists.

Most people have no idea that there has historically been a diversity of opinions among Zionists. Some were binationalists, hoping for a utopian country in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs lived together in harmony. I like to think that, had I been alive in the 1920’s, I would have been a binationalist hoping for a united Palestine, a la Herzl’s Altneuland.

Of course we know that all offers for this type of nation were rejected, as was a two-state solution. I do not state this to point fingers and to demonize others. I say this because, as a Zionist, I have been frustrated by the fact that many people do not know the history of the conflict and automatically blame Israel for the lack of peace. Yes, Israel and Zionism have made mistakes in the past, just as all national liberation movements have. Look at the history of decolonization of Africa to see that countries which often had a bright future often make some horrible mistakes.

As a Zionist, I look at the Jewish community as my people. I will not distance myself from right-wing Zionists in order to curry favor with others. I know that the dynamic of “good Jew/bad Jew” has been used throughout our history to divide us. I will struggle with my more conservative brothers and sisters so that they may see why my views will bring about justice and security but I do it from a place of love. I detest the Occupation and yes, I call it an Occupation. I mourn the times in which we have said we were committed to peace and had no intention of it. But I shall struggle with right-wing Zionists, non-Zionists and others who want to constructively engage in finding peace to solve this conflict.

However, I strongly believe that there are many reasons that there is not peace but Israel is only one actor in this drama. Israel cannot and should not take the entire blunt of the blame.

I am a Zionist because, while I am ambivalent about nationalism as a progressive, I realize that the nation-state is the way that humans are currently organizing themselves. I am a Zionist because I love the idea of the various Jewish ethnicities living together after thousands of years. Mizrahim, Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Asian Indian Jews, Beta Israel of Ethiopia, as well as others learning to be a Jewish people together. Interestingly, those who live in Israel, a multiethnic Jewish state, have never questioned how someone named Chris MacDonald-Dennis could be a Jew, unlike the never-ending questions I get in the U.S.

I am a Zionist because of my reading of Jewish history and oppression. I want the Jewish people to survive and thrive. Historians have counted the number of Jews living in the Roman empire two thousand years ago and, using demographic analysis of the people with which we lived throughout the centuries, postulated that there should be 250 to 300 million Jews in the world. However, there are approximately 14 million of us now. Genocide, forced conversion, and oppression have dwindled our numbers. I do not believe that Zionism is supposed to mean the end of the Diaspora or that Zionism is the natural culmination of our history. However, a homeland at peace with its neighbors would allow the Jewish people to flourish.

Alex Stein recently made a brilliant point when he stated that the classic dichotomy in the contemporary Jewish world is between particularity and universality. Jews have fought over the notion that one should not be too particularist (I care about Jews as a group) or too universalist (I care about all groups of people except for Jews). As a progressive Zionist, I do not see that there has to be a choice. I agree with Stein when he states that as a Zionist, his primary concern is for the citizens of Israel (he is Israeli) and for Jews all over the world but also cares for others as well. He uses the analogy that caring for your family does not preclude you from being concerned with the well-being of your neighbors.

I am also identifying publicly as a Zionist because it bothers to have others define me. Instead of asking what Zionism means to me, many people will tell me what Zionism is. Of course these are the same people who would never tell me how to identity as a gay man (queer? Same-genderloving? Gay?) or as a Latino (Hispanic? By country of origin?) Why as a Jew and as Zionist do I get this basic respect taken away? This piece is my statement that I will not be defined by others. I am loudly and proudly Zionist.

The editor of Ha’aretz, Bradley Burston, in his recent piece about “coming out” as a Zionists, summed up my feelings about being a progressive Zionists better than I ever could:

“I believe that a Jewish country need not be racist. I believe that a Jewish country must not be racist.

I believe that Jews have every right to a state of their own, no less than the Palestinians. I believe that the Palestinians have every right to a state of their own, no less than the Jews.

I believe that if one side denies the other the right to a state, it does direct and permanent harm to both peoples.

I believe that in a world in which there are dozens of Islamic countries, some of which cannot abide the corporeal presence of the Jew, there is room for one Jewish one.

I believe that in a world in which the flags of 13 nations bear a cross, the flag of one nation can bear a Star of David.

I believe that the process of dividing and sharing the Holy Land will be agonizing for both peoples.

I believe that the process of forgiveness will be painful, in some ways cruel. I believe that it will be next to impossible.

I also believe that it will happen.

I believe that a time will come when the sides will come to recognize what each has been saying to the other – often in the worst possible ways – for a lifetime now:

We’re here. That’s final. Get used to it.”

I am a Zionist and a progressive. In fact, I am a Zionist because I am a progressive. I want self-determination for all peoples of the world, including my own. I simply want a Jewish state, living in peace among and in cooperation with her neighbors. Amos Oz, one of the few voices of sanity in a shrill and ugly conflict, states that there will be painful concessions on both sides. As he states, the problem is that this conflict is one of right meets right. I want Israel to live side by side in security and justice with a vibrant Palestine. I desperately want to find those willing to pull up his or her sleeves and make peace a reality. In all of this, however, I do it as a Zionist.

8 thoughts on “Worth reading: “Reclaiming the Z Word” (i.e., Zionism)

  1. I’m a Zionist.

    As in support of the right of the Jewish people to exist as a nation (a community of communities), self-govern and in Israel.

    I’m not an expansionist. I call the land east of the green line Palestine, and regard the wrongs done to Palestinians between 1947 and 1952, and post-1967 as only partially righted (only incidentally to date).

    One lesson learned by voluntarily self-examining, acknowledging wrongs, and making physical amends for wrongs is that of confidence.

    Rather than living in either denial or shame, following the clarity of acknowledgement, apology and amends, we have the opportunity to live in clarity and a genuine non-groveling justice.

    One feature of the both the radical Islamic, radical leftist, and fascist versions of anti-Zionism that extends into anti-Semitism, is the characteristic of demanding an existential apology, a perennial and unconditioned groveling.

    Relative to that demand, I prefer self-assertion.

    The times that I am most confident (genuine) in my self-assertion, are the times when I regularly and honestly self-review my ethical and collective ethical actions and effects.

    In reviewing the history of Zionism, I conclude that Zionism was necessary, and conducted largely ethically, but with significant actions or policies that were either out and out wrong, or merely temporarily necessary.

    For example, the issues relating to the Palestinian right of return result from the reality that Arab/Palestinian residents left their residences in large numbers to avoid the war, but were prohibited from returning following the cease fire of 1948/9. In 1952, that prohibition was made permanent by law (I forgot the title of the law).

    That law diminished the contention that Israel applied the rule of law equally. Israel has yet to afford the displaced and heirs of the displaced, due process of law to demonstrate or perfect their title claims.

  2. Both the article and Mr. Witty make a good deal of sense, Part of the challenge to progressive Zionists is that we must neither ignore nor deny that something terrible happened to Palestinians in the late 1940s and that Zionist Jews do bear much of the blame –although certainly not all of it. Nor should we ignore or deny the racism and “Orientalism” of many of the Zionist pioneers. They were products of their time, with their European views of Islam and “primitive” Arabs, just as the Palestinians who refused to accept the partition and refused to figure out a way to share Palestine were products of their time. We should acknowledge those realities. We should tell Palestinians that we know that they suffered an injustice during the War of Independence. That can and should be said while also saying that the Palestinian leadership and Arab states also deserve a large share of the blame for not accepting the UN partition plan, for attacking the Jewish state in the late 40s and continuing to shell it in the 1950s, for saying “No, no and no” to Israel’s offers to return the territories right after the 6-Day War, etc. etc.

    The Palestinians have demanded, in many different ways, that Israel “apologize” for what happened. Well, why not apologize for whatever the Zionists did that contributed to their displacement? That does not mean taking on full responsibility for that displacement.

  3. I left reading this awhile and now I am back, and I see the same thing as before. All of you Meretz people or whoever you are don’t understand that in this part of the world nobody cares about the weak, nobody has symapatyhy for weak. Why should I say “sorry?” All this does is tell the enemy I am weak. Maybe some of them are not myu enemy but the the rest of them are. They respect only the strong. Tyhis is reality.

  4. Bwana Shmuel, you are strong. We care about you. We have sympathy for you. We will say “sorry” to you any time. This will tell you that you are strong, You not like Meretz people, Bwana Shmuel.

  5. Dr. Itzikl,

    I do not understand this sophisticated comment. You put a lot of thought into it, it’s clear, So please help me understand this message. Better yet, tell me why I am wrong. Tell me why signals of national weakness do not matter in the Middle East. I think they matter. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon under Barak sent a signal to Palestinians that violence can pay off.

  6. Because you’re lost in a world of “signs” and “signals” that you are interpreting to yourself, for yourself. You are sealed in the hermetic jar of your own fantasies. Not just you. All the people you “understand” and who “understand” you, all of you who agree with each other. It is a stable system, because no amount of reality, i.e. failure of the consequences based on these assumptions, can have any effect on it. It just keeps going… from bad to worse.

    http://www.firedoglake.com/2006/08/02/whos-a-friend-of-israel/

    Just for the record, I’m a Jew, not a Zionist.

  7. Richard and Teddy,

    As the author of the piece, I completely agree with your assertions that we need to make amends with the Palestinians. I received this years ago and think it sums up nicely how I feel:

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
    > AN APOLOGY AND A PRAYER
    > An open letter to the Palestinian people from Jews in Israel and the Diaspora
    >
    >
    > In the period between the religious festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom
    > Kippur, Jews are enjoined to take steps to repair the wrong we have done to
    > others. This is an attempt to reach out to you, our Palestinian cousins, to
    > change the nature of the bloody and merciless exchange, which currently
    > dominates relations between us.
    >
    > We who sign below, ordinary Jews, want to tell you that we are sorry.
    >
    > We are sorry for the calamity you experienced in 1948, for the loss of your
    > homes and land, for your dispersal and exile, and for the families that have
    > grown up for three generations in refugee camps without a sense of home or
    > belonging.
    >
    > We are sorry particularly for the Jewish part in your exodus – the
    > expulsions, the shelling of villages, and those killings which created the
    > climate of fear which prompted many to leave. We our sorry that our terrible
    > century of tragedy became your tragedy. You did not ask for it and you did
    > not deserve it. And we were blind to it.
    >
    > Our people were blinded by our own suffering and loss, rage and grief,
    > desperate to
    > survive, desperate for a home, a refuge, a place we could call our own. We
    > were unable to see the magnitude of the sacrifice we were asking of you.
    >
    > In 1948, and again in 1967, we were also blinded by the joy and relief of the
    > military victories which secured our homeland.
    >
    > We apologise unreservedly for the increasing harshness of our occupation
    > since the victory of 1967, and for the further losses we have inflicted on
    > the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Losses of land, of water, trees
    > and homes, of dignity and humanity and freedom. This occupation has been
    > perverted by greed and hubris, and it has corrupted our people as it has
    > humiliated and angered your people. It has created hatred and a thousand new
    > wounds between us. It needs to end.
    >
    > We want you to have your own state, that you can take pride in, a refuge and
    > symbol of hope for your own people, with Arab Jerusalem as its capital. We
    > want to return to you that land and those settlements which stand in the way
    > of the wholeness and territorial integrity of your state.
    >
    > We will not now give up our own state. We have yearned for it for too long,
    > fought for it too hard, and need its sanctuary too much to let it go. But we
    > want our two states to work together as partners for the good of all our
    > peoples.
    >
    > We want your refugees with our help and the help of the community of nations
    > to receive reparation and help to build new lives and re-settlement if they
    > wish. We will welcome a certain number to Israel. They will not find the
    > country that their forefathers left, but we hope they will find through this
    > process a new climate of acceptance and tolerance.
    >
    > We respect the determination of the people of the West Bank and Gaza (this was 2001) to
    > resist the occupation. But we ask you urgently to stop the suicide bombings
    > and the shooting of innocent people. These acts generate a climate of fear,
    > hatred and mistrust, and the belief that there is no rational partner in
    > peaceful dialogue. For our part we will resist the aggressive and
    > intimidatory acts of our own leaders. The shelling of villages and
    > assassination and destruction of homes and crops must stop.
    >
    > At this time of darkness and war, it is incumbent upon us to search out every
    > glimmer of light and hope. We wish for our people and your people, for our
    > children and our children’s children, joy and prosperity, peace and God’s
    > blessing.
    >
    > Rodger Kamenetz

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