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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.

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