A woman who lives in my apartment building gave me a round, gold pendant, which has a Chai (literally “life” in Hebrew) overlaid on a Star of David. It is quite beautiful. But in small letters underneath the star, it says “ציון”–Zion. Because of that four-letter word, I have never worn the necklace.
As part of my internship with The Third Narrative, I am exposed to academics and scholars who share many of my values. Some of these wiser, more experienced individuals are members of the Academic Alliance for Freedom (AAF), which is dedicated to combating academic boycotts, defending freedom of expression, and promoting empathy in the debate surrounding Israel and Palestine. Others are part of Scholars for Israel and Palestine (SIP), pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, and pro-peace individuals committed to advancing a two-state solution to resolve the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Most of these scholars are roughly on the same page when it comes to issues surrounding Israel, but recently they began to debate the meaning of Zionism in the contemporary context of the Occupation and whether Zionism still appeals to young people.
Until recently, I would have instinctually argued that the majority of young Jews are still proudly identifying as Zionist. This past spring, I took a Political Science course called “Zionism and Palestine.” While we explored different types of Zionism such as revisionary and cultural, the core tenet of the class was “Zionism is Jewish nationalism.” That central definition applied to all the types of Zionism we studied, and as the most stripped-down definition, I assume it must be true. Given that basic definition, I am unable to see how any Jew could fail to identify as a Zionist. How could you not want self-determination for your own people? Similarly, how can people who believe in self-determinism at all not support Zionism? If you feel one people has the right to a nation-state, why not Jews?
As a young Jew with ties to both the diaspora and to Israel, I am very much a Zionist in that I believe in the continuation of Israel as a Jewish state. However, wearing that necklace and proudly displaying “ציון” for people to see allows others to determine what Zionism means for me. They might assume I blindly condone all actions of the Israeli government. They might assume a religious connection to Israel and that I believe Jews have a Torah-given right to establish a Greater Israel. They might assume I am against the two-state solution and Palestinian self-determination.
I do not believe Zionism comes inextricably linked to any of those assumptions, but I still do not want to give others the opportunity to misconstrue why I identify as a Zionist. Jewish youth are coming of age seeing Israel in a new context. We have never been alive when Israel was not occupying another land, another people. For many of us, our parents’ earliest memories come after the ’67 war. We do not remember a weak Israel, and have not experienced the urgent need for Zionism. Others seem to take pleasure in telling us what Zionism is. Some of our peers claim that Zionism is a form of racism or colonialism and that it encourages apartheid. Older members of the Jewish community, those who remember Israel at its most vulnerable, stress the importance of the “historic homeland Eretz Yisrael,” as the World Zionist Organization’s Jerusalem Program calls it, while ignoring the complexities of a present in which Israel as a Jewish state does not appear to need “the common responsibility of the Jewish people for its continuity and future.”
I am a proud pro-Palestinian Zionist, but many with the same viewpoints as myself no longer identify as such. They have separated themselves from a broad movement, which includes everyone from two-staters to settlers. I cannot really blame them. The belief in Jewish self-determinism allows for a wide array of ideologies and political stances, and being clumped in with people whose values you despise is unsettling at best. I would hate for someone to assume I am racist because I am a Zionist.
When older Jews come out as anti/post/non-Zionist, they often face backlash from the Jewish community. Younger Jews, especially those who are progressive and liberal, have strong ties to their campus communities and often find themselves facing a backlash for identifying as Zionist. There is a lot of pressure on progressive young people to staunchly oppose Israel, as Israeli policies regarding the Occupation and last summer’s war are overwhelmingly viewed as despicable by college-age students. However, one can oppose specific Israeli policies while still believing in the right of Jews to have their own state. Support for Palestinian self-determination does not have to diminish Jewish self-determination, no matter how loudly those who disagree may yell.
In the words of Stav Shafir, a leftist member of Knesset, “Don’t argue with [me] about Zionism.” Zionism is a set of personal beliefs, where the only shared principle is support for the continuation of Israel. How could I not be a Zionist?