INSIGHTS: The “Zionism/Anti-Zionism” Debate: Bad for Israel, Bad for Palestine

INSIGHTS: The “Zionism/Anti-Zionism” Debate: Bad for Israel, Bad for Palestine

The “Zionism/Anti-Zionism” Debate: Bad for Israel, Bad for Palestine

By Ron Skolnik

“Those who do not know are misled themselves and mislead others. For this reason, [Socrates] never gave up considering with his companions what any given thing is.” Xenophon, Memorabilia

For as long as I can recall, a feverish debate has been waged about the merits and demerits of something called “Zionism” and another something called “Anti-Zionism”. For many years, I’ll confess, I was an active participant. Now, though, I find the argument to be not only aimless drudgery, but a framing that primarily serves the most extreme viewpoints on either side of the Israel-Palestine question and that entrenches a binary zero-sum game mentality.

Where to start? Any productive discussion, of any topic, must rest on a foundation in which the various sides speak a common language. It would be pointless, for example, for a debate to take place in which one participant spoke German and the other Cantonese, with neither able to make out the argument the other was presenting.

The Zionism/Anti-Zionism debate is not all that different. While ostensibly it is being conducted in a common tongue, e.g. English in the English speaking world, it most often involves various participants not really understanding the others’ terms of reference and therefore not speaking to or with one another, but “at” or past them. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus, drawing on Socrates’ teachings, wrote that “The beginning of education is the examination of terms”. Conversely, how could a debate possibly be edifying when terminology goes unexamined?

So perhaps we should begin with what it means when someone refers to “Zionism”. Supporters of Zionism will say that Zionism represents the belief that Jews have a right to national self-determination in (or somewhere within) their ancestral homeland. Even this group features subdivisions, however. Most Zionists today believe that such self-determination needs to be expressed in the form of a separate state. A minority, however, has always insisted that Zionist self-determination can be practiced within the framework of a binational Jewish-Arab entity.

Yet, what are we to make of the word “Zionism” when senior Israeli cabinet ministers draw a direct line between Zionism and unchecked expansionism and Jewish supremacy? For decades, rightwing figures advocating a “Greater Land of Israel” have demanded increased West Bank settlement growth as the “appropriate Zionist reaction” or (“response”) to any number of developments, from acts of terror to rulings by the International Criminal Court, unfavorable resolutions by the UN, or nations recognizing a State of Palestine. Sometimes the “Zionist response” called for involves full West Bank annexation. These figures, such as Bezalel Smotrich, Minister of Finance and Minister in charge of West Bank administration, now help mold government policy.

While lots of folks who consider themselves Zionists abhor the far-right political agenda and sometimes even define its one-state ambitions as anti-Zionist, the fact is that it’s easy for those less well-versed to be confused as to what the Zionist goal “really” is.

Now on to Anti-Zionism: Here, too, we see a range of differing orientations that somehow manage to group together under a single moniker. On the extreme wing are those Anti-Zionists who make lots of noise by relating to Israel as solely a product of European colonialism, and to Jewish Israelis as trespassers and thieves who must “go back where they came from” – even if their ancestors had never set foot in Europe.

And yet, some self-styled Anti-Zionists have a much less belligerent take. They regard, not without reason, the Israeli government as the most accurate and up-to-date expression of Zionism, arguing that more liberal and historical variants of Zionism are not pertinent to the actual reality. Since the Israeli government is seen as the “spokesperson” of Zionism, their staunch opposition to its policies and practices – the occupation, settler and military violence, de facto annexation, the war in Gaza and its devastating impact on Palestinian civilians, as well as laws that prioritize the interests of Jewish citizens over Palestinian-Arab citizens – is naturally defined as “Anti-Zionism”.

Clearly, the Zionism/Anti-Zionism debate is a modern-day Tower of Babel.

Most individuals, of course, don’t have the time, energy, or disposition to wade through the terminological and conceptual morass. They prefer a sharp, clear picture to a muddle of shades; an exclamation point to a question mark. Drawn to the simplicity and clarity of “good guys versus bad guys”, many seek out a conceptual world in which the most noxious version of either the so-called “Zionist” or “Anti-Zionist” crowd is seen as the truest, most authentic version of that ideology.

And this is where the Zionism/Anti-Zionism debate becomes not just tedious and unproductive but dangerous, as we create a schema in which the most ill-meaning poles of a movement become the embodiment of that movement, at least in the eyes of the “other side”. Smotrich and the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the racist Meir Kahane, have become the poster children of Zionism for many of those supporting the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Likewise, groups such as Within Our Lifetime – whose recent rally in New York notoriously included a banner reading “Zionists are not Jews and not human” – have become the essence of all Anti-Zionism for many of those protective of Israel and Israelis. In similar manner, the term “Hamas” is cognitively deployed (erroneously, of course) as a synonymous stand-in for all Palestinians.

Encouraged by the algorithms of the social media corporations, and the clickbait orientation of modern journalism, we tend to be exposed to and promote the most objectionable behaviors on the “other side” in order to prove how right we are, how bad they are. And since we are disinclined to criticize or cast out members of our “team”, many Zionists and Anti-Zionists, who otherwise might not be on diametrically opposite poles, end up accommodating their most extreme representatives. Hamas flags are flown in support of Palestine; extremist Israeli cabinet ministers are invited to the Israel Parade.

In the end, “Zionism” vs. “Anti-Zionism” becomes not so much a debate as an exercise in name-calling, a shorthand tool for dismissing the other side as inherently evil and therefore unworthy of further consideration.

What would our discourse look like if the terms “Zionist” and “Anti-Zionist” were to magically be stricken from our lexicon? If we didn’t have those words with which to simplistically sum up our and our interlocutors’ identity and belief systems?

Without these words, we might have an easier time reorienting our debate of Israel-Palestine to the particulars of real-world problem-solving. We might be more inclined to speak about matters like rights, injustices, policies, solutions, principles, and, yes, compromises. With less of an ability to apply single-word labels to others, we’d be encouraged to examine with richer detail what future we could be for, not just against.

Ridding the world of “Zionism” and “Anti-Zionism” is not a panacea. Real disagreements will continue to exist. Obviously, the Israel-Palestine conflict involves two peoples whose interests don’t and won’t perfectly match.

But the biggest benefit we will reap in dispensing with “Zionism” and “Anti-Zionism” is eliminating the veil of legitimacy that the extremists take advantage of. If someone seeks to expel Palestinians from the Land, they will have to say so and not hide behind the cloak of “Zionism”. Similarly, those who would remove Jews from the Land would no longer be able to make common cause with the many whose Anti-Zionism is more a rejection of Israel’s doings than its being

There are roughly seven million Jewish people living between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. And roughly seven million Palestinian Arab people as well. Neither side is going away and political arrangements are desperately needed to allow both sides to live and prosper. But with “Zionism” and “Anti-Zionism” having become loaded, disputatious terms, their continued use will surely promote only antagonism, not progress. On the other hand, a discourse that eschews these terms could help us recenter our discussion – away from the extremes and toward the creation of a future in which neither side wins at the expense of the other.




Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political columnist and public speaker, whose articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Haaretz, Al- Monitor, Tikkun, the Forward, Jewish Currents, & the Palestine-Israel Journal.

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