Why won’t forces against delegitimization admit they are Zionist?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-9-11

At the recent, impressive, left-to-right, rookies-meet-veterans, American Jewish Committee Access/Reut conference against delegitimization, held in Washington, DC, I again encountered a bizarre phenomenon. Many American Jews now understand the need to combat those who escalate attacks on specific Israeli policies into attacks on Israel’s right to exist. These activists reject those who would rather demonize Israel than work for peace. But they recoil from calling themselves “Zionist” despite being Zionist, given their support for the Jewish people’s rights to their national homeland in Israel. These Pro-Israel-Forces-Against-Delegitimization (call them PIFADs) usually use the word “Zionist” with the prefix “anti.” They admit to fighting anti-Zionism but, unlike Australians and South Americans among others, won’t admit they are Zionist. This approach keeps PIFADs defensive, letting their enemies define the battlefield. Fighting “delegitimization” without championing Zionism is like opposing slavery without endorsing freedom.

When I talk Zionism to PIFADs, they tell me that the age of “isms” is over, that “Zionism” does not poll well, that the term makes young Jews uncomfortable, that the Z-word is associated with the unreasonable right, not with the centrists and leftists so essential to success, especially on campuses.

But running away from “Zionism” is cowardly and self-destructive. PIFADs risk legitimizing the delegitimizers by internalizing Zionism’s delegitimization.

“Delegitimization” is a polysyllabic mouthful, an abstraction few outside the pro-Israel community understand. We can never a win a fight against the delegitimization of Israel by surrendering to the decades-long campaign delegitimizing Zionism, the movement which established Israel. If a century ago Zionism brought pride back to the term “Jew,” today, Jews – including Israelis – must bring pride back to the term “Zionist.”

In Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, the African-American scholar Randall Kennedy demonstrates the “protean nature” of all terms, especially in politics. Words are magical, containing the power to hurt or heal, to kill or save. Groups win fights by using the magic of words to define them and their aims – and they lose fights by letting others define them. If African-Americans can redefine “the N-word,” if Gays can transform “Queer” into a rallying cry, if women can march to “Take Back the Night,” why can’t pro-Israel activists resurrect the proud label “Zionist”?

The pro-Israel camp is abandoning Zionism because of the systematic campaign singling out one form of nationalism, Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, as racist. Radical leftists and Islamists united in their Red-Green Alliance against Zionism – overriding disagreements regarding gay rights, women’s rights, and basic civil liberties. Most Americans have rejected this New Big Lie and still support Israel. But, David Olesker of the Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training notes, that “the one area where the delegitimization campaign has made inroads on campus is amongst Jewish students.” Even if most Jews reject the Arab stereotype of Zionism, they have endured enough embarrassment over this oft-targeted term to want to flee from it.

This retreat is self-defeating, especially now when we need a Big Tent Zionism, committing right and left to three ideas: Jews are a people; Jews deserve a state; and the Jewish state belongs in the land of Israel, the Jewish homeland. Endorsing Big Tent Zionism demonstrates our latitude to debate particular Israeli policies while agreeing on Israel’s right to exist. Championing Big Tent Zionism allows leftists to prove their patriotism mixed with their criticism and rightists to demonstrate tolerance mixed with their nationalism.

Zionism cannot belong to the right. Just as the only two Democrats to win America’s presidency since 1980 knew to champion family, faith, and the flag, pro-Israel advocates must learn from Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to treat Zionism as a magic word uniting all who by opposing delegitimization support the legitimacy of the Zionist project, meaning the Jewish state, meaning Israel.

PIFADs should go “poof” and magically transform into Zionists. Beyond the tactical decision to resurrect the term, we need an ideological renewal – in Israel and the Diaspora – reminding us that Zionists do not just defend the Jewish state, but aspire to fulfill its Jewish-democratic ideals. We need an educational resurgence, embracing the challenge advanced by Professor Kenneth Stein of Emory University, to make all Jews as familiar with Israel as they are with the Four Questions. We need an institutional reorientation, reintroducing and reintegrating Zionism into our schools, camps, synagogues, clubs, advocacy groups, in the Diaspora and Israel. And we need a personal reappraisal, finding the “I” in Zionist, repositioning each of us to fit into the Jewish story and the Zionist narrative.

In the musical “South Pacific,” Emile DeBecque asks an American soldier, “I know what you are against, what are you for?” I am for a Big Tent Zionism, which mourns together on Yom HaZikaron, celebrates on Yom Ha’atzmaut, then dukes it out over strategies, tactics, borders, and dreams on other days. I am for a Rainbow Zionism which identifies “red lines” we don’t cross in criticizing Israel, such as delegitimizing comparisons to South African Apartheid and Nazism, while affirming “blue and white lines,” our common beliefs (delineated at http://www.restoringsanity.info). I am for an Aspirational Zionism which embraces our Altneuland – Old-New land – to fulfill personal and collective dreams. I am for a Smart Zionism which targets its many enemies but avoids words like “traitor” when criticizing friends, and dodges distracting, self-destructive brouhahas like the recent opposition to granting the playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree, which was bound to be caricatured as a McCarthyite attempt to squelch free speech. And I am for a Proud Zionism, which refuses to let our enemies define us, our divisions distract us, or our fears paralyze us, but reminds us how lucky we are to undertake this wonderfully challenging project of building a modern, safe, democratic Jewish state in our traditional homeland.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press. giltroy@gmail.com

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  1. The “Z” Word « Engaging Zion

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