columnJewish & Israeli Holidays

After 76 years of Israeli independence, Jews must still be Zionists

As the post-Oct. 7 pro-Hamas protests and resulting surge of antisemitism have shown, it is the idea of a Jewish state that’s under attack, not Israel’s policies or actions.

Israeli flag. Credit: Ri-Ya/Pixabay.
Israeli flag. Credit: Ri-Ya/Pixabay.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Amid the celebrations of Israel’s 50th birthday in 1998, there began to be talk of the Jewish state entering into a post-Zionist era. To many Israelis as well as Jews in the Diaspora, the idea of Zionism or identifying as a Zionist seemed irrelevant to the realities of a country that was, for all of its challenges, a firmly established reality. The very term seemed to conjure up a bygone period when advocacy for the right of Jews to sovereignty in their ancient homeland was a heroic struggle against the odds.

On the eve of the 21st century, Israel had not only won its independence but also several wars in its first decades after its Arab neighbors unsuccessfully sought its extinction. Egypt and Jordan had signed peace agreements, and many believed that despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, the Oslo Accords would succeed and end the conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, too. The Zionist movement may have made it all possible. But it had—in the opinion of many—become a vestigial relic that had no relevance to life in a Hebrew-speaking state that had taken its place among the nations of the global community.

Or so many of us thought.

Fast-forward 26 years later, and despite wars, terrorism and the collapse of that peace process, as well as ongoing political and cultural divisions, it can be argued that the permanence of what had come into existence in 1948 is even more obvious than it was when the term “post-Zionist” first started being thrown around. It’s a nation of 9 million people with a First World economy; a military that makes it a regional superpower; and, barring a nuclear cataclysm or some other black swan event, can no more be wished out of existence than any other established country.

Seeking Israel’s destruction

But as we’ve seen in the seven months since the Oct. 7 massacres perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists in southern Israel—and the subsequent surge in antisemitism and pro-Hamas demonstrations throughout the globe—the debate about Zionism isn’t over.

No better example of this could be found than in the controversy over the appearance of an Israeli singer this past weekend at the Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden. Eurovision is a remarkably silly annual global television show. It is generally only worth noting because of its enormous popularity and the way it serves as a barometer of how low the standards of what is considered good in popular music and entertainment can sink. But this year, it became one more battleground for the movement that seeks the elimination of Israel.

In this case, the focus of their ire was the appearance of Israel’s contestant, 20-year-old Eden Golan. Israeli singers have been a fixture in the contest since 1973 and have won it four times. But opponents of the Jewish state, who claimed to be acting out of sympathy for the Palestinians who they believe shouldn’t suffer any consequences for the war they started on Oct. 7, thought Golan should be excluded. Their loud protests forced her to hold up in a hotel room throughout the competition, besieged by those chanting for her country’s destruction and the slaughter of its population. But contrary to their expectations (and the booing from members in the audience), she was allowed to compete, did well and went on to make the finals, finishing fifth even after winning a plurality of votes from European viewers.

The protesters, who came not only from Malmö’s large Muslim sector (reportedly as much as 20% of the city’s population) but also from leftist elites—like the world-famous environmentalist troll Greta Thunberg—were not merely expressing concern for Palestinians acting as human shields for Hamas. As Thunberg said at a pre-Eurovision protest in Stockholm, her goal is to “crush Zionism.”

That’s the same kind of rhetoric we’ve been hearing on American college campuses in the past seven months. Supposedly educated young people have been indoctrinated in woke ideologies that falsely label Israel as a “white” oppressor and a “settler/colonial state” that has no right to exist. Yet the conflict with the Palestinians isn’t racial. Jews are the indigenous people of that country, and Zionism is their national liberation movement whose triumph was one of the greatest acts of decolonization. But to the intersectional mindset that links underdogs together worldwide, Zionism is racism, and Israel should be wiped off the map.

So, just when many, if not most Israelis were ready to treat Zionism as merely an exhibit in a history museum, the idea of a Jewish state is more relevant than ever in the battle to defend an Israel that, for all of its amazing achievements, is still under siege.

An idea that is integral to Judaism

To take a deep dive into the history of the movement, its leaders and its thinkers, is to see how in the half century before May 1948, the Jewish people sought to take their destiny into their own hands. The basic elements of Zionism—the indissoluble link between the Jewish people and their homeland, and the right of all Jews to live, build and defend themselves in a sovereign state there—are baked deep into Judaism’s rituals, prayers and core beliefs. But for a variety of reasons, support for Zionism wasn’t unanimous. Some religious Jews believed that only the coming of the Messiah should bring a return to Jewish statehood. Socialists didn’t believe in nation-states and thought a European revolution would bring safety and rights to all people, making a Jewish state unnecessary. Some Jews in the free countries of the West wished to strip ethnicity from their Jewish identity and feared that they would lose their rights if a Jewish state were created. And some American Jews thought they had found Zion in a secular republic in the New World.

Throughout the last two millennia, Jews had always been a presence in the land that the Romans named “Palestine” in a failed bid to erase them from history. Zionism was also grounded in Jewish rights, not the Holocaust. The post-World War I peace agreements that created the Mandate for Palestine to facilitate the creation of a home for the Jews also grounded it in international law.

Still, Zionist thinkers like Theodor Herzl and, a generation later, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky were right to prophesize that Jews were living in perpetual peril in Europe.

Austro-Hungarian journalist and founder of modern-day Zionism Theodor Herzl. Source: YouTube.

A new debate about Zionism

The antisemitism of the Soviet Union and the reality of the Nazi Holocaust destroyed the illusions of the Socialists (or at least should have), as well as convinced Western Jews that there was no alternative to a Jewish state. And once Israel came into existence, those who feared it for secular or religious reasons generally made their peace with it.

Today, there is a new anti-Zionist movement among the Jews that gets disproportionate coverage in the corporate press, yet represents only a minority of non-Israeli Jews. Unlike past opponents of Zionism, it doesn’t oppose Israel’s existence because they have a better idea to protect Jews. Rather, these Jews who belong to groups like IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace exalt Jewish powerlessness and twist Jewish beliefs into a creed that believes Jews alone of the peoples of the world ought not to have the right of self-determination or the power to defend themselves.

It is no accident that they also traffic in antisemitic blood libels, such as the claim that Israel trains American police to murder African-Americans. As the reaction to Oct. 7 has shown, these Jewish anti-Zionists may be loud and have strong support from the mainstream media, but they have nothing to do with normative Jewish values and represent only themselves.

Yet the battle over Zionism isn’t merely this faint echo of past Jewish squabbles. Today, anti-Zionism is a main plank of leftist activists, whether they are environmental extremists like Thunberg (who want the world to give up air travel, the right to own cars, as well as to eat meat or cheese); Black Lives Matter activists in the United States who smear America as an irredeemably racist nation; or the LGBTQ+ community that sees Palestinians as fellow victims, even though unlike Israel but in most Arab countries, they would be in danger because of their lifestyle.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky
Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky (bottom right) meeting with Beitar leaders in Warsaw, circa 1939. Future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin is on the left in the first row. Source: National Photo Collection of Israel

Another variant of antisemitism

They claim to speak for human rights but have little interest in any conflict or alleged humanitarian crisis unless it can be blamed on the Jews. Like intellectuals of the early 20th century who blazed the trail for the acceptance of Nazism, they claim to be moved by the suffering of victims of war but have a curious blind spot when those victims are Jews. The plight of the hostages or those who were slaughtered in the orgy of rape, murder, torture, kidnapping and wanton destruction committed by Hamas and Palestinians on Oct. 7 move them not at all.

Their nurturing of Palestinian fantasies of Israel’s destruction is helping to doom the supposed objects of their sympathy to a future of more war, terrorism and destruction. The fact that their reaction to Hamas barbarism was not merely to oppose Israel’s justified war to eliminate a genocidal terrorist group, but to vow to “crush Zionism” and erase it from “the river to the sea,” remains proof that it is not so much an intersectional human-rights cause as it is just a new variant on the same old tropes of antisemitism. They aren’t merely criticizing an Israeli government’s policies or actions. Their problem is with the fact that there is one Jewish state on the planet.

They seem to believe the Jews are the only people on the planet whose right to self-determination deserves no respect. While they reject accusations of antisemitism, what else can you call those who discriminate against Jews and judge them by a standard they would never apply to any other people?

Jew-haters are now recirculating tropes that Soviet propagandists first issued a half-century ago to label Zionism as racism. The only rational reaction to this is for Israelis and Jews wherever they live to embrace not just the label of Zionist but the ideas behind it. Zionism recognizes age-old ties between a people and their land, and at its core is a fundamental expression of Jewish rights.

Zionism has created a nation that for all of its flaws and frailties is a unique experiment in the ingathering of a people in a democratic state. In the last 76 years, Zionist Jews have worked miracles not just in surviving wars waged by enemies bent on their elimination but also in a society capable of enormous economic, technological and cultural achievements. It should be celebrated—not reviled—and people of good will, whether Jewish or not, should know that by embracing it, they are identifying themselves with among the most just causes and most amazing stories in modern history.

Israelis are still mourning their dead since Oct. 7 while they battle Hamas and work for the safe return of the remaining hostages held captive in Gaza. But they are also celebrating a nation that needs no permission from any foreign power to exist and, false accusations of antisemites about “genocide” notwithstanding, whose conduct under excruciating circumstances has been exemplary by any standard.

Zionism isn’t dead. Nor will it be defeated by Hamas and its leftist enablers in the streets of Malmö or on North American college campuses. It is very much alive, and on Yom Ha’atzmaut—Israel’s 76th Independence Day—every Jew with a conscience and sense of self-respect should be proudly calling themselves Zionists.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

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