Why I still call myself a Zionist.

5/24/11 UPDATE:
To see me speaking on Russia Today about the Obama speech and Netanyahu reaction to same, please click here:
Israel, Palestine, Obama, Netanyahu & me – on Russian TV.


As I get ready to go to the J Street conference this weekend, I find myself grappling with all those lovely issues that an American-Israeli peace activist must occasionally grapple with. What shoes to wear? What books to bring in the carry-on? Why do I still insist on applying to myself that much maligned descriptor “Zionist”?

I mean honestly, haven’t I gotten the memo? Zionists “barely resemble humans,” as one tweet recently had it. None of the cool, peace-n-justice loving kids are Zionists anymore! C’mon now!

There are a handful of reasons for my mulishness, however, and they start from the most simple: Words mean things.

“Zionist” does not mean “fascist” or “imperialist” or “running dog” or even “baby-killer.” It means “Jewish nationalist.” So there’s that. I am forever getting hung up on the fact that words have actual, working definitions.

And then there’s the fact that I firmly believe that my side (the Israeli/Jewish side) has absolutely no business telling the other side (the Palestinian side) how to define themselves or their terms. They get to define themselves, not me. And so, ipso facto, I’m not willing to say that those who have issues with Israeli government policy — no matter how deep and just the issues may be — now have a right to define my people and our terms for us.

And finally, if I am accepting of — indeed, promoting of — Palestinian nationalism, I cannot find any way clear to denying my own people their nationalism.

I have questions about nationalism. Big questions. I genuinely believe (as I’ve said before) that nationalism is a stage in human development and we will, one day, please God, achieve something better.

But that day is not yet here.

And if nationalism is still the world’s current geopolitical organizing principle (and it is, whether I like it or not), and I accept, promote and support Palestinian nationalism — well then, Jews have the same right to their own nationalist visions and dreams.

Jews had long shared a language and a culture and a deeply beloved land when the notion of modern nationalism first came into vogue in the late 19th century — the fact that we hadn’t lived on that land for centuries was because we had been brutally thrown off it and hounded across the globe. It was not a choice, a usurpation — it was a rolling genocide that failed. My people prayed to return to that land three times a day, in a language and within a cultural heritage that spanned centuries. If that doesn’t constitute the building blocks of the modern construct we know as “nationalism,” I don’t know what does.

And so: If I support Palestinian nationalism, I cannot in good conscience tell my own people to drop theirs. If I believe that my people has no right to tell the Palestinians what to call themselves, I cannot in good conscience tell my people that their words are rank and vile and must be got rid of. And if I believe that we have a duty to use language in order communicate the truth — not pull it and push it so that it fits in the boxes that best serve our political ends — then I cannot in good conscious quietly accept the viciousness and vitriol (and often barely-veiled antisemitism) that pass for “a definition of Zionism” among many who fight alongside me for the rights of the Palestinian people.

I don’t wear the word with much ease, it’s true. Too many have attached too much hate to it now, and, as I said, I’m not entirely sure that I’m fully on-board with nationalism, of any kind, anymore. I surely won’t argue with Jews who say they just can’t apply that word to themselves at this point, particularly if they have transcended nationalism in their own personal ideology.

But until I’m convinced that nationalism is no longer the path we must trod for the forseeable future, until I’m convinced that Israelis and Palestinians alike are willing and able to give up the dreams of decades and centuries and throw in their lot with each other, I will still use the dreaded Z word.

It comes down to this: I cannot believe that supporting Palestinian rights demands that I turn my back on my own people. And so I won’t.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.


  1. Thanks for this.

  2. I never really know what to say when someone near me says that Israel has no right to exist. The best response I’ve come up with is “If you can’t convince them of that, and you can’t, where do we go from there to create peace, and a Palestinian state?”

    • That’s pretty much it. Telling someone they are entirely wrong about their history and self-identity is no way to start a conversation, or end bloodshed. (Just ask the Palestinians).

  3. sue swartz

     /  February 23, 2011

    Right on, sister. To the unease and to the commitment. Wish I could be joining you this weekend, but alas, family obligations call.

    • I realized I just had to go. I’ve never been to such an event, and I think I need to be with my peeps. That community is my community, and I never spend any time with them in person! I’m a little excited, frankly. (And I bought NEW shoes!)

  4. dmf

     /  February 23, 2011

    nationhood as a means to ends is a kind of necessary compromise with our better natures, as an identity/religion/end-in-itself not so good, can there be judaism without tribalism?

  5. BJonthegrid

     /  February 23, 2011

    Reading & Absorbing. No comment. Thank you.

  6. CitizenE

     /  February 23, 2011

    My problem with Zionism is as a Jew, I recognize that in part it and the founding of Israel was utilized by Europeans as what to do with the Jews problem, not unlike Lincoln’s Liberian project in which former slaves were sent to Africa (and in turn became colonizers and slave holders). My problem as an American is that there are many American Indian peoples who have their own form of Zionism–that is stories, prophecies of a time in which the land of the Americas will be returned; if I acknowledge Zionism for Jews, am I not compelled to work to restore this nation and all the Americas to native dominion? Finally, like Buber and others before and after, I think the seeds of Judaism’s demise lay in the Zionist project. The idea that Jews are a chosen people when the whole world is in diaspora is hard to quite fathom for me born in 1946.

    • CitizenE

       /  February 24, 2011

      I want to add this: because I am sympathetic to Jews living in Israel and their situation, even if who got there first strikes me as the worst sort of ostrich thinking, I am sympathetic to the Palestinian state. However, if that does not occur, and a Palestinian majority comes to pass in Israel, and it remains a modern democracy, then the oppression of a majority community will be untenable and unrecognizable as a modern democracy. The strongest argument for a Palestinian state is indeed that Israel will keep its historically ethnic identity in a world where that becomes less and less a realistic proposition.

      Given the millenium long oppression of Jewish peoples in Christian nations, the Zionist ideal–fantasy, vision–makes sense to the human heart, but given the flow of history forward, especially given the secular nature of Israeli (insofar as Jews are concerned at any rate) governance, truth be told, it does not seem to hold much water.

  7. Shadow's Mom

     /  February 23, 2011

    Thank you. Your insight on this issue is appreciated and I appreciate the perspective and the unease that comes with it.

  8. I’m with you. It’s too late in the day to consider anything else. It’s tough to defend but that doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to defend.

    • That’s it. Bottom line, it’s much more complicated than people like to think it is (like, frankly, almost everything, but this is my ballpark, so it’s the one I complain about!)

      • dmf

         /  February 24, 2011

        because it is too complicated/evolving for anyone to know it is never too late to consider something else, there will always be new possibilities/combinations, history like memory is a process of plasticity not set in stone for all times.

  9. I think the problem with Zionism is less with the question whether Jews are a nation or not, but the operative part of this definition, i.e., (1) do they have rights on the geographical area known as Eretz-Israel/Palestine (2) do Jews have more rights than the Palestinians (3) May Israeli rules discriminate against Palestinians and privilage Jews. In this regard, the most urgent controversy regards the ‘right of return’ for Jews but no ‘right of return’ for Palestinians. Other, related but arguably less urgent controversies stem from a deliberate de-facto policy, segregating the whole social/cultural fabric of a state of Israel into the Jewish population and a Palestinian population.

    If you endorse these three principles, yes you are a Zionist. If you call us to rethink what the operative role of Zionism should be, perhaps you could think of yourself as a post-Zionist.

    • I think I’ve been pretty clear, in advance, that I disagree with your theory, and that I think of myself as a Zionist. But I argue with no one about what they should call themselves, so if post-Zionist works for you, so much the better!

      • Thank you for your reply, I apologize for my ‘theory’, but I was just curious what are your views on some very practical issues, specifically – what do you think of the right of return for Jews only? More generally – what do you think about basing the legal foundations of Israel on a host of principles that, de-facto, prefer Jewish-Israeli citizens over non-Jewish ones, in effect segregating and promoting inequality along ethnic lines? Do you think that Zionism should stick to its 19th century motto: ‘a land without people to a people without a land’, or is it time for Zionism to seek a new vision?

  10. The Flash

     /  July 25, 2011

    It drives me a little nuts when people who have never been to Masada say that Jews have no claim to the land of Israel, and any alleged connection is too far in the past to count. NB: I’ve made the Jews-didn’t-leave-Israel-voluntarily point in comments at Feministe, and gotten shouted down for it. Glad to see you carrying the banner for the idea that people who want to disenfranchise the Jewish interest in the land of Israel are just trying to complete a Roman genocide of our people.

    • With, of course, the understanding that I also feel that the Palestinian claim to the land is equally legitimate. If I’m going to support that claim, if I’m going to accept and work for the advancement of Palestinian nationalism, it seems at the very least counter-intuitive that I wouldn’t also support the nationalism of my own people, who, as you say, didn’t exactly choose to pack up and leave.

      Once all of us (or at least a plurality of us) are willing to get past nationalism, I’ll be open to the conversation again. In the meantime, there are real lives to be saved and healed, in the nationalist reality of current global community.

      • If you think this is fair, http://goo.gl/SYLjN you are a Zionist but you cannot hope to find a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today we need to decide what is more important: Peace or Zionism.

        • I understand that this is the approach taken by many. As I explained at some length above, I don’t agree with it.

          • So I understand that you say that Israel may discriminate between Jews and Palestinians regarding its immigration policy, and yet hope to achieve a realistic and sustainable peaceful solution. Do I understand your position precisely?

            • I understand what you’re saying, and I very clearly hear the tone in which you’re saying it.

              I have said time and again that I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that there is no pure justice to be found here, but there isn’t. And unless and until the world gets off its nationalism kick (a kick on which the vast, vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians remain – please see this post, also: https://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/israel-palestine-why-two-states/ ) I am going to continue to work for the one solution that has any chance whatsoever of saving lives and creating the circumstances in which Palestinians and Israelis can learn to stop hating and wanting to kill each other.

              You’re right: It’s not perfect. Very little in this world is.

              • I think that if you were a Palestinian, your parents expelled from their home, torn from the rest of their family and never allowed to return, not even for a visit, not even in your dreams, this would be less than imperfect. It would simply be unacceptable.

                • Of course, that might very well be the case. The fact that many Palestinians have chosen to accept the denial of part of their national dream in exchange for peace (a fact that official Israel and many Israelis have yet to acknowledge) doesn’t negate the fact that for many, that kind of compromise remains unacceptable.

                  Not for nothing, but if you switch out the word “Palestinian” for “Jew,” you’ve described the circumstances of generations upon generations of Jews. They continued to dream of their home, and pray for restoration to that home three times a day, until that dream was achieved. I expect that Palestinians will hold on to and pray for their own dreams for generations upon generations, too (having already done so for 4 or 5, depending on when you start the count and how to define “generation”), unless and until we resolve the conflict. I favor ending the killing sooner rather than later, so that whatever else Jews and Palestinians might someday build together can, finally, be built.

                  • No Palestinian has ever denied their national dream, nor will they ever do so in the future. To deny such a dream is to say that a Palestinian should be content with less than they deserve, less than what Zionists took away by force. This is not acceptable, and never will be.
                    The sad truth is that killing will not end without a just solution. And I cannot see how Zionism can provide such a solution.
                    We must concede that Zionism is an outdated product of the European nationalist movements of the late 19th century, an ideology that is not relevant anymore and must be replaced by principles of justice, equality, fairness. Today Palestinians claim the moral high ground, and they will prevail just like other oppressed minorities have done; women, the colonized, afro-americans, gays,etc… This is the principle we need to accept, If we do not want more bloodshed.

                    • I hear everything you’re saying, and I disagree with your conclusions. This happens sometimes. Thank you for coming here and engaging with me on it. I’m going to disengage now.

                    • The Flash

                       /  July 26, 2011

                      Please don’t tell me what I need to concede, or state as a conclusion that your ideological brethren claim the moral high ground.

                      Given that the Jews did not leave the land of Israel voluntarily, but were rather expelled by the Romans, and that there was a continuous, if minority, Jewish presence in Israel continuously through history, the Jews have at least an equal claim to Israel-as-homeland as the Palestinians. The idea of Zionism is that there should be a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel. The layered-upon meanings that people have attached to Zionism are definitions attached by enemies of the Jewish right to a homeland in the land of Israel, and are straw men attached to make Zionism easier to knock down.

                      Since it sounds like your position is that the only just solution is a Palestinian state in the entire area currently considered both Israel and the Palestinian Territories, I’ll throw out a counter-proposition: So long as the position of Palestinian nationalism is that the Jews must be driven into the sea, and so long as Palestinians have no intention of making a safe space for Jews in the historic Jewish homeland, the killing won’t end.

                      Finally, at such time as the Palestinian Territories have taken to task their own internal fighting and assembled the machinery of state, they will have the opportunity to create their own right of return for Americans of Palestinian descent.

                    • @ The Flash

                      I hear what you’re saying here, and you know I’ve echoed a lot of it, but let’s be careful. The position of Palestinian nationalism isn’t that “the Jews must be driven into the sea,” and that’s not at all what engelo is saying. What engelo is suggesting (if I understand him correctly) is a one-state solution in which all people have equal rights and responsibilities. I see the appeal of that idea, but don’t think it feasible at this point, and understand that in saying that, I’m effectively saying: “It’s not fair, and my side gets the better deal. You’ll just have to deal with it.” I’m not at all comfortable with the lack of, as I said, pure justice, but I’m willing to admit that it’s the best thing on offer under the current circumstances.

                      And though surely not all do, there are many Palestinians who are more than willing to concede a safe space for Jews in the historic Jewish homeland. Finding Israelis who are willing to concede a safe space for Palestinians in the historic Palestinian homeland is frankly a bit harder.

                    • First, let’s put it very clearly – I am not suggesting to displace/expel the Jews currently living in Israel. Even mainstream Hamas is not suggesting that, since this position is neither defensible nor realistic, so if we want a useful discussion, we need to refrain from using this straw man. Jews will stay in the area, fullstop.

                      Emily raises something important, the Zionist position erroneously called “leftist”, or “liberal”, capturing it in the wonderful sentence: “It’s not fair, and my side gets the better deal. You’ll just have to deal with it.”. I admire her for acknowledging that this is not a just solution, thus recognizing the limits of Zionism. Up to this point, we agree. If there is something we disagree about, I think, is that Emily maintains that despite it being unjust, it is just about good enough. I argue that this fails to be minimally acceptable just solution, raising the concern that whenever an unfair solution is imposed by the strong party on the weaker party, more bloodshed is unavoidable.

                      I think this is an issue that deserves more attention, the problem of Zionism vs. Justice, since without justice an arrangement cannot be sustainable: http://bit.ly/pvuBNY http://bit.ly/nFgJI0

  11. The Flash

     /  July 26, 2011

    Emily: It looks like your post got cut off, at the part that starts “And finally: The idea that Zioni”

    And Engelo: The Hamas charter contains many references to fighting Jews specifically. For Israel to be a homeland to the Jews, it has to welcome not only Israeli Jews who currently live there, but Jews worldwide– and, for the record, Hamas in its charter argues for the holiness of the land for all Muslims worldwide, so the Jews are hardly the only party acknowledging that the land is important to more than just the people living there. When you and Emily talk about a “just” solution, and the idea of a single unitary state, it is a fantasy that exists only in a world in which, not only have we graduated from an era of ethnic nationalism, but an era in which ethnicity and people-hood doesn’t exist. States, even liberal ones, have dominant politico-cultural norms, and those are linked to the dominant nation-group of the state.

    The hostility of Palestinians to Jewish immigration during the pre-1948 era, and the fact that any Jews who tried to enter the “international” old city of Jerusalem in the pre-1967 era got shot, suggests that a unitary state would not be a state in which Jews worldwide can ascend to their claim to access their historic homeland.

    Finally, I reject the idea that the Palestinians are the weaker party; the world hates Jews more than it hates Palestinians, and while the Palestinians may be the group with less wealth, Palestinians have demonstrated access to plenty of explosives and weapons, substantial military organization, and overwhelmingly more sympathy in the international arena. The support of a majority of (corrupt, craven, self-interested, antisemitic) governments worldwide is not a footnote in the calculus of who holds the power in this situation; the United Nations is clearly dominated by governments unsympathetic to Israel’s security, and the United States is the only government giving substantial support (there are some small tokens of support from a small number of other countries) to Israel today. Unless you think the United States is the only powerful country in the world, that suggests the Palestinians have a bigger team of friends to back them up.

    I’d also like to point out that applying the rules of analysis of statehood and political dynamics to Israel is an exercise in willful blindness; Israel has never been a mere member of the community of nations, and will always have outsized importance to the majority of the world, and will always be subject to treatment as a symbol, token, and reference for treatment of persons who have never stepped on her soil. This conflict will never be about just the Palestinians and Israelis, and will always be about Jews, Muslims, the West, the Arab World, and the competition between liberal social values and liberal political values.

    • @ The Flash & engelo

      I’m going to ask both of you to stop now.

      You are arguing from two polar opposite positions, and I frankly disagree with you both. Pretty powerfully.

      “Zionism” is no more a vestige of failed 19th century political ideals than is Palestinian nationalism; they are each other’s co-joined twins — and it really, really, really matters that the vast majority of the actual people living in Israel/Palestine still consider themselves nationalists.

      And to suggest, with a straight face, that the Palestinians are NOT the weaker party requires a willed ignorance against which I have argued time and again — here is one of those many arguments: https://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com/2010/06/01/ok-now-im-pissed/

      You’ve both made your points. You will not convince each other. You will not convince me. Please stop.

  12. Rachel

     /  September 26, 2011

    Damn, this is a great post. Sometimes I disagree with your points, but here I am fully 100% behind your statements. You are absolutely right. The Palestine/Israel conflict is a looooonnnnggg and complicated one, and a lot of people think they understand it simply because of what they hear in the news. I have a hard time talking about this with people who either didn’t grow up with this conflict or haven’t actually studied the history.

  1. What the hell kind of Jew am I? | Angry Black Lady Chronicles
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