“I am a passionate, life-long and devoted Zionist.”
In an article that he wrote for We Believe in Israel, the Chief Rabbi explains why he is a passionate, life-long and devoted Zionist.
Every Jew should feel comfortable making such a declaration. Indeed, they should feel proud.
Yet, over the last decade or so, young people in particular, have found it increasingly difficult to openly identify with the term, and it’s easy to see why. A Google search is immediately illustrative of the problem. Zionism is a ‘Demonic Jewish Death Cult’ says one result. It forms a ‘Pyramid of Evil’ alongside Nazism and Satanism, claims another.
Zionism is increasingly characterised as the very epitome of evil and barbarism – a notion which we have seen gradually, but consistently and shamefully reinforced in the international discourse.
When the writer, Gilad Atzmon, exclaimed that, “the time is ripe to cleanse British public life of Zionists and Jerusalemites,” it probably had very little impact on the way that people understood the notion of Zionism in and of itself. And when George Galloway lost his Bradford West seat at the General Election and responded by lamenting that, “the venal, the vile, the racists and the Zionists will all be celebrating,” most people ignored it. But, somehow, by the time that the judgement of the former Co-Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club was being called into question because of suggestions that he was a ‘Zionist stooge’ and may have ‘Zionist sympathies’, it had become normal for the term to be used as a direct insult. I invite you to go back through those examples and replace the word Zionist with the word Jew, Muslim or Catholic. This is a deep and visceral hatred. Taken in isolation, it is easy to dismiss each of the comments as the words of fringe activists, not to be taken seriously. However, over time, when taken together with countless other examples, they have formed a very real and damaging broader narrative, which has had a devastating impact. Good people are forced to ask the question: “what could be so horrific, so abhorrent about a philosophy or belief that would have people talk about it in this way?”
The trouble is that Zionism is now primarily being defined by those who are not themselves Zionists. It has nothing to do with Judaism, they say. It is a political movement which is murderous, colonialist and expansionist, they say.
Well, let me tell you about my Zionism.
In Jewish tradition, Zion, another name for Jerusalem, is at the centre of our universe. It is the one single place in the world which, since the dawn of time, has been the physical focus of our prayers, our dreams and our aspirations. The Jewish population living there has grown and shrunk as crusades, expulsions and pogroms dispersed us, but it was never erased. As European Jewry became subjected to particularly brutal oppression in the 19th and 20th Centuries, migration to, and settlement in, the land of our ancestors increased dramatically. Over time, as the right to self-determination was popularised as an accepted principle around the world, Jews too dared to dream about the realisation of this age-old yearning. This very idea, after millennia of persecution and dispossession, enchanted and empowered generations of Jews in the modern world. That dream became known as Zionism and it remains alive and well today. It is a beautiful and noble idea which exists independently of conflict with the Palestinians and of the policies of any Israeli Government.
Of course, there are Jews who declare a love for ‘Zion’ in their prayers every day, who publicly disassociate themselves from the idea that it should become an ‘ism’ in a pre-messianic era. But that indicates a difference in approach rather than a difference of principle – that the land of Israel plays a major role in Jewish theology, and the land of Israel is central to our Jewish identity.
That is why it is so deeply disturbing to hear how it is possible on some campuses for students to be vilified and attacked for expressing their own deeply rooted and sincerely held sense of Zionism. In a recent letter to Jewish students, the newly elected NUS President, Malia Bouattia, made the following extraordinary claims: “I want to be clear that for me to take issue with Zionist politics, is not me taking issue with being Jewish. In fact, Zionist politics are held by people from a variety of different backgrounds and faiths, as are anti-Zionist politics. It is a political argument, not one of faith.”
This provides a perfect case study of the way that a minority of people on the hard left of British politics are seeking to redefine Zionism so that it becomes separate from Judaism as a faith. In doing so, they find a secondary outlet for peddling many of the classic antisemitic stereotypes and conspiracy theories, by applying them to Zionists. The horrific slur known as the blood libel, that Jews murdered non-Jewish babies in order to make use of their blood, for example, is modernised to stories about Israel murdering Palestinians in order to harvest their organs. Allegations of Jewish control of the media or of political parties become allegations of Zionist control and influence.
Throughout history there are examples of people who have sought to distort and demonise Jews and Judaism in order to cultivate ill-will and prejudice against us. Today, we find people seeking to distort and demonise the beauty of Zionism in order to delegitimise the State of Israel.
My message is a simple one. Be proud.
Be proud of every part of your Jewishness, including that integral part of Judaism which we call Zionism.
When you hear someone describing Zionism as being purely political, oppressive or even racist, be proud that you know better. Be proud of the realisation of a two-thousand-year old dream to live freely in the land of Israel. Be proud that despite every challenge and every attack, the flame of successful self-determination still burns ever more brightly.
Let no-one tell you that, just because there are a small number of Jews who criticise Israel and even some who do not believe in its very right to exist, Zionism can somehow be separated from Judaism. By any measure, they are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Stand tall. Learn all that there is to learn about the history of the Jewish people and how Zionism developed. Tell people about your Zionism. Remind them about the remarkable achievements of the young State of Israel, which have been achieved despite the existential threat that often hangs over it.
Raise your heads and raise your voices; always be proud of the wonderful blessing that is the State of Israel.