Moment Debate | Has the Word Zionism Outlived its Usefulness?

By | Apr 18, 2023

Interviews by Amy E. Schwartz


Mira Sucharov is a professor of political science at Carleton University, the author most recently of Borders and Belonging: A Memoir, and coeditor of Social Justice and Israel/Palestine: Foundational and Contemporary Debates.

Derek Penslar is a comparative historian and a professor of Jewish history at Harvard University. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Zionism: An Emotional State.


Has the Word Zionism Outlived its Usefulness? | Yes 

Has the word Zionism outlived its usefulness?

Yes. Because different people use it in so many different ways, we end up talking past each other, especially in conversations between those who say they support Zionism and those who say they oppose it. Supporters—and here I’m specifically talking about people with a generally liberal worldview—tend to think the term refers to either belief in a Jewish and democratic state, or a sense of personal and communal attachment to Israel. Opponents tend to focus on Zionism as a state-led ideology—because at the moment Zionism doesn’t exist apart from the single state, Israel, whose policies flow from it—and say that whatever those policies are, they all have at their root the inequality and the privileging of some people and groups over others, whether it’s Jews over non-Jews or citizens of the state over Palestinians under occupation.

I recently conducted a survey of American Jews, and unsurprisingly, a strong majority said they were Zionist. Then I posed a series of definitions, asking whether they were Zionist according to definitions A, B or C. When Zionism was defined as supporting the existence of a Jewish and democratic state, more than 70 percent said they were Zionists. Likewise when Zionism was defined as a sense of attachment to Israel. But when the definition was “Zionism means a set of policies that flow from a particular governing structure where Jews are inherently privileged over non-Jews,” only 10 percent said yes. That tells me the word’s not very useful. It’s better to talk about emotions and values directly.

How did the term collect so much baggage?

It comes partly from looking at ideologies through the lens of who wins and who loses. With Zionism, the winners were clearly the Jews, who succeeded in creating a state. The losers were clearly the Palestinians, actively displaced by Jews’ creation of that state. Awareness has grown about the cost of certain state-building practices on some marginalized populations. Even in my field, international relations, people are teaching and thinking more than they did 20 years ago about decolonization and racism.

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Being a Zionist once meant you were committed to moving to Israel and making your life there. Now Jews feel more secure in North America—the rise of antisemitism notwithstanding—so Zionism tends to be more of an arms-length political and emotional allegiance. I think that’s another reason the term has become so contested. Now it’s a set of political beliefs, and all political beliefs are and should be subject to debate and critique.

Does using the word Zionist imply that the existence of the state is still in question?

If you think of Zionism as the push to create a Jewish state, that’s right. But Zionism is not only a historical political program, it’s also a set of contemporary state-led ideologies and policies. The creation of Israel is a settled matter, but we should always be thinking of how its policies affect individuals and groups.

If we eschew the term Zionism, then we can advance the conversation.

Then there’s the argument that opposing Zionism is opposing not just the state but the Jewish people—in other words, that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. I don’t agree with that equation, but it has to be heard and dealt with. And to debate it, we have to define our terms.

What other words could we use instead? Why not say pro-Israel?

I wouldn’t use any of those words. We should talk about policies that advance or impair dignity, equality, justice and freedom: What has Israel done, what can it or does it do, to advance those values? And where does Israel need to be held to account? That approach also avoids holding Israel to a double standard, because those are questions we should be asking everywhere in the world. Separately, we could talk about attachment to Israel. Am I a Zionist? If I’m attached to the people and the language of Israel, and want to make it a more just place for everyone who calls it home, maybe someone who defines Zionism as attachment would see me as a Zionist. But someone who sees Zionism as a matter of policies wouldn’t, because of the policies I argue for. If someone wants to ask me if I’m attached to Israel, ask me that. It doesn’t necessarily mean I support the policies of inequality that Israel advances. If I simply said I’m a Zionist, or an anti-Zionist, no one would know where I stood on emotions or values. If we eschew the term Zionism, then we can advance the conversation.

Can the word be reclaimed?

I don’t think so. It’s not like reclaiming a negative word like “queer.” That was binary: You could use it in a positive way to take the sting out of it. But Zionism, while it’s sometimes a slur, is already being used in too many fundamentally different ways. There’s too much mixing and matching, when what we really need is clarity.


Has the Word Zionism Outlived its Usefulness? | No 

Has the word Zionism outlived its usefulness?

No. I can understand why people might say so, but Zionism describes a series of beliefs, feelings and needs that transcend political reality. In that sense, it’s like any word that ends in “ism”—liberalism, conservatism, progressivism. These are bundles of ideas and feelings that survive across time, even if their meanings change. For example, to be a liberal today is very different from 150 years ago, but we still use the word.

How did the term collect so much baggage?

On the left, the word Zionism has come to mean a particular approach to Jewish nationhood tainted with exclusion, domination and racism. In universities today it’s often a pejorative. I think the connotations are inaccurate: As Amos Oz said, Zionism is a last name that has many first names, religious Zionism, Labor Zionism, spiritual Zionism, Revisionist Zionism and more. But it’s not just 21st-century progressives who’ve contributed to those connotations. A lot of Arab Muslim countries have not wanted to call Israel by name, so they refer to “the Zionist entity.” Iran still does.

In the former Soviet Union, “Zionism” was a crime. Before that, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—the most famous antisemitic tract in history—used the word “Zion” to connote a global conspiracy of Jews. It’s been used in slogans attributing negative qualities to Israel since the 1960s— Zionism as racism, Zionism as apartheid. But I don’t think throwing out the word would get rid of these underlying negative feelings.

Some people who associate Zionism with ethnocentrism, narrowness and racism don’t want anything to do with it, and it’s true that there are forms of Zionism that are all those things—the current Israeli government embodies those aspects. But there are other types of Zionism that are more progressive and inclusive. When my daughter was in college, she would say, “I’m Zionish.” I hear something like that from a lot of my Jewish students, who feel connected to Israel but feel that “Zionism” has acquired too much negative meaning. And of course some Jews and even Israelis consider themselves anti-Zionist because their desire for equity and justice between Jews and Palestinians is so fundamental to their identity. But to be a Jewish anti-Zionist is to be engaged with Israel in a deeply personal way—which, in my definition, is also to be a Zionist. It means you care, even if you don’t want to admit it.

Does using the word Zionist imply the existence of the state is still in question?

It’s true that if you define Zionism as the movement to create a Jewish state, that movement ended in 1948. Right-wing figures in the 1940s coined the term “post-Zionism” to describe just that. The idea reappeared, this time from the left, in the 1990s when the Oslo peace process appeared to herald the onset of a “normal” Israel, with peace and diplomatic ties with the Arab world, when it seemed that Zionism as a mobilizing movement would no longer be wise or necessary.

Zionism was always about much more than simply the creation of the Jewish state.

But Zionism was always about much more than simply the creation of the Jewish state. It was also about a profound sense of Jewish nationhood and the cultivation of that nationhood through the connection to Israel as a spiritual and cultural center. That sense of connection continues. Even the fact that so many Jews in the diaspora are upset with Israel at the moment means they care about it. Some in Israel think that Zionism no longer applies because Israel has no connection with the diaspora. But in fact, both right-wing and left-wing diaspora Jews are constantly involved in Israeli politics.

What other words could we use instead?

Why not say pro-Israel? We could call the ideology Israelism, but that assumes that we’re only talking about the State of Israel, and I don’t think that’s true. It’s about something more—global Jewish solidarity, interest in Hebrew culture, the religious heritage of the Jewish people. “Israelism” suggests we venerate or worship a country. Zionism’s a better choice—it’s more abstract and open-ended.

Can the word be reclaimed?

Yes—it needs to be rescued from the anti-Zionist left and also from the illiberal, populist and hateful streams within contemporary Israel, shared by no small segment of American Jewry. We can’t stop them from calling themselves Zionist, but other Jews with other ideas can keep using it, too. There are many different ways one can identify with the state of Israel and the Jewish people. There are people in academia who say they are non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist—but they’re still using the word Zionist as a reference point. I don’t want to force anybody into a category; if they don’t want to use it, that’s their business. But the idea of Zionism is still useful, even if I don’t define it the way Benjamin Netanyahu does.

Opening picture: Honor guards stand beside Herzl’s coffin on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, 1949 (Wikipedia)

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2 thoughts on “Moment Debate | Has the Word Zionism Outlived its Usefulness?

  1. Daniel says:

    Given the wide variety of sentiments toward the philosophic positions of Israel’s current leadership, and also because of the complex baggage carried by the term, the use in any way of ‘Zionism’ has become meaningless and probably counter-productive.

  2. Robert Grant says:

    Our enemies have attempted to paint the word ZIONISM as an Evil word. We must continue to SUPPORT ZIONISM. Would it be any different if our enemies painted the words JEW or Jewish as evil — should we then eliminate the words JEW and JEWISH from the international vocabulary — Absolutely NOT.
    One must remember that we are all AM YISRAEL, the People Of Israel. Likewise, we are all ZIONISTS, let us not forget Ahavat Zion — our love of Zion. Just as we must fight Anti-Semitism, likewise we must defend against Anti-Zionism. If we eliminate ZIONISM then we have eliminated Midinat Yisrael, the State Of Israel.

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