Several years ago, a good friend of mine found herself walking the streets of London during the early morning hours, trying to convince a Palestinian she’d met that his understanding of Zionist ideology was based on a definition that she, as someone living in Israel, simply could not share, that his views were based on what she considered to be a distortion of Zionism that played into the beliefs of Israel’s religious right. She went on to explain that there is no single definition that meets the ideological values of all individuals who identify as Zionists, and that her brand of Zionism would most likely be more palatable to him than the narrow definition of what he believed Zionism to be, which she could not identify with at all.
Like my friend, I’ve grown increasingly frustrated by the notion that Zionism is assumed to embody only the beliefs of the religious right, and I am incensed by those who believe that neither secular nor left-leaning Jews can truly be Zionists. For far too many non-Israelis who obtain their news in three-minute bursts from CNN and the BBC, the terms “Zionist” and “settler” are interchangeable. They have never heard of my Zionism, a secular Zionism that encompasses a desire to live in a Jewish democratic homeland – a homeland built on Jewish history and culture, enabling its inhabitants to live as they wish without religious coercion or prejudice; a homeland whose geographical boundaries allow for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, because my vision of Zionism does not allow my self-determination for a Jewish state to negate the existence of another people.
My beliefs seem to place me in the minority among many of my fellow Jews (I’ve been called everything from “self-hating Jew” to a traitor whom the Israeli government must decide whether or not to lock up), and I have often found myself in a position of having to explain secular Zionist beliefs to people abroad who have been led to believe that Israel is comprised almost solely of religious, right wing zealots who support a Greater Israel and have no idea that any other viewpoints exist – a possibility made even more difficult to fathom following the recent elections, where Israel’s right-wing parties won 65 out of 120 Knesset seats and a far right party whose slogan “Without loyalty, no citizenship” won the third largest number of seats (15), running on a platform that rankled the nerves of many Israelis.
I have been dismayed to discover just how little people know about the real Israel, where a majority of Jewish citizens (44 percent, according to a government survey conducted in 2004) define themselves as being secular (with an additional 39 percent defining themselves as being traditionally observant and just 17 percent identifying as either Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox). Given these figures, combined with the fact that the founders of both the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel were primarily secular, it appears as though Zionism in its original form has been hijacked to meet the needs of a narrow array of interest groups. Those of us who believe otherwise are left to wonder who distorted our ideology to such an extent that we are often loathe to claim a connection, not wanting to be mistakenly identified with ideals with which we do not agree.
This grave distortion of the core values on which Israel was created has served us badly in the global arena. Citizens of other countries believe us to be war mongers-something that’s become harder to deny in light of the recent conflict in Gaza-and I’ve lost track of the number of websites I’ve seen where writers and commenters claim that we are intent on wiping out the Palestinian population in order to fulfill our Zionist aspirations, turning “Zionism” and “Zionist” into dirty, obscene terms that they were never intended to become. In addition, as a result of the reinforced, distorted perception that religion must play a key role in the Zionist ideology, the lines between anti-Israel sentiment and anti-Semitism have become increasingly blurred. Detractors use their criticism of Israel as a springboard for anti-Semitism by drawing on classic examples of anti-Semitic imagery to further their case against Israel and Zionism.
Of course, there will always be critics. There will be those who will never accept Zionism in any of its forms. There will also be those who strongly believe that we, as Jews and as Israelis, should not allow ourselves to even think about the opinions of others, that we do not have to take anyone or anything else into account on our path to self-determination as a people, and that our religion gives us the right to do so. There are those who might be persuaded to change their views about Zionism if they could only move past the stereotypes and misnomers to see another side of the situation, and there are those who feel the need to somehow show these people the way. In my capacity as a writer, I try to show readers that Zionism is a complex, often intensely personal concept with many different faces. Sometimes, though, I suspect my words are falling on deaf ears; after all, I am not the face of Zionism they expect to find. I am left-wing and I am secular. I am a Zionist.