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Do We Need to Reclaim "Zionism"?

Today’s thought-provoking participant blog post comes from Zoe Thrumston, a participant of the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

I studied Middle East studies and Arabic in college, so most of the narratives on the Israeli Palestinian conflict I learned were from an Arab, Palestinian, perspective. Before that, before I even knew anything about the conflict, I was raised by a very liberal American family who shunned Zionism outright as synonymous with:

  • Colonialism

  • Racism

  • Implying that Palestine was worthless before Jewish settlement

Now that I’ve had some experience studying Zionism with Zionists on Kibbutzim, like Kibbutz Hukok in the Galilee, and urban Kibbutz Mishol in Nazareth, I come to the conclusion that Zionism is no different than anything else in the Middle East. It’s not a racist, colonialist political movement, nor is it the saving grace of the Jewish state: it’s complicated (insert expressions of shock and outrage here).

Even if Zionism once was what I’ve briefly outlined above (a product of a racist, colonial group of people with blatant disregard for the indigenous population of Palestine and the pressing urge to serve only their own needs), we see that Israel is now experiencing a resurge in Zionism and a call to redefine Zionism’s core qualities:

  • Social, class, racial, and gender equality

  • Communal responsibility

  • Social Activism

  • Basic humanity

Stav Shaffir is (other than “the coolest person in the world,” as my friends say) a member of the Labor Party, the youngest Knesset member, and one of the leaders of the protests a few years ago in Israel surrounding the rising price of housing. In this video she calls out Israeli political leaders and voices her frustration with what the Zionist movement has become, and how she would like it to return to what many Zionist pioneers thought they were participating in. Check it out and wait for a minute for subtitles to come on.

While Shaffir might shy away from Zionist thinkers like Jabotinsky, characterized by an urgent need to settle in the land of Israel, regardless of the existence of an indigenous population, she would perhaps more closely relate to Zionist thinkers such as Asher Ginsberg, known as the founder of cultural Zionism (hands up if you never learned about more than one kind of Zionism! No? Just me?). He didn’t even believe in the founding of a political state before Judaism could “develop in a natural way, to bring its powers into play in every department of human culture, to broaden and perfect those national possessions which it has acquired up to now, and thus to contribute to the common stock of humanity… It does not need an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development.”

Ginsberg isn’t talking about a Jewish state, he isn’t even talking about a specifically Jewish civilization—he’s referring here to concepts of basic humanity. When and only when the spirit of Judaism, he writes, can radiate to the communities of the Diaspora and cultivate a sustainable, equitable lifestyle which can contribute to humanity at large, then can the Jewish nation evolve to a state. Zionism, in this cultural lens, is less black and white than I had thought, and more shockingly, something I can actually relate to- the girl who had previously related more to the poetry of Mahmood Darwish than to any Zionist text she had studied in college.

So, do young Israelis need to reclaim the term “Zionism,” or rename it altogether?

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