I Am A Zionist, Because
by Gil Troy
On the 53rd anniversary of Israel's independence, it is all too tempting for friend and foe alike to define Israel, and Zionism, solely by the Arab world's bloody hostility. To do so is to miss the normal miracles that occur in Israel daily, the millions who are able to live and learn, laugh and play, in the Middle East's only democracy. To do so is to underestimate the power of Zionism, a gutsy and visionary movement that outlasted the twentieth century's grander and seemingly permanent revolutions such as Bolshevism, Nazism, fascism and communism.
The sad truth is that over a century after its founding, Zionism seems to be losing its luster. Arabs have demonized Zionism as the modern bogeyman, and many have clumped Zionists, along with Americans and most Westerners, as the Great Satans. The violence of the last seven months has revived the United Nations libel equating Zionism with racism. In Israel, a small but influential group of intellectuals fancies themselves to be post-Zionists, while a negligible but voluble minority of Jews in the Diaspora please man-bite-dog op-ed editors by proudly proclaiming themselves Jewish anti-Zionists.
On this Israel Independence Day, Jews should reaffirm their faith and pride in Zionism, while the world should marvel at its achievements. Zionists must not allow their enemies to define and slander the movement. No nationalism is pure, no movement is perfect, no state ideal, but today Zionism remains legitimate, inspiring, relevant, to me and to most Jews. A century ago, Zionism revived pride in the label "Jew"; today, Jews must revive pride in the label "Zionist."
I am a Zionist because I am a Jew - and without recognizing a national component in Judaism I cannot explain its unique character, a world religion bound to one homeland, a people whose Holy Days are defined by the Israeli agricultural calendar, rooted in theological concepts, and linked with historic events.
I am a Zionist because I know my history - and after being exiled from their homeland 1931 years ago, the defenseless, wandering Jews endured repeated persecutions from both Christians and Muslims - centuries before culminating in the Holocaust.
I am a Zionist because Jews never forgot their ties to their homeland, their love for Jerusalem, and often established autonomous governing structures in Babylonia, in Europe, in North Africa, governments in exile yearning to return home.
I am a Zionist because those ideological ties nourished and were nurtured by the plucky minority of Jews who remained in the land of Israel, sustaining continued Jewish settlement throughout the exile.
I am a Zionist because in modern times, the promise of Emancipation and Enlightenment was a double-edged sword, often only offering acceptance for Jews in Europe after they assimilated, yet never fully respecting them if they did assimilate.
I am a Zionist because in establishing the sovereign state of Israel in 1948, the Jews were merely reconstituting in modern Western terms a relationship with a land they had been attached to for 4,000 years since Abraham - just as India did in establishing a modern state out of an ancient civilization.
I am a Zionist because in building that state, the Jews were returning to history, embracing normalcy, a condition which gave them power, with all its benefits, responsibilities, and dilemmas.
I am a Zionist because I celebrate the existence of Israel, and like any thoughtful patriot, though I might criticize particular governmental policies I may dislike - I do not delegitimize the state itself.
I am a Zionist because I live in the real world of nation-states, and I see that Zionism is no more or less "racist" than any other nationalism, be it American, Canadian, or Czech, all of which rely on some internal cohesion, some sense of solidarity among some historic grouping of individuals, and not others, some tribalism.
I am a Zionist because here in multicultural North America we have learned that pride in one's heritage as a Jew, an Italian, a Greek, can provide essential and time-tested anchors in a world overdosing on materialism, consumerism, and a sensationalism of the here-and-now.
I am a Zionist because in our world of post-modern identities, I know that we don't have to be "either-ors", we can be can "ands and buts" -- a Zionist AND an American patriot; a secular and somewhat assimilated Jew BUT a Zionist.
I am a Zionist because I am a democrat, and for the last two centuries, the history of democracy has been intertwined with the history of nationalism, while for the last century democracy has been a central Zionist ideal, despite being tested under the most severe conditions.
I am a Zionist because I am an idealist, and just as a century ago, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign Jewish state was an impossible dream - yet absolutely worth fighting for - so, too, today, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign Jewish state living in true peace and harmony with its neighbors appears to be an impossible dream - yet absolutely worth striving for.
I am a Zionist because I am a romantic, and the vision of the Jews rebuilding their homeland, reclaiming the desert, renewing themselves, was one of the greatest stories of the twentieth century, just as the vision of the Jews maintaining their homeland, reconciling with the Arab world, renewing themselves, and serving as a light to others, a model nation state, could be one of the greatest stories of the twenty-first century.
Yes, it sounds far-fetched today. But, as Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionism said in an idle boast that has become a cliche:
"If you will it, it is no dream."
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.