Posted by: Liza Rosenberg | March 21, 2009

The Face of Secular, Left-Wing Zionism

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.

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Responses

  1. And yet again you have spoken as if directly from my own heart, saying the words I wish I could write.

    You are left-wing, you are secular, you are a Zionist, and you are NOT alone.

  2. “This grave distortion of the core values on which Israel was created has served us badly in the global arena.”

    As a US Jew, we can see that happening. Clearly, and dangerously.

    Why do so few secular Zionists speak up? And how does the far right continue to dominate elections?

    Jews down through history have been forced to walk a fine political line. You’d think we’d be better at it by now, huh?

  3. Look closely – right wing zionism is not just found in so-called settlements. Post disengagegment, amny are moving back to development towns etc. maybe the point is that the right has many avenues to express their zionism.

    Meanwhile, the secular – for a multitude of reasons (lack of leadership, inability to regenrate their philosophy, etc), has not moved forward.

    Bibi only just won the elections, when demographics would suggest that he should have succeeded with a landslide. So, the challenge is on…..

    See my blog at http://michaelhoresh.wordpress.com/

  4. Hey there – we don’t know each other, I got onto your blog thanks to a link a mutual friend posted on facebook. What rings off a familiar alarm bell for me in your post, is

    “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.”

    The thing is, that here we are faced with two serious question – what defines a state as Jewish, if it’s secular, and what is the value of such a hybrid state; and what about the 25%-30% members of the population who are not Jews. I fear that as long as one subscribes to the notion of an ethnocentric state (and, not, say, a state which is completely divorced from ethnic preferences and culturally cherishes and promotes both Palestinian and Jewish culture and identities), one retains a kernel of what people rightly find distasteful in the settler version of Zionism.

  5. It is possible to find voices of moderation on both sides – mainly through searching the blogs and op ed articles. Extreme and sensationalist views make better headlines and ratings so unfortunately that is what we read or see much of the time in the West.

    Thank you Liza, for your clear, well-thought out point of view. I’m with you.

  6. Amen V’Amen, Liza- great post (and thanks Lisa, for posting it- I don’t get round to checking anymore 😦 ) this is pretty much what I feel like screaming at every (ignorant) talkback I read in the Guardian…

  7. I think there is a much more fundamental issue underlying the problems you so eloquently point out in your post.

    Zionism is no longer relevant. In fact, it hasn’t been relevant for the last 60 years. Zionism was a political movement for the establishment of a Jewish State. Having achieved its goal in 1948, it has ceased to exist (except, perhaps, in the narrow definition of promoting Aliyah). There never was much of a difference of opinion between Zionists; they all had the same goal.

    Therefore, I suspect that what you are really talking about is a much more elusive concept: what is the national-social-cultural character of the State of Israel. Once you define it this way – and I believe this is what most people mean when they say “Zionism” today – then it becomes obvious why there are so many different definitions to the term. Israel is very young country that is made up of so many different groups of people, each with a different agenda and vision, and to date it has not come to terms with how it defines itself (witness the absence of a Constitution). It is therefore not surprising that there are many voices.

    Your lament about the “disappearing secular Zionism” and why its voice is being marginalised, can only be directed back at the “secular Zionists”. As you correctly point out, Israel was founded mostly (not entirely) on the values of the secular majority, but it is this majority that has failed to establish a viable Jewish national-cultural alternative to the traditional one, based on Orthodox Judaism.

    Israelis have failed to create a “secular Judaism” (an oxymoron). Perhaps the unintentional paradox in one of your sentences exemplifies the reason for this failure: “a homeland built on Jewish history and culture, enabling its inhabitants to live as they wish”. Jewish history and culture has never allowed Jews to live “as they wish”. This is why in the 19th century there were still Jews around to start the Zionist movement. Should Israel decide to define itself as a country where its inhabitants “live as they wish”, particularly with regards to their history and culture, I fear that the least of our worries will be which voice prevails.

  8. Zionism has become an absolutely abstract concept devoid of any real meaning. It’s used by anti Israel crowd in the same way the anti semites of the past used Judaism to claim that Jews are possessed by some vicious ideology that makes them kill babies.

    Most Israelis have a normal national sentiment absolutely identical to national sentiments of other nations. And the attitudes of Jewish diaspora to Israel is no different than say the attitude of Americans of Irish descent to Ireland.

    Neither the law of return is something unique to Israel. Germany and Italy have laws that grant automatic citizenship to people of German/Italian descent. Israel is an absolutely normal country and Israelis are absolutely normal people and they don’t need any special ideology to justify what they have.

  9. Thanks for answering a question I’ve always wanted to ask you, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

  10. The Face of Secular, Left-Wing Zionism « something something great article thankyou

  11. […] wing Zionism 9 This post was originally written at the request of a newspaper for a special supplement. After it was […]


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