Photo Credit: Zionist Archives
Nathan Birnbaum, who coined the term "Zionism."

The sad reality is that defending the term Zionism—not “Israelism” or some still newer neologism to describe the Israeli nation-state, as opposed to the Jewish nation—defends the past and future of the Jewish people, history and aspiration as well as the present reality. Equally sad is that Zionism must always be on the defensive, always responding to yet another attack or lie, always patiently explaining Jewish history and Jews’ rights to a state in their own land.

But there is another, prospective dimension. All national projects are works in progress. The term Zionism must be retained; but the content is continually reformulated, consciously or not. The challenge is to make the process of reformulation conscious and explicit.

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Israelis hotly debate Zionism as it relates to culture, to the religious-secular divide, to Arab minorities, and much more. But the term has not been much debated by American Jews, many of whom caught between their knee-jerk defenses and embarrassed evasions, or even vicious attacks, and whose understanding of the diversity of Zionist movements and the state of Israel is minimal or, worse, shaped by their enemies or equally ignorant media.

The opportunity is to reinvent Zionism and reclaim it as a proud description of a multifaceted concept that now, fortunately, has a state of its own. The first step to remaking Zionism in the future is learning what Zionism meant in the past.

This article originally published by the Middle East Forum, April 30, 2012. 

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