Debate & Discussion: Should socialists call themselves Zionist?

Submitted by Anon on 1 October, 2003 - 5:37

Daniel Randall

What is a Zionist? For me, this is a key question in this debate and one that has not been sufficiently dealt with by the left regarding its positions towards the Israel/Palestine question.

For John O'Mahony, "Zionism" "means a belief in the right of Israel to exist and defend its existence." In his article in Solidarity 3/36, John makes it clear that this is the only meaningful definition of Zionism, and logically and implicitly therefore the Alliance for Workers' Liberty should be a 'Zionist' organisation.
By the same token, so is the CPGB, the Labour Party, George Bush's Republican Party and even the PLO - all organisations which "believe in the right of Israel to exist."

I think there's something wrong with a definition that lumps people together politically because of apparent agreement on one question. After all, our belief in the "right of Israel to exist and defend its existence" is intrinsically linked to our opposition to Sharon's murderous administration, our support for the struggles of Palestinian and Israeli workers, and our demand for a free, independent Palestine alongside Israel.

All this is very, very different from, say, the Republican Party's "belief in the right of Israel to exist".

Basically put, it is in fact the worst elements of the left who define Zionism as simply the belief in the right of Israel to exist. Perhaps it is on this definition that John is basing his description of the AWL as being implicitly Zionist. Fine - but only if this is qualified.

Say "we are Zionist by the SWP's incorrect definition of Zionism, but not in any other sense".

To describe oneself as Zionist because of the left's mistaken definition of Zionism means a positive political identification on our part based on the mistaken positions of the rest of the left - a very dangerous trap to fall into.

I also disagree strongly with John's binary formulation that "you [either] support Israel's right to exist or the Arab-Islamist chauvinist's 'project' to destroy it". As a member of AWL who fully agrees with our two-states position, I certainly oppose the "Arab-chauvinist project to destroy Israel", but would not describe myself as a "Zionist".

Although, as I said, the definition of Zionist is ambiguous, I do not think it merely means someone who believes Israel should exist. Zionism is not just an isolated adjective to describe a certain position on the Israeli question.

It is a political stripe of its own - a 'Zionist' is a Jewish nationalist (or at the very least an Israeli patriot) - someone with a political agenda centred around nationalism and based on a nationalist analysis. I would no more describe myself as a Jewish nationalist than I would describe myself as a Palestinian, Kurdish or Kosovan nationalist, despite my full commitment to independence and self-determination for these peoples.

Perhaps John feels the need to categorise himself as "Zionist" in this way out of reaction to the rest of the left's attitude to "Zionism". For many, it is almost synonymous with "Nazi". Clearly this is a ridiculous demonisation that we would disagree with and should argue against. But if we define ourselves only in reaction to the rest of the left's shortcomings, we would be denigrating our own politics.

I joined AWL a year and a half ago. I was fifteen and had had a religious Jewish upbringing - albeit a progressive one. Our position on Israel was one of the first things that attracted me to the organisation and I still believe wholeheartedly in it. We live in a world where the left has lost its political brain and its political base; it is floundering and has lost itself totally on a number of issues, Israel being one of them. Political criticisms of the left's shortcomings are vital for all socialists.

The position of the Socialist Workers' Party has an anti-Semitic logic to it - proven by their accommodation to some of the most anti-Semitic forces in the Arab world, as well as their poisonous hostility to all things Israeli, even workers.

Much of the left's equation of 'Zionism" with something akin to Nazism, coupled with their definition of "Zionism" as the belief in the right of Israel to exist (the same as John's definition), has a blatant anti-semitic logic because it implies that the majority of the world's Jews - who do believe in the right of Israel to exist - are essentially fascists.

This is of course absolutely, 100% mistaken, but we should be careful not to say or imply that by simply describing yourself as "anti-Zionist," or even to advocate a one-state position, is not in itself anti-semitic. For example, would anyone describe Edward Said as an "anti-semite" because of his one-state position?

Also, by fighting so hard against the reactionary positions of some left groups, we sometimes go too far in the opposite direction. We could end up forgetting our elementary duty of solidarity to the oppressed people in Israel; the Palestinians. We support two-states because it is the best immediately feasible and only consistently democratic solution to end the oppression of the Palestinians, thereby building a situation in which the unity of the Palestinian and Israeli working classes will be possible.

Some people who describe themselves as "Zionist" and who support two-states - even "liberals" like Jonathan Freedland - do so because they believe that continued oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians is not desirable for Israel, in terms of its economy or security. They feel no duty of solidarity to an oppressed people, as all socialists should.

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