The meaning and reality of Zionism and antizionism in today’s world

Juliet Moses – 1 October 2023

I was lucky enough to be in Israel in April this year with family and friends, on Yom Hatzma’ut, for the state’s 75th birthday.

It was a time to reflect on how this tiny beleaguered state has survived and indeed thrived,  despite the unprecedented challenges it has faced since its establishment. It was also a time to think about the challenges that lie ahead.

And there ARE huge, many would say existential, challenges, that are not just external, but internal as well.

 You will all be aware of the protests that have been happening in Israel for over 30 weeks, drawing hundreds of thousands of people each week. Ostensibly they relate to the judicial reforms that the government wants to enact, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, because of what it sees as judicial overreach that supplants parliamentary sovereignty.  Each side sees the other as anti-democratic. Those opposed to the proposals say the reforms will dismantle the democratic ramparts of the state and undermine minority rights. But those for the proposals consider the protestors to be unable to accept electoral loss and the changing demographics and power shifts of the country as it becomes less Ashkenazi and more religious, and that they are effectively staging a coup. 

The land of Israel is the cradle of our civilisation, our genesis as a people. Over successive occupations and our exile, the yearning for a return to Israel has been central to our liturgy, our literature, our customs, and our very conception of ourselves as a people, uniting us all wherever we lived. We have had 2000 years of yearning and powerlessness without a Jewish state.

I believe that, at its core, the judicial reform debate is about what it means for the Jewish people to have self-determination, after so long without it, and how that co-exists with being a liberal democracy. While these questions may have recently taken on a new intensity, they have been a matter of continuing debate and struggle since Herzl conceived of the modern movement of Zionism.  

This movement arose towards the end of the 1800s in Europe out of the Enlightenment’s philosophy of self-determination and that power came from the people, not a higher source; it was a secular rebellion against the idea that Jews had to wait for God to return them to the Promised Land.  Herzl and other Jews, initially believed that, living in an age of progress, equality, and tolerance, they would no longer be excluded from full participation in the dominant society, but soon they came to realize that their emancipation would only be possible when they truly became masters of their fate, collectively governing themselves in a state of their own. Zionism as a political project was very much grounded in universal Enlightenment values.

So what, now that Israel is a reality, does it mean to be the Jewish homeland?

Like New Zealand, Israel does not have a written constitution, but it does have a set of Basic Laws, the first of which is its Declaration of Independence. This states, among other things:

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Interestingly, while the declaration committed to universal values like freedom, justice, and equality, nowhere does it mention the word “democracy”. But the two Basic Laws that were enacted in 1992 and that are sometimes called the “Constitutional revolution”, did. They state their purpose as to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

In a 2002 decision, Aharon Barak, then chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, defined the “core characteristics shaping the minimum definition” of Israel as a Jewish state, as: “the right of every Jew to immigrate to the State of Israel, where the Jews will constitute a majority; Hebrew is the official and principal language of the State, and most of its fests and symbols reflect the national revival of the Jewish People.”

Chief Justice Barak highlighted the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel because probably more than any other state, this issue cuts to the core of Israel’s very being. The Law of Return is the assurance given to Jews around the world that, after millennia of persecution, they will always find a home and refuge in Israel.

In 2018 Israel passed the controversial Nation State Law, which codifies Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, declaring Jerusalem the capital, setting the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar, confirming Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official days of rest, promoting Jewish settlement, recognising the current flag and anthem, and the menorah as the state’s symbol, and Hebrew as the only official language.

So while Israel actually has no official state religion, and many Jewish Israelis don’t consider themselves religious, they do to an extent live a Jewish life in the land. For example, as you may have just seen on social media after Yom Kippur, the whole country shuts down. People walk on the motorways, and the airspace is shut over Israel. Israel provides Jews with a guarantee of Jewish flourishing, a place to develop our peoplehood and culture.

For me, even after seven visits to Israel, I still get a thrill seeing mezuzot on shop doors, synagogues in hotels, and people scurrying about Machane Yehuda on Friday morning buying their challot and wishing each other Shabbat Shalom.  And on this trip, I felt the meaningfulness and sombreness of stopping all activity as the sirens blew for Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron.  

All these things are hallmarks of being the Jewish homeland, the one place in the world where Jews have self-determination, which is the very essence of Zionism.

While Jews and Israelis argue about what Jewish agency and sovereignty means and should look like, after 2000 years of not having it, our detractors believe it should not exist at all. The fact that Zionism is even a commonly used word or hotly debated topic these days says a lot. After 75 years as a modern state, the idea or controversy of Zionism should be consigned to history. Certainly, that is what David Ben Gurion expected to happen. There is no other state that I can think of, given all the controversies around their establishment or current day situations – for which there is a word to describe support for that state’s existence.

I am not talking about contextualised criticism of Israeli policies and actions similar to that which any other country faces. As we see with the protests, some of the harshest criticism of Israel comes from within Israel. Antizionism is something different. It targets and discriminates against the Jewish state as an equal member of the family of nations, under the banner of human rights.  Fundamentally, it suggests that the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, guaranteed to us and all peoples in the UN Charter, is illegitimate or “supremacist”, and that Israel, alone among all the nation states of the world, must be dismantled or destroyed. It is sometimes said that the state of the Jews has become the Jew of the states.

While, with some notable exceptions, the Muslim and Arab world increasingly reconciles itself, and even embraces, the reality of a Jewish state – witness the remarkable statements from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia in the last fortnight that even a decade ago were unthinkable – we see more of the Western world, led by academia and so-called human rights organisations, moving in the other direction.

This is a sophisticated, and I would suggest, unparalleled pernicious smear campaign with its roots in Soviet ideology, epitomised by the 1975 UN General Assembly “Zionism Is Racism” resolution.

So while Zionism is the first successful emancipation movement of an indigenous people, it is – to use a popular word – decolonisation in action – antizionism inverts and appropriates the discourse of human rights to portray the very existence of a state that provides a refuge from racism for a historically persecuted people as inherently racist and the chief violator of human rights in the world. It does that by denying Jews peoplehood and their connection to the land of Israel, by perpetuating a false narrative of “settler colonialism”, by redefining words like “genocide” and “apartheid” and applying them to Israel in a way that happens for no other state, by ignoring its legitimate rights and security concerns, and by associating it with Nazism, fascism and white supremacy.

I believe that that in order for Israel to face both its internal and external challenges, we must remember that there is no necessary contradiction between being Jewish and being liberal or democratic. Quite the contrary. Universalistic, humanistic concepts are very much found in the Jewish tradition, rooted in the Torah and in the teachings of important Sages and rabbis throughout the ages. Judaism brought the idea of universalism to the world by introducing the revolutionary idea that every human is made in the image of G-d. The equality and dignity of each individual is paramount. Rabbi Akiva famously called “the central principle of the Torah” the commandment to: “Love your neighbor as yourself”. But beyond loving our neighbour, we are also commanded 36 times in the Torah to love and show our concern for the stranger by reminding us of our helplessness and lowly status during our bondage in Egypt. And both in and beyond our texts, is a very strong tradition as a people of disputation, unconventional thinking, and questioning. We thrive in open, liberal societies, and the converse is also true.

So the debate that I see happening in Israel right now, is to me itself a defining characteristic of Israel, the very essence of what it is to be Jewish, democratic and liberal. We are having the debate because we have self-determination and, perhaps paradoxically, it is a bulwark against antizionism.  

The official Knesset website says: ““Jewish and Democratic” is the Israeli ethos. The phrase captures both the Israeli aspiration to reconcile Jewish and democratic values, and the conceptual and ideological tensions that this attempt raises – both challenges stand at the core of Israeli existence.”

I doubt we will ever have the perfect answer to what it means to be a Jewish democratic state – certainly not one that satisfies everyone – but in the debate itself we find the beauty, the contradictions, the ambiguities, the arguments, the self-reflection, the evolution, and the complexities, that have always been part of Judaism and Jewish life, and have now been, for 75 years, a blip in our long history, a part of the Jewish homeland.

Juliet Moses 1 October 2023