Let us restore the word Zionism to its rightful meaning

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

As the Israel-Gaza conflict was reaching its height a couple of weeks ago, it is not surprising that an important date in modern Jewish history passed virtually unnoticed.

On Nov. 10, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the infamous Resolution 3379, declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” The U.N. revoked the resolution in 1991 after the first Gulf War as an enticement to gain Israel’s involvement in the Madrid peace conference, but the damage already was done. Still today, that resolution is the basis for efforts to delegitimize Israel.

The resolution initiated a process whereby individuals, countries and terrorist groups co-opted Zionism for their own purposes, turning it into the “Z” word. The term “Zionism” became anathema.

To make matters worse, preceding the word with the modifier “anti” provided cover from accusations of anti-Semitism. “We don’t hate individual Jews; rather, we are just opposed to Israel.” The far left throughout the world, the Jewish world included, took ownership of the term, turned it into the “Z” word and claimed that Zionists were, by definition, racists, discriminators and murderers.

Worse still, many in the organized Jewish world distanced themselves from using the word Zionism. Sadly, that distancing continues today. The result is the strengthening of radical BDS groups, the true racists and murderous terror organizations, and the regimes — past, present and emerging — that support them.

Terms such as “pro-Israel” and “Israel supporter” are wonderful. At the same time, I believe they represent reactions to the co-opting of the word Zionism by those who hate Israel, who seek to delegitimize and destroy it. “Pro-Israel” is clearly a reaction to “anti-Israel.”

The time has come for a new strategy, one that is proactive rather than reactive.

Instead of distancing ourselves from Zionism, we must reclaim the word and celebrate it. While definitions abound, we must make clear that its meaning is “the certain knowledge of the right of the Jewish people to a safe, sovereign state in our ancient and ancestral homeland.” We must cease arguing the legitimacy of this right. Engaging in such argument is a waste of time, as it simply legitimates the very act of questioning our right, one as inalienable as it is ancient.

When others try to embarrass us by turning Zionism into the abhorrent “Z” word, we cannot run and hide. Our response must be full-throated and unbending: Those who deny our right are the racists, the spreaders of hatred, the hypocrites.

One can accept the fact of this right and still criticize specific policies. One cannot be a denier of the fact of Israel and expect to be part of conversations that seek to solve its problems.

Being “pro-Israel” or “supporting Israel” are important. We need as many people as possible to side with Israel, to support her, to love her. What we need even more, however, is to take back the “Z” word from those who seek to destroy Israel. We must remove any sense of shame that others may attach to it, shouting loudly to the world in a strong, clear voice that the “right of the Jewish people to a safe, sovereign state in our ancient and ancestral homeland” is a non-negotiable fact.

With more than 1 million Israeli citizens needing to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles intended to kill civilians, with thousands of missiles shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few years, it seems to me that reclaiming our 2,000-year-old dream, “being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” from those who seek to destroy us is the least we can do.

Rabbi Loren Sykes is the CEO and executive director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone.