Alissa Bernstein
Alissa Bernstein

So you think you’re not a Zionist?

A couple of weeks before the Israel-Palestinian conflict in May, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing Israel of pursuing a policy of “apartheid and persecution” that favors Israeli Jews over Palestinians in both Israel and the “occupied territories.”

The report argued that Israel has created a two-tier system, with Palestinians living under military rule and Israeli settlers under a civil legal system with greater freedoms. It claims that these inequities “amount to the systematic oppression required for apartheid.”

I argue that this is incorrect and, in fact, contributes to the growing global disdain for the Jewish movement for self-determination: Zionism.

I often hear my peers say that they believe Jews have the right to to self-determination in Israel, but that they are not a Zionist. In fact, I recently had a conversation with a Jewish friend of mine who, despite believing in Jewish self-determination in Israel, didn’t identify as a Zionist. I told her that this very belief was, in fact, a Zionist one, and I asked her why she chose not to identify as such. She told me, without hesitation and perhaps without a second thought, that she did not identify with Zionism because of how it is perceived.

Hearing this (while not surprising) made me sad, because it showed me just how much the world has dampened the spirit of people who support the existence of a Jewish homeland.

However, I can’t say I blame her. I completely understand her hesitation. It’s scary to feel like you have a target on your back, and it’s easy to avoid expressing certain parts of your identity for fear of ruining your social life.

I know this from personal experience. I lost friends in college because I chose to be open about my Zionist identity. In recent years, anti-Zionism has been in vogue on college campuses, and it’s because the word “Zionism” has become defamatory. Zionism —  a movement for Jewish self-determination —  is now likened to white supremacy, colonialism and racism in an attempt to target the world’s lone Jewish state.

Movements like boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace oppose and outright reject the movement for Jewish self-determination. They believe it is a settler-colonial movement supporting an “apartheid state.”

Let’s take a look at the definition of colonialism. It is a “practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another… where the arrivals lived as permanent settlers while maintaining political allegiance to their country of origin.”

Many Jews fled to Israel following the decimation of European Jewry during the Holocaust, just as Iraqi Jews migrated there to escape violence and killing at the hands of an oppressive regime. Unsurprisingly, these Jewish refugees in Israel did not maintain political allegiance —  an integral characteristic of colonialism — to these countries.

Additionally, settler-colonialism requires that the colonizer be foreign to the land. Jewish presence in Israel in antiquity is well-documented (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). To claim that the Jewish people do not have ancestry in this land is to disregard a long-standing history and connection that the Jewish people have with Israel.

Let’s be clear: To be a Zionist is to believe in the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Zionism, in its purest form, has existed since Jews lived under Babylonian occupation about 2,500 years ago. The concept of returning to Eretz Yisrael is integral to Jewish practice: When we step on the glass at weddings, it is to symbolize and commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem; when we sit down for our Pesach seders, we say “l’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” (next year in Jerusalem); we even face toward Jerusalem when we pray in synagogues (or even on the side of the road, as my friend’s family does on road trips).

For many — myself included — Zionism and Judaism are intertwined.

That being said, it is vital to note that being a Zionist does not mean you cannot also believe in the right to Palestinian self-determination.

Knowing, then, that to be a Zionist is simply to believe in Jewish self-determination in Israel, there is no other conclusion than that to be anti-Zionist is to deny the Jewish people that international right.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by 31 countries (and 27 student governments), clearly states that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination is a manifestation of antisemitism. Most people who claim to be anti-Zionist don’t realize this, and believe that anti-Zionism is simply a movement to support the Palestinian people.

It is easy to shy away from identifying as a Zionist when you have been trained to believe that doing so means you are anti-Palestinian, or aligned with oppressive movements like settler-colonialism and apartheid.

However, support of Jewish self-determination and Palestinian self-determination are not mutually exclusive.

It is possible, and quite common, actually, to both support the existence of a Jewish state in Israel and criticize its policies and government officials. As is the case in most governments, very few Zionists, or Jews, agree with every policy decision made by the Israeli government.

The actions and policy decisions of the Israeli government do not define Israelis or Jews or Zionists, just as the actions and policy decisions of the U.S. government do not define Americans and their beliefs.

College students must begin to think critically about the meaning of the word Zionism, and consider why it is that the Jewish people are the only group whose right to self-determination is questioned and demonized. It is entirely possible that upon doing so, many will find that they do, in fact, identify as a Zionist.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Alissa Bernstein
Alissa Bernstein

Alissa Bernstein is a recent graduate of Occidental College in Los Angeles who recently completed an internship with the American Jewish Committee. She lives in Palo Alto.