… this is, in part, a plea to the left to stop saying ‘Zionist’.
Two days ago, the news was full of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent decision to suspend Labour MP Naz Shah while her alleged antisemitism is investigated. Two years ago, before she became an MP and during the height of the most recent Israeli aggression in Gaza, Shah wrote a Facebook post suggesting Israel should be relocated to the US and that Israelis transportation costs would be minimal compared to the current military support provided to Israel by the US. Last week, the news was full of the election of Malia Bouattia, the new president of the National Union of Students. She, too, was accused by some of antisemitism for referring to “mainstream Zionist-led media outlets” and saying that the University of Birmingham was “something of a Zionist outpost”. Yesterday, Ken Livingston was suspended from the Labour Party for appearing to suggest that Hitler was a Zionist. These incidents have been used as sticks by those who claim to speak on behalf Britain’s Jewish communities (and others) to beat both the Labour Party and the NUS.
In my view, Christian antisemitism runs deeply in England, but none of these statements by the Muslim women above are examples of it (although the media reference comes close). Suggesting that Israel be relocated to the US — what was clearly a facetious remark made in the moment — reveals an underlying ignorance about Israel pervasive on the left and the right (that it is nothing but a white, western nation) but it is hardly antisemitism (although the reference to ‘transportation costs’ could easily be read as such as the word ‘transport’ has a great deal of resonance in the Jewish psyche). As for Livingstone, well, Livingstone is Livingstone, he’s been saying stupid remarks about Jews for years.
What is clear from these recent incidents (and many others) is that the left’s use of ‘Zionism’ needs some critical attention.
For many decades, since I was a teenager actually, I thought of myself as a Jewish ‘anti-zionist’ because I was opposed to the creation of Israel, as well as to its subsequent practices and ideologies. Because of the contemporary left’s deployment of Zionism, I now find I no longer want to call myself an anti-zionist. Let me explain why.
Writing on the history of Jewish nationalist thought (zionisms) is enormous, and this is not the place to review the complexities and permutations of its origins and heterogeneous trajectories but Jacqueline Rose’s careful study in The Question of Zion (2005) is one of the best. Rose discusses the messianic origins of zionism, arguing that “Zionism emerged out of the legitimate desire of a persecuted people for a homeland” (2005, xii). Many strands of zionist thought however do not propose a ‘homeland’ in the here and now and others are actively anti-Israel in particular. Rose urges us to understand both the reality of antisemitism and the psychology of suffering in which zionism is rooted, while at the same time deploring the ‘blood and soil’ form that zionism eventually took in Israel. She writes: “I am not happy, to put it at its most simple, to treat Zionism as an insult. A dirty word” (2005, 11).
Zionism has become a dirty word for many on the left. It has become synonymous with Israel itself, the racist practices of the Israeli state, ‘apartheid South Africa’, and necro- or thanatopolitics. However, it is not clear why the Jewish desire for a homeland is any worse than any other form of homeland thinking, be it rooted in ethnicity or religion. As Rose and others have explained, zionism is first and foremost a state of mind; some forms of it do not require (indeed, are opposed to taking) actual land — it is the spiritual ‘home’ that is more important than the ‘land’. Hannah Arendt, for example, could be described as a Jewish nationalist, but not one who thought Jews should ‘return’ to Palestine or have their own exclusive territory anywhere (2009).
There is a stark reluctance amongst left scholars to engage directly with Judaism, or to take the history and psychology of Jewish communal survival seriously. Instead, scholars replace Jews and Judiasm with Zionists and Zionism, and label Zionism ‘racist’ or part of a ‘racial contract’ or ‘apartheid’. But zionisms, in theory, represent no more nor less than the utopian yearnings of people who identify with an ancient Middle Eastern faith community — Judaism is zionism’s parent (with Christianity, ironically, being Israel-zionism’s co-parent, but that’s another story).
That land-based Israel-zionism became ascendant, and took an autochthonous, violent form in Israel is unsurprising and in keeping with most other postcolonial nationalisms (contrary to dominant left narratives, Israel’s history is both colonial and postcolonial). If all forms of homeland thinking are dirty words, then zionism ought to be as well, but anti-Zionist critics do not treat all nationalisms equally. Indeed, many are supported by left scholars without equivocation, Palestinian (Muslim and Christian) Arab nationalism and First Nations ancestry-based nationalism, being just two of many examples.
It should not be necessary, in order to condemn historical and contemporary racist practice in Israel, or even to argue that Israel should never have been created, to deny the legitimacy of Jewish spiritual yearnings (including national aspirations) in general, unless one denies all such aspirations or has a very good reason why Jewish ones are especially illegitimate. If ‘Zionist’ simply becomes another word for ‘racist’ then, arguably, that is in itself a form of racialized thought: “The idea of a total evil also is implied by the simple equation of Zionism with racism, as if there would be no remainder to Zionism once racism was subtracted” (Cocks, 2014, 92).
The identification of a generic Zionism with nothing but racist practice in Israel entrenches an understanding of zionism not just as a dirty word, but as a pariah form of thinking unrelated to any other (except apartheid thinking). However, as Balibar (2009), Asharwi (2003), and many others have noted, Jewish nationalisms need to be taken seriously. The left’s wholesale intellectual rejection of an assumed monolithic Zionism does not assist such an endeavour.
I suppose this post is, in part, a plea to the left to stop saying ‘Zionist’. Use ‘Israeli nationalists’ or ‘Israeli fundamentalists’ or better yet ‘Netanyahu’s regime’ or, as a last resort, at least refer to ‘Israel-zionism’ and not ‘Zionism’ per se, as in ‘media outlets that support Netanyahu’s regime’ or ‘the University of Birmingham is a bit of an Israeli nationalist outpost’. These alternatives won’t provide an easy shorthand in the way ‘Zionism’ does, for example, ‘Israeli nationalism = apartheid’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I suppose that is my point — easy options often sacrifice understanding for rhetorical force. The Zionist shorthand is upsetting to many because it is a very old way of talking about ‘Jewish conspiracy’ (used by antisemites long before Israeli statehood), and no doubt more importantly, it harms the cause of Palestinian solidarity because it allows people with all sorts of agendas to attack the solidarity campaign, and with occasional justification. Of course Israel itself likes to messianically represent itself as the embodiment of a monolithic Zionism, but there is no need for the left to reproduce this erasure of all the other forms of zionism.
Antisemitism in England is not a problem of the left or of the Labour Party, it’s a problem of English history, law, and culture. Christianity is also deeply implicated in Israel. The early 20th century Christian conquering of Palestine, Protestant theological influence on the development of Israel-zionist thinking, Protestants continued involvement in propping up successive Israeli governments, and the orientation of Israel nationalist leaders and settlers towards northern European Christianity, have all had an enormous impact on the character and politics of Israel. It is not enough, in relation to Israel, to talk solely about ‘settlers’, ‘race’, ‘apartheid’, and so on, minus the Christian thinking and practices that infuse all of that and more.
Didi Herman is Professor of Law at Kent Law School. Her monograph — An Unfortunate Coincidence: Jews, Jewishness, and English Law — was published by Oxford University Press in January 2011.
— Arendt, Hannah. 2009. The Jewish writings Schocken
— Asharwi, Hanan. 2003. Peace in the Middle East: A global challenge and a human imperative 2003 City of Sydney Peace Prize Lecture CPACS Occasional Paper No. 03/3
— Balibar, Etienne. 2009. ” God will not remain silent”: Zionism, messianism and nationalism. Human Architecture 7 (2): 123-134.
— Cocks, Joan. 2014. On sovereignty and other political delusions Bloomsbury Publishing.