by | 29 Apr 2016

… 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.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful reflection. In 2002 Gary Younge wrote the following:

    ‘Israeli hawks and Zionist hardliners brand any criticism of Israel anti- semitic, regardless of its merits. Their accusations become so frequent that the term becomes devalued. Then Israel’s detractors dismiss every allegation of anti-semitism, regardless of its merits, as a cynical attempt to stifle legitimate dissent. And so it goes on, until what should be a complex debate descends into polarised positions – “Zionism is racism” on the one hand, “anti-Zionism is anti-semitism” on the other.’

    The crude positions he identifies have alas been all too evident in the last few days.

  2. Great piece. You have read my mind. In fact one does not need to use any z-word when trying to solve the problem. One can talk about the Palestinian right to self-determination, without mentioning the z-word. One can say that the Israeli occupation prevents the Palestinians from realizing their right to self-determination, without mentioning the z-word. One can say that the settlements are illegal without mentioning the z-word. One does not have to be anti-z-word or anti anything to be pro respect for international law, pro Palestinian self-determination, pro human rights.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I agree that it is time to discard the word Zionism. It is a confusing word and gets people like Ken Livingstone into all sorts of problems because of its emotive connotations. Christians should never forget that Jesus was a peace-loving man born under occupation of Israel by the Roman Empire. Many early “Christians” were in fact Jewish. The historical enmity between Jews, Islam and Christianity is largely a result not of those “religions” but of political forces that have usurped their names in the interest of one or another imperial power.

  4. What a wonderful piece! I am glad to know of your book and will look for it. But may I make one criticism regarding Hannah Arendt’s position: Although I very much agree with your argumentation on Zionism, I think it is wrong to refer to her Jewish politics as a form of nationalism. I have argued this further in “Why did Hannah Arendt reject the Partition of Palestine?”, available at https://roehampton.academia.edu/EricJacobson

  5. To me, the issue is not “Zionism” as an abstract concept, but the concrete task of Nakba abolition in Palestine/Israel. This means making Israel, from the River Jordan to the sea, a state of all its citizens, with the Palestinian Right of Return recognized and implemented, and likely some kind of federal or cantonal scheme to represent the binational and multiethnic diversity of the country. Binationalist Zionisms originally aimed at this kind of solution, and 21st-century binationalisms (maybe using some other name if this seems too dated), Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab, are roads that can lead to Nakba abolition.

    The kind of Zionism which is racist might be termed “Palestinian-exclusionary Zionism,” in which Palestinian Arabs are displaced and excluded from part or all of Historical Palestine. The Plan of Partition (United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, 29 November 1947) was, on its face, not Palestinian-exclusionary, since it defined a “Jewish state” where 40% or more of the population would be Palestinian Arabs, and discrimination by “race, religion, or sex” would be prohibited. From this point of view, the 1947-1949 war with the Israeli cabinet’s adoption in June 1948 of the strategy of “retroactive transfer” by preventing the return of Palestinian refugees, was an act of lawlessness which Nakba abolition must now remedy. To fail to do so, and to follow a “peace process” based on either a “two-state” bantustan solution or continuing military rule in the West Bank and indirect siege in Gaza, is a racist stance.

    Nakba abolition does not have to mean the abolition of Zionism, of which binationalism may be seen as the one expression worthy of Jewish values. The values of the Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, for one, would seem to demand no less — and likewise for the values of Albert Einstein.

  6. There is a specific aspect to antisemitism on the left in England though. I grew up with it: with an exceptionalist critique of Israel that holds niether Hammas and other Palestinian authorities or Arab/muslim majority states to account, that completely neglects Israel’s history, and the reality of a voting public’s legitimate demand for security (which is seen with far more nuance as manifested in Northern Ireland).

    Israel is held to this critique, because of it’s exceptional military. But also crucially because that criticism can be voiced and demand a response. Unlike nearly any of the other powers in the region.

    The English left’s idea of solidarity demands they stand with the underdog, and with their own views of the situation — but the Palestinian states have been politcally antisemitic since the founding of Israel, and that must not be stood with.

    It is so much easier to criticise Israel and realistically expect reaction, but truly standing with the Palestinian people must mean being a critical friend who demands change also from the Palestinian authority, and governments of surrounding states.

  7. Prob is Zionists keep telling us they are Zionists, and keep creating orgs with Zionist in their names. It is all going to get very messy

  8. Surely the author should be taking up his issue with the organsiations that bring Zionism into disrepute, such as the Zionist Federation who regularly denigrate Palestinians and their supporters, and just last week put out images of Nazis over a Palestinian flag with a message to Corbyn, to do so.

    There may be a place for in-depth and empathetic understanding of Zionism as spiritual yearning, as a complex historical phenomenon, as the author describes. But how can the the author demand this in the absence of any proper acknowledgement or understanding of what Zionism has meant for Palestinians? This reality is entirely absent from public discourse, is entirely absent from within any of the official Zionist or UK organisations claiming to represent Jews. And now, thanks to the efforts of a number of groups (dare I say it, Zionist organisations, journalists and politicians) is in danger be made illegal and unspeakable.

    A call for a policy that says ‘the left’ (campaigners for Palestine, like me?) should stop talking about ‘Zionists’ is gravely flawed, intolerant and dangerous. The author should be calling for more open discussion of Zionism, not less. Currently the Jewish Labor Movement (affiliated to Labour Party, the Israeli Labour Party and the World Zionist Organisation) is proposing a rule change that should outlaw “Zionist as a term of abuse”. Therefore I can only read this article, not simply as opinion, but as part of a prevailing discourse and a political strategy that is redefining anti Zionism in terms of anti semitism in the US, the UK and in many other countries, in order to silence a swelling popular momentum for holding Israel to account for its regime against the Palestinian population.

    No one likes terms that reduce a multiplicity of instances to simple essentialisms. I dont like reading about ‘the left’ because I never recognise the description of myself, and the assumptions that lumps disparate people together for the sake of an argument. And I dont like any form of abuse, so I dont like ‘the left’ as a term of abuse, anymore than ‘Trot’ or ‘Zionist’ as a term of abuse.

    But this argument is saying is that when we talk about Zionists, we, ‘the left’ are in fact talking about Jews in a coded way, blind to our own buried anti semitism. Its logic is the same argument that says that non-Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews are self-hating. Its an argument that denigrates an adversary, and for which the accused can make no deffence.

    Anyone involved in organising campaigns to end Israel’s oppression of Palestinians will be confronted by groups trying to them close-down or denigrate them. What should we call these groups? Well, they call themselves Zionist and link this concept to advocacy for Israel. And when ordinary people are outraged by bombs on Gaza and the fact that British organisations and individuals continue to defend the indefensible, what words should they chose?

    The author repeats allegations about Livingston – that he has ‘form’ with regard to saying things about Jews, and that he said that “Hitler was a Zionist”. Neither is factually correct. I find it telling that the reporting about Livingston, including in this article, has changed his words, as though the detail and the context of the words dont matter. Livingston expresses himself in hyperbolic, crude and in terms designed to provoke, and while this does nt make him especially likeable, neither does it make him an anti-semite. The author reiterates the spurious link between Nazia Sha’s Facebook meme presenting Israel as the 51st state of America, with images of Jewish transportation to death camps. Yes, its possible for a person to make that painfull association, but only if one detaches the image from its actual, explicit context: Gaza, US imperialism and the dispossession (which includes transportation) of Palestinians.

    Jacqueline Rose says that she would never use Zionism as a term of abuse, but unlike the author of this article she has publicly voiced her opposition to the current witch-hunt in unequivocal terms. The current campaign is a politically motivated, orchestrated attack that has little to do with protecting Jews and everything to do with closing down discussions about Israel and what Zionism has meant for Palestinians.

  9. Herman suggests that “to deny the legitimacy of Jewish spiritual yearnings (including national aspirations)” is to flirt with racism, in that, implicitly, the Jews would be the only people debarred from entertaining ideals of a spiritual homeland. The problem with this is that these spiritual “yearnings” always seem in practice to centre on the ultra-contentious site of Jerusalem. There is a sense in which one could readily think that the yearnings and aspirations do not represent a kind of phantasmatic material that underpins or is transmuted into politics, but are “always already” political, are (no sooner that they are stated) the justification for a territorial claim to an undivided and wholly Jewish capital.

    It is also clear that there is a far richer discussion of the purport of Zionism, of whether it refers to an ideal or an actual homeland, in Israel than there is in Britain; that the concept is more plural, more contested and in some forms more free of exclusionary political commitments. This is for all the efforts of scholars like Gillian and Jacqueline Rose, and can probably be laid at the door of a sensationalising media. I would like better reporting of what Zionism might mean in Britain; but perhaps I would also like, within Israeli civil society, a stronger movement articulating the compatibility of binationalism and Zionism. Perhaps the stake here is the productiveness of relations, argumentatively, between a secular, anti-racist Jewish tradition on the left and a tradition of Jewish populism, to which Herman affiliates herself, which equally disavows injustice.

  10. The author writes, “Of course Israel itself likes to messianically represent itself as the embodiment of a monolithic Zionism . . . ” This generalization plays right into the hands of those that would equate Zionism with racism, etc. Those of us who have lived for extended periods in Israel and are familiar with Israeli society on a granular level, know that there is no monolithic Zionism. In this vibrant democratic society there are many forms of Zionism, both institutionalized and private.

  11. Note to commenters: we welcome comments that deal with the substantive arguments of this piece. The moderators of this site will not allow comments that include personal attacks and/or insults against the author of this article.

  12. Thoughtful, but I don’t buy it – argument is weak and again rely on exceptionalism in a particular way.
    Whatever, bottom line is that every Israeli ethnonationalist average Jew consider himself Zionist in terms of “blood & soil”, not ideal. So, so what if few Jewish intellectuals here and there, now and then, think about Zionism as abstract home(land) yearning, while most of the population with entire state apparatus behind them
    It became dirty word, it is dirty word, and this article – although it didn’t exactly told me any new info, something that I didn’t knew and agree with – can’t change my reception of Zionism as fundamental contemporary ideology behind “blood and soil” political mentality of most Israelis and supporters of Israel.


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