Simon Johnson: The Z Word

The title of this month’s article represents a “tip of the hat” to the series currently being shown on BBC1 called “The A Word”. I am very proud to say that this programme has been Executive Produced by my sister, Sara Jackson, on behalf of Keshet Productions UK, as it has been adapted for the UK from the successful Israeli series dealing with the subject of autism known as “Yellow Peppers”.

In this article, the “Z word” of course refers to Zionism. And Zionism has, for all the wrong reasons, been in the news a lot recently. Over the last few weeks, we have seen Alex Chalmers, in his letter of resignation from the Oxford University Labour Club, reveal that the word “Zio” has been adopted as a term of abuse for Jews or people who hold pro Israel views. We witnessed, if you were unfortunate enough to catch it, a now former member of the Labour Party, named Gerry Downing, attempt to justify his appalling anti-Semitic views by claiming that at all times he was merely referring to “Zionists” when he referred to their influence on the party or on British political discourse. Zionism is becoming a term of abuse for those who are opposed to us.

Yet, it seems that fewer and fewer people, even within the Jewish community, are willing to say that they are Zionists. Despite our best efforts, the word Zionism is currently being imbued with an element of insult and I observe a certain amount of embarrassment within our community in people being willing to describe themselves as Zionist.

I’ve often reflected on why I view Israel as central to my own Jewish identity and why I have no problem with referring to myself as a Zionist. I do not feel that I was ever indoctrinated to be such.  In fact I don’t think anybody ever explained to me properly what was the definition of a Zionist.

(By the way, according to my colleagues at We Believe in Israel, Zionism is “the belief that the Jewish people should have a homeland in Israel”).

I am a proud Zionist but was never formally taught that I should be. And I have been wondering in recent weeks why fewer and fewer people are willing to describe themselves as Zionists. I suspect that this is because the definition has been bowdlerised to mean something entirely different, something which people are uncomfortable with.

I went to a non-Jewish school and therefore was not taught what Zionism was and what it was not. What’s fascinating was that in the youth organisation of which I was a member, BBYO, Zionism was all around us without us even realising it. BBYO was not a Zionist youth organisation then, but if I compare how it was structured in the 1980s with how most other youth movements are structured now that they are Zionist youth organisations, the difference is stark. For example, the names of our chapters were imbued with Zionist history. The chapter in Woodside Park was called Masada, the chapter in Hampstead Garden suburb was called Sabra, in Nottingham it was called Yoni (after Yonatan Netanyahu, the IDF soldier killed in Entebbe), in Bradford it was called Moledet, and the chapter in Leeds was called Balfour. Five of the biggest chapters were all given names that resonated with Zionist history.

We did programmes in our weekly meetings about Herzl, about the Balfour Declaration and about the creation of the State of Israel and the Declaration of Independence. There was no indoctrination, nor was there any suggestion that we should follow the policies of the Israeli government of the time. On the contrary, it was taken as read that Israeli history and in particular modern Israeli history and the history of Zionism was an important part of our Jewish identity.

30 years later, and I don’t think that the young Jews of today are given the same opportunity. We have more Jewish pupils attending more Jewish schools than ever before, but not enough of those schools teach modern Jewish history and very few of our students at Jewish schools emerge with the type of basic knowledge of the history of the State of Israel that I was able to pick up in my youth movement days.

I also don’t think they pick up enough of it at their Youth Movements. We know that weekly meetings are dwindling, with the Youth Movements focussing on Winter and Summer camps and Tours. I can not imagine a Zionist youth movement today feeling that it can name its chapters in such an overtly Zionist way.

As a result, support for Zionism is not at the heart of today’s young Jews. This means that they are less equipped to be able to deal with the insults to Israel and the misinterpretation of Zionism that has taken hold.

Zionism as a term of abuse is deemed to be blind support for the policies of the state of Israel. People seem fearful that if they describe themselves as Zionist, they may be held to be supportive of the policies of the current government, which for some people is an uncomfortable position to be in.

If we remember that the definition of a Zionist is simple, then it is much simpler to be a Zionist.

Therefore, Zionism is something for us to be proud of. And those who attack Zionists, are very rarely engaging in a pure critique of the political philosophy behind Zionism. What they are doing is using it as a shorthand and supposedly more acceptable way of insulting Jews.

I was very proud to act as the MC for the “Say No to Terror, Say Yes to Peace” rally held at the Palace Theatre Manchester on 13 March. There were some wonderful speakers and it seemed that there was a pride in the room at being able to demonstrate ourselves as Zionists. Even Sir Eric Pickles MP and Joan Ryan MP identified that those who seek to delegitimise the State of Israel or undermine the credibility of Zionism as a legitimate philosophy which supports the existence of a Jewish homeland in the State of Israel, are verging on anti-Semitism.

Most of those in the Palace Theatre would describe themselves as Zionists.  There were a large number of Christians in the room who proudly describe themselves as Christian Zionists.  In fact, there were times when it felt like they outnumbered the Jewish people in the auditorium.

It is time that we reclaimed the word Zionism. The definition is sufficiently clear and sufficiently narrow that all of those members of the community, and I believe that is the vast majority, who believe that Israel is at the heart of their Jewish identity, can proudly say that they are Zionists. It should not be a dirty word. We as Jews should not be embarrassed about using it. We should be able to easily attack those who use it as a term of abuse and expose them for what they are.

As we head towards the centenary of the Balfour declaration, and just to prove that I take my job extremely seriously, I read all 680 pages of a book by Leonard Stein called “The Balfour Declaration”!

In the period from 1897 to 1917 and thereafter until the creation of the State of Israel,  the word Zionist was used without criticism to define those who held to the political and religious aspiration for the creation of a Jewish homeland. It was not used as a term of abuse.  There were Jewish Zionists and anti-Zionists, and although the differences were heartfelt, there was never division between them. In the end, Zionism was recognised by the British Government in The Balfour Declaration and then given effect by the United Nations’ vote to create the State of Israel and the declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in 1948.

If we are not proud of the word Zionism and the achievements of the early Zionists that led to the creation of the Jewish homeland in the State of Israel, and how can we expect anyone else to be?

It is time we all took pride in describing ourselves as Zionists.

*This article first appeared in the Jewish Telegraph, 1st April edition