WHY DEFINITIONS MATTER
Scholars who have dedicated their entire lives to studying how propaganda works have noticed one thing: propagandists keep terms loose or undefined; in other words, vagueness is a telltale sign of propaganda. When concepts are vague or loosely defined, they are essentially rendered meaningless.
A challenge we come up against time and time again when we engage in debates about Zionism is that more often than not, both sides are not talking about the same thing. One side opposes “Zionism,” which, in their heads, means one thing, while the other side supports “Zionism,” which, in their head, means another thing. We get nowhere this way. We need to first come to an agreement about what exactly we are talking about; otherwise we are just missing each other in our discussion. This is why I very rarely engage with people by using the words “Zionist” or “Zionism” without clearly defining them first.
So let’s define some words.
WHAT IS SELF-DETERMINATION?
Self-determination is the concept that peoples who share a national identity — not to be confused with nationality — have a legal right to choose their own governance, rather than being forced into living under the thumb of an empire. Self-determination is a basic tenet of international law, applicable to all peoples.
Zionism is the Jewish movement for self-determination in the Land of Israel, the ancestral homeland of the Jewish People.
The term “Zionism” comes from an event that happened in 539 BCE, dubbed the “Return to Zion.” In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah, where the word “Jew” comes from (as in: a resident of the Kingdom of Judah), and exiled 25 percent of its population. The veracity of this event is attested by both Israelite and Babylonian sources, as well as recent archeological findings.
In 539 BCE, the exiled Jews were allowed to return to the Land of Israel, a return known as the “Return to Zion” (“Zion” is another term for the Land of Israel and/or Jerusalem). In this manner, Zionism can be described as the ancient longing of the Jewish People to return to our ancestral homeland. This longing is a constant theme for the past 2500 years of Jewish history. For more, see my post ZIONISM BEFORE ZIONISM.
MODERN POLITICAL ZIONISM
In 1897, Jewish delegates from across the world met for the First Zionist Congress. There, they defined Zionism in simple terms:
“Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel [the Land of Israel] secured under public law.”
That’s it. Beyond that, people who identify as Zionist don’t necessarily agree on anything. Personally, I tend to think the best people to define a word are those who identify with it. For example, when I define Nazi ideology, I define it by literally quoting what the Nazis said about Nazism. In this manner, I think it’s appropriate to define Zionism by quoting what the Zionists say about Zionism.
Political Zionism was one of the hundreds of nationalist movements that arose in the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, influenced largely by events such as the French Revolution and the American Declaration of Independence.
Before I proceed, let’s define nationalism really quick: nationalism — not to be confused with movements such as white nationalism — is the idea that people who share a national identity are entitled to an independent state. Some examples of non-Zionist nationalism in the Middle East include Kurdish nationalism, Assyrian nationalism, Amazighism, and yes, even Palestinian nationalism.
A “nation,” in this context, is a group of people with a shared language, history, culture, territory, and/or society who see themselves as having a collective political destiny. The term “nation” is a lot more political in nature than the term “ethnic group.” The idea that Jews comprised one nation was nothing new; for 3000 years, we have called ourselves the “Nation of Israel.” Our ethnogenesis — the development and formation of an ethnic group — happened congruently with the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel in 1047 BCE. Even the term “Jew” means “someone from [the Kingdom of] Judah.”
Nationalism in its early iterations was formed specifically in opposition to empire. In other words, for centuries, empires had long exercised their rule over conquered populations of different national identities. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of these subjugated national groups demanded their independence.
At the same time, following millennia of persecution in Europe, Jews were finally emancipated in the nineteenth century. As many moved out of their shtetls and tried to integrate into the rest of society, they, still, faced violent antisemitism. For many Jews, these conditions led to the conclusion that, as a nation of our own, we, too, had a right to independence in our ancestral homeland.
"BUT ZIONISM CAME AT THE EXPENSE OF PALESTINIANS"
This is, at best, a completely decontextualized perspective. Let’s take some things into account:
(1) the first political Zionists hardly envisioned an independent Jewish nation state, or a partitioned Land of Israel. This was at the tail end of the Ottoman occupation of the Land of Israel, and they couldn’t possibly have imagined that World War I would result in the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Instead, they envisioned the “Jewish national home,” as they described it, within the framework of a multinational democracy or a multinational Ottoman state.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1937 that the concept for a partitioned Jewish nation state alongside an Arab state was proposed in the first place. The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, reluctantly accepted this idea as a compromise in light of Arab refusal to live alongside autonomous Jews.
This refusal is a matter of public record. In 1937, the British asked Haj Amin Al Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Arab Higher Committee, should there be a “one state solution,” if Palestinian Arabs would be willing to absorb the 400,000 Jews already living in Palestine.
He said: “No. Some of them would have to be removed by a process kindly or painful, as the case may be.”
(2) the Zionists did not come to Palestine bearing arms. In fact, the first Jewish paramilitary, the Haganah, was formed in 1920, in response to Arab riots that left scores of Jews dead.
(3) the displacement of Palestinians, which came to be known as the Nakba, happened as a result of a war that the Zionist forces, by all account, did not start, a war in which the Palestinian Arab leadership explicitly and publicly threatened to carry out the Nazi Final Solution.
On November 30, 1947, the morning after the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into one Jewish and one Arab state, the Arab Higher Committee published a leaflet in Arabic vowing to complete the job that the Nazis had started. The circular stated: “The Arabs have taken into their own hands the Final Solution of the Jewish problem. The problem will be solved only in blood and fire. The Jews will soon be driven out.”
Has there been no war, there would’ve been no displacement. Had there been no war, Palestinian Arabs too would be celebrating 75 years of independence.
HOW "ZIONIST" BECAME A DEROGATORY TERM
In its earliest iterations, non-Jewish anti-Zionists, raging from Wilhelm Marr to Adolf Hitler, made zero effort to divorce their anti-Zionism from their antisemitism. Wilhelm Marr, for example, called Zionism “a foul Jewish swindle.” In 1941, Hitler himself told Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, “Germany supports] an uncompromising struggle against the Jews…[this] would include, of course, opposition to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which is nothing more than a hub for the destructive influence of Jewish interests.”
Enter: the Soviet Union. From its inception, the Soviet Union was hostile to Zionism, much like it was hostile to all forms of minority nationalisms that threatened Soviet homogeneity across the region of the former Russian Empire. This hostility, however, ramped up significantly in the aftermath of World War II. But they, like Marr and Hitler before them, made little effort to disguise the fact that their hostility to Zionism was, for all intents and purposes, just hostility to Jews by a different name.
In the 1960s, Soviet propaganda (such as newspapers) made blatantly antisemitic claims, including: “The character of the Jewish religion serves the political aims of the Zionists,” “Zionism is inextricable from Judaism, rooted in the idea of the exclusiveness of the Jewish People,” comparisons of Judaism to the Italian mafia, and claims that Israel was merely a means to an end of Jewish imperialism and world domination.
To strengthen their sphere of influence over Arab and African nations, the Soviets launched a covert operation against Israel, named Sionistskiye Gosudarstva, meaning “Zionist Governments.” According to KGB chairman Yuri Andropov (1967-1982), “We had only to keep repeating our themes—that the United States and Israel were ‘fascist, imperial-Zionist countries’ bankrolled by rich Jews.’”
What had once been seen largely as a righteous cause on behalf of the Jews after 2000 years of relentless persecution, now became associated with fascism, imperialism, and western influence.
The Soviets slander of the word “Zionism” was codified in United Nations Resolution 3379, passed on November 10, 1975.
In 1969, the United Nations passed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Both the United States and Brazil wanted to add a clause including antisemitism. The Soviet Union, which had been heavily oppressing its Jewish population since the 1950s, worried that such a clause would be used to rebuke them for persecuting Soviet Jews. As such, they included a counter proposal, which was a clause that equated Zionism to Nazism. That way, they could say they were persecuting Zionists, not Jews. While neither clause passed (yes, that’s correct: the UN refused to condemn antisemitism), this laid the groundwork for the Soviets and the Arab League to push the “Zionism is racism” resolution in 1975.
In 1975, the United Nations, headed by the Soviet Union, Soviet satellite states, and the 20+ countries in the Arab League, passed Resolution 3379, stating that Zionism is a form of racism. The resolution passed 75 to 35, with 32 abstentions.
The resolution never defined Zionism, nor did it explain, how and why, exactly, Zionism is a form of racism (shouldn’t a resolution on something start by defining what that something is?). In fact, the delegate for Liberia stated that, while reading the resolution, he “anxiously waited” to see (1) a definition for Zionism, and (2) an explanation as to how Zionism is racism. Since he found no such thing, he voted against the resolution.
Out of thousands of independence and nationalist movements in the world (including Palestinian nationalism!), only the Jewish movement has ever had a UN resolution condemning it. Though the resolution was repealed in 1991, the damage had been done.
"BUT I'VE HEARD…"
You’ve heard plenty of things about Zionism, I’m sure. Most likely these things have been negative or at least inaccurate. So consider the following:
(1) despite centuries old antisemitic conspiracies that Jews run the media, the fact of the matter is that Jews constitute 0.2 percent of the world population, with a population standing at about 15 million. By contrast, there are 456.2 million Arabs. The Arab world has dedicated a good portion of the past seven decades to disseminating anti-Zionist and oftentimes outright antisemitic propaganda. This is not a judgment on all Arabs, of course, but it is an important discussion to be had about a systemic issue in the Arab world. All of this information — as primary sources — is openly available. You can find some of these sources in the caption. The fact of the matter is that Jewish voices are outnumbered, as they have been for the past 2000 years.
(2) you’ve, surely, also heard a lot of things about Jews that are inaccurate. There are more people talking about Jews than there are Jews in the world. In fact, there are exponentially more antisemites — and anti-Zionists — in the world than there are Jews in the world. We should be, by all means, statistically irrelevant. But Jesus was Jewish, and for 2000 years, until 1965, the Catholic Church blamed us for his crucifixion, so everyone thinks about us way more than they should.
(3) the majority of the news coming out of the Middle East comes from Al Jazeera, which is quite literally run by the Qatari royal family. Qatar is the main financier of the Palestinian cause. In other words, there’s a bias from the get-go.
(4) as mentioned, it was the Soviet Union that popularized the term “anti-Zionist” as a dogwhistle for “Jew.” It was also the Soviet Union that, though an empire itself, meddled with anti-imperialist movements to win influence during the Cold War. This was calculated and forever erroneously associated Zionism with imperialism in the public eye, especially among the left. For more on this, I recommend my post SOVIET IMPERIALISM, ZIONISM, & THE JEWS.
DEBUNKING SOME TALKING POINTS
(1) though hard to conceive of now, up until the 1950s, “population transfer” was considered an ethical and legal solution to ethnic conflict, so much so that both the League of Nations and the United Nations oversaw a number of population transfers until the practice was outlawed in 1949.
For example: in 1923, the League of Nations oversaw a massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey. About 1.2 million ethnic Greeks residing in what is now Turkey were resettled to Greece, whereas some 400,000 ethnic Turks residing in Greece were resettled to Turkey. Post-World War II, the United Nations oversaw the resettlement of 12 million Germans formerly residing in Central and Eastern Europe. This population transfer was considered a fair and legal consequence for the Germans losing World War II. The largest population transfer in history took place in 1947, with the Partition of India. Up to 20 million people were displaced, with Hindus fleeing to India and Muslims fleeing to Pakistan.
As always, it’s disingenuous to look at history out of context.
(2) anti-Zionists frequently cite an out of context quote from Theodor Herzl about the “removal of the poor” as proof that the Zionist movement intended to displace Palestinians from the start. Except they conveniently leave out what comes next: “It goes without saying that we shall respectfully tolerate persons of other faiths and protect their property, their honor, and their freedom with the harshest means of coercion.”
(3) before the Arab antisemitic pogroms of the 1920s and 1930s, the future first prime minister of Israel and longtime head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, David Ben Gurion, made statements such as “ we do not intend to marginalize the Arabs, or to displace them from their lands and take their place” (1915) and “had Zionism desired to evict the inhabitants of Palestine it would have been a dangerous utopia and a harmful, reactionary mirage” (1918).
(4) it was the British that first proposed population transfer during the 1937 Peel Commission, using the 1923 Greco-Turkish population transfer as a framework to solve the inter-ethnic violence brewing in Mandatory Palestine.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.