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Thursday, March 22, 2007

What is Zionism?

It is wonderful that so many of these people support Zionism. It is a pity that none of them can define what it is.

Taking back Zionism

Jonathan Leibtag, the President of Hillel-McGill, argues that Israel's critics unfairly define Zionism in terms of only politics and conflict. It's more than that.

In my experience as a pro-Israel activist on campus, I have come to notice a trend in the discussion of Zionism; its ideology is increasingly associated solely with politics and conflict, a reductionism which obscures the true aims of the movement.
Zionism is about more than uniting the Jewish people around the idea of a Jewish homeland. For one thing, it encompasses the tradition of Jewish social justice and responsibility extolled in the Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam, literally translated as "repairing the world." Yet such aspects of Zionism are often ignored, and as a result, any connection to Israel is often looked down upon. This limited understanding and negative perception undermines any chance of honest debate.
Politically constructed issues, such as "Israel as an Apartheid state," immediately force Israel's advocates on the defensive. As a result, the observers of such debate – McGill students included – envision a David versus Goliath conflict with Israel as the aggressor. It's an uneven playing field from the onset of debate.
The product of misconception
There are many students on campus who feel a strong connection to Israel and define themselves as Zionists. How can it be that so many people love, and are active in, something that is portrayed as so negative? The answer lies in what Zionism is, rather than what it is not. Although people see Israel as an issue of conflict and politics, it is not politics (and surely not conflict) that connects people to the land. Israel is much more, and its contributions extend beyond its borders. This is manifested in the work of numerous Israel-based programs that see the need to contribute to the global community as part of the responsibility of the Jewish state. For example, the Jerusalem-based non-profit Tevel b'Tzedek runs a three-month program that integrates study and service internships in social and environmental justice programs in the developing world. Tevel b'Tzedek is as much a Zionist program as it is humanitarian, marrying the Jewish tradition of social justice with frontline work in slum rehabilitation and environmental degradation.
At Hillel, we have been trying to focus on these unseen aspects of Zionism as we attempt to escape the skewed frameworks of debate which have developed across campuses. To be sure, Hillel continues to confront pro-Palestinian groups that we see as fostering a misrepresentation of Israel – but this is not at the core of our actions. I went out and asked students about how they feel connected to Zionism. I asked these students what they do in the name of Zionism based on their connection to the land.
I was fortunate enough to spend the past year volunteering in Israel, a country I feel has given me so much. I have lived in Jerusalem, the holy city of some of the world's major religions. I have become part of the immigrant community of Bat Yam, where I taught English to little kids and cared for mentally disabled adults. I have worked alongside paramedics of Israel's national ambulance service and now I am going to help rebuild parts of the country devastated by war this past summer.
What is it about this tiny country that continues to fuel my deepest convictions? Maybe it is the fact that the Israeli people are simply unlike any other people on the planet. Where else could I sit down on a bus and have a woman I have never met before plop her baby down on my lap, invite me to dinner, and even give me her phone number in case I ever need anything? Where else in the world could that happen on more than one occasion?
Israelis are a rare breed, and their sense of community is astonishing. Every Friday evening (the Jewish Sabbath), you cannot take more than ten steps in Jerusalem without being asked if you have a place to eat for dinner. It is this sense of community that has inspired me to volunteer as I have.
At midnight one evening, an oil tanker overturned on a major highway, leaving thousands of travelers stranded. After about an hour, people became antsy, but instead of complaining they started blasting music and pulled out their barbecues. Suddenly this antsy group of strangers became a community united; united in frustration, but a community nonetheless. Somehow, the Israeli nation is a family. And I'm lucky enough to feel a part of it.

– Hartlee Zuker (U0)
My Zionism has always been a process of reclamation. From a very young age, I have been aware of the negative associations with Zionism. I have also seen, with equal disappointment, the reactions to this disapproval from the mainstream Jewish community. Each side seems to cling to its own ideology without any desire to get to the root of the conflict.
Luckily, I found progressive Zionism. The words progressive and Zionism may seem incompatible, but that's what progressive Zionism is all about: breaking down false dichotomies. We understand that both sides are hurting and angry, but the solution to this must be understanding and dialogue, not binary opposition. The progressive Zionist community recognizes the history of both Arabs and Jews and the historical and contemporary necessity for both to have a state.
Before coming to McGill, I lived in a 30-person commune associated with my progressive Zionist youth movement, Habonim Dror. Each year, our movement sends about 250 gap-year volunteers from 20 different countries to work in Israeli and Arab schools to teach English and lead programs that stress mutual respect. At Habonim Dror, we aim to change the hate-filled education on both sides and start working toward peace through dialogue. That is how I did my part and exercised my Zionism.
Zionism does not have to be a dirty word. I hope that one day Israel and Palestine will both be progressive autonomous states that have equal rights for all of their citizens and are both seen as a "light unto the nations." Hope can only get me so far though. I will continue to work for the rest of my life to reclaim the word Zionism.

– Paul Gross (U1)
Growing up as one of few Jewish children in Nova Scotia, I was encouraged to love Israel not only as the backbone of the Jewish people, but also as a place where Jews from across the globe could find comfort. This was reassuring for someone who was always the only Jewish kid in his class, embarrassed every year when his mom came to talk about Hanukah and hand out latkes. But even with this inculcated admiration, it was not until last year that I truly developed a passion for Israel.
Last May I traveled with a small group of Canadian Jews to Ethiopia. Our mission was to accompany a group of Ethiopian Jews as they traveled to Israel. Many of these Falas Mura, as they are called in Amharic, had sold all of their possessions to reach the compounds of the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee, with the hope of passing all the required steps to reach Israel. Many wait five to fifteen years to complete the process.
It was quite an experience to meet our group of 90 Ethiopians. After years of waiting, their faces were drained of emotion, but fear of losing the long awaited dream still blazed in their eyes – probably because many of their Jewish countrymen, having heard stories of Israel as a land of opportunity and fulfillment, perished while traveling to Israel through war torn Sudan years before.
The most touching moment occurred when, exhausted and relieved, they were handed Israeli flags. I saw that each person gripped the small plastic flag tighter than the last. I was glad to have helped them reach their promised land.

– Eric Goldberg (U1)
Israel is!
These students have defined their Zionism and their connection to the land of Israel. To Hartlee, it is a sense of community; to Paul, it is the "breaking down of false dichotomies;" and to Eric, it is humanitarian action. These students have shown that Zionism can be a call to action – a call for compassion, community, and initiative. Zionism is more than merely politics and conflict. For McGill students to gain a better understanding of Zionism, they must be willing to view it as an encompassing concept.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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