In his article Proud to be a Zionist (Solidarity 400), Eric Lee argued “a Zionist is a person who supports the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland.”
Under that generous definition vast numbers of people are Zionists. Eric’s definition of Zionism is actually the same as many “absolute anti-Zionists” on the British left who would argue that anyone who concedes that Israeli Jews, as a people, should have the right to self-determination alongside the Palestinians, is Zionist. Both positions nullify Zionism of its political content and its context and they deny the possibility of a consistent international socialist position of defending the right of the Israeli people to their own state while also opposing Israeli nationalism.
We oppose that nationalism as we oppose all nationalisms — in its Labour Zionist as well as its more conservative and religious variations. The Zionist movement in its political form grew up as a reaction to the discrimination and persecution faced by Jews during the 19th century. It was a movement away from demanding civil rights and equality for Jews everywhere and towards setting up a separate Jewish homeland. Eventually two wings of the Zionist movement emerged.
The first was “political Zionism” that looked to make a deal with great powers, religious institutions and bourgeois settlement agencies to bring this state about. The other was Labour Zionism — a form of utopian socialism that argued for the setting up of kibbutzim and co-operatives to create a secular socialist Jewish homeland. Both forms of Zionism were opposed by the socialists of the Second International and later by the Bolsheviks and the early Third International. Socialists argued that the agency for Jewish liberation was working-class struggle. But the Second World War, the Holocaust and Stalinism practically killed off the international socialist movement many Jews had been involved in.
More and more Jewish refugees headed for Palestine, in an atmosphere of renewed hostility to Jews after the Second World War. Unfortunately that boosted the political prestige of Zionism. The only sensible position for socialists at the time was for the raising of democratic rights for Jews in Palestine and for self-determination, alongside Palestinians; both communities were ruled by the British.
Once the Israeli state had been set up both wings of Zionism developed into the patriotic chauvinistic ideologies and became associated with two wings of the Israeli ruling class. Now I am guessing most Jews wherever they live in the world probably think of themselves as Zionists, just as the Irish diaspora probably think of themselves as Irish nationalists or patriots, or the Kurdish diaspora as Kurdish people who want to see a Kurdish state. Yet among those diasporas, while socialists would always argue for national rights, we would not endorse nationalism. That is the positive endorsement of the nationalistic outlook which at one extreme amounts to chauvinism.
Nationalism is a block to the development of the cause of socialism world wide. We are for consistent democracy. That is, we are for two states in Israel-Palestine. The Palestinian people’s right to self determination is currently being denied. But even this self determination should not nullify the Israeli people’s national rights. Zionism (which today should be more accurately called Israeli nationalism) is not uniquely evil, as some on the left whose anti-Zionism flirts with anti-semitism would have us believe. Yet neither should it be exempt from ruthless criticism of all nationalisms and chauvinisms — the enemies of the international workers’ movement.