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One Word, Many Meanings: Liberal Zionists Speak Out

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The following column is part of a series. For more, go to Liberal Zionists Speak Out.

When I was growing up in Jerusalem in the 1980s, the word "Zionism" was familiar to me mainly in two contexts. "The Zionist Movement" or "The Zionist Legacy" -- In the Pelech high school, a liberal orthodox school for girls, we had a special lesson on the history of Zionism which was called: "Exile (גלות) and Redemption (גאולה)." Zionism was something mainly in history, a lesson in school that we had to study about.

The second context was as a phrase in spoken language, when one wanted to persuade another that something was important: It is time l'taftef tziyonut, "to drip Zionism." This Zionism was a synonym for devotion, with a tone of exhortation -- for example, "She insisted that I come to the party and started to drip me Zionism how imported it was."

More generally, I think we felt that essentially being a Zionist means making aliyah, immigrating to Israel. I remember how we, with typical Israeli arrogance, couldn't accept American Jews as Zionists because they weren't living in Israel. And we? We, as sabras, were Zionists by default, so the word Zionism didn't mean much as a living value for us.

Maybe that was because Zionism was a movement meant to establish a state for the Jewish people in the land of Israel, and that mission was already accomplished in 1948. After that, there was essentially no need for Zionism, just as, God willing, there will be no need for the Peace Now movement once there will be peace with our neighbors. (We might want to work to make the peace better, to encourage reconciliation, but there will not be a need to advocate for a two-state solution anymore.)

No need for Zionism, no urgent meaning to Zionism. Today, Zionism means calls for an effort to make Israel, the state of the Jewish people, a better place. And for that, for sure, you don't have to be a Zionist.

Yet, I was and am aware that Arab countries call Israel "the Zionist Entity," using those words as a phrase of shame, and I also know that a main street in Haifa, once called "U.N. Boulevard," underwent a name-change following the U.N. resolution equating Zionism with racism; now, it is called "Zionism Boulevard." So some of the connotations of Zionism are problematic or disputed. Given Zionism's stormy history, it is in fact little wonder that Zionism did not, post-statehood, fade quietly into the night. Already in the background of our consciousness, it never achieved the dignified retirement its success and the passage of time seemed to warrant.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The Second Intifada, in 2000, was a watershed that transformed the meaning of the word. And then came a transformation. The collapse of the peace talks and the eruption of traumatic violence led many Israelis and Palestinians to despair, to give up on the prospect of peace. With the help of an Israeli political leadership that failed, that attributed the failure of a negotiated resolution of the conflict and put the blame for that failure squarely on the Palestinians, the Israeli public concluded that the Palestinians, who has said "no" to our "generous" offer for two states, would never agree to accept the Jewish state. And so it was that a wide swath of Israelis came to believe that the core problem of the conflict was "proven" not about the Israeli occupation that began 1967, but about 1948, about the very existence of Israel.

True, our conflict does go back to 1948. Our birth as a state was their Nakba, catastrophe, and we must be able to acknowledge that. But to acknowledge it does not imply that the only way to resolve the conflict is to undo 1948, is the elimination of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. The most just and the potentially most prosperous resolution, for both sides, is the two -state solution.

The right wing, in order to justify continuation of Israeli control over the West Bank and of the expansion of settlements, is trying to claim that 1967 and 1948 are essentially equivalent: if 1948 was justified, then 1967 must also be accepted. Or, most simply: Once Zionism is what we call support for Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people, then Israeli occupation of the West Bank is merely a logical extension of the Zionist doctrine.

Paradoxically, by invoking Zionism in support of the settlements and the occupation, the right wing is joining the biggest opponents of Israel, who argue that if, as they believe, Israel's occupation of the Palestinian people in the territories is illegitimate, then, by logical extension, so is the entire Zionist enterprise.

From all of which we learn that Zionism is not an inert concept but a continuing dynamic challenge, in both definition and implementation. The connotation of the word Zionist is changing all the time. The effort of the right wing to claim ownership of Zionism and to identify it with the occupation is alienating to tens of thousands, perhaps even millions, of fervent supporters of Israel. I do not see those who justify the settlements as "maximal" Zionists, the way some people regard the ritually most observant Jews as the "truest" Jews; I view the settlers as distorters of Zionism, as Jews who have forgotten the Talmudic dictum tafasta m'ruba lo tafsta -- if you grab for too much, you come up with nothing.

To me, being a Zionist means striving for a better Israel, doing everything to end the conflict between us and the Palestinians, thereby shoring up the legitimacy of the core Zionist concept: a state of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The struggle for such a Zionism and such a state, it turns out, was not concluded in 1948; it continues in our own time.

Hagit Ofran is director of the Settlement Watch project of the Israeli Peace Now movement. She serves as a highly sought-after resource on issues related to West Bank settlements for Israeli politicians and analysts, the diplomatic community, international media organizations, and - first and foremost -the Israeli public.