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Taking Back Zionism

"[W]e have handed over the word [Zionism] to those who attack and distort it." ~ Rebecca Sugar, Birthright Alumni Director on February 1, 2011

A couple of years ago I was asked how I would define the Israeli-Arab conflict in one sentence. While rarely caught off-guard I had to think about it and eventually offered that it could be described as a conflict between two national movements over the same piece of land. It is a clash between the Zionist movement, and the Palestinian national movement, as embodied by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Clearly, this is simplified and even simplistic to describe the dispute in one sentence and does not really do justice to complexities and narratives that lie at the heart of the conflict.

What should be reason of concern to the friends of Israel but also to those who are interested in a dispassionate debate (if this is actually possible) is that Zionism, in the minds of so many is not understood and viewed solely through the Middle East conflict. And with Israel's detractors not getting tired of brandishing the nationalism of the Jews, the dislike and even hatred of Zionism inevitably have formed and colored the term in the political debate. We continue to witness the systematic delegitimization of the State of Israel, and the calling into question of its very existence. So it would have been certainly possible to respond to my curious interlocutor that the Israeli-Arab conflict was about the existence of the State of Israel per se.

Zionism has been and always will be very complex and seems to defy a universally acceptable definition. But I want to state here emphatically: Zionism is a positive and hopeful concept. The seeds of Zionism have led to enormous achievements that should be admired rather than condemned. And Zionism, as described above, it is not the reason for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Zionism is the legitimate aspiration of the Jewish people to live in peace in their own country. At the beginning it was an almost romantic but pained longing for Zion, for Jerusalem and today it is the continuing effort to building the future of Israel. People from all walks of life and political convictions came together to work on the Jewish national project. Zionism was the national project, the impetus, the driving force to create the State of Israel.

The country's founding generation believed in their people's right to flourish in, free from oppression and tyranny, and live in peace, an idea should be familiar to anyone following the news. They build the institutions on which Israel would eventually be based. They formed a functioning democracy, a culture of liberty, freedom of speech, freedom to vote, and economic opportunities. In Israel, the Jewish people could fulfill their potential. And what a potential they have. One wants to shout out, as has been suggested, that Israel should be a model how to build a successful state and productive society. Instead, Israel and Zionism, the driving force behind it come in for unrelenting criticism.

Invariably, the term Zionism is perceived decidedly negative. More often than not it is, at best, ignorance or, at worst, shear hatred, which drives people to speak of Israel as 'the Zionist regime.' They can't even get themselves to name the country they abhor. Against all odds, Israel has successfully pushed back the repeated attacks of her neighbors. They dared to defend themselves, aggravating the original sin of building their own state in their ancient homeland.

If there was moment in history that would take the price for the vilest and insidious accusation against a country and whole people it would be the notorious United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly Resolution 3379, equating Zionism with racism, which passed in November 1975 by a vote of 72 to 35. In this Resolution the world community, well, a simple majority of the world community declared that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination... [and] is a threat to world peace and security." In a pattern that is repeated hundreds of times to this day, the wording was meant to deny Israel's political legitimacy by attacking the moral basis for its existence. If one were to accept the premise of this odious resolution one would have to do away with all nationalisms and aspirations of all people and thereby remove the foundation of today's international order.

Resolution 3379 remained part of the U.N. record (worth an article in itself) until it was repealed in December 1991, following the Madrid Conference, as a goodwill gesture in support of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. What a bold and charitable move, one wants to say. At least former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Resolution 3379 the low point in Jewish-U.N. relations. He was right.

Fast forward: When Rebecca Sugar, the energetic director Birthright Alumni Director stated at that the detractors of Israel and the Jewish people had been successful in the battle for the hearts and minds when it comes to the perception of Zionism it was a renewed wake-up call, a call to action to reclaim the supremacy -- linguistically speaking -- over its definition and connotations. Her appeal went out to some 500 hundred energized Birthright alumni, who had gathered for a powerful event of Birthright Israel and 30 partnering Jewish -- and Zionist -- organizations.

These alumni are part of a whole generation of eyewitnesses to what is Israel. Therefore they are dynamic multipliers of the fact, surprising to the detractors of Israel, that the country and Zionism are many things. In the words of Sugar "there are some things that it is not. Zionism is not racism and it is not apartheid. These are not simply alternate views or differing perspectives in an ongoing conversation. These are lies, constructed to distort the truth [...] And this is unacceptable." Well said.

Israel's eloquent Acting Consul General Ido Aharoni rightly pointed to the core of the problem: Zionism was defined, examined and communicated through the limited lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This process should have been nipped in the bud, so to speak, because it undermines truth. Zionism really is homeland, history, religion, politics, peoplehood, culture, national destiny, self-determination. It is technological, medical, scientific innovation benefiting humankind. It is tradition. Zionism is not only and the heritage but also, and even more importantly, the responsibility for the future.

In fact, all those that have concluded that the historic role of Zionism has ended since the return of the Jewish people to its homeland, have to grasp Zionism as a living concept. As such it serves as smart ammunition - apologies for this metaphor - to effectively counter the campaigns to boycott, to sanction, to delegitimize Israel.

So the challenge is threefold. Lies need to be exposed. Truth needs to be told. And today's Zionists need to continue to build the future of Israel, which creates benefits far beyond her borders. The Jewish people have not exhausted its possibilities and therefore it is imperative to work together on the Zionist project to ensure that its potential is realized not just for the benefit of the Jewish people or Israel but for the benefit of humankind. Zionism is ours. Let's not allow others abuse it. Let's take back Zionism.

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