In Labour party circles admitting to be a Zionist tends to be a risky activity. Many in the party believe (as I was told by a former CLP member) that ‘you support the oppression and murder of innocent children’. Unfortunately the party is riddled with members who believe that definition of Zionism. Either because they are anti-Semites themselves or because they are unable to spot the hatred within the words they repeat. They do not see rewriting of history to erase the need for the state of Israel, the repurposing of the word ‘Zionist’ as a racist codeword and its deployment in every anti-Semitic trope under the sun.
And this is profoundly puzzling for me. Because Zionism should be a natural position of the Labour party. The idea that oppressed minorities have a right to live free from persecution, to determine their future as a community and to prosper and thrive in the world should be something we all can agree on. But to listen to many people within the party today you would imagine that Israel is an oppressive regime akin to apartheid South Africa, and that it is an oppressor itself rather than a haven for the oppressed.
First it must be recognised that Israel did not come into existence out of nothing. The dream of a homeland for the Jewish people had existed for centuries. But it became an urgent and necessary reality for one simple reason – the way Jews were treated across Europe. For centuries, Jews were persecuted for their faith across our Continent, seen as a foreign people who existed to subvert the societies they lived in. The modern islamophobia peddled by the likes of UKIP and Britain First is nothing new. It’s just that before the 1990s the target was Jews. And the government of the day was nowhere near as effective at preventing racist violence.
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th Centuries a series of pogroms killed over 2,000 Jews in various parts of Russia. In 1919 70,000 Jews were killed in Pogroms in Ukraine. In the same year the Red Army led violence against the Jewish community in Odessa. And before we begin to believe this is not a British problem, our country has been just as complicit – from the anti-Jewish riots of 1911 in Tredegar to the 1190 Massacre of the York Jewish community. The history of Europe is littered with purgings, expulsions and massacres of Jews.
Even when the Nazis had taken over Europe and begun the biggest genocide in the history of our race, European societies looked on and did nothing. At the 1938 Evian Conference, convened in order to deal with the rapidly growing problem of Jews fleeing persecution in Germany, only two countries – Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic – allowed more Jewish refugees a safe haven. In February 1939 the United States refused to admit 20,000 Jewish child refugees from Germany, and in May of the same year the MS St Louis, which had arrived in Miami carrying 900 German Jews, was sent back to Europe along with all her Jewish passengers. Even the UK, supposedly a beacon of ethnic tolerance and resistance to Nazism, admitted only 70,000 refugees from over 500,000 applications for asylum.
For many of those with the means to escape there was only one place to go – the British Mandate of Palestine. A place far enough away to be safe from the persecutions of Europe, sufficiently near that porous borders could be crossed to get there. The presence of a huge Jewish community in the Holy Land is a direct result of the failure of Western governments to protect Jews from persecution during times of peace, and from genocide during times of war. A safe haven for Jews is a necessity in the world not because of ideology, but because we have seen what happens when the duty of protecting the Jewish people is left to anyone else.
It would be easy at this point to slump into an analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Of which group is more at fault, which has suffered more over the centuries and which needs to give ground to achieve a lasting peace today. But all of that is irrelevant to why I am a Zionist. Zionism, as originally coined by Theodore Herzl, is simply the dream of a peaceful homeland where Jews can live free of the persecutions that the rest of us have visited upon them for millennia. As Herzl himself put it:
‘We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and die peacefully in our own homes. The world will be freed by our liberty, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there to accomplish for our own welfare, will react powerfully and beneficially for the good of humanity’
Zionism is not a project to disenfranchise millions of innocent Palestinians. Nor does it mean unquestioning support for the Israeli government of the day. It means believing in Herzl’s dream – of a safe homeland for all Jews. To be clear, there are very reasonable criticisms to be made of the Netanyahu government. Their attitude to peace is to kick the can down the road, and to ‘mow the lawn’ with military action when violence flares up every few years. They’ve taken no meaningful steps to achieving a long-lasting peace and have aligned themselves with the likes of Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset – the sort of people who support further settlement building, the erosion of any possibility of a two state solution, and believe that Palestinians should be removed to Jordan rather than have a state of their own.
To disagree with them is not to be an ‘anti-zionist’. It is to be reasonable. I want the Netanyahu government removed from power at the earliest possible opportunity because they slander Herzl’s dream rather than serving it. Because their policies towards Palestine make that dream less safe rather than more. I oppose them wholeheartedly, but I’m still a Zionist. And that matters. Because we must no more allow the name of the moral crusade for Jewish nationhood to be claimed by those who would turn it into a justification for ethnic cleaning than allow it to be owned bythe antisemites who use it as a codeword in every racist trope under the sun. I’m a Zionist because I believe that every people who have been persecuted and oppressed have a right to live in safety under their own government. I hope you are too.