Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has provoked yet another international diplomatic stir with Israel. Speaking, (where else?), at a United Nations conference in Vienna last week, Erdogan listed “Zionism” alongside “fascism” and “Islamophobia” as “crime[s] against humanity.” The remark promptly drew criticism from Secretary of State John Kerry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, and a host of governments. Erdogan has yet to apologize, and it’s unlikely that he will.
Erdogan’s outburst has induced a feeling of eerie nostalgia. It was also at the UN, where, in 1975, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” As the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the greatest Ambassador ever to serve at that ignominious body, declared from the well of the General Assembly in New York, it was not Zionism that was “racist” but rather the resolution condemning it as such, the passage of which would be remembered as an “infamous act.”
Though the “Zionism is racism” resolution was repealed in 1991, little has changed in popular discourse. For many, the word has a cruel, ugly tinge, evident in the way it is deployed as a slur in the same way that George Orwell once described fascism as having “no meaning except insofar as it signifies ‘something not desirable.'” The reason for this, I believe, has less to do with Zionism’s ideological underpinnings or the actions of the state upon which it was founded, than with the cynical, decades-long campaign to discredit it as a concept.
Two personal anecdotes help illustrate my point. Last year, I visited Budapest with a Slovak friend. Outside the magnificent Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest house of Jewish worship in Europe, we encountered a memorial to Theodore Herzl, a native of the Hungarian capital. My friend, who bears no ill-will towards Jews or the state of Israel, was shocked to see the word “Zionist” attached to Herzl’s name. Why would he be taken aback that the founder of political Zionism was straightforwardly identified as a Zionist?
For my Slovak friend, “Zionist” was always an epithet used by anti-Semites to describe members of the non-existent, worldwide Jewish conspiracy known as “Zionism.” Believing that the word had originated from the 19th century Czarist fabrication, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” this was the only context in which he had ever heard the word used in Slovakia, a country that now has less than 2,000 Jewish inhabitants. “Zionism,” he told me, was usually uttered in the same breath as “George Soros,” the Hungarian-born Jewish financer who is a hate figure of the neo-fascist right across Central and Eastern Europe (and who, for what it’s worth, is rather outspoken about his non-Zionism).
Then there was the Canadian acquaintance, whom I also have no reason to believe feels any prejudice whatsoever against the Jewish people or the State of Israel. When I mentioned Erdogan’s remark, he did not understand the fuss. Zionism, as he understood it, was a form of Jewish nationalism embraced by the furthest right elements of the Israeli political spectrum: those who favor territorial expansion, the dispossession of Palestinians and their transfer into neighboring Arab countries.
Both of my friends were surprised when I explained to them the definition of Zionism: The belief that Jews, like every other people on earth, deserve the right to self-determination in their ancient homeland. The Slovak, not thinking me the cloak-and-dagger type, was at first puzzled when I confessed myself to be a proud and unapologetic Zionist.
And the Canadian, originally conceiving of Zionism to be the exclusive province of theocratic Jewish supremacists, was perplexed when I explained to him that some of the most ardent Zionists have been starry-eyed, communist atheists.
Indeed, what makes Zionism a subject of rich academic study and a source of fierce contention in present-day Israel, is the fact that it’s expansive enough an ideology to encompass those on the far left and far right: Both Meretz and Habayit Hayehudi can claim to be Zionist parties (even if neither acknowledges the Zionism of the other).
Can I blame my friends for not knowing what the word “Zionism” means? As easy as it is to fault their ignorance, doing so fails to appreciate the massive effort that Israel’s enemies have poured into defaming the very idea of Jewish nationhood. What began decades ago as a propaganda campaign by Arab and Muslim interests to render “Zionism” inseparable from words like “racism,” “imperialism,” and “apartheid,” later gained support from elements of the international left, which had largely backed Israel before its founding only to abandon it after the 1967 Six Day War.
It will not be easy to combat this singling out the national aspirations of the Jews for censure. A start would be for individuals who are not themselves Israeli or even Jewish, yet who support the existence of a Jewish State, to express their Zionism. Such declarations can range from pronouncements by political leaders like Vice President Joe Biden, who told an interviewer in 2007, “I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” to private conversations among friends. Only then will this corruption of language be overcome.