Z is for zombie because this topic never stays dead

I’ve been seeing a resurgence in recent months of people arguing about the use of “Zionist” and related terms, people using those terms while obviously not knowing what they mean, and so on, so I guess I need to do a post on this, to try to make the discourse less terrible and useless. This is an argument for using terms correctly, and being aware of context, and also an argument that using precise language would avoid a lot of nonsense and carry more informational content. It is NOT an argument that you shouldn’t use the words “Zionist” and “Zionism” when you are talking about Zionists and Zionism, but explains what those do and don’t mean, and why some people instinctively wince at them, and explains other relevant words. It is also going to be US-centric, because that is the context that I know.

Zionism and the uses and misuses of the term

Zionism is a political ideology, a Jewish nationalism – perhaps more accurately, nationalisms, since it has many forms/factions – that says that there should be a Jewish state – not a state for all who live there that happens to have a Jewish majority or be a Jewish cultural hotbed, but a Jewish state, this is important because I was confused about it for a long time and know other people who have been too – in the historic Land of Israel. Historically, there were some factions of Zionism that weren’t oriented around a state (for instance, that focused on a cultural homeland but not a state-based one, or emphasized Jews coming together worldwide to take care of each other), or were oriented around a different kind or place of state (for instance, a binational state of Jews and Palestinians working the land of a mutual homeland together with equal rights, a position that is now overwhelmingly considered anti-Zionist rather than Zionist). These factions tend to have either died out or been redefined as not Zionism by larger parts of Zionism, since or before the establishment of the State of Israel. You may, occasionally, meet someone who calls themselves a Zionist on the basis of adherence to one of these non-Jewish-state-based ideologies, but in my experience this is very uncommon. So non-Zionism and anti-Zionism generally mean lack of adherence to, or opposition to, this set of “Jewish state” nationalisms. Certainly, when I describe myself as anti-Zionist, this is what I mean.

There is also a thing called Christian Zionism. Many forms of it are extremely creepy, hoping for mass conversion of Jews, or eventual annihilation of Jews during the End Times. Prominent Christian Zionist John Hagee has said that Hitler was sent by God to speed up the formation of the State of Israel. Some are more of the form “We need the Jews in Israel to be the front lines against the Muslim hordes,” which is also creepy, not to mention extremely Islamophobic. There are more Christian Zionists in the US than there are Jews of any attitude toward Zionism (and the numbers aren’t all that close). If you are scrutinizing Jews’ views on Zionism but not Christians’ views, then, IMO, you are messing up and being antisemitic, and if you are assuming that people defending Israeli atrocities are Jews you are definitely messing up and being antisemitic.

There are also people, Jewish and not, who are very defensive of Israel and/or anti-Palestinian, but aren’t Zionists. Perhaps they don’t care about Zionism per se but believe that Israeli Jews are getting a raw deal or see Israel primarily in terms of Israeli Jewish family and friends. Perhaps their key motivation is Islamophobia or anti-Arabism and they don’t care about Israel but really don’t like Palestinians.

One problem in a US context, that a lot of non-Jews on the left don’t realize, is that there is a long and vicious tradition of white supremacists/white nationalists/Nazis in the US (who are not known for caring about Palestinians) using “Zionist” as a code word for “Jew.” Jews are mostly very familiar with this usage. This causes a lot of Jews to have an instinctive reaction of fear or anger when hearing someone rant on angrily about how bad Zionists and Zionism are. Which poses a problem, because actual Zionism is an ideology, an ideology that forms the basis of a powerful country’s political system, that affects the lives and deaths of millions of people around the world in extremely significant ways, and therefore we need to be able to talk about it. My own view is that it’s a harmful ideology and we need to be able to oppose it. Palestinians, especially those living in Israel/Palestine, where there’s no context of USian white nationalists using the word “Zionist” in inappropriate and oppressive ways, need to be able to talk about it. But I think that in the US, this complicating factor makes it very important to not be sloppy, and for white Gentiles in particular to be mindful about how they’re coming off. Blame it on the white nationalists, who ruin everything.

A quick note about “Zio.” This is another white supremacist/white nationalist/Nazi code word for Jew, popularized by people like KKK leader David Duke. Unlike Zionism, “Zio” is not a political program, about which discourse and debate is warranted. There is no legitimate reason to call someone a Zio. Don’t.

Another problem in a US context is that a bunch of people on the left are using “Zionism” to mean something narrower (or broader) than Zionism. A bunch of you out there think that “Zionism” means the specific political programs regarding Palestine of the last few Israeli governments, or a set of wars on Gaza. Someone I was talking with on Twitter encountered someone who thinks Zionism means a Jewish state that includes all of Jordan and most of Egypt. A bunch of you think anti-Zionism is the same thing as opposing the Occupation (and that that’s all that BDS, which I support, is asking), or opposing specific wars, or supporting the mainstream two-state solution, and that when you protested Operation Protective Edge in 2014 the people protesting with you were the anti-Zionists and the people counterprotesting you or trolling you online were the Zionists. Meanwhile, the center and right are doing their own versions of this. I’ve encountered plenty of people in those camps who think that Zionism means “believing that Jews should be allowed to live anywhere in the Israel/Palestine area at all” and/or that anti-Zionism means that Jews should be forcibly expelled from the area or killed.

One of the more blatant examples of the confusion, and how it obscures what people are trying to say, that I’ve seen recently, came from Ruptly’s Twitter account in March. Covering protests and counterprotests of the hawkish AIPAC conference in DC, (content note: link has a video showing hate symbols and physical violence/people being clubbed) they tweeted “Clashes break out between Zionists and anti-Zionist groups at AIPAC conference in Washington.” Which was inaccurate – the group being described as anti-Zionist, anti-Occupation Jewish group IfNotNow, explicitly takes no position on Zionism. The group described as “Zionists,” the JDL, are definitely Zionists, but this is a very vague way to describe them when a more precise one would be both more descriptive and more damning. Without going into the use of the word “clashes,” one of my least favorite ways to describe violence in protest settings, “Zionists and anti-Zionist groups” could have been rephrased here as “Kahanists and anti-Occupation Jews” (or, if they were afraid nobody would understand that wording, something like “far-right Jewish nationalists” instead of “Kahanists,” a word which I explain later in this post), and this would have been correct instead of incorrect and painted a clearer picture.

If Alice and Bob are having an argument in which they throw the words “Zionism” and “Zionist” around, and Alice considers herself an anti-Zionist because she supports a Jewish state in Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank/Gaza/East Jerusalem (which is actually called liberal Zionism), and Bob considers himself a Zionist because he thinks Israeli Jews should not be forcibly expelled from Tel Aviv, and Candace, listening to their conversation, is thinking only about white nationalist usage of “Zionist” any time either of them says it, not only is this conversation not conveying any information, I would say that it is conveying anti-information, and everyone is probably leaving it both angrier and more confused than they started out.

Sometimes, Zionism is in fact what you are talking about (for instance, if you are talking about the Nakba, or resistance to Palestinian Right of Return, or the meaning of “Jewish state”), and I don’t think anyone needs to use a euphemism there. In particular, it is, reasonably often, what Palestinians are talking about, and is the political system that Palestinians in Israel/Palestine live under (and in my experience, Palestinians there, unlike many USians, know what Zionism is). And, of course, if you want to express non-adherence to or opposition to Zionism, the terms “non-Zionist” and “anti-Zionist” become important. It took a long time for me to become comfortable calling myself anti-Zionist, and it is important to me to be able to do so.

Other times, a different, more precise, word or phrase would provide more and more accurate information. So here is a short glossary of useful words.

Some useful words

Hasbara/Hasbarist – A form of Israeli propaganda aimed at an international audience, both elite and grassroots, to portray Israeli government behavior past and present in a positive light, often while portraying Palestinians or other Arab societies in a negative one, or someone who practices this form of propaganda. Please read this explainer on hasbara. In recent years, it has been particularly and intentionally aimed at international LGBTQ audiences and audiences of color (cis straight people in the US wondering why left queer spaces seem to often be flashpoints of controversy on Israel/Palestine: it is a reaction to this). If remembering the term is too hard, you can always use “propaganda” and “propagandist,” but it’s worth noting that this is a particular type of propaganda.

Kahanist – A follower of the ideas espoused by far-right Brooklyn-born rabbi Meir Kahane, including anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism and support for expulsion of Palestinians, anti-intermarriage views, belief that all Jews should live in an explicitly non-democratic Jewish Israel covering the territory of several modern Middle Eastern states and Egypt, opposition to liberal religious thought, anti-leftism/anti-communism, and support for violence against those perceived by Kahanists as enemies of the Jewish people (which includes Jews who support Palestinian/Muslim/Arab rights). Perhaps the best-known Kahanist organization in North America and Western Europe is Kahane-founded paramiltary group the Jewish Defense League (JDL), which was near-dormant in the US for some years after being caught trying to assassinate Rep. Darrell Issa in 2001, but has been active in Canada, and appears to be recently trying to reorganize in the US. Israel banned the two Kahanist former political parties, Kach and Kahane Chai, after the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in the West Bank, in which JDL/Kach activist Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounded 125 more as they prayed at a mosque.

Likudnik – A supporter of Likud, Israel’s largest right-wing party, to which the current Israeli Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu, belongs.

Israel hawk – Self-explanatory, I think? Useful in that it doesn’t make any assumptions about ethnicity, religion, nationality, etc. Or even whether the person is a Zionist. Possibly the best generic term for trolls in your Twitter mentions calling you names for expressing too much sympathy for Palestinians. I have sometimes used “pro-Israel” in scare quotes for this, but I should switch because this is better.

Pinkwashing – An LGBTQ-related subset of hasbara. Probably the term in this blog post that’s more likely to get me in trouble, because I run into a lot of people who believe that use of the term “pinkwashing” is inherently antisemitic, and there’s a lot of confusion about what it means. So I will get myself in more trouble by reupping this post on the topic, especially Part 3. I think this is a term that’s both valuable and specific, which is why I’m including it. but it’s useful to make sure that the person you’re talking to knows what you mean by it.

Leave a Reply