Many definitions of Zionism are available, providing historical, political, and cultural background. Here would be a very good place to start. The present article will provide some introduction and additional perspective.
Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to exist in peace and dignity in their own land, a land to which Jews have a historical connection and where Jews have always lived. Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel: there has been a continuous Jewish presence in that land since ancient times. In addition, Israel has provided a refuge and home for Jews escaping persecution from many parts of the world, not only from Europe after the Holocaust but also from Arab lands and the former Soviet Union, as well as other areas where life for Jews had become difficult. Together with Jews indigenous to the land they have built a nation based upon true democracy, which has contributed its share to the world's cultural, technological, and scientific progress.
Zionism has always stood for peaceful coexistence with other people native to the land. Zionists sought to establish the State of Israel through buying land, not conquering it. In fact the original Zionist plan allowed for a partition that included a Palestinian state, but the Arabs rejected it. Israel has many Arab citizens who enjoy basic rights that Jews living in Arab lands never knew, including the right to vote and be represented in the government. Ever since Israel's war for independence, Arab rejectionism, the refusal to tolerate a sovereign non-Arab presence anywhere in the region, has fueled violence between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
It is necessary to address the current source of the most frequent objection to Zionism, Israel's occupation of territories with predominantly Palestinian population. The following important points must be considered:
1. Occupation was never a part of Zionism's agenda. Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories is a direct result of a war the front-line Arab states planned and initiated, a war whose declared intent was Israel's destruction.
2. Israel had hoped to negotiate land for peace, but was greeted with an unequivocal "No" - in fact, three strong "No's" - in the Arab Summit's 1967 Khartoum Resolution. In the absence of Arab cooperation, why didn't Israel unilaterally withdraw? In hindsight, perhaps it should have. But Israel had just fought a war of survival, and wanted to avoid at all costs a return to the status quo ante, the conditions that led to war in the first place.
3. After 1967 a na´ve hope emerged that, if Israel could not attain a peace agreement with the Arabs, it could at least continue a benign presence in the territories based on economic cooperation. For a while living conditions in the territories actually improved, as the two economies became increasingly integrated.
4. But Israel miscalculated and failed to understand the depth of Palestinian nationalistic aspirations. Indeed, even now some on Israel's side deny the existence of a Palestinian people (much as the PLO charter, never rescinded, denies the existence of a Jewish people). This view is not held by the Israel government, nor by most Israelis, who do not question the Palestinians' existence but only their willingness to recognize Israel and live together in peace.
5. The fact remains that two groups of people, Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs, are living next to each other. The only fair and sensible position holds that both groups have the right to live in lands where each can express its own culture and determine its own future. There must be a Palestine and there must be an Israel. Working out the details may take time, but the basic guiding principle must be tolerance and mutual respect.
The debate whether anti-Zionism is necessarily anti-Semitism has become increasingly rancorous. It is hard now for Jews to talk about anti-Semitism even when it does exist. In fact, anti-Semitism need not even be mentioned before Jews are accused of using it to stifle honest debate. The attempt to make discussion of anti-Semitism illegitimate is really an attempt to deny that it exists.
To clarify this issue, certain distinctions need to be made. Criticism of Israel or its policies is not necessarily anti-Semitic. If it were, I myself would be an anti-Semite. No country is above criticism, and certainly Israel has made its share of mistakes.
However, anti-Zionism means more than criticism of Israel's flaws. Refer to the definition given earlier: anti-Zionism means denial of Israel's right to exist, and of the right of the Jewish people to live in freedom and to determine their own future. Anti-Zionists do not want Israel improved. They want Israel gone. This means one of two things: either another Holocaust, or Middle Eastern Jews living once again as a degraded and persecuted minority within a greater Arab entity. Anti-Zionism is therefore anti-Semitism in fact if not in declared intent, since it necessarily implies serious harm to large numbers of Jews. We should not be debating whether Israel has a right to exist, but rather asking what can be done so that Jews and Arabs can live together, each "under their own vine and fig tree," free to express their cultural identities.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a conflict between people, but fundamentally it is a conflict of ideas. Palestinians are not evil and Israelis are not saints. They are driven apart by ideas that have proved harmful, divisive, and incalculably destructive.
Arab rejectionism, the refusal to accept a non-subservient Jewish presence in the Middle East, has already been mentioned. This idea is the oldest and most intractable root of the conflict. But the most destructive set of ideas gaining currency today goes under the name of Islamic extremism (sometimes, unfortunately, called "Islamism"). This religiously inspired ideology is deeply anti-Semitic, dehumanizes Jews, and demands Israel's destruction. It is also by nature expansionistic. While it does not necessarily demand universal conversion to Islam, it does believe in the destiny of Islam to dominate the entire world. We are seeing just the beginning of this in terrorist incidents, both attempted and successful, beyond the Middle East, using the same suicide bombing tactics first practiced against Israelis. The most dramatic example, of course, was 9/11. Since then there have been many others. The major cause of suicide bombing is not desperation, occupation, or economic disadvantage, as a study of these incidents and their perpetrators will prove. It is a religious ideology that makes one's own death acceptable and even desirable.
Fueled by a passionate faith, this ideology is impervious to reason. It cannot be defused through rational argument. It can only be held to the light. Peace in the Middle East - and in the world - depends on growing numbers of people seeing the true nature of this injurious ideology. Unfortunately, the current Palestinian leadership and government are dominated by Islamic extremists. As long as this persists, peace will not prevail.
On the Israeli side there are some who believe in renewing the destiny of a biblical state throughout both present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories. But unlike its Palestinian counterpart, this view is held neither by the Israeli government nor by most Israelis, and those who do hold it do not use rockets and suicide bombs to try to enforce it. Nevertheless, it has exercised enough influence to slow down considerably Israel's efforts for peace. The Bush Administration's Roadmap is a very sensible plan for peace and has received much undeserved criticism and scorn. An imposed comprehensive settlement clearly will not work. The Roadmap prescribed reasonable steps for each side to take towards the achievement of peace. Unfortunately, neither side lived up to its Roadmap obligations. That tragedy could have been avoided. The Roadmap's requirements were neither unrealistic nor excessive.
In this conflict of ideas we must support those which create unity and encourage tolerance. Religious extremism divides people. Ethnic hatred divides people. What happened in the past cannot be changed. The question now is, How do we move forward? Zionism properly understood means one Jewish state living peacefully with its neighbors. A place for Palestinian Jews and a place for Palestinian Arabs, where each group is free to express its unique identity, and where each group's right to exist is not questioned. Is this not a reasonable position? Who of fair mind and good heart would oppose it?
Peace with Realism