Zionism is an incredibly polarizing word. It is a word that brings about strong opinions and stronger emotions. In the post-Holocaust era, Zionism has become the excuse that the enemies of the Jewish people (both liberal and conservative) have for castigating the Jews.
Whereas in the past, haters would use racial epithets like “Zhid,” kike or dirty Jew, today, the target of their hatred has become the “Zionists.” Hatred of Zionists and Zionism is probably the one thing that white supremacists and Black Lives Matter can agree on.
If one were to judge who is a “Zionist” based on a brief survey of anti Semitic cartoons published around the world, one would think that the Zionist, is an older religious Jew with a beard, peyot (long sidelocks), crooked nose and a black hat. When anti-Semitic cartoons depict Zionists, they are clearly depicting religious Jews.
In the diaspora today, where religious observance is weak, for many Jews, Zionism is the greatest expression of their Judaism and it is their badge of honor. It is how they express their connection to the Jewish people and to their G-d. They haven’t yet found the Torah to cling to, and have no synagogue community to affiliate with. If not for support for Israel, what connection does the modern day secular Jew have to the Jewish people?
So the enemies of the Jewish people and the vast majority of Jews in the world today can agree that Zionism, is essentially an expression of Judaism. That is why I was shocked, upon entering a haredi yeshiva in Israel for the first time, that I heard the word Zionism being used interchangeably with heresy.
Zionism is what defined me as a Jew for so many years of my life and it was what connected me to my G-d and my people for so many years. How could it be that upon embracing Orthodox Judaism at a later stage in life, that same concept would be criticized by my religious mentors and peers?
What I eventually learned was that religious Jews, haredi Jews, secular Jews, and antisemites, were all using the same word differently. To the observant non-haredi and secular Jews, a Zionist is a Jew who is proud of being part of the Jewish nation and supports the Jewish homeland. To the antisemitic hater, a Zionist is a conveniently interchangeable pseudonym for Jew, specifically an identifiably religious Jew.
To the haredi Jew, a Zionist (not including the group known as Religious Zionists who run the gamut from "light" to haredi levels of observance but believe that the Jewish state is the way to achieve Redemption) is a Jew who has abandoned religious observance in exchange for embracing a form of nationalism that is devoid of G-d, spirituality, or anything authentically Jewish. They are referring to the Jew from the shtetl era that left yeshiva, cut off his peyot and replaced the flag of Torah for the flag of the secular State of Israel.
Whereas to the secular Jews Zionism was precisely what brought them closer in their connection to Judaism, the haredi perception of Zionism was the exact opposite. The same word was being used by three different groups to describe three very different concepts.
Within Israeli politics, the Zionist parties are a spectrum of political parties that include the left wing anti-religious Meretz party and the right wing national religious party “Yamina.” These two parties are both classified as Zionist despite the fact that they have nothing in common ideologically, and vote against each other on virtually every issue. The only thing Meretz and Yamina do have in common is the belief that there should be a Jewish state, hardly an ideological stance..At the same time, the haredi parties like Shas and UTJ, are outside of the Zionist spectrum despite the fact that their platforms are almost exclusively focused on promoting Jewish issues.
When a word has multiple contradictory meanings and associations, It loses its value as a word. If it can be interpreted in opposite ways by different people, what is its purpose? The differences between the yearning of Jews to return to their G-d given land based on the Torah and secular Zionism is so vast, I suggest, we find a new term to express the former. Religious Zionism does not do it fair justice- as the term carries an inherent contradiction to those who define Zionism as intrinsically an abandonment of religion. Any suggestions?
Avraham Shusteris came on aliyah from Monsey to Beit Shemesh with his family in 2018 and currently works as a US accountant and learns in a morning kollel He is actively involved in aliyah activism specifically in the haredi communities in the US,. Having become observant while in college, he attendied haredii yeshivot in both Israel and Monsey NY.
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