In May, Israel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its independence. A product of the modern Zionist movement, Israel is the only Jewish state in the world.
Zionism is a movement that supports the existence of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the Jewish people’s historical homeland. Seventeen years after the United Nations retracted the infamous resolution declaring Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination,” there remains a movement to use the term “Zionist” in a pejorative context. Remarkably, “Zionist” is even used as a euphemism for “Jew” in order to obviate charges of anti-Semitism.
Jewish students on campuses across the globe are experiencing a new breed of anti-Semitism. Former Justice Minister Irwin Cotler has described this “new anti-Jewishness” as “the discrimination against, or denial of, the right of the Jewish people to live as an equal member of the family of nations.” Merely by aligning oneself with the Jewish state, students and professors on campuses across the globe expose themselves to academic discrimination, verbal and physical assault, and wrongful charges of supporting murder and racism. In 2002, two professors lost their jobs with a British academic journal for being Israeli; a talk by former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at Concordia that same year was cancelled when attendees were harassed physically and verbally by protesters.
Jewish identity’s shaped by a balance of factors including religious, social and cultural components. Zionism’s best described in this context as the national component of Jewish identity. Dismissing the “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” notion as an oversimplification, Cotler illustrates a new anti-Semitism that attempts to delegitimize essential components of Jewish identity.
Zionism has been an integral part of Jewish discourse for centuries. Many references to a longing for a return to Jerusalem exist throughout biblical and later Jewish texts: in the Book of Psalms we find, “If I forget Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill;” Jews conclude their Passover seder by chanting, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Over the two millennia since the Roman exile, there has always been a Jewish presence in the region. Nevertheless, under foreign control, Jews were often limited in their mobility, their choice of occupation, and their self-determination.
In the 19th century, as a response to rampant anti-Semitism in Europe, a secular Zionist movement gained considerable momentum and ultimately led to the establishment of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
With the creation of the state of Israel, the Jewish people were granted unfettered access to their ancestral homeland. Archaeological research in the area, which grew tremendously after the rise of modern Zionism near the end of the 19th century, has allowed the Jewish people to learn more about its collective history. Jewish tourists may visit significant landmarks across the country with ease and connect directly with their heritage. Most importantly, the creation of a Jewish state has created a safe haven for Jews; a place where Jews living in hostile societies can seek refuge and claim full citizenship status. Following the collapse of Communism in the USSR, some 600,000 Jews immigrated to Israel after having been trapped behind the Iron Curtain for several generations.
In the past 60 years Israel has flourished into a developed nation capable of and willing to help developing countries to improve their own status. Israel has been generous with international aid in response to earthquakes and other natural disasters, even to assist the United States following Hurricane Katrina. Its medical expertise is exported through organizations such as Save a Child’s Heart, which provides pediatric heart surgery for children in developing countries.
The state of Israel, the realization of the modern Zionist dream, is the only liberal democracy in the Middle East. Although Israel is designated as a Jewish state, every one of its citizens—Jewish, Muslim, Christian or otherwise—has representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and is empowered to take an active role in shaping the state’s future. Like every country in the world, Israel faces its own unique set of challenges. Nevertheless the Jewish state is one that has already made tremendous contributions to global society through humanitarian assistance and technological advancements. In May, Zionists will proudly celebrate these accomplishments and celebrate Israel’s existence as “an equal member of the family of nations.”
Alex Goldberg is co-president of Queen’s Hillel.
Please see the March 28 issue of the Journal for Dana Olwan’s take on Israel’s 60th in a Palestinian context.
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