Define “Zionism”

Define "Cynical". from Ozy and Millie by D.C. Simpson


A few weeks ago I talked with an Atheist Jewish American on Freenode. He ended up private-messaging me and the conversation went as follows:

Him: I’m confused. You keep talking to me like we are friends. Do we know each other? If we do, and I forgot, Sorry!
Me: No, I only know you from IRC.
Him: Yeah, but you are some sort of Zionist. Shouldn’t you hate me?

Now what did he mean by “Zionism”? What do people mean when they say it in general? As I’m going to demonstrate there are several different meanings to Zionism. I’m also going to touch on the related topics of anti-Israelism/pro-Israelism, anti-Semitism, and constitutional discrimination in Israel.

Clarification Regarding Judaism

The first fact that needs to be understood is that Judaism is not a religion, but rather a peopleship, and that the Jews are a people. To quote Theodor Herzl:

It depends on the Jews themselves whether this political document remains for the present a political romance. If this generation is too dull to understand it rightly, a future, finer, more advanced generation will arise to comprehend it. The Jews who will try it shall achieve their State; and they will deserve it…

I consider the Jewish question neither a social nor a religious one, even though it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, and to solve it we must first of all establish it as an international political problem to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.

We are a people — one people.

Indeed, the Jews are considered a people throughout most of the Old Testament. Even their very name - Yehudim, stems from Yehudah, the son of Jacob/Israel, who is considered their primal ancestor.

The Jewish religion is only a small part of Judaism, and also completely inessential for a person to be a Jew.

The Definitions of Zionism

I see several possible definitions for Zionism today:

  1. A modern realisation that Jews are in fact a people and have a legitimacy to consider themselves as such.
  2. The belief that Jews should immigrate to the Land of Israel, settle it and prosper there.
  3. The belief that Jews have a national privilege on Palestine, and the State of Israel has a right to discriminate against non-Jews (or against Jews) in order to maintain the Jewish nature of Israel.

Now let’s analyse them one after the other. Definition No. 1 is perfectly valid as Jews are indeed a people. Definition No. 2 is valid, but it stems from a more general principle of open immigration: any lawful person has a basic ethical right to immigrate to any country, live there and work there. A country does not have a right to try to prevent him from doing it by force. Otherwise, it’s like pointing a gun against his head and telling him to leave. The fact that a lot of governments pose limits on immigration to their countries, or even expel honest, lawful immigrants, does not make this principle less valid.

As a particular case of this, Jews have a right to immigrate to Israel. So do non-Jews. Jews and non-Jews also have a right to immigrate to any other country.

Now let’s try to analyse definition no. 3.

Why it is Wrong for Israel to have Constitutional Discrimination

Private individuals have a right to non-violently discriminate either by accident or because of subconscious reasons, or even maliciously. That’s because discrimination does not constitute of initiatory force, threat of force or fraud, that are the only real crimes. (Not to mention that discrimination is much harder to prove than real crimes such as murder, theft or rape).

However, governments being a mandatory country-wide monopoly cannot allow itself to discriminate against any sector of the populace. In Israel some laws discriminate against non-Jews or even Jews. For example, only Jews can receive citizenship automatically upon immigration to Israel. A Non-Jew who wishes to receive an Israeli citizenship will have a much harder time. Jews and their spouses cannot take part in civil marriages, divorces and adoptions.

Arab Muslims and Christians are not required to serve in the Israeli Military, which Jews are obliged to. And Jews may not be employed on Saturdays in Israel.

All of this constitutional discrimination is extremely unhealthy and has no good reason. Most Israeli Jews believe it is required to maintain the Jewish nature of Israel, but that’s not the case. And I’d rather that Israel’s Jewish nature diminishes somewhat, than for it to remain a country with uneven laws. The entire claim that Israel will be destroyed from the inside if we allow an open immigration, is bogus because most of the non-Jews who immigrate to Israel are not Palestinians, much less hyper-nationalistic ones. (And if an immigrant causes too much trouble, he can always be expelled.)

Constitutional racism begets personal racism. There is no way to describe the discriminatory laws that Israel has except as constitutional racism, and trying to deny it is futile. (And I am an Israeli Jew). Israel is the land of the Israeli rather than the land of the Jew, and it’s high time its laws reflected that.

Addressing the Jewish “Biblical Rights” Claims

Often you’ll hear pro-Discrimination advocates claiming that Jews have rights on Palestine because that’s what the Old Testament claims. However, like it or not, the Old Testament cannot serve as an objective proof for anything. There are plenty of things that are written in the Bible that will seem ridiculous to modern thinkers. It’s high time we understand that the Bible is not “the absolute truth” but rather a set of subjective ancient (and antiquated) writings.

In order to prove something, it’s not good enough to say that “X said so” or “it was written here”. Rather, one should prove it using Logic and based on more basic, axiomatic, facts. With all due respect, the Bible says a great deal of nonsense, and even contradicts itself many times.

Another reason why relying on the Bible for a source of legitimacy is because it is not entirely clear who the Israelites and Judeans that are mentioned there are. The Christians claim they are the true Israelites. The Muslims also make this claim. How can you counterclaim this?

Finally, this entire theme is beside the point. The Israeli Jews have a right to live in Israel because they are living there now, and banishing them would be an act of force. This is also the case for the Arabs who live in Israel, and every person living anywhere else. Preventing immigration of lawful people is unethical for similar reasons. And the Bible or any other subjective source has nothing to do with it.

Definitions of Zionism - Concluded

I brought several contemporary definitions of Zionism, but may have missed some. While overlapping, these definitions of Zionism, mean completely different things. As such calling someone “Zionist” or “anti-Zionist” is meaningless. Next, I’ll try to make some distinctions between other related terms.

Anti/Pro-Israel, Anti-Semite, Anti-Zionist, etc.

On April 2006, someone sent a message to the Israeli Linux mailing list with a post named “Google is Anti-semitic”. (See my reply). He claimed that “Google is a bunch of anti-semites” and wrote a blog entry titled “Google Supports Terrorism”. The basis for his claim was the fact that Google excluded the Israeli standard timezone in its Google Analytics service (while including the timezone of several other “Terror-supporting” countries.).

This incident demonstrates a contemporary problem of the terms “Anti-Israel”, “Anti-Semite” and “Anti-Zionist”: all of them are often confused and misunderstood, and many times maliciously. Let’s keep the record straight: if someone opposes the discriminatory nature of the state of Israel, that does not make him “Anti-Israel”. And it certainly does not make him an “Anti-Semite”. Furthermore, some people who express anti-Israeli political opinions are not anti-Semite (= People who hate Jews).

As for Anti-Zionism, I once told my sister that I’m an anti-Zionist, and she said it made her very sad that I am. Then when I told her that I meant that I oppose the Israeli constitutional discrimination, she said that that’s not what she thought I meant. Anti-Zionism has several meanings, and as such a person who identifies himself as an anti-Zionist should explain what he means or stop using the term altogether.


A lot of the sensitivity of Israelis and pro-Israelis is due to disputed terminology. A lot of the problems of Israel are due to its unethical constitutional discrimination. And people who try to support Israel should be wiser than to default on the Jewish “Biblical rights to the Land of Israel”.

For more information refer to the following resources:


Creative Commons License

This document is Copyright by Shlomi Fish, 2006, and is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Unported (or at your option any later version of that licence).

For securing additional rights, please contact Shlomi Fish and see the explicit requirements that are being spelt from abiding by that licence.

Note that the image at the top is taken out of the Ozy and Millie online comics’ strip which is © D. C. Simpson, with a licence that prohibits sale.