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What Is Zionism?

11/12/2013 15:30 GMT | Updated 08/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Every week in a charming (but rather antiquated) room at Oxford University's Examination Schools, Professor Derek Penslar, a leading scholar in the field of Israel studies, gives public lectures on the history of Zionism. Facing an extremely critical academic environment given the nature of his discipline, Penslar strives for objectivity. In this vane, he has repeatedly declared Max Weber to be his idol. But Dr Penslar, whom I much admire, is a lone figure amid two fiercely conflicting views. We all know that the standard diagnosis of Zionism is far from Weberian...

For the obsessive anti-Zionist, Israel stands for ethnic cleansing. 'Zionism is colonialism' they scream (something which doesn't even rhyme). 'It's a racist, expansionist ideology!' And for so many passionate Zionists, their ideology is merely an 'insurance policy.' 'Jews are persecuted everywhere, they need a homeland.'

An overly academic or emotionally simplistic approach to Zionism does not do the movement any justice. It reduces history to soundbites and makes a mockery of generations of men and women (both Jewish and non-Jewish) ranging from Israel Zangwill to Albert Einstein, who have dedicated much of their lives to the pursuit of Zionism.

So what is Zionism? Where do we go from here?

I find it surprising why so few have a romantic conception of Zionism within the wider framework of Jewish history. After all, surely Zionism is in essence, a romantic ideal? It is no wonder why the early Zionist movement was split down the middle between bourgeois intellectuals and utopian socialists. Zionism is an ideology that appeals to the soul. As the poet Naftali Herz Imber wrote in what was to become Israel's national anthem, 'a Jewish soul still yearns.'

Yes, the soul! The idea of a people forever in exile, returning to the land it has yearned for so long, is an unmistakably powerful one. It pierces hidden layers in the human psyche - it appeals to the defining feature of our moral consciousness, our humanity. Zionism is not a movement to establish some sort of retirement home for a battered Jewish people. It isn't a colonialist project. Nor is it the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy (another foolish perception). It is a revolution in the Jewish national story. It is a rebellion of a people against history. The transition from exile to national sovereignty epitomises justice in its most poetic sense.

Such romanticism is of course based on the notion of a 'return to Zion.' The restoration of sovereignty over the Jews' ancient homeland is what makes the message of Zionism so poignant. Recognising this, critics of Israel - i.e. anyone who doesn't want it to exist - have tried to eradicate the Jewish people's historical connection to the Land of Israel. Through archaeology, post-modernist takes on nationalism or mere distortions of fact, the Jews are now said to have never resided in the land from which they derive their name; Judea. Of course, the barely literate Shlomo Sand is the poster-boy of 'scholars' who hold such views.

For the sake of argument, let's say Sand and his buddies are right. Let's assume that the Jews are mostly the descendants of Khazars. We'll agree that their nationalism is an invented one - that they are an 'invented people.' It wouldn't make one shred of difference to the justice of Zionism and its overarching message. I'm being serious. I'll let the great Hebrew novelist Ahad Ha'am explain it in his brilliant essay on the prophet Moses.

Questioning whether Judaism's greatest figure ever existed, Ahad Ha'am is undisturbed. He passionately writes:

'if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses - the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wilderness in which we have wandered since the Exodus. And it is not only the existence of this Moses that is clear and indisputable to me. His character is equally plain, and is not liable to be altered by any archaeological discovery. This ideal - I reason - has been created in the spirit of the Jewish people; and the creator creates in his own image.'

I would urge you to read the essay in its entirety. It influenced an entire generation of Jewish intellectuals - and until this day remains compulsory reading for Israeli schoolchildren. But what am I trying to get at with this extract? In essence, no matter how one reads history, Jews have and always will see themselves as a people. And if Jewish imagination has constructed a false narrative, it does not affect Israel's legitimacy in any way whatsoever. The creator creates in his own image! Moses may not have existed - but this great figure described by the Biblical narrative has had more of an impact on human history than many a man who has actually lived. Jews may not originate from the Middle East, but their 'spiritual' connection to the Land of Israel is so great that 'mythology' has become a defining feature of Jewish identity. Jews may not have come from Zion - but they have always longed to 'return' to it.

Israel's existence is not justified by UN resolutions. It is not international law which justifies the notion of a Jewish state. Israel is justified by the yearning of the Jewish soul for national dignity. To paraphrase the book of Lamentations, the renewal of great days as of old.

That my friends, is the essence of Zionism!