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  • Andrew Rovinsky '25

Explaining the Disconnect: What is Zionism and How Do Different People Understand It?

This will not be a defense of Zionism, nor will it be a critique of it. In this article, I will attempt to analyze the essence of Zionism and how different ideologies perceive the concept. Phrases challenging the ideology like “from the river to the sea” and “settler colonialism” make many Zionists recoil, while the very identification with Zionism makes those opposed to the State of Israel do the same. The goal of this piece is to inform all sides of the debate so that we can have better discussions and stop talking past each other because our base assumptions differ. If we understand what certain terms mean and their specific assumptions, we can go beyond our buzz phrases to understand what a person is advocating for and why they are doing so. I will analyze Zionism from a neutral perspective, but I have my own biases that I will try to mitigate. 

So what is Zionism? Is Zionism settler colonialism? Is Zionism racist? Is Zionism a national liberation movement? Or is Zionism simply self-determination for Jews? At its core, Zionism is essentially a form of ethno-nationalism. That, of course, feels like a loaded phrase, so I first need to break down some concepts. 

We need to understand three basic concepts: nation, nationalism, and state. In my view, Benedict Anderson provides the best definition of a nation: a nation is an imagined political community. It is an imagined community because most individuals won’t know the majority of others within the community, but the community is united by something shared—language, culture, ethnicity, citizenship, or even symbols. Jews are therefore a nation united by common cultural practices, common ethnicity, and/or an understanding of themselves as being part of a Jewish nation. Under this definition, land is not a requirement for a nation to be a nation. Many scholars have even argued that the Jewish nation should become a non-territorial nation

I will limit my discussion of nationalism to its territorial forms.¹ There are two primary types of territorial nationalism: civic nationalism and ethno-nationalism. Civic nationalism is much like the kind we have in this country. The basic idea of civic nationalism is that it identifies a specific citizenship with a territory. Therefore, one’s background, ethnicity, race, or religion should not exclude someone from being part of the nation. The only requirement for being a member of a nation is one’s citizenship. In the United States, we profess a strong civic national culture; regardless of one’s background (though we can see the rise of white nationalism in this country), the nation is constructed such that people are American if they are a citizen. On the other hand, ethno-nationalism identifies an ethnicity with a nation and a nation with a state for that nation, often in a specific territory. Think about the dominant version of Zionism: it identifies Jews, an ethno-religion and nation, with a Jewish state, predominantly in what was formerly Mandatory Palestine. Jews outside of the state are still considered part of the nation, but the center of national life in this view should be Palestine. It is not my intention to say that there is always a stark distinction between civic and ethno-nationalism—the lines are sometimes blurred. Nevertheless, it is an important dichotomy to understand how different states construct themselves. 

Thirdly, what is the state? The state in this context is simply the collection of governing institutions that regulate society.² Nationalism demands that this state be a representation of the nation, an embodiment of it. However, before I continue, it is important to distinguish between two subtypes of another dimension of nationalism. I will call the first dominant nationalism, which is a nationalism enforced from a position of power, often entailing a state using it as a governing ideology (think French nationalism). I will call the second resistance nationalism (often called postcolonial nationalism), which is a nationalism resisting some form of oppression through a collective identity and desire for self-determination (think pre-revolution nationalism in Algeria or Kurdish nationalism today). The line between these two forms is not always clear-cut, but it is helpful to understand the different forms of nationalism to reconcile how an individual can be opposed to certain forms of nationalism while supporting others.

With original roots in the Treaty of Westphalia, these ideas of nationalism are relatively new; the concept of the nation-state (the state for a specific nation) only emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolution in tandem with Enlightenment thinking. During the Enlightenment, thinkers began to dismantle ideas of hereditary monarchy and the divine right of kings in favor of a state by the consent of the people. Before 1789, there were empires and kingdoms which both encompassed a variety of peoples whose sole relation to the other was their subordination to an emperor or king who had absolute authority. There was, of course, a state apparatus and privileges designated to certain minorities, but empires often encompassed a variety of nations that, in the modern era, came to desire their own independent governance when ideas of popular sovereignty began to spread through mass printing. Therefore, nationalism was an outgrowth of this political modernization and increased education. Nationalism then gained even more legitimacy through Woodrow Wilson’s idea of self-determination for all of the nations of Europe.

Political Zionism is unique from other forms of nationalism in that it did not originate in the territory that the nation claims. Originating in 19th century Europe, Theodor Herzl, one of the founders of Zionism, turned to the ideology after witnessing the rise of modern antisemitism and the Dreyfus affair. Because it emerged in the late 19th century, political Zionism is not a force necessarily inherent to the Jewish religion. Judaism does have a concept of “religious Zionism” that asserts Jews will return to the Holy Land when the Messiah arrives, but the idea of a Jewish nation-state is not rooted in scripture because during past eras, the idea of the modern state, ethno-state, or nation-state did not even exist. 

Putting aside Zionism for a moment, what are some broad arguments for and against nationalism? Those who believe in nationalism often claim that self-determination is an inherent right of all nations. Self-determination protects the nation and allows a people to express their own identity and political will collectively. 

Opponents of nationalism, on the other hand, see an inherent homogenizing mission in nationalism. If a state serves a specific nation, then it logically must deprioritize or suppress those who do not fit into the national mold. States have gone about this in different ways; in one example from European borderland regions, states simply manipulated census categories in order to suppress the number of minorities.³ In more notable examples, states achieved this mission violently through population transfer (e.g., between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of World War I), through ethnic cleansing (e.g., during the Balkan Wars), or through genocide (e.g., in Nazi Germany). 

Therefore, many opponents of Zionism see the ideology in the context of a general critique of nationalism. In identifying Israel as a state for Jews, according to these critics, the state must inevitably suppress the population, rights, and identity of minorities to maintain a state for Jews. To these critics, it is impossible to reconcile the state's Jewish identity and its self-proclaimed democratic character. To back up these assertions, critics might cite scholarship that claims a continuity in political thinking between the population transfers previously legitimized in international law (like those between Turkey and Greece) and the logic behind the Nakba.

Another common critique launched at Zionism is that it is a form of settler colonialism, or a form of colonialism where colonists establish a permanent polity in their target land. It would be impossible to explain the entire framework within the confines of this article, but some would argue that the Zionist movement became entangled with or itself was a European colonial movement. In this view, the Zionist movement sought to settle land already inhabited by a population that had been there for centuries, and at least partially displace it in order to create a Jewish-majority state. This framework does not necessarily seek to undermine Jewish connection to the land, but attempts to demonstrate how a certain colonial mentality was present in the minds of the framers of Zionism and the great powers in their support of the project and how that mentality is reflected in the construction of state and its policies. In response, some scholars might say that the actual dynamics in the settlement of Palestine reflect a conflict between nationalisms rather than between a colonizer and colonized. Others might go further to argue that until Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, this national framework held, but once Israel began to occupy and settle the West Bank, it became settler-colonial in nature. I wish to reiterate: I am not commenting on the validity of this framework. You can judge the articles and books that I have hyperlinked for yourself.

Often, the “talking past one another” comes from a difference in fundamental base assumptions. Many opponents of Zionism view the ideology “from the standpoint of its victims.” Those who adhere to this view place more emphasis on the concrete impacts that Zionism and the State of Israel have had on Palestinians rather than on the theoretical potential for Jewish self-determination without Palestinian suffering. This view asserts that the loss of homes and the deprivation of rights are inherent to Zionism because they are part of the practical impact of the ideology on the Palestinians. These critics might argue that “liberal Zionism,” the ideology to which many American Jews adhere, is a false promise that cannot be implemented because the Jewish state only survives and exists off the continued oppression of Palestinians. Furthermore, they might say that Israel has actually made Jews less safe around the world by making them global pariahs, held responsible for the actions of a foreign government that they might not even support. As a result of the belief in the inherent oppressiveness of a Jewish state in Israel-Palestine, many anti-Zionists believe that Israel should be replaced with a secular democratic or binational state in which Palestinians and Jews are equal under the law and to which Palestinian refugees displaced by the Nakba can return. There are, of course, extreme anti-Zionist positions that want to expel Israeli Jews or create an Arab nationalist state, but you won’t come across many with these beliefs on a college campus.  

Before diving into liberal Zionism, I want to emphasize that, like any ideology, Zionism contains a wide variety of beliefs. If you ask two individuals who identify as Zionist what their ideology entails, they may give you radically different answers. There are, of course, many extreme Zionists who believe that many of Israel’s oppressive policies or expansionist elements, such as settlements, are beneficial. They might agree with a violent path toward homogenization and believe that Israel is above criticism for actions that it deems as necessary for its mission of safety. However, you will also not find many of these individuals on a college campus.

Those who follow liberal Zionism believe that a democratic Jewish state can exist without the oppression and suppression of Palestinians. Many liberal Zionists say that Israel must exist as a Jewish state to be a refuge in case “things get too bad” for Jews in diaspora. This home should logically be in historic Palestine due to millenia of Jewish historical connection to the land dating back to well before the first century, when the Romans expelled the Jews. They often draw on the precedent of extreme antisemitism around the world throughout history to argue that Israel is necessary to ensure the safety of Jews globally if the status quo changes, as they argue it often has throughout Jewish diasporic history. They may still have serious concerns and critiques surrounding certain actions the state takes (particularly settlements in the West Bank). A liberal Zionist might argue that a critique of the Israeli government’s founding or policies is analogous to an American citizen critiquing slavery or the Trump administration. 

Liberal Zionists generally favor a two-state solution, where Israel exists alongside a Palestinian state. To these individuals, these two states are the best way to ensure Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom. They see binationalism or a secular one-state as a potential cause of conflict between two peoples with such hatred for the other, and argue that the only way to ensure Jewish safety around the world and in Israel-Palestine is a Jewish-majority state with its own military.

Liberal Zionists might reject a right of return to Israel proper because if all of those eligible were to return, the Jewish majority would likely cease to exist. The right of return, to a Zionist, also presents other complications: Would people be allowed to return to their original homes even if someone else now lives there? Where would returning Palestinians be allowed to return to, exactly? They might propose an alternative where Palestinians are allowed to return to a Palestinian state, but not their original home, and/or are provided compensation from the Israeli government for their lost property.

I feel I should make it clear that these boundaries are not always strictly defined. For example, Zionism, to some, may not mean the right of Jews to a state, but simply the right of Jews to political self-determination of some kind. Take the early Zionist Martin Buber, who advocated for binational coexistence in the land that is now considered Israel-Palestine from within the Zionist movement. Or take the “Land for All” movement, which is a group of individuals advocating for a confederation, a hybrid between the one-state and two-state solutions.

Even if you vehemently disagree with “the other side,” I hope that, by reading this article, you have learned even a little bit about what that “other side” believes. If you want to convince others of your position, you need to understand their position, appealing to their interests and their view of the world. Without a discourse in which there is this appeal, we will never be able to create long-lasting peace.  


[1] If you are interested in other, non-territorial forms of Jewish nationalist thinking, see this article.

[2] There are other more complex definitions of the state. One common definition is that the state is the entity with a monopoly on violence. For our purposes, the provided definition is sufficient. 

[3] One can also read Labbé (2019) for an analysis focused on Poland. 

Update on May 6th, 2024: The wording of a sentence in the eleventh paragraph was changed to reflect the author’s understanding of the framework accurately.

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