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Jewish, Zionist, Or Israeli? – There Is A Need For Distinguishing These Terms

In most of our conversations and writings, Jewish, Israeli, and Zionist are used interchangeably. Who has not heard about the Jewish lobby, the Israeli lobby, or the Zionist lobby in the United States? It appears that all three terms mean the same group of people but it is a misconception.

Although these terms are related and overlapping, there is a fundamental distinction. In 2007, John Mearsheimer, Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, Professor of International Relations, Harvard University,  published a book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which became a New York Times bestseller. In the book, the authors clarified that the Israeli lobby cannot be called the Jewish lobby for two reasons: First, a significant percentage of the American Jewish population does not support this lobby and, second, a large number of evangelical Christians are part of the Israeli lobby, who are obviously not Jewish. The Zionist lobby again overlaps the Israeli lobby and the Jewish lobby to a large extent but it is different as not all Jewish people or Israelis support Zionism. Zionists, in brief, believe that the land of Palestine is for the Jewish people and so there should be a Jewish state either in Israel proper or from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. They generally do give few rights to the Palestinians and are against a viable Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip). Most Jewish people and Israelis do not subscribe to this extreme view and agree with the need for the formation of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories.

Let’s unpack the three terms in a more detailed way. Judaism, like Islam, is a religion. The Quran makes it mandatory for Muslims to accept all Jewish prophets. In fact, the Quran considers Jewish prophets as Muslims because Judaism is considered an earlier version of Islam. Islam might be called Judaism 3.0, with Christianity being Judaism 2.0. Jewish people, yahud or yahudi, are the people who follow Judaism. They are considered Ahl al-Kitab, people of the book like Christians, and Muslims are allowed to marry them. Jewish people live all over the world but most of them live in Israel and the US. There are currently between thirteen to fifteen million Jewish people in the world, depending on the definition. Around six and a half million Jewish people live in Israel, while there are a little less than six million Jewish Americans. More than eighty percent of world Jewry lives in these two countries. Smaller populations of Jewish people are found in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada. A major issue that surfaces while estimating the Jewish population, especially in the US, is the presence of people who are (only) Jewish by heritage, culture, or ancestry. These Jewish people generally follow Jewish culture, even observing Jewish religious traditions and holidays, but do not accept the Torah as God’s word and Judaism as the true religion. These culturally Jewish people are mostly Jewish by birth but, over the years, they have lost faith in Judaism and have become secular.

Do most Jewish people accept Israel’s right to exist within its current borders? Yes. Do most Jewish people support Israel’s annexation of the Palestinian lands and discrimination against Arab Israelis? No. A large number of Jewish people have now become vocal critics of Israeli policies towards Palestinians and these include both liberal and religious Jewish people. Visit their websites, such as ‘If Not Now’ or ‘Jewish Voice of Peace’, to read about the work Jewish people are doing to end the occupation of Palestine and discrimination against Israeli Arabs in Israel. Their organizations hold protests, disrupt rallies (including those of President Trump), arrange seminars in university campuses to highlight the plight of Palestinians, confront elected officials, plan vigils and rallies and write columns in national newspapers in support of Palestinians, etc.

Zionism, unlike Judaism, is a nationalist ideology, not a religion. It instrumentalizes Judaism and many scholars correctly call it a religious nationalist ideology. The term Zionism comes from Zion, which was one of the many names for Jerusalem and is also used in the Bible. For instance, the capture of Jerusalem by King-Prophet David is announced in the Book of Samuel in the following way, “Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David” (2 Samuel 5:7). Zionists are broadly people who believe that God has given the land of Palestine/Israel to the Jewish people and so they have the right to settle there and rule that territory. Many religious Jewish people and Christians trace this to King/Prophet David and Solomon’s rule in pre-historic times. They also interpret some verses of the Bible to support their belief. However, it is not necessary to be Jewish or even a Christian to be a Zionist.

There are many secular atheists who believe that erstwhile Palestine was an ancestral homeland of Jewish people and so they have a right to that land. God has nothing to do with it. All Zionists are not alike. It is important to distinguish between two large types of Zionists. The first type, and probably the larger of the two types, believes that Israel only has rights to Israel proper and the Occupied Territories are not part of Israel. The second type, which is more religious, believes that Jewish people have God-given rights to not only Israel but also the Occupied Territories and in some cases, to parts of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.

While all Zionists believe in the right of the Jewish people to settle in Palestine/Israel, there are some reluctant Zionists who believe a Jewish state in Palestine/Israel is not part of the deal. Albert Einstein, although supportive of Israel’s right to exist, famously said, “I should much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state… My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power… I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain.” Einstein also refused to become the President of Israel. The international community, the Muslim world, and even the Palestinians are ready to deal with the first group of Zionists. In fact, the 1993 Oslo Accords were based on the acceptance of such Zionists; Palestinians accepted Israel in return for Israel’s acceptance of a Palestinian state in the Occupied Territories of West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, there cannot be any agreement with the second type of Zionists because they want either an apartheid system in Israel or expulsion of most Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, and even favouring Palestinian genocide. The discussion above clarifies that all Zionists are not Israeli or Jewish. Furthermore, it is important to distinguish between different types of Zionists.

Finally, as we all know, Israel is a country, not a religion or an ideology. It was founded on the religious nationalist ideology of Zionism in the late 1940s and it is impossible to narrate the story of Israel without talking about Judaism. Due to the primacy of Judaism in its independence struggle, the special status that Judaism enjoys in Israel is accepted by most Israelis. However, despite the close association of Israel and Judaism, Israeli state interests differ from the world Jewry’s interests.

Although the Israeli government consistently promotes itself as the defender of the rights of Jewish people all over the world, it regularly ignores non-Israeli Jewish people when state and religious interests collide. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly endorsed President Trump as the great friend of Israel even when Trump regularly indulges in soft anti-Semitism and supports white nationalists that have been linked to numerous acts of anti-Semitism.  Similarly, in February 2019, Netanyahu reaffirmed his close friendship with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has regularly used anti-Semitic tropes. So, it is naïve to equate Israeli interests with Jewish interests, even when some overlapping does exist.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands after Trump’s address at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem May 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Furthermore, one of every five Israelis is a Muslim Arab and they are obviously not Jewish or Zionist and thousands of Jewish Israelis are fighting for the rights of Muslim Israelis against Zionists. Therefore, Israeli and Zionist are not synonyms. To summarize, being Jewish is about accepting a religion (Judaism); being Zionist is believing in a certain nationalist ideology (Zionism); being Israeli is having citizenship of a certain country (Israel). Sometimes, a person may be Jewish and also a Zionist, and an Israeli, but it is not necessarily true. In fact, more often than not, these three characteristics are not united in one person.


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Naya Daur