OPINION: Why are some uncomfortable using the term Zionist? Blame Zionist thought police

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OPINION: Why are some uncomfortable using the term Zionist? Blame Zionist thought police

A Palestinian boy looks behind a wall separating Jewish part and Palestinian part of the West Bank
A Palestinian boy looks behind a wall separating Jewish part and Palestinian part of the West Bank

by Hannah Weisfeld, Director, Yachad 

Hannah Weisfeld
Hannah Weisfeld

This month’s publication by City University of research into British Jewish attitudes to Israel sent a segment of Anglo-Jewry into a serious tizz.

While some Jewish communal organisations were busy distributing it to their key supporters telling them it was a “must-read”, in a small corner, another group of people were busy shouting ­– mainly at each other – that there must be something wrong with the data because it does not reflect their opinions. Self-appointed experts were wheeled out in the form of long-ago ex-chairs of the Zionist Federation, lecturers in education or just “those who do not agree with the results – no qualifications needed” – to try to undermine its publication.

The truth is, because the research was funded by Yachad they could not bear to read the results. It would be inappropriate to use these column inches to debunk the mistruths and some outright lies people are writing to try to challenge the validity of the findings – not least because that is the role of the independent team of academics who wrote the research, of which the lead academic is, by the way, one of the community’s most eminent social researchers and the senior academic adviser to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

As it happens, as this is being written, there has been a public retraction of some of the accusations being levelled against the research by some key individuals. It is worth exploring the deeper implications of the research. It reveals that an overwhelming majority of the community feels a deep connection to Israel, and is proud of the country.

 A majority also agree there is not a credible Palestinian partner with which to make peace, worry about Israel’s security and believe incitement makes it difficult to achieve peace. But ask them what they think are the key priorities for the Israeli government and they will tell you, by a very significant majority, that way above dealing with weapons in Gaza, Iran or BDS, is making peace and halting the expansion of settlements. They “despair” about settlements and don’t think the Israeli government is serious about making peace.

For those who see the world through the myopic lens of “Israel can do no wrong”, it seems unfathomable that the human beings that make up the British Jewish community are complex enough to hold feelings of pride, attachment and concern while also being critical of certain aspects of Israel’s policies. The research shows that those who hold the most “hawkish” opinions overestimate the prevalence of their opinions by twofold, whereas those who hold more dovish opinions underestimate to what extent others share their views by about 10 percent.

So it is not a surprise that it is these same “hawkish” people who are now busy trying to undermine the research; they are so very sure that it cannot be right because they do not agree with it.

Now that there has been a retraction of accusations from some quarters, maybe they will actually read the research. In addition to finding there is much with which they probably agree, they might stop to consider the implications for us as a community. Why is it that only 59 percent of people identify with the term ‘Zionist’, despite the fact that 90 per cent of people support Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state? The researchers conclude that part of the answer lies in the following statistic: of the individuals who hold traditional Zionist opinions ­– feelings of pride, Israel playing a role in their Jewish identity and supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and identify as Zionists – 85 percent of them believe “there is no contradiction between being a committed Zionist and a critic of Israeli government policy”. This is in contrast to only 57 per cent of those who hold these same traditional Zionist views but do not consider themselves a Zionist.

Who is responsible for this conflation between Zionism and Israeli government policy could be the subject of further research. But we should start by looking at the people who have, from the moment the research was released, set out to try to discredit it. They are the same people that the moment someone raises a hint of concern, criticism or objection to something in Israel, get onto Twitter and start name calling and trolling that individual, telling them they are not “real Zionists”. They seem to share common cause with those they consider to be their greatest enemies – to shed no daylight between support for Israel and support for decisions of the Israeli government.

We should ask those who assume they are the ‘Zionist thought police’ to take responsibility for the fact others feel uncomfortable using the term Zionist. But, as they cannot bear to listen to anyone who doesn’t share their view, that seems unlikely.

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