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Regrettably, many definitions of Zionism can be shown to be faulty or incorrect or self serving. None is perfect, but the bad definitions generally seem to drive out the good, and the worst ones can have deplorable logical consequences. When he wrote the first edition of his classic History of Zionism, Walter Laqueur's considered, in all innocence, that "Zionism" had finished its function in 1948, with the establishment of Israel, and to conclude, in all innocence, that we are in a "post-Zionist" period. The logical error was the assumption that Zionism was just a movement to establish a Jewish state. That was the political goal of the first Zionist Congress, but it took into account other changes that must occur in the Jewish people. This error was, at one time, shared by most Israelis, who wanted to be done with "Zionism," a term associated with bureaucrats and political hot-air.

The notion that the work of Zionism was done in 1948 did not pass the reality check. There was a state of Israel, but most Diaspora Jews did not view it as very relevant to them, and the Jews inside Israel and outside it had not, and have not, been remade into a "nation like all nations." The Jewish nation had not, and has not, coalesced into an organized cultural entity. Anti-Semitism, as we learned to our sorrow, had not vanished either, and the Jewish state has led a shakey existence at best.

Recently, an article showed that McGill students defined Zionism in various positive ways, none of which are central to Zionism. The article summed up:

These students have defined their Zionism and their connection to the land of Israel. To Hartlee, it is a sense of community; to Paul, it is the "breaking down of false dichotomies;" and to Eric, it is humanitarian action.

I am all for all of those things, but none of them is Zionism. The Christian Peace Teams are performing humanitarian actions, but that is not Zionism. A philosopher who tries to solve the mind-body problem may be breaking down false dichotomies, but that is not Zionism either, is it? Obviously, Zionism creates a sense of community among Jews, but Zionism itself is not a sense of community, any more than physics is atomic explosions.

The approximate definition of Zionism that I like, at least this week, is:

Zionism is the national revival movement of the Jewish people. It holds that the Jews have the right to self-determination in their own national home, and the right to develop their national culture. Historically, Zionism strove to create a legally recognized national home for the Jews in their historical homeland.

A shorthand and slightly different definition of Zionism is offered by Leonard Fein, who argues that Zionism should be redefined as The Jewish Right of Return. As a counter-slogan to the Palestinian "Right of Return" claim, it is very effective. It also sums up in one tiny phrase, the major content of the definition I gave above, as Fein expands and explains it:

...Here, then, a different way of defining Zionism: Zionism is essentially a program of return and reunion. That is as straightforward and simple as it gets.

But simple as it is, it has very dramatic implications. For insofar as we accept that Zionism is about return, do we not thereby invoke on behalf of the Jewish people a “right of return”?

The right of return, so contentious a topic these days — insisted upon by the Arab world, resisted and rejected by Israel and, yes, by all Zionists — is an established right under international law...

As Human Rights Watch argues, “the clearest guidance in international law for defining the basis on which an individual can exercise a claim to return to his or her ‘own country’ is provided by the convergence of the wording of ‘an individual who, because of his or her special ties to or claims in relation to a given country, cannot be considered to be a mere alien’ — and the concept of a ‘genuine and effective link,’ which arose out of the International Court of Justice’s Nottebohm case.”

The Nottebohm holding, much cited, allows for those outside their own country to return for the first time, even if they were born elsewhere and would be entering for the first time, so long as they have maintained a “genuine and effective link” to the country. A “genuine and effective link” includes such elements as family ties, participation in public life, AND attachment shown for a given country and inculcated into children, language and cultural identity. The right of return inheres in individuals, and is transgenerational — that is, it can be handed down through the generations, so long as the link is maintained.

Well, now: We were expelled from the land and taken into captivity in the year 70 of the Common Era. From that time to this, the link of the Jews to Palestine, more recently Israel, has been genuine, and for most of those years — surely during Zionism’s pre-state heyday — we were barred from exercising our undoubted right of return. True, few of us can chronicle our ancestry all the way back (although DNA analysis might in fact show numerous cases of unbroken ties), but given the history of the Jews, there’s a strong argument to be made for a presumptive connection, hence a presumptive right.

In that view, Zionism is the organized form for claiming our due under the internationally recognized right of return.

The claim has no priority over the Palestinian claim, and the two claims, as everyone knows, are in direct conflict. Our return makes sense only if it is a return to the country from which we were expelled — that is, a Jewish country. The Palestinians, understandably, have no interest in return to a state that is Jewish by definition.

The resolution of the dispute, therefore, will necessarily be a political rather than a juridical resolution. But the dispute is not between a colonial enterprise and an indigenous national movement; it is between two valid human rights claims. Far from an illiberal, much less racist, imposition, Zionism rests on a foundation of human rights — a foundation that provides both warrant and challenge.

Indeed, this interpretation of "Right of Return" is implicit in the logic of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate of the League of Nations for Palestine. The first problem is, that the Palestinian Arabs define "right of return" in a different way from Fein and other Zionists. The "right of return" that Zionism and Fein have in mind is a return to a community and to peoplehood and to a land. Palestinian Arabs in the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps in Jordan are already in their land more or less. But in invoking the right of return, they insist that they must be repatriated to Israel, even if the towns and villages where they came from no longer exist. Right of Return as defined by the Arabs of Palestine implies denial of Jewish right of return or rather, self determination. Self Determination is Jus Cogens, overriding other rights. Perhaps for this reason, Right of Return probably does not apply to enemy belligerents and other special cases. Can the Germans expelled by the Czechs from the Sudetensland or by the Poles from Silesia, claim Right of Return? Can they get it?

Still, we have to take this powerful argument and thoughtful article seriously. It also has consequences for Jews. "Right of Return" as a personal right implies that return to Zion is a central part of Zionism. That would appear to be a much more relevant and correct definition of Zionism than helping poor people in Montreal ("humanitarian acts") or Darfur, or than breaking down dichotomies, false or otherwise.

Ami Isseroff

Original content is Copyright by the author 2007. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, http://www.zionism-israel.com/log/archives/00000384.html where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Disributed by ZNN list. Subscribe by sending a message to ZNN-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

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