A few weeks ago, a Labour MP in Britain, Paul Flynn, expressed displeasure with his country’s ambassador to Israel. “I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories,” he said, “but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist.” What Britain needs in Israel, according to Flynn, is “someone with roots in the U.K.” who “can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty.”
Britain’s ambassador to Israel, as you may have surmised, is a Jew, the first to serve in that capacity. He previously served in Pakistan and Iran (not Jewish states). As for Matthew Gould’s “roots in the U.K.,” they may not be as deep as Flynn’s, but they are semi-respectable: On one side, his great-grandparents were immigrants, and on the other, his grandparents. Speaking of respectability, Gould is a graduate of St. Paul’s School and Peterhouse, Cambridge. Not bad for a Semitic upstart.
In his widely publicized remarks, Flynn worried about “neocons and warmongers,” now itching to invade Iran. “Warmongers” is a word we can easily understand. But what about two other words Flynn used, “neocons” and “Zionist”? These are very slippery terms. If you want to paralyze someone who denounces neocons, say, “What’s a neocon?” If you want to paralyze someone who denounces Zionists, or even refers to them, say, “What’s a Zionist?” People use these words cavalierly and ignorantly. And none too nicely, either.
We will concentrate on the older of the words, “Zionist.” Though it may be older than “neocon,” it is much, much newer than “Zion.” We first encounter “Zion” in II Samuel, Chapter 5: “David took the strong hold of Zion: the same is the city of David.” I am quoting King James’s translators. In Psalm 48, we have one of the loveliest lines in the entire Bible: “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion.” Centuries later came a hymn that begins, “Glorious things of thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God!” Those words were written by the author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton.
“Zion” may refer to a hill in Jerusalem, or a section of Jerusalem, or Jerusalem itself, or all Israel. Or to the kingdom of God, period. It also may refer to the Jewish people or to all mankind. People in Illinois may know Zion as a city on the Wisconsin border.
“Zionism” arose in the late 19th century, and its believers and supporters were “Zionists.” This was the movement to establish a Jewish state in ancient Israel — to “reestablish” that state, if you like. European Jews such as Theodor Herzl thought, or feared, that assimilation was a lost cause. The host countries would never allow it. The best answer was a return to Zion, to Israel. Other Jews held this return to be desirable in itself, regardless of whether assimilation in the broader world was possible.
Herzl wrote his pamphlet The Jewish State in 1896. The next year, he organized the first Zionist Congress, in Basel. Many Jews were Zionists, many were not. Those who were not, were free to stay where they were (as were those Jews who supported Zionism but did not wish to emigrate themselves). The ancient language, Hebrew, was revived. The movement gathered pace. After the Holocaust, and a war of independence, the Jews had their state. Zionism, i.e., Jewish nationalism, was fulfilled.
But the term hung on, particularly in the mouths of Israel’s enemies. Indeed, many Arabs would not, and will not, say “Israel.” They say “Zionist entity” or “Zionist presence.” To say “Israel,” apparently, would acknowledge statehood, which is unacknowledgeable, to some. The late Yasser Arafat was a frequent user of “Zionist aggressor,” “Zionist conquest,” and similar phrases.