Define Zionism as the Jewish Right of Return

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 11, 2007, issue of May 11, 2007.
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From November 1975 to December 1991, Zionism was “officially” a form of racism and racial discrimination. So the United Nations famously proclaimed by a vote of 67- 35 (with 32 abstentions), and so it was for 16 years, until, by a vote of 111-25 (with 13 abstentions), the “Zionism is racism” resolution was simply rescinded.

Plainly, however, the U.N. vote of 1991 did not put the assault on Zionism to rest. These days, 16 years after having emerged from its unjust solitary confinement, it is back under indictment. There it sits in the dock, badgered, hounded, tormented — accused.

Zionism is widely thought to be an ugly anachronism — an illiberal, anti-democratic European imposition on an indigenous native population. Nor are those who condemn it drawn principally, as they were in 1975, from the Arab world and the erstwhile Soviet bloc. In “enlightened” circles, where nationalism is eschewed, Zionism is now widely viewed with disfavor.

In a forthcoming paper on American Jewish attitudes toward Israel, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman find that while 82% of their broadly representative sample regard themselves as “pro-Israel,” only 28% — and fewer still in the younger cohorts — see themselves as “Zionists.” Thus, even among the Jews, even among Israel’s supporters, the word has become musty — or worse, an unwelcome evocation of the judgment of its least sympathetic critics.

But: If Zionism is today discredited, then, by extension, its offspring, the Jewish state of Israel, is damaged. How, then, might Zionism more constructively be defined and defended?

Those who rise to Zionism’s defense offer an array of justifications: Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people; given their history, the Jews both need and deserve a state of their own, and the work of Zionism will not be done until Israel is safe, secure, accepted; opposition to Zionism is actually a form of antisemitism. Such assertions are of limited utility.

A national liberation movement? The romance of national liberation movements has paled, the status of the Jews as a “nation” is neither widely understood nor broadly accepted, and, in any case, Diaspora Jews hardly seem in urgent need of “liberation.”

Jewish suffering? Why should the past suffering of the Jews trump the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians? Anti-Zionism as antisemitism? Too facile a dismissal; the discredited brush of antisemitism cannot be the all-purpose riposte to every critical appraisal of Jewish expression.

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. It is rendered explicit by the U.N.’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified in 1976), as explicated in the General Comments of the Human Rights Committee (in 1999).

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.

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