Many Jewish Americans and most Jewish Israelis would call themselves “Zionist”, in very much the same way that nearly every American would claim to be “patriotic”. However, just as Americans differ greatly on what “patriotic” really means, for American Jews and Jewish Israelis too, what “Zionist” actually means depends on who you talk to--and the differences can be striking. Just as one American’s “patriotism” may be seen as nothing less than treason when seen through the lens of another American’s “patriotism,” so too can one Jew’s “Zionism” can be seen as an utter betrayal of Judaism, Jews or Israel from the point of view of another Jew’s “Zionism.” The assassination of Zionist Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of another Zionist Israeli man is only a particularly acute example of divisions that run through Jewish society, both in the United States and in Israel.
From a Muslim or Christian Palestinian Arab point of view, Zionism represents a disastrous attempt to solve the problem of Jewish persecution in Europe by establishing a Jewish State on what was largely Arab-owned and Arab-inhabited land, thus denying the right of Palestinian Arabs to self-determination in very much the same way that European colonization of North America meant the dispossession of the people already inhabiting the land. Many Arabs also see the founding of the State of Israel as having been at least in part promoted by various Western powers for strategic geopolitical reasons.
As Miki Kashtan, a Jewish Israeli woman “in voluntary political exile in the US” and leading exponent of the theory and practice of Nonviolent Communication, has put it so succinctly: "The complex tragedy of the region is that Zionism is at one and the same time a return to a long lost home and the gift of liberation to a people persecuted for centuries, and a brutally oppressive system for another people that has never known independence."
Historically emerging in the late 1800’s, there were many different “Zionisms”: from the left-wing Labor Zionism of Dov Ber Borochov, to the right-wing pro-capitalist “Revisionist Zionism” of Ze’ev Jabotinsky; from the secular spirituality of “Cultural Zionism” as espoused by Ahad Ha’am, to the more fundamentalist religious nationalism of “Revolutionary Zionism” as advocated by Avraham Stern. It was the largely secular “Political Zionism” of Theodor Herzl which eventually came to dominate the Zionist movement that led to the founding of the State of Israel.
All forms of Zionism, however, strove to save the Jewish people from persecution and/or cultural assimilation/annihilation by encouraging the Jewish diaspora to regather in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel (though Herzl and others seemed briefly to have considered setting up a Jewish State elsewhere). With the rise of Hitler and the onset of WWII, Zionism took on the even more urgent task of providing Jews with the means of sheer survival, especially since other countries, including the US, refused to grant entry to Jews fleeing Europe before, during, and after the war.
Within the religious community, some Jews have considered it their religious duty to re-settle the land of their forefathers, and so have joined the Zionists. Other religious Jews have maintained a strongly anti-Zionist position, considering any merely human attempt to re-establish Jewish sovereignty in Palestine to be a blasphemous usurpation of divine prerogative, with some of these also seeing it as a violation of the human rights of the Arab inhabitants of the land (http://www.truetorahjews.org/). While Christian Zionism (a powerful political force in the United States) shares many of the goals of Jewish Zionism, it sees the establishment of Israel as part of the fulfillment of end-times prophecy regarding the Second Coming of Christ (while, obviously, religious Jewish Zionists are waiting for the first coming of their Messiah).
Zionists (Jewish and Christian, secular and religious) have pointed to centuries of persecution in both Christian and (to a lesser extent) in Muslim lands, and argue that only a truly Jewish State can guarantee the security of the Jewish people. Importantly, nearly all Zionists (from leftwing to rightwing) assume that only by ensuring that there be a substantial demographic Jewish majority can the specifically Jewish character (political and cultural) of the Jewish State be secure. Whether or not achieving and sustaining this Jewish demographic majority would or should entail the expulsion of some or all of the Arab population has been a matter of wide disagreement among Zionists. Likewise, whether or not the Arabs should participate as equals in the Jewish State has been a matter of disagreement. From the Arab point of view, of course, even the asking of such questions reveals an overtly colonial and deeply anti-democratic nature to most forms of Zionism.
For some Zionists, the near-total dispossession of the Arabs has been viewed as either a “necessary evil” or a “divine mandate” for Jewish security, demographic predominance, and political sovereignty. For others, no such dispossession was envisioned at all. Martin Buber, for example, envisioned a wholly bi-national State in which Arabs and Jews would live together as equals. Addressing the Zionist Congress of 1921 he said that the movement should proclaim "its desire to live in peace and brotherhood with the Arab people and to develop the common homeland into a republic in which both peoples will have the possibility of free development". So committed was he to the idea of securing the voluntary agreement of the Arabs that he was willing to consider accepting the possibility of Jews remaining a demographic minority in the land.
Others had a more complex view. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, for example, clearly stated in his famous 1924 “Iron Wall” article that, while he hoped for a kind of State in which both Arabs and Jews would eventually live together as equals, he nevertheless believed that the securing of a Jewish demographic majority was essential to achieve the goals of Zionism: "There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority.....I am prepared to swear, for us and our descendants, that we will never destroy this equality [of Arab and Jews] and we will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs." (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/ironwall.html)
However, explicitly acknowledging Zionism as a form of colonization, Jabotinsky asserted that it would be hypocritical of Zionists to pretend that such colonization could be accomplished without force because the native Arabs would certainly resist the establishment of a Jewish demographic majority: "Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population...All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible.... A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups...And only then will moderates offer suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy. I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbors, can then live in peace. But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now." (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Zionism/ironwall.html)
In the 1980’s, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe and other “New Historians” began to challenge the traditional Zionist narrative about the founding of the State of Israel. For example, they uncovered evidence that large numbers of Arabs were deliberately and forcefully expelled both before and during what Israelis call their War of Independence. Evidence of Zionist atrocities that accompanied this expulsion also surfaced. Ilan Pappe went on to become a leading advocate of Palestinian rights, a proponent of the One State Solution, and an advocate of the Boycott, Divestment , and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Benny Morris, on the other hand, while still considering himself a leftwing Zionist, asserts: "There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide—the annihilation of your people—I prefer ethnic cleansing. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them." (http://www.logosjournal.com/morris.htm)
Other left-wing Zionists (http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/israelpalestine), in contrast, deplore the conditions under which the State of Israel came into being (much as many Americans deplore the dispossession of the Native Americans which attended the establishment of The United States of America), and continue to hold out the hope of realizing both the spirit and the letter of the UN’s Declaration of the Establishment of Israel (much as many Americans have hoped to fulfill the “all people are created equal” promise of their own Declaration of Indepedence), in part quoted here: "Israel...will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
Can Israel be both “Jewish” and “democratic”; that is, can it both be defined in ethnic terms, as a “Jewish State”, and still ensure “complete equality” for “all its inhabitants”? This remains, perhaps, the central existential question facing not only Israelis but also their American allies who claim to see in Israel a fellow exemplar of democracy.
In spite of the challenges facing them, many Israeli Jews and Arab citizens of Israel, as well as Palestinians under Israeli occupation, have sought more direct people-to-people engagement in order to try to find a way to live peaceably together in the land.