The battle to reclaim the term ‘Zionism’

The battle to reclaim the term ‘Zionism’

'Zionism represents a struggle against antisemitism, a refusal to surrender rights of peoplehood and statehood granted to other peoples, and a healthy pride in being Jewish'.

A placard at an anti-Israel rally.
A placard at an anti-Israel rally.

THE question posed most often to Jewish authors is “why?” As in, “Why did you write this book? Don’t you have enough to do, what with a full-time job and a family?” 

When seeking to answer this question in regards to my first book, The Anti-Israel Agenda – Inside the Political War on the Jewish State, I could think only of Philippe Petit, who walked between the twin towers in New York on a high-wire 400 metres above the ground. When he completed this feat, he was promptly arrested and bungled into a police car and surrounded by a horde of journalists each demanding to know, “why?” “Why did you do it?” 

He answered, “Why? There is no why.” 

It was simply something he had to do. For me, a book exposing the latest phase in the war on Israel, was something I had to do. 

In answering this question in regards to my new book, mercifully my answer is less abstract. 

ECAJ co-CEO Alex Ryvchin. Photo: Noel Kessel

I was absolutely clear in my motivation to write a concise narrative history of Zionism, that would take the reader from the origins of the Jews in their land, to their travails and wanderings through Cossack rebellions and French Emancipation and pogroms and infernos; exploring the emergence of leaders of rare vision and political genius who formed a compelling and coherent national movement that fit within the norms and system of the time, and achieved the unprecedented return of an ancient, persecuted, scattered people to the land of their forebears and the restoration of their political independence.

This was a joyous and exhilarating story to tell, and, urgently needed. It had become apparent to me that Zionism had been comprehensively stripped of its true meaning and has instead become a term of infamy and curse. Somehow the movement that sought to liberate or at least shelter the Jews from antisemitism which saw them hounded and humiliated in every generation; the movement that sought nothing more than a scrap of land for the Jews to call their own so that they and their contributions to humanity should not vanish from the Earth, somehow this has become akin to racism, Nazism, colonialism, white supremacism and every other popular conception of evil known today.

The consequence of permitting this deliberate distortion of Zionism to take place is that new generations will only ever know of Zionism and Zionists as an evil to be fought. And when Zionism is the national movement of the Jewish people, when it is the foundational movement of the Jewish State, this will be a fight that will ensnare Jews of the left and of the right, religious and secular, in Israel and the Diaspora.

The assault on Zionism will also cause further ruptures in Jewish communities. Those intent on terminating an autonomous Jewish presence in the Middle East have calculated that western support for Israel is critical to its survival. As Abu Iyad, the PLO’s head of security in the 1970s articulated, “If one could succeed in changing public opinion in the West, the overthrow of Zionism would be just a matter of time.” 

Support for Israel and sympathy for Zionism in the West is largely attributable to the ability of Jewish leaders to articulate the justness and necessity of Zionism and communal unity on this issue. For these reasons, anti-Zionists have sought to collapse traditional Jewish support for Israel, by essentially forcing young Jews to choose between their identities as Zionists and their progressive ideals. Increasingly, young Jews are being told that you can be a feminist or a Zionist, you can support workers and minorities or you can support Israel, you can be a proud Jew or a loyal citizen, but you can no longer be both.

When faced with this choice, some of our youth will choose apathy, turning away from the community, or worse, will side with their oppressors.

The implications of this will be enormous, not only at a political level but to Jewish identity. Zionism embodies many values, many virtues, and many concepts without which Jewish self-identification and continuity will become imperilled. Zionism represents a struggle against antisemitism, a refusal to surrender rights of peoplehood and statehood granted to other peoples, and a healthy pride in being Jewish. One who repudiates Zionism, therefore, rejects fundamental aspects of Jewish character and identity. 

The solution begins with knowing our own story. It is after all a most worthy one. To know the story of Zionism is to understand that the Jews are a distinct ethnic and national group with a profound connection to the lands to which they are indigenous. To know the story of Zionism is to understand that the State of Israel was formed through a long and comprehensive sequence of international agreements and treaties, which as Alan Dershowitz writes in the introduction to my book, “gave Israel the most legitimate birth certificate of any modern democracy”. 

And to know the story of Zionism is to know that Zionism was and remains something radical, an idea initially waved away as fanciful and mischievous, eventually embraced not only by the Jewish world but by revolutionaries and freedom-fighters throughout the world as an organic expression of a people’s will to live freely in their own land. So this is the essence of why I wrote this book – to give our people a solution to the problem. And to arm our community with a tool to demystify Zionism, to reclaim Zionism, and to ensure that we continue to value Jewish freedoms and Jewish rights long into the future. 

Alex Ryvchin is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Zionism – The Concise History (Connor Court Publishing, 2019) was launched by former prime minister John Howard and Israeli ambassador Mark Sofer in Sydney on December 19. Signed copies can be purchased at

read more: