The future of Zionism should be focused on the self-determination of Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, according to panelists at the event “Unpacking Zionism” co-sponsored by pro-Israel group J Street Georgetown and the Georgetown Israel Alliance on Wednesday night in the Intercultural Center.
The event sought to offer several Jewish perspectives on Zionism, an ideology that advocates for the existence of a Jewish nation.
The panel, moderated by J Street Georgetown Co-chair Julia Friedmann (SFS ’19), included reflections on Zionism from GIA Cultural Chair Aviv Lis (COL ’19), Former GIA Vice President Jonathan Muhlrad (COL ’17), former GIA President Madeline Cunnings (COL ’18) and J Street Georgetown Co-chair Abigail Ulman (SFS ’19).
Lis said the roots of the modern political ideology of Zionism began in the early history of Judaism.
“Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, through which we realize we are not only a people, but a nation that has a homeland,” Lis said. “We’re reminded of Zionism every year during Passover when we sing ‘L’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim,’ or ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ — that is not a new thing that started in 1948.”
For Muhlrad, Zionism has deep personal meaning.
“I think about Zionism, I think about my grandparents — three of who were technically stateless persons after the Holocaust,” Muhlrad said. “Zionism is liberation from a history of oppression.”
Lis said Judaism and Zionism are not synonymous, but for many Jews they are closely interconnected.
“Zionism has a very important part in the collective Jewish play,” Lis said. “A lot of Holocaust survivors found their home in Israel after the war ended, some believing in God and some not. It’s a part of our Jewish history.”
Cunnings said her Israel-born mother raised her to see Zionism as a fact of life for Jews.
“There are non-Jewish Zionists and non-Zionist Jews,” Cunnings said. “Obviously, yes, they’re separate for some people. For me, I can’t fathom Judaism without Israel and Zionism.”
Ulman, though Jewish and self-avowedly pro-Israel, said she lacks a personal and spiritual connection to Zionism.
“I believe in the right of Israel to exist, and for Jews to have the right to live there, but I think Zionism has turned into something very spiritual and personal for a lot of people, and because I don’t have that connection, it wouldn’t be right for me to call myself a Zionist,” Ulman said.
Ulman also noted some people use the Zionist label to commit hateful acts. Nevertheless, Ulman said Zionism is not inherently racist, xenophobic or hateful.
“We need to recognize Zionism has been used for these destructive acts,” Ulman said. “In many cases, Zionism has not been this blanket good resembling Judaism. But define your own Zionism, [recognize] this happened and [create] a new vision of Zionism that is inclusive and equal.”
Muhlrad said Zionism is not defined by the actions of some of its followers.
“Just because there are some militant communists, that doesn’t then condemn all Communism or whatever that might be,” Muhlrad said. “What I would say to all people who do terrible things in the name of Zionism is that they need to become better Zionists. It doesn’t nullify Zionism.”
Lis said it is not racist for Jews to support a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. However, he noted the importance of compassion and understanding the historical ties between Jews in the 20th century and Palestinians today.
“My grandpa, living in war-ravaged Poland, yearning to live in the land of his people, is no different from a Palestinian farmer yearning to return to the olive grove his grandfather planted in Jaffa. It’s the same homeland, and we need to figure out how our national aspirations can coexist,” Lis said. “Those destructive acts, Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Palestinians — he’s not a Zionist in my mind.”
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