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Reclaiming the Z-word

Clare Goldwater's picture

It was an interesting experience, starting to use the “Z-word” again, after many years of abstinence. Zionism. A word that, maybe 20 years ago, I found myself using, in speech and in thought, quite a lot. But, even though I am actively involved in a lot of Israel-related education, the word has dropped out of my vocabulary. Gil Troy is probably right that the “second-hand smoke” from all the negative discourse surrounding the word “Zionism” has tainted it, and so it is easier just to talk about being pro-Israel, rather than being a Zionist. So, it was very interesting to talk about it openly again, at the conference organized a couple of weeks ago by The iCenter, the World Zionist Organization (which still uses the word proudly, in both name and action), and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

The conference, a gathering of educators and students of Israel education, was a stimulating meeting between Israelis and North Americans, at which we actually asked out loud whether we want to be doing Zionist education or Israel education. And whether there is a difference, anyway.

Honestly, I am still not sure. But I think we have to distinguish between the personal and the educational. On a personal level, I AM a Zionist. Yes, I will use the word. Just like I am a feminist. Those words are important. They imply a certain stand, a commitment to some ideologically-based values. And I believe in them. I also agree with Gil Troy that there is something about the term “Zionism” rather than “pro-Israel” that also implies an active, ongoing co-creation of the Jewish State, that I personally want to be involved with. And I also agree, even if I am not really going to do much about this, that it isn’t okay that the word “Zionism” has been hijacked by those who see it as a dirty word, and it is probably time for us to take it back.

But that is the personal stuff. As an educator, I have to ask other questions, about whether the word “Zionism” is helpful to us in reaching our broader educational goals. Does it engage our students and constituents? Does it alienate them? Can I help to facilitate a deep and lasting relationship with Israel as a Jewish State without using the word? And, in the end, as my educational vision is not that my students necessarily make aliyah, how does the term “Zionism” help me? Is it useful or not? And that is where I am not sure. Is this just a semantic issue or is there something more substantive at stake here? Again I don’t know. But I am trying to focus on the educational and not the personal and at the very least I am certainly challenged, for the first time in years, to think again. In the end, I do believe that it behooves us as Israel educators to re-engage with the term (and the content of the term) Zionism, and to formulate (or re-formulate) a clear rationale for why and how we use the word “Zionism”, or not. As responsible educators we must at least do that.

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Clare Goldwater is an educational consultant to The iCenter, with an expertise in experiential education, travel education and organizational development. She works as a consultant and leadership coach with a range of organizations and individuals to help them maximize their effectiveness and achieve their mission. Born in the UK, she has a BA from Oxford University, an MA from the Hebrew University and was a Jerusalem Fellow at the Mandel Leadership Institute.  As Vice-President for Jewish Experience at Hillel she developed a new model of senior Jewish educators and trained educators to reach those on the periphery of Jewish life. She lives in Jerusalem with her family.