October 25, 2002

CFI panel discusses meaning of Zionism

As suicide bombings in Israel kill more innocent victims and anti-Semitism grows in Europe, the Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) and the International House hosted an expert panel of four guests to explain what Zionism means. Over 100 people of all backgrounds came to the event to listen, ask questions, and learn.

"Jews, for their own safety, had to have their own homeland," said Richard Baehr, director of education for the American Israel Public Affairs Council of Illinois. "Zionism was the movement to re-establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine."

Baehr described his vision for this Jewish homeland through the words of Theodore Hertzl, a man he considers a founder of Zionism. "Hertzl wanted Jews to live as free men in their homeland and to die peacefully in their own homes," said Baehr. "Only the first of these two goals has been reached."

Following World War II, the United Nations recommended that the Palesine land be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state. "The Zionists accepted, the Arabs did not," Baehr said. Thus began a conflict that has lasted over 50 years.

"The Zionists' success in establishing a state of Israel was the result of tragedy because the Jews weren't accepted in any other place," said Menachem Brinker, the Henry Crown Professor of Modern Hebrew Language and Literature.

Brinker, like Baehr, asserted that the formation of Israel was necessary to the security of the Jewish people. "The Jews were scattered throughout the world, dependent on the good will of others. They had two options: assimilate or be persecuted," he said.

"Assimilation goes with a kind of moral bankruptcy," Brinker said. As a result, establishing normalcy, he said, was the goal of the Zionists. He believes that goal was achieved. "The non-acceptance of Zionism by the Arab world is what keeps it alive," Brinker said.

Keeping his version of Zionism alive is exactly what Doni Remba, president of Chicago Peace Now, is trying to do. "Zionism is the belief that Israel has the right to exist as a democratic Jewish state┬Śnothing more, nothing less," Remba said.

Remba would like to see "both Jews and Palestinian Arabs┬ůshare equally in the Jewish state of Israel." To him, this means that Palestinian citizens of Israel would have equal civic responsibilities and enjoy equal civic benefits. He suggested that given this change, as well as others that would follow from it, there could be a joint security force like NATO. In his vision of Zionism, this joint security force would engage each of the nations throughout the region in protecting "Palestine-Israel."

Maurice Singer, the regional director of the Aliyah Center, who was born in Israel and raised in the United Kingdom, would like to see the Palestinians reach equality by achieving what Israel already has: economic stability and intellectual achievement. "While the Palestinians may consider Israelis their enemies, they may be wise to learn from their enemies," Singer said.

Singer would like to see Arab nations devote some of their wealth to helping the Palestinians. "Arab leaders make billions of dollars each year, but it never filters down to the people. They could settle all Palestinian refugees in the West Bank without having to decide who owns this hill or that hill," he said.

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have received equal shares of United Nations aid, he noted. The Israelis currently have the highest per capita percentage of doctors and scientists and the Palestinians are lagging far behind, he said.

Responses to the four panelists were mixed. "I went to the event to try and understand what the 'Pro-Israel' opinion was to the Israeli-Palestine conflict. I'm not sure I learned that," said Besheer Mohamed, a first-year master's student in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

"The panel discussion was a great opportunity for students to learn how multi-faceted and diverse Zionism really is," said Adam Weissmann, a second-year in the College and the president of CFI. "While other groups might have brought in a speaker to preach their own singular definition of the term, CFI instead invited four speakers to debate among themselves," said Weissmann. He and the members of CFI believe the event was a great success.