Jewish National Fund - We Only Have ONE ISRAEL

Theodore Bikel
Why I Am A Zionist

WHY AM I A ZIONIST is both a simple and a complicated question. Simple, because I got it from my mother's milk, or rather from my father's life. My father was a lifelong Zionist; a socialist and a Zionist, both. This was inculcated in me. Since I was a very small child I couldn't conceive of myself as anything but a Zionist.

But that's the simple answer - that you are what you learned at your mother's or your father's knee. But times change, attitudes change and definitions change. What was Zionism 70 years ago? I am 75 years old now. From the time I became a sentient being, I guess at the age of six or so (and from then on) - I knew that I was a Zionist. Because I spoke Hebrew - my father insisted on it - and because Zion was the place of our longing; first as an ideal and only later as a reality. Back then, there was just a glimmer of hope that one day there might be a Jewish homeland. Now there is a Jewish homeland and Zionism has taken on far more complex notions. Where are we now? What does Zionism mean? It is certainly no longer the hope of returning to Zion. We have returned. In that context, even the words of the Hatikva make less sense now than they did before there was a state.

Why do I still persist in calling myself a Zionist? It is really a complex question. Of course, there is the comfortable notion that I am what I have always been, but also for other reasons. I am thinking of that slogan of the New York State lottery - "You can't win it if you're not in it." I have to remain a Zionist in order to be watchful of the dream. And dreams have a knack of disintegrating - at times dissipating and at other times turning into nightmares if they are not carefully nurtured and carefully watched over. I have a stake in what the Zionist ideal represents, in what the Zionist ideal undergoes, and must be mindful of what threatens it.

What threats? Certain geopolitical realities and certain internal political realities. The very definition of "Jewish homeland" - both of "homeland" and of "Jewish" (as in "Who is a Jew") and of the land itself in political terms. Is it the land of the Jews? And if it is the land of and for the Jews only, then what are those other people doing there who live within its borders and carry its passport? Are they citizens in the fullest sense? Are we treating the stranger in our midst as we were treated when we were strangers in other people's midst? Too often were we told that a people fighting for its life cannot afford such luxuries as a moral compass. As Jews are we permitted to sacrifice moral imperatives on the altar of political expediency? I do not think so - and to find a just solution remains the challenge to us as Zionists.

From: The Zionist Activist
(A.Z.M. Nov. 1999)
Theodore Bikel is a singer and actor currently appearing in the off-Broadway production The Gathering, and was an elected American delegate to the 33rd World Zionist Congress, 1997.

Return to News ArchivesBack to Top