The year was 2015 and in the Library Theatre Sheffield, near the more famous Crucible, we had watched a short play about the “conflict” in historic Palestine. Indeed, one of the actors was a member of “Breaking the Silence” and he joined three other panellists on stage for an after-show discussion of the issues that the work had thrown up. One of the contributors was a prominent member of the local PSC group, invited, presumably, to achieve “balance”.

The master of ceremonies invited a panellist to comment on a question from the audience. She was described as a long-standing anti-racist and active campaigner in the town since the days of the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 80s – obviously, someone whose commitment had stood the test of time and whose presence in the discussion was clearly merited.

She opened with the comment, “I am an anti-racist and a Zionist,” and proceeded to give her opinion of the play we had witnessed. I was taken aback, firstly by the words themselves and secondly by the lack of response from the audience. The speaker had clearly felt that she was not saying anything very controversial in the self-designation and most of the audience seemed to acquiesce to her assumption that her statement did not contain a contradiction – that it wasn’t a comment along the lines of, “I am not a racist but I don’t like people with black or brown skin.”

I raised my hand to make a comment. The MC invited me to speak and I hoped that the anger I was feeling did not render what I had to say incoherent or that the constriction across my chest did not cause me to collapse amidst incoherent spluttering. Zionism was the wrong answer to the right question, I said. A flight from the issue of antisemitism rather than any attempt to tackle it. And what about the Palestinians? What were they meant to do while the land on which they and their ancestors had been living for millennia was secured for people who were to be defined along a different religious/ethnic line and whose sole claim to it rested on a literalist reading of a religious text?

This is what I think I said, but who knows? I was so agitated by what I had heard. But the disturbance was not over. A Jewish friend of mine explained to me that the speaker on the stage was a friend of his who probably just meant that she supported the idea of a Jewish homeland. The implication was that surely, I could understand that, though what it required of me was to imagine this Jewish homeland by erasing the Palestinian presence, precisely as Zionism does.  

Perhaps this explains how “soft Zionism” gets away with it. It requires a species of sentimental non-thought: irrationality with a hint of Klezmer, consisting of  generalisations that are never examined, assumptions never challenged, the refusal to think through what “redeeming the land” means, the  overlooking of the ethnic cleansing that Zionism has been attempting to accomplish for 125 years in plain sight, the labyrinth of the Israeli legal system designed to obscure a process established to dispossess and discourage –  all these characteristics must be glossed over because Zionism is accepted as a reasonable response to antisemitism. The trouble is Zionism wasn’t ever just about settling; that’s another reason the word “settlements” just won’t do. It was always about replacing. That’s why the Palestinians had to go and why the JNF is still involved in making them go, by whatever means it can turn its hand to.

Herzl’s conclusion is the starting point and the endpoint. Antisemitism is the inevitable characteristic of the goyim, so Zionism must become the Jewish response. That’s it! No question.