I was sitting in a seminar held by the Israel Education Center in Chicago (home to some of my greatest mentors and strongest neshamas I know) during my freshman year of college, when a friend of mine first referred to “zionist” as “the z-word” in front of me. I laughed. I thought it was funny. I then realized that this phrase, the z-word, is in fact, an incredibly dark reminder of Jewish existence.
College campuses, far-leftist circles, and many progressive spaces are today’s breeding ground for the defamation of the word “Zionist”. What was, for many years, the historical home of the Jewish American; today’s left has instituted a litmus test of which Jews are “good enough Jews” by their standards to enter. At alarming rates, we see instances of clubs at colleges and universities plastering “zero tolerance for zionism” posters across their walls, passing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) proposals through student governments, or barring Jews who will even let a minute support for the existence of the state of Israel slip from their mouths from entrance. We see writers like Bari Weiss, who recently wrote a scathing resignation letter to the New York Times, leave their long-time places of residency due to the increasingly intolerable climate towards what they deem as intolerable: Jews who identify themselves as Zionists.
As a young Jew trying to navigate my place in the progressive world, I am often reminded of the Boiling Frog Experiment. The Boiling Frog experiment was a psychological experiment during the 19th century, in which scientists first placed a frog in a pot of water which was already boiling. Unsurprisingly, the frog immediately jumped out with little to no lasting harm. However, when the frog was placed in a pot of water at a comfortable temperature which the scientists slowly increased until it began to boil, the frog did not notice until it had already boiled to death.
Today, in placing young Jews and their 5,780 years of history descending from the Ancient Israelites on a liberal college campus in America, we are placing a frog in lukewarm water and poking the flames with the infamous Z-word. Jewish students are given the option to either surrender their history, culture, ethnicity, and liberation at the hands of non-Jews in order to hop out, or stay in the water until they boil to death.
Unfortunately, most people are unconscious of the Jewish definition of our own liberation movement, but are still the ones whose hands are turning up the flames. To Jews, Zionists are those who believe in “the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel”. This belief is held by almost all American Jews, with an incredibly small number of vocal outliers. So how did we lose our word, a word which encompasses issues of justice, decolonization, liberation, and self-determination for one of the most persecuted groups in history, to outside hands?
In order for us to truly combat the rising tide of antisemitism which is eating away at the far left, we have no choice but to talk about Zionism. To disregard this would be a disservice to the students on campus who are being doxxed, threatened, harassed, humiliated, alienated, and hurt under the guise of “anti-zionism”.
The first step to approaching this monstrosity is not monumental or flashy, but it takes immense courage. Normalization of words like Israel and Zionism is our first step to jumping out of this boiling pot. For a college student on a campus like New York University or DePaul University in Chicago, though, these words being said is risking their own safety.
The second step is reclamation. Taking back the Z-word is the only chance Jews have at ensuring our future safety in the left. In the word Zionism is power. The power of Jews to control their own destiny, to revitalize their thousands of years old culture in the land from which it was born, and to ensure our future safety. Unfortunately, it is our job to jump out of our boiling pot, even if we were placed there by the hands of our oppressors. The springboard must be through screaming the word “zionist” until we are heard for what we are: liberated Jews.