Are the majority of British Jews Zionists?

26 September 2018
What was claimed

The majority of British Jews are Zionists.

Our verdict

A 2015 survey found about 3 in 5 British Jews identify as Zionists, though the term isn’t clearly defined. 9 in 10 British Jews support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.

“British Zionists, that is the majority of British Jews”.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, 2 September 2018

In 2015, a survey found that the majority of British Jews (59%) identified as Zionists, though a much larger proportion (90%) supported Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

There’s debate over what the terms “Zionist” and “Zionism” mean, but broadly speaking Zionism is associated with the support for the existence of Israel as a state for the Jewish people.

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Where did the modern concept of Zionism originate?

The modern Zionist movement dates back to the late 19th century and the establishment of the World Zionist Organisation.

The movement advocated the establishment of a Jewish homeland in what is now Israel.

What does Zionism mean today?

It’s difficult to say definitively what modern Zionism is. Professor of Israel Studies at Oxford University, Yaacov Yadgar, told us that “these terms (Zionism, Jewish state, etc.) have competing, often conflicting meanings.”

He said that surveys that try to measure how many British Jews are Zionist “fail us exactly because they wrongly assume the questions they pose to their respondents are clear.”

The Oxford Living Dictionaries says Zionists believe in “the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel”. The Board of Deputies of British Jews describes Zionism as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” The non-Zionist left-wing Jewish group Jewdas  have defined it simply as “the belief that there should be a Jewish state in Israel”.  

In a 2010 study on British Jewish attitudes, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research defined it as “a nationalist ideology espousing the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their own sovereign state in the land of Israel” – but also noted that “as the complexities of the political situation have unfolded over time, the term has often been used to mean ‘a supporter of Israel and its government’s actions and policies’.” 

Meanwhile, Israeli writer A. B. Yehoshua focuses the definition of Zionism on the idea that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people, not just to those who are citizens of Israel. He says this is enshrined in the Law of Return, which states that every Jew has the right to live in Israel and gain Israeli citizenship.

And Professor of Israel Studies at SOAS, Colin Shindler told us: “Zionism today is the desire to turn Israel into Zion—and to create a just and fair society.

“In this   context Zionism also means finding a solution to the Palestinian question such that both peoples can practice their right to national self-determination.”

The survey tells us how many Jews identify as Zionist, but not what that means

A 2015 survey found 59% of British Jews identify as Zionists   though the survey report authors acknowledged “there are different opinions about what the term Zionism means.”

Professor Shindler, who advised on the 2015 survey told us: “In hindsight the question on identification with Zionism is vague—and leaves open several interpretations.”

He said: “My suspicion is that the lower figure of 59% relates to the fact that many British Jews do not intend to emigrate to Israel.”

The survey also found that 90% of British Jews support the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state (one possible definition of Zionism).

Ultimately the results support the claim that most Jews identify as Zionists, but doesn’t shed much light on what that actually means or the fact they may all interpret this differently.

In the absence of a clear definition the survey report tried to understand how Zionists and non-Zionists differed in their other opinions and found that “on a wide range of measures, the Zionists and the identifying non-Zionists appear equally attached to [Israel].”

One key difference was that while most (85%) Zionists accept that a committed Zionist can still be a critic of Israeli policy, only 57% of identifying of non-Zionists hold that view. Similarly, the 2010 study concluded that “many of those who define themselves as “non-Zionist” are using the term to mark their disagreement with contemporary Israeli government policy”. 

The survey report said that there is no methodology that can guarantee a perfectly representative sample of British Jews because there is no definitive data on the Jewish population.

However the authors did weight the data to match the known or estimated make-up of the Jewish community as regards age, education, political profile and other characteristics. The authors said they are confident that the survey’s results are at least broadly representative.

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