What is a Zionist? A Talk with William F.S. Miles

Story by by Devin Windelspecht | windelspecht.d@husky.neu.edu

The term “Zionism” carries very different and very significant meanings for different groups of people. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Zionism as a “Jewish nationalist movement that has had as its goal the creation and support of a Jewish national state in Palestine.”  While some people champion the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine as a homecoming for a historically oppressed group of people, others reject it over concerns for  the oppression of Palestinians and other non-Jewish peoples within a Jewish state. The term Zionism is thus uplifting to some, evoking feelings of hope and belonging for those who have long remained estranged from what they believe to be their ancestral homeland. To others, it is loaded to with ideas of oppression and colonialism.

To address this discrepancy in opinion, William F.S. Miles, a Northeastern University political science professor, opened his talk “Another Israel: Four Months Among Non-’Zionist’ Zionists” to a few dozen students gathered in the top floor of Renaissance Park with a simple, yet weighted question: “What is a Zionist?”

Or, as he went on to elaborate, “What is a Non-Zionist?”

Professor Miles may be one of the few professors in the unique position to attempt to answer this controversial question. Having ventured three times to Israel– once to Jerusalem, another time to southern Israel and a third time to a “utopian-type socialist community” in the “deep south” of the country– Professor Miles discovered the lesser-known parts of Israel, and found within these places revelations of the deeper nature of the nation. During his fourth trip to Israel, Professor Miles travelled to the very northern part of the country to investigate a small, unique village that sat right next to Israel’s border with Lebanon.

At first glance, aside from the occasional special border police officer guarding the northern border, the northern town seemed like any other Israeli village: fast food chains, supermarkets, beauty parlors and small local schools. Yet upon closer examination, as Professor Miles explained to the audience, there were little details about the town that stuck out. The signs read both in Hebrew and Arabic script, and Arabic was spoken almost exclusively on the streets. However, few people in the village were Muslim, and fewer still Jewish. Instead, the town was populated by a religious minority virtually unknown to the greater world, and a mystery to many people in Israel as well: the Druze.

Before continuing, Professor Miles explained what he believed a Non-Zionist is not. “I’m not talking about the ultra-orthodox anti-Zionists,” he said, referring to the minority Haredi Jewish community that rejects the notion of a Jewish state. Rather, he referred to those living within Israel whose identity is not wrapped in the idea of a Jewish state, yet they remain loyal to Israel as a sovereign nation– the Druze being one such people.

The Druze’s religion is notoriously secretive, so much so that those who don’t follow the religion cannot even have access to the church’s holy books. Despite all of the religion’s secretiveness and guardedness, its beliefs are remarkably open.

Describing the Druze religion as “radical monotheistic,” Professor Miles explained that the Druze believe that all religions that follow one god– from Christianity to Judaism to Islam to the Baha’i faith– must be respected, as they all lead to the same singular God. Professor Miles went on to say that the Druze religion is not based on worship, but on ethics.

“Their prayer is living ethically”, Professor Miles said, adding that “being thankful, transparent, and helping others” was their way of connecting to God.

What makes the Druze most remarkable, particularly when it comes to Professor Miles’ original question, is their attitudes toward the state of Israel. Loyalty to their country is important to the Druze, and even though they do not share the religion that is typically associated with Zionism, their faith is nevertheless very much tied to Judaism. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, is considered the most important prophet to the Druze. According to Jewish belief, Moses married Jethro’s daughter, and thus some Druze believe that all Jews are descendants of the Druze themselves.

It is because of this belief in loyalty that the Druze, who live in eighteen scattered communities mostly in northern Israel, serve disproportionately in the Israeli army. They are also statistically most likely to suffer casualties, as the Druze typically volunteer for combat battalions. Despite their devotion to their country, the Druze population is unknown by many Israelis. Those who do know of the Druze have typically encountered them while serving in the armed forces– a sobering reality that isn’t lost on the Druze, who often feel forgotten by Israel outside of their military service.

Professor Miles said he believes that it is people like the Druze who represent the future of Israel. “The survival of the Jewish state of Israel depends on de-facto Zionism,” he said, “and not on ideological Zionism”. It relies, he said, on those who are willing to make the “personal sacrifices to protect and defend what they see as the Jewish state.”

Judging by the military cemeteries that stand at the center of many villages, it is clear that the Druze exemplify this ideal.

After his time with the Druze, Professor Miles said that he saw Israel very differently. The question Miles opened with– “What is a Zionist?”– seems now all the more difficult to explain, yet all the more important to discuss. After all, whatever answer there is to be found, may just carry with it the very future of the Israeli state.