In brief: Zionism

Zionism is Israel's official state ideology. A vast majority of Israeli Jews, plus many Jews living outside Israel, define themselves as Zionists.

Taking shape in the late 19th century, Zionism was both the liberation movement of the Jewish people and a late climber on to the wagon of European colonialism. Largely secular, it was inspired by European nationalism and by Russia's revolutionary spirit. It sought and won permission from the colonial power to settle Jews in Palestine.

Today Zionism means adhering to the idea of Israel as a Jewish state rather than a state for all its citizens. It also means upholding the historical narrative that all Israel's activities have been benign and defensive, and that Arabs, the Palestinians in particular, brought their woes on themselves by attacking Israel. Over time the movement has become identified with farming and kibbutzim, much talk about peace but with a propensity to wage war, and self-righteousness combined with a consideration for international opinion.

A small minority of Israeli Jews, past and present, have declared themselves to be non-Zionists or anti-Zionists. Starting from the early 1990s, a new generation of Israeli intellectuals, known as the New Historians, challenged the notion of Israel's historical innocence. Although they shook Israeli self-righteousness, they failed to bring into being a larger non-Zionist movement.

A new challenge comes from post-Zionism. Many individuals, most of them secular and middle class, cannot see the importance of Zionist values in a globalised world, and just want peace and quiet and European living standards. Conflict with the Palestinians, and the settlers' fanaticism, are anathema to them.

A different threat to Zionism comes from settlers and their supporters who oppose any government that undermines the integrity of "Greater Israel" and who are contemptuous of efforts to balance being Jewish and being democratic. At the height of its power, Zionist Israel managed to be internationally acceptable while breaking international law. The advent of these fiery-eyed settlers in the grip of messianic zeal may put paid to that comfortable posture.

12 issues for £12