I was in Israel last summer (Rehovot) visiting a close friend and his wife. In one of our very long conversations with them she said, "I would say I am not Jewish, but I am a Zionist". (demographically she was a Jew) I asked her if it meant that she was not religious but identified more with the Jewish people as an ancient community. And she said something like "yeah, not exactly.." and they broke off. What is the difference?

Apologies if my question doesn't belong here.

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    Welcome to judaism.SE, and thanks very much for bringing your question here!
    – Isaac Moses
    May 24, 2011 at 14:35
  • I would suggest that you ask your friend. Frankly, I think this question (as written) is unanswerable, but I'm hesitant to edit it because it's been here for so long and already has 4 answers.
    – Seth J
    Jul 2, 2014 at 16:26

4 Answers 4


Jewish: Is the person a Jew. According to halacha, this is defined by whether or not the person's mother was Jewish or they converted from another religion to Judaism (and according to some authorities, if the person did not convert from Judaism to another religion, since according to some this would mean that they are no longer Jewish).

Zionist: Harder to define, and different people would give it different meanings. My attempt to define it would be:

  • The belief that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people and that it is the ideal place for a Jew to live (what some might call Jewish Nationalism).
  • Secular Zionism and Religious Zionism would diverge on what is the basis for this belief (SZ would base it more on national history while RZ would base it more on scriptural and halachic sources).
  • Some would find it important to also distinguish between those who believe that Jews should be settling the Land of Israel before the redemptive process has been completed (ie: today - see Secular and Religious Zionists above), while others (who would bristle at being labeled with the term Zionist - Satmar Hasidim being the easiest example) acknowledge the importance of the Land of Israel, but do not think that Jews belong there before the redemptive process has completed.

So if a person says that they are not Jewish but are a Zionist, then they are saying that they do not fit the requirements of being a Jew (or even if they do, they are themselves agnostic and couldn't care well about in what category halacha would place them), yet despite this they believe that Israel is for the Jewish people.

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    That is incorrect - a Jew who sins (including "converting" to another religion) remains a Jew. There is no halachic way to renounce your Judaism once you are Jewish.
    – Shaul Behr
    May 24, 2011 at 11:41
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    @Yaakov I'd quibble with your definition of "Zionist" a bit in that I think it should also include a sense that Jews ought to have sovereignty in the Land of Israel in contemporary times. I think there are plenty of anti-Zionists who feel that Jews ought to be in the Land but are against the idea of a state before the final Redemption.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 24, 2011 at 14:39
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    @Isaac - point taken. I have edited the answer to add the distinction (see third bullet point) May 24, 2011 at 16:06
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    @Yaakov Thanks! I still think that the idea of sovereignty is an important distiguisher. There are plenty of anti-Zionists who have chosen to settle in Israel, presumably because they think it's a good thing to do, but are vehemently opposed to the idea of a state.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 24, 2011 at 16:18
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    @Yaakov: Every satmar chosid would agree that ERETZ Yisroel is the holiest of holy, and that dira's eretz yisroel is a big Mitzvah. None of them would argue that. The issue they have is with the MEDINAS Yisroel, the idea of having a Jewish State, a home, before Meshiach comes. Therefore, this sentence is wrong IMO: "...but do not think that Jews belong there before the redemptive process has completed"
    – BFree
    May 24, 2011 at 17:45

Judaism is a religion with established (though somewhat flexible) emotions and practices of serving G-d. It is binding on those who are born into it. Some practice more, some less, some not at all.

Zionism is a belief in the importance of Eretz Yisrael which guides the emphases of emotions and practices within the religion and within life.

Some one who is born in America (and stays) is bound by the Constitution. There are different ideas about how to practice the Constitution (conservative, libertarian, socialist, etc.) Someone who is not a naturalized citizen can have a great respect for the country as well as an ideal of how the laws should be practiced. They can even hold demonstrations to try to affect society even if they can't vote.

In the same way, a non-Jew can have opinions about ideology of Jewish religion or life.

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    I would remove the first use of the word "religious" in your second paragraph. Zionism is in and of itself not a religious belief. There are many religious Zionists (or Religious Zionists, or religious zionists or Religious zionists) with various degrees of interconnectedness between their religious beliefs and their Zionist beliefs. But that does not make the whole enterprise a religious one. It can range from the religious to the philosophical to the political and encompass different facets of all three.
    – Seth J
    May 24, 2011 at 15:10
  • According to Orthodox Judaism, yes. But according to Reform, no. For more information, look at this article subsection: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Mar 25, 2012 at 3:38
  • @AdamMosheh, please explain what part of the answer you are commenting on and clarify your question.
    – YDK
    Mar 25, 2012 at 4:07
  • @YDK - "It is binding on those who are born into it." Mar 25, 2012 at 4:08
  • Granted, I wrote my answer based on my orthodox practices. You are welcome to comment otherwise in this section, down-vote me for not liking my answer, or offer your own answer.
    – YDK
    Mar 25, 2012 at 4:17

Wow, some very interesting opinions here. With all due respect, I beg to differ. Zionism is not hard to define, and it is not a religious belief. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, plain and simple. Zionism is a belief that Jews, like all other peoples, have the right of self-determination in their historic homeland, Eretz Yisrael. It is a belief that Jews have the right to govern themselves in their own country.

Defining what it means to be Jewish, on the other hand, is a bit tricky. On the one hand, there is a simple halachic definition: a Jew is a person whose mother is a Jew, or a person who converted to Judaism.

On the other hand, who the Jews are as a group somewhat depends on who you ask. Most Americans will tell you that Jews are a religious group, like Catholics or Muslims. But most Russians will tell you that Jews are an ethnic group, like the Russians, the French, or the Japanese. Surprisingly, while it is perfectly normal for somebody to be both Jewish and American at the same time, the notions of being Russian and being Jewish are mutually exclusive. There are historic reasons for that, which deserve a whole separate discussion.

Personally, I believe that Jews are an ethnic group, and that one can not stop being Jewish any more than one can stop being Italian. While the food, the customs, and the languages of different Jewish communities vary widely, they have always been distinct from those of non-Jews. Because of that, I think it makes sense to talk about a very diverse, but nevertheless a very distinct Jewish culture.

Having said that, I am not dismissing religion at all. The ethnic and the religious components of the Jewish identity are virtually inseparable. It is Judaism that is the common heritage of all Jewish communities all over the world, which provides the core basis for the Jewish culture.

Getting back to your question. To me it makes no sense for somebody who is "demographically" Jewish to say "I am not Jewish...". On the other hand, it is certainly possible for one to be Jewish and to be against the idea of a Jewish state, as much as I would disagree with such a person. Or one can be a non-Jew and agree that Jews, like all other peoples have the right of self-determination, and thus be a Zionist.

  • @Dima, I don't get your last paragraph. Its last sentence seems to contradict the "makes no sense to me" in its first.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 24, 2011 at 15:52
  • @Isaac Moses, how about now?
    – Dima
    May 24, 2011 at 16:03
  • @Dima. Yes, that makes sense now. Thanks.
    – Isaac Moses
    May 24, 2011 at 16:05
  • @Isaac Moses. No problem.
    – Dima
    May 24, 2011 at 16:09
  • I like your definition of Zionism, but not so much your definition of Judaism. Being Jewish has a strict halachic definition. As much as Judaism may have a culture, having "Jewish culture" does not make someone Jewish.
    – jake
    May 24, 2011 at 16:46

Judaism consists of the religious belief and practice aspect of the the Jewish people. More correctly Jewish is an ethnicity. While Judaism has religious beliefs and rituals someone is determined to be Jewish if 1) their mother is Jewish 2)they have converted by accepting all religious beliefs, practices, and rituals and have been declared so by a Jewish court who will require mikvah, circumcision for males, and will give a certificate acknowledging this persons acceptance into the Jewish people.

Zionism is a political movement that was started by Theodore Herzl which believed that to eliminate antisemitism Jews must have a country of our own. In doing so the Jewish people would become normalized in the eyes of the international community as a legitimate nation through actions of self-determinism. The original plan for Zionism was to have a country and any country. Eventual this idea evolved to making a portion of the biblical land of Israel into the modern Jewish country that would fulfill the goals of Zionism.

Many Jews are Zionist as they identify with the Zionist political movement, many are Zionists for other reasons, and many are not. Today what Zionism means to an individual may not necessarily reflect the political views of its founder and can vary from individual to individual. There are also many non-Jews who are also Zionists today. There are varying reasons for them to be Zionists. Among some of the reasons non-Jews may find themselves supporting Israel is they support the existence of a democratic style country in a hostile area of the world and because of Israel's many very positive contributions to society in realms of business, literature, art, medicine, science, and technology. Others are Zionist because their own faith believes that in order for their hope of the messianic age (return of Jesus) will only be fulfilled by Jews living in the land of Israel)

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