MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Israel's election later this month, the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is a coalition of center-left parties. The name that coalition has chosen is the Zionist Union, and that's causing a stir. The term Zionist goes back to the 1800s and the people who worked to create a Jewish homeland. But it's become more controversial over the years, including in Israel, where the fight is over who can claim to be Zionists. NPR's Emily Harris reports.
EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The Zionist Union invited voters to a Tel Aviv bar a couple of weeks ago. Like at a speed dating session, mostly young Israelis spent a few minutes with one candidate before an announcer sent them on to the next.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Speaking Hebrew).
HARRIS: Everyone attending seemed to lean left politically. People had different feelings about the party name Zionist Union. Adam Horesh said it means good things.
ADAM HORESH: You like Israel. You like the people. You like other people - and that you care about what you do. And I like this name.
HARRIS: That you care about what you do, like building a good country. Ilana Pinshaw agreed there's a positive side to the name. But ultimately, for her, it leaves people out.
ILANA PINSHAW: I think that it's exclusionary, the choice. It was an attempt to take votes from the right, but they're not really differentiating themselves so much. And I think that they could've been a democratic camp.
HARRIS: The word Zionism traditionally conveys the idea of Jewish self-determination. But it now signals a hard-line sentiment, especially toward the Palestinians, to some people both in and outside Israel. Zionist Union candidate Erel Margalit says the name should not be a synonym for right-wing policies.
EREL MARGALIT: That is not meant at all. Israel is both a Jewish and democratic country, and the Zionist idea is to give the Jewish people a place of their own, to reach a compromise with their neighbors and to take a proactive approach, rather than Netanyahu's reactive approach, to setting our own destiny, our own borders and our own future.
HARRIS: He's blaming Netanyahu for making Zionism controversial. The top of the Zionist Union ticket, Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog, says the title was being misappropriated.
YITZHAK HERZOG: In recent years, we've identified that somebody - a certain element in our society thought that they owned Zionism, that they have taken ownership over what Zionism is all about. Well, they've taken Zionism way far away from what it ought to be.
HARRIS: Netanyahu's Likud party is not relinquishing its claim on Zionism. Danny Danon, a Likud party member, says the left is too liberal to truly defend Israel's interests as the homeland for the Jews. He accuses the Zionist Union of picking that name to fool voters.
DANNY DANON: They're there to hide the real character, and they're doing it by using the word Zionist.
HARRIS: But Yoaz Hendel says neither political side should have a lock on the term. A historian and head of Israel's Institute for Zionist Strategies, he thinks about this a lot. He does say that by failing to distance themselves from people further on the left who reject Zionism, center-left leaders have undermined their own image.
YOAZ HENDEL: All of them will serve in the army. All of them will self-identify as Israelis. But when it comes to politics, instead of fighting the extreme voices in the left, they prefer to ignore it and to fight extreme voices in the right.
HARRIS: Twenty percent of Israeli citizens are Arab. Arab-Israeli analyst, Diana Buttu, says the name Zionist Union wrangles many.
DIANA BUTTU: Their vision of the country is not one of equality. Their vision of the country is one that is based on being a Zionist first, and therefore being Jewish first, with privileges accorded to Jewish citizens of the state, and lesser rights accorded to the Palestinians who are citizens of the state as well.
HARRIS: Zionist Union party leaders say those ideas don't square with their vision of Zionism. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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