Should There Be A Jewish State?
By John Spritzler
Ted Koppels Nightline ABC-TV show April 18, 2002 featured the question, Is it anti-Semitic to criticize the Israeli governments policy towards Palestinians? Koppel was interviewing the head of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, who replied that Israel was a sovereign state and of course it was permissible to criticize its policies. But, he warned, to oppose the idea of a Jewish state went over the line and was pure anti-Semitism. Koppel smiled agreeably and gave no hint that a reasonable person might disagree.
The idea of a Jewish state (whose Jewish proponents call themselves Zionists) is sacrosanct in the mainstream U.S. media, which does not give voice to the troublesome questions raised by the issue, in particular that many Jews have historically opposed the idea of a Jewish state. The establishment of Israel has been far more controversial among Jews than most Americans are aware. Jewish opponents of a Jewish state believed in democracy with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews, and thought a purely Jewish sovereignty would be disastrous for ordinary Jews.
The apartheid state
What is Jewish about the Jewish state of Israel? Its not that Israel is a state where only Jews live. One fifth of the Israeli population is non-Jewish. The Jewishness of Israel is embodied in a set of laws which confer rights and benefits on Jews but not on others. Were this not true, Israel would not deserve to be called a Jewish state. But because it is true, Jews and non-Jews are not equal before the law in Israel.
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, Israels declaration of independence, signed May 14, 1948, is a two page document which clearly defines Israel as a Jewish state. The document stresses that the sovereign authority in Israel is the Jewish people: This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state. It repeatedly uses phrases to emphasize this point: Jewish people...in its own country, Jewish people to rebuild its national home, Jewish state, right of the Jewish people to establish their state, Jewish people in the upbuilding of its state, sovereign Jewish people.
Where does this leave Arabs, who are currently 20 percent of the population inside Israel (not counting the Gaza Strip and the West Bank)? The Declaration makes a clear distinction between Jews, who are the sovereign authority in Israel, and the Arab inhabitants who are not. The second-class status of Arabs inside Israel is enforced by laws that privilege being Jewish, rather than by a formal denial to Arabs of citizenship or the right to vote and hold office. Thus the document says that Arabs shall have complete equality of social and political rights and full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its [Israels] provisional and permanent institutions. But the Law of Return, passed in 1950, begins: Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country. Yet one of the central grievances of Palestinians is that they cannot do the same thing; they cannot return to their homes of many generations in Israel. Even Arabs who never left Israel, but who only stayed for a few days in a nearby village with relatives to wait for the fighting in 1948 to end, are now categorized in Israel as present absentees, a category in which they remain forever, and in consequence of which their homes and property remain in the possession of the Custodian of Absentee Property, who puts the property at the disposal of Jews.1
Private organizations serving only Jewish interests hold quasi-governmental authority in Israel for policies that affect non-Jews. The main example of this is the Jewish Agency, which calls itself the agency for Jewish interests in Eretz [the land of] Israel...[its] role is defined...as a voluntary, philanthropic organization with responsibility for immigration, settlement and development, and coordination of the unity of the Jewish people.2 The (Jewish) Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs describes the Jewish Agency as a quasi-public, voluntary institution sharing many, often overlapping, functional jurisdictions with government.3 Yes, Arabs could set up a private Arab Agency, but it would not have the quasi-governmental power, for example, to dispose of Jewish property the way the law allows the Jewish Agency to dispose of Arab property: the states Custodian of Absentee Property hands Arab property to the Jewish Agency, but it does not hand Jewish property to any Arab agency. Jews dont have their property confiscated as present absentees because Jews, unlike Arabs, enjoy the Right of Return.
From Letter to a Deportee:
For twenty years, I knew nothing of the Palestinian problem. I was one year old when my parents arrived among the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews who decided to immigrate to the new Jewish state. That was in 1948 when Israel was just born. We settled in Ramle, in a big stone house that had belonged to an Arab family...In the back of the house was a lemon tree, which almost collapsed each year under its fruit.... One morning, right after the Six-Day War, a young Arab man turned up at the front door. He said: My name is Bashir el-Kheiri. This house belonged to my family.
He was 26. I was 20. It was the first time I had ever met a Palestinian.
One dayI shall never forget itBashirs brother came to Ramle with his father. The old man was blind. After entering the gate, he caressed the rugged stones of the house. Then he asked if the lemon tree was still there. He was led to the backyard. When he put his hands on the trunk of the tree he had planted, he did not utter a word. Tears rolled down his cheeks. My father then gave him a lemon. He was clutching it in his hands when he left. Bashirs mother told me, years later, that when her husband couldnt sleep, he used to pace up and down their apartment holding in his hand an old, shriveled lemon. My father had given the same lemon to him...
I had always believed that the Arabs of Ramle and Lod had fled from the Israeli soldiers in 1948, that they had abandoned their houses like cowards... After the 1967 war, an Israeli who had participated in the expulsion from Lod and Ramle told me what really happened in July of 1948. He told me about the cars with loudspeakers driving through Ramle, instructing the inhabitants to leave. I didnt stop loving my country because of that, but my love lost its innocence.
[From Letter to a Deportee, originally printed in The Jerusalem Post, January 14, 1988, quoted in Rene Backmann, The Letter to Bashir, New Outlook, May 1988 www.vopj.org/personalnarr.htm]
The U.N. Conciliation Commission estimated that about 80 percent of the land in what is today Israel is property formerly owned by Palestinians that was confiscated by Jewish organizations like the Jewish Agency.4 Palestinians are forbidden by Israeli law from owning it. Of all the land that may be legally sold in Israel, 67 percent of it may not legally be sold to Arabs, while none of it is barred from being sold to Jews.5 Thus, while Palestinians may be citizens in Israel, they are second class citizens, which is precisely what it means to live in a Jewish state when one is not Jewish. Yet another feature of Israel that makes it an apartheid state is that it aims to separate Jews and Arabs on a personal level. For example, a Jew and an Arab cannot legally marry each other in Israel; such marriages, if performed outside the country, are not recognized under Israeli law.
One can either be for a Jewish state or be for full equality of Jews and non-Jews inside Israel, but one cannot logically be for both. Israels Zionist leaders use this logic as a weapon against people (Jew and non-Jew alike) who want equality and democracy in Israel. If you say you want Israel to be a truly democratic state in which Jews and non-Jews have equal rights, then the Zionists accuse you of wanting to abolish the state of Israel, because Israel is a Jewish state, not an everybody who lives here state. The Zionists have made supporting the existence of Israel (as a Jewish state) a litmus test; anybody who fails it is labeled either an anti-Semite or a Jewish self-hater. This puts everyone who believes in universal concepts of equality on the defensive, and stifles free expression of views calling for solidarity between Jews and Arabs.
Israel is very different from virtually all other states today. If you are French or American or Chinese or Nigerian and you say you want your nation to be one where everybody is equal under the law and collectively constitute the highest authority in the land, nobody would accuse you of wanting to abolish France, the United States, or whatever. That is because, no matter how undemocratic or discriminatory these governments may be, they justify their existence by claiming to be a state resting on the assent of all their inhabitants. Nobody, for example, who opposed Jim Crow in the United States was ever accused of thereby denying the right of the United States to exist. But those who make analogous demands in Israel arewith good reasonaccused of denying Israels right to exist.
The right of the Jewish state to exist is indeed incompatible with universalist values of equality and democracy. Israel in this respect is similar to apartheid-era South Africa. Just as Israel accuses advocates of Arab-Jewish equality of wanting to abolish the state of Israel, South Africa accused advocates of black-white equality of wanting to abolish the South African state. The reasoning is the same: Arab-Jewish equality challenges the idea that only Jews are the sovereign authority in Israel, just as black-white equality challenged South Africas basis in an exclusively white sovereignty.
Undemocratic from the start
The first person in modern times seriously to call for the creation of a Jewish state was Theodor Herzl, the founder of the World Zionist Organization, who wrote The Jewish State in 1896. From its modern origin in Herzls book, the concept of a Jewish state rests on a rejection of the democratic principle that states derive their right to rule from the assent of the people who live in them.6 Herzl had to reject this democratic principle because Jews were not a majority in Palestine. Instead, he asserted that the Jewish state derived its legitimacy from the need of the Jewish people for a guardian. That is, he intended a government in Palestine, where Jews were a minority among Arabs, to be the sovereign power over all the inhabitants (both Jews and Arabs) and yet act in the name only of Jews scattered around the world.
The Zionists break from the idea of democracy has had disastrous consequences. Today, Israels leaders are in a real bind. They need the legitimacy that derives from being perceived as a democracy. But the presence of large numbers of Arabs inside Israel makes it impossible for Israel to be both a Jewish state (meaning only Jews are the sovereign authority) and a democracy (meaning all inhabitants equally are the sovereign authority.) This is one reason Israeli leaders cannot conceive of allowing Palestinians to return to the homes from which they were driven by Jewish military forces in 1948.
Jews with opposite goals
The idea of a Jewish state has historically been backed by Jewish and other elites, but not by most Jews. In 1903 Theodor Herzl traveled to Russia for two lengthy meetings with the Czars interior minister, Wjatscheslaw Plehwe, the man believed responsible for the notorious massacre of Jews at Kishinev. According to Herzls diary (August 10 and 14) Plehwe told him, You dont have to justify your movement to me. You are preaching to a convert.... The creation of an independent Jewish state capable of absorbing several million Jews would suit us best of all. Israeli historian Yoram Hazony explains, As Herzl had long suspected, the czarist government, ruling seven million Jews, many of whom were increasingly drawn to socialism, was predisposed to support any scheme that might encourage Jewish emigration.7
In the 1920s and 1930s a great many Jews were involved in Socialist and Communist working class organizations fighting to create socialist revolutions in Europe, not to emigrate to Palestine. For instance, in 1938, Henryk Erlich, the leader of the Bundthe Polish Jewish working class organization which swept the large Jewish vote in the last free municipal elections before the Nazi invasiondeclared, Zionism has always been a Siamese twin of anti-Semitism and of every kind of national chauvinism. Working class Polish Jews rejected the Zionists when they saw Zionist leaders making deals with the most anti-Semitic politicians in Poland for the evacuation of Polands Jews to Palestine.
Unlike the Zionists, the Bund made no demand for territory. They fought for equality for ordinary people as opposed to the establishment of a Jewish state. They believed in strengthening the trade union movement and working for unity between Jewish and non-Jewish workers in Poland, and from 1939 to 1945 they organized underground resistance to Nazis in the ghettoes, in concentration camps and as partisans in the forests.8
In contrast to the Bunds role during the Holocaust, the World Zionist Organization (WZO, headed by Chaim Weizmann) continued to cooperate with the most reactionary and anti-Semitic elements of European society to gain favor for its project in Palestine. For example:
The head of the WZOs Zionist Rescue Committee in Budapest during the war, Rudolf Kastner, later a prominent member of Israels government under Prime Minister Ben Gurion, collaborated with the Nazis. Kastner was made a V.I.P. by the Nazis and not required to wear a yellow Star of David because, in exchange for being allowed to hand pick a small number of educated Jews to emigrate to Palestine, he helped lure thousands of Hungarian Jews to their death without a fight by arranging for phony postcards from other Jews to convince them that the trains to the death camps were merely taking them to be resettled.9
The Zionist leader Yitzhak Shamir, a future Israeli Prime Minister, in 1941 proposed an alliance with the Nazis against Great Britain, writing to Nazi leaders: In the matter of concept, we identify with you. So why not collaborate?10
A loyal Jewish Ulster
The British and U.S. elites who supported the Palestine Mandate in 1922 and the creation of Israel in 1948 had no particular regard for Jews; in fact, they were quite content to stand by while millions of Jews were murdered in death camps during WWII. When they did support the Mandate, their purposes were not altruistic but political and strategic. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first governor of Jerusalem under British rule in the 1920s, explained that the value of a Jewish sovereignty lay in its forming for England a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.
Thus Israels role in the Middle East from its inception has been to act as a lightning rod for class struggle in the region, provoking Arab hatred and fomenting ethnic war so that the Arab regimesall of which sit on a powder-keg of rebellious workerscan stay in power by directing the anger of their populations against Israel. To keep this conflict going long-term, Israel has to be made militarily strong enough to repulse any Arab attack, which is why the U.S. arms Israel so heavily. U.S. corporate and government leaders would never be able to muster public support for turning Israel into a highly-militarized garrison state if they revealed to the American people their true purpose: to use the Jewish state to control the Middle Easts vast and rebellious working class and its oil.11
To function as a lightning rod, Israel must provoke Arab hatred; it cannot be simply a state where Jews live and prosper in peace along with Arabs the way, for example, non-Mormons and Mormons live together in Utah, or Jews and non-Jews in the US. It must be an ethnically divisive state, a state only of and for the Jews, a state whose very existence drives Arabs off the land and incites ethnic war. Some Jews saw this from the beginning of the state of Israel. Judah Magnes, the first Chancellor of Israels Hebrew University, opposed the Jewish state idea because, as he expressed it in his diary in 1942, The slogan Jewish state (or commonwealth) is equivalent, in effect, to a declaration of war by the Jews on the Arabs.12 From the elites perspective, provoking ethnic war is precisely the function of a Jewish state.
Corporate and government leaders do not care how many Jews die in the ethnic fighting. As a result, ordinary Jews in public bus stops, restaurants and dance clubs are now at greater risk in Israel than in any other nation. This is why, according to a January 2002 poll conducted by Market Watch for the Israeli Maariv newspaper, 20 percent of adult Israelis say they have recently considered living in a different country, and 12 percent of Israeli parents would like their children to grow up outside Israel.13
Dealing with anti-Semitism
Zionists claim that the Holocaust demonstrates what they have asserted since 1896that non-Jews are innately anti-Semitic and that, to survive in a hostile world, Jews need a state of their own. But the real history of the Holocaust demonstrates no such thing. In fact most Germans opposed anti-Semitism, and working class Germans actively fought the Nazis on the streets and at the polls before Hitler was handed power by German industrialists and aristocrats, precisely to crush the growing working class movement. In the last free election (Nov. 6, 1932) before Hitlers appointment as Chancellor, the German working class parties (the Social Democrats and the Communists)both of which were known for being outspokenly opposed to anti-Semitismout-polled the Nazis by 221 to 196 seats in the Reichstag. Most German workers recognized anti-Semitism for what it was: a strategy by the German elite to divide and attack all working people.
The Holocaust does not demonstrate that non-Jews are innately anti-Semitic any more than slavery demonstrates that whites are innately racist against blacks. If such innate prejudice were a fact, it would be hard to explain why any incident of racist or anti-Semitic graffiti in American towns today is met with public revulsion. The appropriate response to racism and anti-Semitism is to strengthen equality and solidarity among working people of all races and nationalities, not to erect ethnically pure states based on tribal and inherently divisive principles. The Holocaust is no more a reason for Jews to have a state of their own than slavery is a reason for African-Americans to have a pure Black state of their own.
Most Jews who survived the Holocaust, when given a choice between going to Israel or the United States, chose the United States because it seemed to offer what they really wanteda society where people are equal before the law and Jews are treated the same as everybody else.
The very concept of ethnically pure states is divisive and destined to stoke conflict. The so-called two state solution in the Middle Eastestablishing a Palestinian state to counter the Jewish stateis a conceptual and political trap that prevents Arab and Jewish working people from uniting around their common interests and values. The situation in the Middle East cannot be solved within this framework; it leads nowhere except to more destruction and hate and more elite control.
The solution is not to establish another ethnic state but to disestablish the ones that exist now. Israel, as well as states that are just for Muslims or any other ethnic group, must cease to exist as states based on apartheid and ethnic domination. They must be replaced by secular democracies with equal rights for all, regardless of their ethnic background, and with equal tolerance for all religions.
Will this be easy to accomplish? Certainly not. Some of the most powerful elites in the world depend on continued conflict in the Middle East to maintain their power. To establish a real democracy in Palestine will require ordinary people joining together to defeat Israeli, Arab, and US elites. Real democracy will take a revolution. Is this possible? Yes, with great difficulty. Is it necessary? Absolutely, because there is no other way. The first step is to think about the problem and its solution in a new way. It is time we began.
New Democracy Newsletter, May-August 2002. www.newdemocracyworld.org
1.Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis, Free Press; ISBN: 0029291801; (February 1986)
4. Donna E. Arzt, professor of law, Syracuse University, presentation at the December 7, 1999, meeting of the Sadat Forum at Brookings, cohosted by Richard Haass, vice-president and director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. www.bsos.umd.edu/sadat/publications/Forum/12-7-99.htm
5.Alexander Safian, associate director and research director of the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a Boston-based media-watch organization, Can Arabs Buy Land in Israel?, www.meforum.org/meq/dec97/safian.shtml
6. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Herzl Press, 1970), pp. 69, 92-3. Cited by Hazony.
7. Yoram Hazony, The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israels Soul, Basic Books, a New Republic Book, USA, 2001, pp.136-7
8. David Rosenberg, In Defiance of History,
9. Ben Hecht, Perfidy, Milah Press (Jerusalem, New London); ISBN: 0964688638; (April 1997)
10. David Yisraeli: Le probleme palestinien dans la politique allemande, de 1889-1945, appendix 11. Also see Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of Dictators,
http://www.marxists.de/middleast/brenner/ch26.htm, noting that Shamirs organization (NMO) stressed that, The NMO is closely related to the totalitarian movements of Europe in its ideology and structure.
11. Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of Dictators,
12. cited in The Jewish State, by Yoram Hazony, p. 248
13. Escaping the Hell of the Holy Land, by Sylvana Foa in The Village Voice, February 13-19, 2002,