Why Israel Has No ‘Right to Exist’ as a Jewish State
Yet again, the Annapolis meeting between Olmert and Abbas is preconditioned upon the recognition by the Palestinian side of the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. Indeed the “road map” should lead to, and legitimate, once and for all, the right of such a Jewish state to exist in definitive borders and in peace with its neighbors. The vision of justice, both past and future, simply has to be that of two states, one Palestinian, one Jewish, which would coexist side by side in peace and stability. Finding a formula for a reasonably just partition and separation is still the essence of what is considered to be moderate, pragmatic and fair ethos.
Thus, the really deep issuesthe “core”are conceived as the status of Jerusalem, the fate and future of the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories and the viability of the future Palestinian state beside the Jewish one. The fate of the descendants of those 750,000 Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed in 1948 from what is now, and would continue to be under a two-state solutions, the State of Israel, constitutes a “problem” but never an “issue” because, God forbid, to make it an issue on the table would be to threaten the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. The existence of Israel as a Jewish state must never become a core issue. That premise unites political opinion in the Jewish state, left and right and also persists as a pragmatic view of many Palestinians who would prefer some improvement to no improvement at all. Only “extremists” such as Hamas, anti-Semites, and Self-Hating Jewsterribly disturbed, misguided and detached lotcan make Israel’s existence into a core problem and in turn into a necessary issue to be debated and addressed.
The Jewish state, a supposedly potential haven for all the Jews in the world in the case a second Holocaust comes about, should be recognized as a fact on the ground blackmailed into the “never again” rhetoric. All considerations of pragmatism and reasonableness in envisioning a “peace process” to settle the “Israeli/Palestinian” conflict must never destabilize the sacred status of that premise that a Jewish state has a right to exist.
Notice, however, that Palestinians are not asked merely to recognize the perfectly true fact and with it, the absolutely feasible moral claim, that millions of Jewish people are now living in the State of Israel and that their physical existence, liberty and equality should be protected in any future settlement. They are not asked merely to recognize the assurance that any future arrangement would recognize historic Palestine as a home for the Jewish People. What Palestinians are asked to subscribe to is the recognition of the right of an ideology that informs the make-up of a state to exist as a Jewish one. They are asked to recognize that ethno-nationalistic premise of statehood.
The fallacy is clear: the recognition of the right of Jews who are therehowever unjustly many of their Parents or Grandparents came to acquire what they ownto remain there under liberty and equality in a post-colonial political settlement, is perfectly compatible with the non-recognition of the state whose constitution gives those Jews a preferential stake in the polity.
It is an abuse of the notion of pragmatism to conceive its effort as putting the very notion of Jewish state beyond the possible and desirable implementation of egalitarian moral scrutiny. To so abuse pragmatism would be to put it at the service of the continuation of colonialism. A pragmatic and reasonable solution ought to centre on the problem of how to address past, present, and future injustices to non-Jew-Arabs without thereby causing other injustices to Jews. This would be a very complex pragmatic issue, which would call for much imagination and generosity. But reasonableness and pragmatism should not determine whether the cause for such injustices be included or excluded from debates or negotiations. To pragmatically exclude moral claims and to pragmatically protect immoral assertions by fiat must in fact hide some form of extremism. The causes of colonial injustice and the causes that constitutionally prevent their full articulation and address should not be excluded from the debate. Pragmatism cannot become the very tool that legitimate constitutional structures that hinder de-colonization and the establishment of egalitarian constitution.
So let us boldly ask: What exactly is entailed by the requirement to recognize Israel as a Jewish state? What do we recognize and support when we purchase a delightful avocado or a date from Israel or when we invite Israel to take part in an international football event? What does it mean to be a friend of Israel? What precisely is that Jewish state whose status as such would be once and for all legitimized by such a two-state solution?
A Jewish state is a state which exists more for the sake of whoever is considered Jewish according to various ethnic, tribal, religious, criteria, than for the sake of those who do not pass this test. What precisely are the criteria of the test for Jewishness is not important and at any rate the feeble consensus around them is constantly reinvented in Israel. Instigating violence provides them with the impetus for doing that. What is significant, thought is that a test of Jewishness is being used in order to constitutionally protect differential stakes in, that is, the differential ownership of, a polity. A recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is a recognition of the Jews special entitlement, as eternal victims, to have a Jewish state. Such a test of supreme stake for Jews is the supreme criterion not only for racist policy-making by the legislature but also for a racist constitutional interpretation by the Supreme Court. The idea of a state that is first and foremost for the sake of Jews trumps even that basic law of Human Freedom and Dignity to which the Israeli Supreme Court pays so much lip service. Such constitutional interpretation would have to make the egalitarian principle equality of citizenship compatible with, and thus subservient to, the need to maintain the Jewish majority and character of the state. This of course constitutes a serious compromise of equality, translated into many individual manifestations of oppression and domination of those victims of such compromisenon-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel.
In our world, a world that resisted Apartheid South Africa so impressively, recognition of the right of the Jewish state to exist is a litmus test for moderation and pragmatism.
The demand is that Palestinians recognize Israel’s entitlement to constitutionally entrench a system of racist basic laws and policies, differential immigration criteria for Jews and non-Jews, differential ownership and settlements rights, differential capital investments, differential investment in education, formal rules and informal conventions that differentiate the potential stakes of political participation, lame-duck academic freedom and debate.
In the Jewish state of Israel non-Jewish Arab citizens are just “bad luck” and are considered a ticking demographic bomb of “enemy within.” They can be given the right to voteindeed one member one votebut the potential of their political power, even their birth rate, should be kept at bay by visible and invisible, instrumental and symbolic, discrimination. But now they are asked to put up with their inferior stake and recognize the right of Israel to continue to legitimate the non-egalitarian premise of its statehood.
We must not forget that the two state “solution” would open a further possibility to non-Jewish Arab citizens of Israel: “put up and shut up or go to a viable neighboring Palestinian state where you can have your full equality of stake.” Such an option, we must never forget, is just a part of a pragmatic and reasonable package.
The Jewish state could only come into being in May 1948 by ethnically cleansing most of the indigenous population750,000 of them. The judaization of the state could only be effectively implemented by constantly internally displacing the population of many villages within the Israel state.
It would be unbearable and unreasonable to demand Jews to allow for the Right of Return of those descendants of the expelled. Presumably, those descendants too could go to a viable Palestinian state rather than, for example, rebuild their ruined village in the Galilee. On the other hand, a Jewish young couple from Toronto who never set their foot in Palestine has a right to settle in the Galilee. Jews and their descendants hold this right in perpetuity. You see, that right “liberates” them as people. Jews must never be put under the pressure to live as a substantial minority in the Holy Land under egalitarian arrangement. Their past justifies their preferential stake and the preservation of their numerical majority in Palestine.
So the non-egalitarian hits us again. It is clear that part of the realization of that right of return would not only be just the actual return, but also the assurance of equal stake and citizenship of all, Jews and non-Jewish Arabs, after the return. A return would make the egalitarian claim by those who return even more difficult to conceal than currently with regard to Israel Arab second-class citizens. What unites Israelis and many world Jews behind the call for the recognition of the right of a Jewish state to exist is their aversion for the possibility of living, as a minority, under conditions of equality of stake to all. But if Jews enjoys this equality in Canada why cannot they support such equality in Palestine through giving full effect to the right of Return of Palestinians?
Let us look precisely at what the pragmatic challenge consists of: not pragmatism that entrenches inequality but pragmatism that responds to the challenge of equality.
The Right of Return of Palestinians means that Israel acknowledges and apologizes for what it did in 1948. It does mean that Palestinian memory of the 1948 catastrophe, the Nakbah, is publicly revived in the Geography and collective memory of the polity. It does mean that Palestinians descendants would be allowed to come back to their villages. If this is not possible because there is a Jewish settlement there, they should be given the choice to found an alternative settlement nearby. This may mean some painful compulsory state purchase of agricultural lands that should be handed back to those who return. In cases when this is impossible they ought to be allowed the choice to settle in another place in the larger area or if not possible in another area in Palestine. Compensation would be the last resort and would always be offered as a choice. This kind of moral claim of return would encompass all Palestine including Tel Aviv.
At no time, however, it would be on the cards to throw Israeli Jews from their land. An egalitarian and pragmatic realization of the Right of Return constitutes an egalitarian legal revolution. As such it would be paramount to address Jews’ worries about security and equality in any future arrangement in which they, or any other group, may become a minority. Jews national symbols and importance would be preserved. Equality of stake involves equality of symbolic ownership.
But it is important to emphasis that the Palestinian Right of Return would mean that what would cease to exist is the premise of a Jewish as well as indeed a Muslim state. A return without the removal of the constitutionally enshrined preferential stake is return to serfdom.
The upshot is that only by individuating cases of injustice, by extending claims for injustice to all historic Palestine, by fair address of them without creating another injustice for Jews and finally by ensuring the elimination of all racist laws that stems from the Jewish nature of the state including that nature itself, would justice be, and with it peace, possible. What we need is a spirit of generosity that is pragmatic but also morally uncompromising in terms of geographic ambit of the moral claims for repatriation and equality. This vision would propel the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But for all this to happen we must start by ceasing to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. No spirit of generosity would be established without an egalitarian call for jettisoning the ethno-nationalistic notion upon which the Jewish state is based.
The path of two states is the path of separation. Its realization would mean the entrenchment of exclusionary nationalism for many years. It would mean that the return of the dispossessed and the equality of those who return and those non-Jewish Arabs who are now there would have to be deferredindefinitely consigned to the dusty shelves of historical injustices. Such a scenario is sure to provoke more violence, as it would establish the realization and legitimization of Zionist racism and imperialism.
Also, any bi-national arrangement ought to be subjected to a principle of equality of citizenship and not vice versa. The notion of separation and partition that can infect bi-nationalism, should be done away with and should not be tinkered with or rationalized in any way. Both spiritually and materially Jews and non-Jews can find national expression in a single egalitarian and non-sectarian state.
The non-recognition of the Jewish state is an egalitarian imperative that looks both at the past and to the future. It is the uncritical recognition of the right of Israel to exist at a Jewish state, which is the core hindrance for this egalitarian premise to shape the ethical challenge that Palestine poses. A recognition of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state means the silencing that would breed more and more violence and bloodshed.
The same moral intuition that brought so many people to condemn and sanction Apartheid South Africa ought also to prompt them to stop seeing a threat to existence of the Jewish state as the effect caused by the refugee “problem” or by the “demographic threat” from the non-Jew-Arabs within it. It is rather the other way round. It is the non-egalitarian premise of a Jewish state and the lack of empathy and corruption of all those who make us uncritically accept the right of such a state to exist that is both the cause of the refugee problem and cause for the inability to implement their return and treating them as equals thereafter.
We must see that the uncritically accepted recognition of Israel’s right to exist is, as Joseph Massad so well puts it in Al-Ahram, to accept Israel’s claim to have the right to be racist or, to develop Massad’s brilliant formulation, Israel’s claim to have the right to occupy to dispossess and to discriminate. What is it, I wonder, that prevents Israelis and so many of world Jews to respond to the egalitarian challenge? What is it, I wonder, that oppresses the whole world to sing the song of a “peace process” that is destined to legitimize racism in Palestine?
To claim such a right to be racist must come from a being whose victims face must hide very dark primordial aggression and hatred of all others. How can we find a connective tissue to that mentality that claims the legitimate right to harm other human beings? How can this aggression that is embedded in victim mentality be perturbed?
The Annapolis meeting is a con. As an egalitarian argument we should say loud and clear that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish state.
Oren Ben-Dor grew up in Israel. He teaches Legal and Political Philosophy at the School of Law, University of Southampton, UK. He can be reached at:
$#151;Counterpunch, November 20, 2007