It depends what you mean by ‘state’, ‘Israel’,’right’ and ‘exist’

Kibbutz in Southern Israel

In an Atlantic article about the prohibition of anti-Zionist views at American Universities, this:

One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”

The phrase “Israel’s right to exist” is a common one in debates about Zionism and the hideous disputes between Israel and the Palestinians.  It’s often used as a line in the sand: critics of Israel are often asked whether they support its “right to exist”.

The formulation exists because of the Hamas Covenant.  This document, which is written by Islamic fundamentalists, includes a phrase in the preamble, expanded on in the main body of the text, which takes an anihilistic view of the state of Israel:

Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it

For Israeli Jews, this is rightly chilling.

Hamas has since waged war on Israel, firing rockets, deploying suicide bombers and other acts of terrorism, not just in the name of liberation but in the stated pursuit of eradicating Israel as a Jewish state and replacing it with something Islamic.

It therefore seems reasonable to ask critics of Israel whether they affirm Israel’s right to exist.  Surely every decent person can disavow the Hamas Covenant and simply answer “yes”?

And yet, there are people who somehow cannot bring themselves to make this affirmation.  They’re anti-Semites, right?

I’m not so sure.  Because in the neat phrase Israel’s Right To Exist is packed all manner of politically contentious concepts and subtleties of meaning.

First, when we talk about Israel, do we mean simply a state that occupies the space between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan?  If so, a constitutionally secular Israel, which gave no special status was given to Jewish people and in which Muslims became a majority, could still be said to ‘exist’.  Or when we talk about Israel, do we mean simply The Jewish State?  If so, a new Jewish Israel established in (say) Ontario or Madagascar would fit the criteria for ‘existence’.  But clearly, Israel, in the phrase under discussion, means neither of those things alone, but both together: A Jewish majority state in the Levant.

Second, when we talk about the right of a state to exist, what does that mean?  Does a state have inalienable rights like a human being?  Do we mean, the right of the citizens of Israel (who are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and Ba’hai) to continue to be citizens of Israel?  Or do we mean, the right of the Jewish diaspora to have a state they can join if they so wish?  Do citizens have the right to change the constitution, disbanding the old order and establishing a new one?  Or does the existing constitution have rights of its own?

And finally, the word exist can be challenged too!  Does exist mean the persistence of the country’s constitution in its current form?  Does it mean the persistence of the country’s borders at their 1948 or 1967 positions?  Or does it mean maintaining the 2016 de facto border, including the mutant villi that reach deep into the West Bank, accommodating the settlements that have been declared illegal under international law?

Does the right to exist mean enacting policies to ensure that the citizenry is always majority Jewish?  Does it mean that preserving the character of the state should take precedent over the rights of other groups?

I do not know the answers to all these questions.  But they are all questions about the nature and extent of Zionism, and questions over which decent people can and do disagree, for reasons that are genuine and rational.

Its been over a decade since my trip to Israel but there are conversations from my time there that I often think of.  Certainly, the complaints of the Bedouin of the Negev (a.k.a. Naqab) desert, who were still angry that the lands granted to them under the British Mandate were appropriated after the establishment of Israel in 1948.  In the twenty-first century, the state was still systematically abusing their human rights and eradicating their way of life.  They did not wish to see Jews driven into the sea, but nor did they see Israel as legitimate.

I also spoke to a young British-Palestinian, whose grandmother fled to Jordan when Israel was established. She had no Right of Return.  “You want me to endorse this country when someone else is living in my grandmothers house?  I can’t. I can’t.”

I don’t have the same emotional connection, which I now think of as a luxury allows me a position ofprivileged  detatchment.

So, affirming “Israel’s right to exist” can actually be a complex question.  If it means disavowing Hamas’ violent, uncompromising jihad, then of course we do.  But if it means whole-hearted endorsement of someone else’s definition of Zionism; if it means consenting to a second-class citizenship for non-Jewish citizens; and if it means endorsing human rights abuses… then to pause, equivocate and clarify before giving a straight answer is no bad thing.  Those who do so may be opposing Zionism, but they are not endorsing the Hamas Covenant.

The authors of the UC statement linked to at the top of this post state that “healthy political debate” is desirable.  The nature and possible reformation of the state of Israel can and should be part of that healthy debate.

Coda: One state

I’ve been wondering about all this because of my own thoughts on the Israel/Palestine question.

My personal view is that state religions are inherently wrong. I think that even if a Jewish Israel and a Muslim Palestine were to make peace, they are constitutionally inclined to abuse the rights of their religious minorities.  I therefore believe that a single secular state is the only solution which would properly protect the human and civil rights of everyone living in Israel and Palestine.

The One State Solution is currently derided as utopian to the point of stupidity.  I agree that it is unlikely to come about in the short term.  However, I think that if trust could be built over generations, then such a settlement would be workable… and even beautiful.

But setting the practicalities aside, there’s this:  To even imagine a One State Solution is, to some extent, to deny “Israel’s right to exist” because the secular approach tramples on the Zionist vision of a Jewish state.  In this way, its possible for humane, secular considerations to be labelled as anti-Semitic and friendly to Hamas, and thus discredited.

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