Israel Has No "Right To Exist"
As A Jewish State
By Oren Ben-Dor
21 November, 2007
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 neighbours. 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
Thus, the really deep issues--the
"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 750000 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 Jews--terribly disturbed,
misguided and detached lot--can 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 recognised 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 destabilise the sacred
status of that premise that a Jewish state has a right to exist.
Notice, however, that Palestinian
are not asked merely to recognise 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 recognise the assurance that any future arrangement
would recognise historic Palestine as a home for the Jewish People.What
Palestinians are asked to subscribe to recognition the right of an ideology
that informs the make-up of a state to exist as Jewish one. They are
asked to recognise that ethno-nationalistic premise of statehood.
The fallacy is clear: the
recognition of the right of Jews who are there--however unjustly many
of their Parents or Grandparents came to acquire what they own--to 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 cause 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 can not
become the very tool that legitimate constitutional structures that
hinder de-colonisation and the establishment of egalitarian constitution.
So let us boldly ask: What
exactly is entailed by the requirement to recognise Israel as a Jewish
state? What do we recognise 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 legitimised 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 compromise--non-Jews-Arabs
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 recognise 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-Jews-Arabs citizens are just "bad luck" and are considered
an ticking demographic bomb of "enemy within". They can be
given the right to vote--indeed one member one vote--but 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 recognise
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-Jew-Arabs
citizens of Israel: "put up and shut up or go to a viable neighbouring
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
The Jewish state could only
come into being in May 1948 by ethnically cleansing most of the indigenous
population--750000 of them. The judaisation 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
So the non-egalitarian hits
us again. It is clear that part of the realisation of that right of
return would not only be a just the actual return, but also the assurance
of equal stake and citizenship of all, Jews and non-Jews-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 can not 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 apologises 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 realisation 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
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 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 realisation 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-Jew-Arabs
who are now there would have to be deferred indefinitely consigned to
the dusty shelved of historical injustices.Such a scenario is sure to
provoke more violence as it would establish the realisation and legitimisation
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 rationalised in any way. Both spiritually and materially Jews
and non-Jews can find national expression in a single egalitarian and
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 right to exist is, as Joseph Massad so
well puts it in Al-Ahram, to accept Israel 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 prevent 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 legitimise racism in Palestine?
To claim such a right to
be racist must come from a being whose victim's 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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