When I posted Sharmine Narwani’s provocative article Excuse Me, But Israel Has No Right to Exist on Facebook, I got an inappropriate reaction from libertarians. It was summed up by one comment this way:
No territorial State has the right to exist. They are all organisations against individual rights and liberties.
This answer is true but inappropriate. Why?
Narwani was not tendering a general proposition in political philosophy. She had no intention of operating in the realm of abstraction on this occasion. Rather, she was making a point that seems to elude people, including many (most?) libertarians. Narwani was drawing attention to the fact that invocation of the Jewish State of Israel’s “right to exis” is intended to derail any effort to focus on the right of Palestinian individuals to live on and work the land they and their families have inhabited for more than a thousand years (and perhaps much further back.) Changing the subject to the State of Israel’s alleged right to exist—and that’s what this move is, a change of subject—is designed to make sure that the rights of Palestinians are never discussed.
Imagine you caught a burglar in your home pilfering your silverware. Now imagine that when you demanded he put your property down, he responded, “Wait. Before we talk about that, I demand that you first acknowledge my right to exist in this spot with these things in my hands.” You would not regard that demand as legitimate.
To proclaim Israel’s right exist is to proclaim that a political entity founded by a group of individuals on an ideology of ethno-racial chauvinism has a moral right to land it obtained through brutal ethnical cleansing. The Zionist movement had (and has) as its premise that Palestine is “Jewish land” and that the non-Jews are unfit for it. Thus it had (has) to be “redeemed.” The outcome was what the Palestinians call the nakba, or catastrophe. The political entity known as Israel thus occupies land stolen from the Palestinian people.
That is the context from which to judge all that goes on in Palestine/Israel today. This is no “dispute” or “conflict” in the sense that two sides have roughly equal claims to the same land and resources. The claims are no more equal than those of my hypothetical homeowner and burglar. (”Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country…. We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?” —David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, quoted in Nahum Goldman, The Jewish Paradox.) Contrition therefore belongs on the Jewish, not the Palestinian, side. (I hope no one will say that a UN General Assembly vote made this all morally acceptable.)
(For details see Jeremy Hammond’s excellent brief introduction, The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination. For a close examination of the Zionists’ alleged purchases of land see Stephen P. Halbrook’s “The Alienation of a Homeland.” On the systematic efforts to cleanse the nakba from history see Neve Gordon’s “Erasing the Nakba.” For the Jewish case against Zionism, rooted in the Prophetic tradition, see Jack Ross’s biography, Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism. But you need not take their word for it. Consult an Israeli historian, Benny Morris, who thinks ethnic cleansing was a good thing but did not go far enough.)
We may put it another way: Israel is the only country I can think of that, de jure, does not belong to all its citizens. (I am not saying that other countries actually operate as though they belonged to their citizens.) As the self-proclaimed “Jewish State,” Israel is said to belong not to its citizens but to the Jewish People worldwide. Under the “Law of Return,” anyone who qualifies as a Jew (that is, has a Jewish mother and hasn’t converted to another religion or was converted to Judaism by an approved rabbi) may become a full citizen merely by moving to Israel. Note the word “return.” A Jewish person who “makes aliyah” need not have ever lived in Israel, so she would not literally be returning. (It’s merely assumed, despite reasons for assuming otherwise, that her ancient ancestors might have once lived in Palestine.)
On the other hand, a Palestinian who was one of the million-plus Arabs driven from their villages in 1948 (or even earlier) or 1967 and who could therefore actually return to her home is prohibited from doing so. Her home has long been confiscated, perhaps demolished. In fact her entire village may have been leveled to make way for an exclusively Jewish town. (More than 500 such villages were destroyed during the period of Israeli independence.)
Yes, the Muslim, Christian, and secular Arabs who were not among the 750,000 who fled what became Israel in 1948 were allowed to become citizens of the Jewish State, with the vote and representation in the Knesset. But there’s less here than meets the eye. Non-Jews are second (third?)-class citizens who get inferior government services and who have no power to change Israel’s official designation as the state of the Jewish People. Indeed, any political party that aspires to change that designation is outlawed. A recent law requires new non-Jewish citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish, democratic [sic] state.” In 2010 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed, as a condition for progress in negotiations, that Palestinian leaders acknowledge Israel as “the national state of the Jewish People.” It is worth noting that until a 2005 legal challenge, the Israeli identity card identified citizens not as Israeli but as Jewish, Arab, Druze and Circassian, and so on. Citizens are still so designated in government records.
Thus, in this context, when libertarians say “all states are illegitimate,” they blur a critical distinction and give those who occupy Palestinian property and otherwise oppress Palestinian individuals an undeserved pass. I imagine that an ardent Zionist would much rather hear that response than one that perceives and exposes the real intent behind the proclamation of Israel’s right to exist: the negation of the rights of Palestinians.
I shouldn’t have to mention this but I will: To say that the state of Israel has no right to exist is not to say that the individuals living in Israel have no right to exist—quite the contrary–and the Palestinians would agree. That raises the question of how best to proceed in achieving justice for the long-suffering Palestinians. This is a complicated question to which there is no easy answer. But here’s one thing advocates of universal freedom and justice can say: The rights of the Palestinians must not be plastered over by irrelevant claims about the Jewish State’s right to exist.