Open Zion

03.12.13

Flawed Questions About Israel's Right To Exist

In the New York Times, Joseph Levine has set out to answer a question that is widely considered taboo within the mainstream, but which is increasingly heard as a mantra within anti-Zionist circles: does Israel have a right to exist? You can follow his extended reasoning (delivered in a tone that is refreshingly free of polemic) here, but the thrust of his argument comes down to this claim, a claim that also reveals a fatal flaw.

Consider this sentence: "It is a violation of a people’s right [here he means Palestinians] to self-determination to exclude them—whether by virtue of their ethnic membership, or for any other reason—from full political participation in the state under whose sovereignty they fall." One might want to grab the "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" grammar bestseller to reveal the inherent problem in meaning with Levine’s argument. But it is a problem that goes beyond grammar. Namely, Levine slides too easily between conceiving of Israel’s non-Jewish inhabitants—namely, the Palestinians—as a people versus as a collection of individuals. In other words, is the State of Israel’s existence "a violation of a people’s right to self-determination"? Or is Israel’s problem that the state “exclude[s] them,” meaning individual citizens?

There is little that is inherent in the idea of a Jewish state which should preclude equal status among Israel’s citizens. Israel’s declaration of independence enshrines this ideal. The major institutional engines of democracy in Israel are well oiled, despite not enough separation of religion and state in civil matters (an issue that may very well be rectified by the expected incoming governing coalition).

But let’s examine Levine’s suggestion—as obscured by double-entendre as it was—that ethnic minorities within democracies must be granted self-determination as a collective. Here I would challenge that assertion. Any nation on the world stage is certainly within its right to pursue sovereignty. But whether a given nation-state grants another nation within its borders independent status, is, frankly, up to the sovereign desires of that state. Today, that push-and-pull is beautifully illustrated—in a most democratic, if unnerving, way—in the case of Canada and Quebec.

So perhaps Levine means collective cultural rights. In Israel’s case, separate school systems and religious authorities instill vibrant parallel cultures, languages and religions. If anything, this nurturing of minority identity is Israel’s democratic deficit.

Most importantly, the ending of Israel’s occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank may create a helpful spillover effect in bolstering the national welfare of Israel’s Palestinian minority. It won’t mean Palestinian self-determination within Israel’s borders, but it may give Palestinian citizens of Israel the kind of sovereign pride that Jews experience when they listened to Ben-Gurion reading out the Declaration of Independence in a modest hall on Rothschild Boulevard.

Part of the confusion that Levine introduces may may also rest on his definitions. He parses the definition of "people" (he oddly avoids the word nation which would greatly clarify matters in the case of Zionism) into "ethnic" and "civic" components. But these two aspects don’t necessarily exist in tandem. When nations first coalesce around the idea of achieving sovereignty on the world stage, it is their ethnic identity that drives them. Only later, once the state is functioning, does a sense of "civic" identity emerge, as citizens jostle together to create public policies and barter over the fruits of democracy.

In the case of Israel, the question is not whether the Jewish nation was justified in forging ahead with the creation of a State of Israel, but how well that state is now able to create and nurture a civic identity among all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. This is a project that clearly needs work. But its unfinished nature should be a challenge for the democratically inspired – not a death sentence for the aims of Jewish national expression.