Responding To Critics Of "On Questioning The Jewish State"

Joseph Levine replies to Mira Sucharov and Gil Troy, who critiqued his recent New York Times op-ed on Israel.

Mira Sucharov and Gil Troy take issue with my argument in “On Questioning the Jewish State,” recently published in the New York Times. Their criticisms come down to the following (Troy presses 1-3, and Sucharov 2 and 4):

1. I focus on Jewish nationalism, and Israel, and do not raise similar complaints about other nations.2. I am wrong about the character of Israeli democracy: Israel does not in fact politically oppress its non-Jewish, mainly Palestinian citizens. While there are obvious inequalities between Jewish and Palestinian citizens, this doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with the very structure of Israel’s national institutions.3. I ignore the history of the conflict.4. I am confused about the relation between self-determination for individuals and for collectives.

Let me respond in that order.1. There are two levels at which inconsistency or unfair “singling out” might occur. At the level of principle, consistency means applying the same principle to all cases. So, if I were to argue that the Jewish people do not possess a right to a Jewish state, but that the Kurdish people or the Palestinian people do have a corresponding right, then I would be guilty of inconsistency and unfairness. But this I clearly didn’t do. To quote my piece: “Any [notice, any] state that “belongs” to one ethnic group within it violates the core democratic principle of equality, and the self-determination rights of the non-members of that group.” So if there ever is a Kurdistan or Palestine, the same principles apply to them as far as I’m concerned.

The other level at which inconsistency, or something like it, might be charged is not in the application of the principle, but in the choice of instances on which to focus. Why do I focus on Israel, and not talk about Saudi Arabia or Latvia? Well, this is the issue that interests and engages me. I don’t suppose Troy endorses the following principle: One must rank all social-political issues on a moral scale and then only work on the one with the highest ranking until it’s solved. (To my mind, this would entail we all drop everything and fight global warming.)

Well, then maybe this is his principle: When one makes a charge of injustice in a public forum one must always list all the other parties guilty of the same charge. But I ask, was this principle used to criticize anti-apartheid advocates in the 70’s and 80’s? Would one say today to someone concerned about the treatment of Tibet by the Chinese, “Hey, why don’t you talk about the Palestinians, or the Chechnyans?”

I would have thought the motivation for an American Jew to talk about Israel was so obvious as not to need justification. Maybe then, as suggested by the comment at the beginning of Troy’s commentary, it’s that I’m just joining a bandwagon of undue attention to Israeli failings to the exclusion of those of other nations. Here I think it’s important to distinguish the public treatment of Israel within the U.S. and Europe from the rest of the world. I agree that Israel is “singled out” within the U.S. and Europe—that is, it is shielded from consequences of, and even rewarded for behavior that gets other countries serious sanctions and even invasion. Within mainstream political discourse Israel is also protected from all sorts of criticism. My contribution to the Times was intended to open up what is an unusually constrained discussion of the issue.

Within the non-European world, I agree that there is a lot of hypocrisy in condemning Israel for injustices that are also committed by states that are not subject to such criticism (or as much). But the rush to blame this on anti-Semitism is unwarranted (though undoubtedly this contributes). There is a more obvious explanation. The Zionist takeover of Palestine, and continued suppression of Palestinian rights, is seen as continuous with the general European colonialist and imperialist enterprise. So if the victims of this avalanche of colonial and imperialist endeavors feel a special sense of solidarity with other such victims, is that really surprising?

2. It’s often asserted that because Palestinian citizens can vote, hold office in the Knesset, and occasionally attain some prominence, the Jewish national institutions are just or at least relatively benign. I reject this. Justice comes in degrees, of course, so the details do matter. But despite the fine rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence, Palestinian citizens of Israel are excluded in fundamental, systematic ways from full political and social participation. Whether it’s the issue of land tenure, the existence of quasi-governmental institutions that are only for the benefit of Jews, the existence of “unrecognized villages,” the treatment of the “present absentees,” the fact that “Israeli” is not an official designation on one’s identity card, the refusal to allow Palestinian returnees, and restrictions on the ideological platforms of political parties contending for the Knesset, the entire “basic structure” (as Rawls would call it) of Israel is profoundly discriminatory against its Palestinian citizens. (This recent op-ed in the NYT makes the point nicely.)

Two examples really drive this home. The long-standing, officially encouraged campaign to “Judaize the Galilee” (recently reaffirmed by Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom), and the open discussion of the “demographic threat” posed by Israel’s Palestinian citizens. To me such rhetoric has no place in a democracy, and certainly flies in the face of any claim to the inclusion of Palestinian Israelis in the civic culture. (Imagine an official saying publicly in the U.S. that there is a need to “whiten” New Orleans, or that Latinos present a demographic threat.)

3. I know quite a bit about the history actually, and think it’s quite relevant. But both because of editorial and space issues, I chose to make a conceptual argument. In fact, when you factor in the history—that Jews came as colonial-settlers and expelled the vast majority of the indigenous people of Palestine—the claim to a right to a Jewish state in Palestine becomes even weaker still. (I’ve discussed the relevance of history to the issue here.)

4. Sucharov points out my grammatical mistake (you got me!) and then tries to show that it’s indicative of a genuine confusion. Actually, the issue of plural vs. singular is orthogonal to the dilemma she wants to pose. As far as I’m concerned, and this is consistent with her argument as well, rights are always held by individuals, not collective entities. The question is what are the rights at issue. She presents the following dilemma. When I claim that the Israeli social-political system violates Palestinian rights of self-determination, which rights do I have in mind? If I mean the basic right of full political participation, or non-exclusion, then I’m wrong because there’s no contradiction between Israel’s being a Jewish state and non-Jewish citizens possessing full political rights. If I mean the right to live in a state that officially promotes one’s ethnic/national identity, then there is no such right for minorities generally, so Israel isn’t violating any recognized right.

While I admit I could have been clearer about this, I really don’t think there’s anything in my essay to support the second, “collective identity” interpretation, unless of course it’s supposed to be the obvious falsity of my claim on the first interpretation. But I dispute this, as my answer to #2 demonstrates. Unless one waters down “the idea of a Jewish state” (to quote Sucharov) to such an extent that it ceases to perform the function it was meant to serve, it will of necessity be exclusionary. This is the dilemma facing anyone who advocates a Jewish and democratic state.

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In closing, I’d like to make a general point about my argument that seems to be completely misunderstood by almost every critic who has responded to it. I did not argue that because it was unjust for there to be a Jewish state (as it is for there to be any ethnic state of the same type) we should immediately dismantle it (while leaving all other unjust states as they are). What I argued was that because such a system is unjust, advocates for Israel’s claims in its dispute with Palestinians have no moral basis to appeal to a right to a Jewish state to support their claims, nor to browbeat with the charge of anti-Semitism those who, in response to this claim to a right, reject it. Just as one doesn’t usually hear in the West justifications of the theocracy and oppression in Saudi Arabia on the grounds that the Saudis have a right to such a system of governance, it seems to me it’s time to stop claiming that the Jewish state is based on a right as well. It’s a limited, but, judging by the hysterical reaction it’s evoked in many quarters, also a powerful point as well.