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On saying that Israel has a right to exist

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Earlier this year Brian Klug, a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford, published an important book, Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life. The paperback is about to be released; you can order it here or here or from Amazon. To mark its publication, Klug allowed us to publish a slimmed version of an essay in the book. As Jacqueline Rose, author of the Question of Zion, says, “What is brilliant about this essay is that it obliges us to think so deeply and carefully about what is involved in the insistence that all criticism of Israel should affirm the nation’s right to exist – it does this not as part of a demand for its dissolution or delegitimisationm, indeed far from it, but in order to focus on what nationhood can and should be in the twenty first century.” –Editor

‘Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its “right to exist”. It is disturbing to find so many people well-disposed to Israel giving currency to this contemptuous formulation.’ These were the opening sentences of ‘The Saudi Text’, an article that appeared in The New York Times on 18 November 1981. Given present Israeli policy, it might come as a surprise to know that the author was Abba Eban, Foreign Minister in Israel’s Labour government from 1966 to 1974. Labour was in opposition when Eban’s article was published, and perhaps even more surprising is the fact that his withering words were not aimed at Menachem Begin, leader of the right-wing Likud party (headed today by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), which had come to power four years earlier. Far from it: on this point, at least, the two adversaries were wholly in agreement. Presenting his newly-elected government to the Knesset in June 1977, Begin had made the following firm avowal: ‘… I wish to declare that the Government of Israel will not ask any nation, be it near or far, mighty or small, to recognize our right to exist.’

Neither Begin nor Eban, of course, meant to imply that Israel does not have a right to exist. Their point was that this right should be regarded as a given, as something taken for granted. It was precisely for this reason that they rejected the idea that Israel needs other people to bestow it or confirm it. ‘Israel’s right to exist,’ Eban continued, ‘like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel’s legitimacy is not suspended in midair awaiting acknowledgement by the royal house in Riyadh.’ In the same vein, Begin went on to say in his speech to the Knesset: ‘It would not enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for his people recognition of its right to exist. Their existence per se is their right to exist. The same holds true for Israel.’

But today, the formulation that Eban called ‘contemptuous’ has become ubiquitous. It is the price of admission, the ticket to ride, in two different (though overlapping) arenas. One is the world of international diplomacy where, since Hamas’ victory in the January 2006 Palestinian elections, the Quartet (US, UN, European Union and Russia) have isolated the party until it passes three political tests, including ‘recognition of Israel’. Israel itself has set the same condition for any prospective ‘partner for peace’. As is evident from the discourse in diplomatic circles, ‘recognition of Israel’ means more than implicitly acknowledging the fact that the state exists. For one thing, it refers to the right – not just the ¬fact – of its existence, as George W. Bush (who was US President at the time) underlined: ‘The Hamas party has made it clear that they do not support the right of Israel to exist. And I have made it clear so long as that’s their policy, that we will not support a Palestinian government made up of Hamas.’ For another, in order to satisfy the condition, it is not enough for Hamas (or anyone else) to imply recognition: it has to be stated explicitly: it has to be said.

In the public square, many people ‘well-disposed to Israel’ (in Eban’s phrase) make a similar stipulation. Their unwritten law, which applies both to groups in civil society and to private individuals, is roughly as follows: ‘Criticize Israel as much as you like, provided you proclaim Israel’s right to exist.’ Thus, the rule of entry is the same in both arenas. If you are Hamas and you wish to receive aid from the Quartet; if you are an interested party and seek a place at the negotiating table; or if you are just a plain private person with a beef about Israel: then, like Ali Baba in the story, you must say the magic words if you want the door to open. If he were alive today, it would surprise Eban to know the extent to which his ‘contemptuous formulation’ has become the indispensable condition…

… When we look into this further, we find that the ‘indispensable condition’ deforms the whole shape of the debate about Palestine and Israel. Partly, this is because it tends to use up all the oxygen, emphasizing the ‘existential threat’ to Israel and deflecting attention away from the predicaments of the Palestinians (let alone the security anxieties of neighbouring states). Partly, it is because the content is a tissue of confusion: ‘Israel has a right to exist’ is, in each part and as a whole, as vague as a cloud (or as slippery as an eel)…

… In February 2007, a number of people living in Britain – all of us Jewish – launched an initiative called Independent Jewish Voices (IJV). Largely with an eye to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we drafted a statement, ‘A Time to Speak Out’, and invited fellow Jews in Britain to join us in signing it. The core of the statement is a set of five principles of (social) justice and human rights; principles that are either universal in themselves or in the spirit of universality. We held that these principles, rather than the principle of group or ethnic loyalty, should come first. We tested the draft statement in advance on a few trusted friends and acquaintances. The advice we received from one quarter was emphatic: ‘[Y]ou need to begin with an explicit declaration of support for Israel’s right to exist and flourish …’. Otherwise, he warned us, we would not ‘get a hearing’ in the British Jewish mainstream. He was reminding us of the ‘indispensable condition’.

His advice was given in a spirit of goodwill and, in a way, it was sound… But precisely to the extent that he was right, he was wrong; for if, in order to ‘get a hearing’, this is what we had to say, then our message would not have been heard. Our own words would have drowned it out. Taking his advice, we would have been in contradiction with ourselves. This is not because we were asserting that Israel does not have ‘a right to exist’: we were not asserting the negative any more than the positive. We were proclaiming universal principles that transcend partisan support for one side against another and calling for the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be based on the premise that these principles must be applied, in an even-handed way, to all parties. Singling out Israel, declaring our support for its right to exist, would have conveyed a completely different message – or a muddled one…

…But suppose we would have complied with the advice and prefaced our statement by uttering the obligatory words: What would these words have said to the people who need us to say them before we get a hearing? To put it another way: What kind of a ‘hearing’ would they have given us? They hear us say ‘a right to exist’: Although it is unclear precisely what kind of right they take this to be, it must, as we have seen, be more than merely legal. Call it a moral right. But unless and until we know what they regard as the moral basis for this right, we do not really know what they are hearing us say (for they are hearing us affirm the source of moral authority that grounds this right). And before we can clarify this point, we need to know what they understand by the name ‘Israel’. What is Israel? What is the nature or identity of the bearer of this moral ‘right to exist’? Israel, to be sure, is a state; in other words, a sovereign political entity within a specified territory. And now there are two complications. The first is that this territory is not specified. For what are Israel’s – legally binding – borders? The matter has never been settled. What does it mean to say that a state has ‘a right to exist’ if we do not know the extent of the territory over which its right is exercised? And, since the question of borders is one of the burning issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is not something that we can quietly gloss over. But perhaps all we are being asked to say (by the people who want us to say it) is this: ‘Israel has a right to exist somewhere between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan’, leaving it vague as to what its boundaries might be. Perhaps this is what they mean; perhaps not. But let it pass; for there is a deeper problem when we turn to the second complication with the name ‘Israel’. Israel is a state. But does the name ‘Israel’ denote the state as such or does it denote the state as Jewish? Does it (to take this one step further) denote the state as the state of the Jews? Saying ‘Israel has a right to exist’, what would be we saying? What would be heard to be saying by the people for whose benefit we were saying it? We would be speaking about Israel: but in which sense? 

In his landmark foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan University on 14 June 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu left his audience – the world – in no doubt about what he means when he says ‘Israel’. Over and again, he called the country ‘the state of the Jewish People’ or ‘the national homeland of the Jewish People’. Muddying the waters while rubbing salt into the wound, he persisted in referring to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria’, the biblical names for the region (which is also official Israeli terminology), even as he placed the onus on the Palestinians and enunciated the ‘indispensable condition’. ‘[W]e need,’ he said, ‘the Palestinian leadership to rise and say, simply “We have had enough of the conflict. We recognize the right of the Jewish People to a state [of] its own in this land. We will live side by side in true peace.”’

For how many people in the Jewish mainstream does ‘Israel’ mean what it means for Netanyahu? It is hard to say. My impression is that a majority would accept the caveat that by ‘Israel’ they mean ‘a Jewish state’, but whether they are clear about what this means is another matter. For one thing, do they have an idea about who should count as ‘Jewish’? (The State of Israel itself does not seem to be sure. Thus, among the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who were awarded citizenship as Jews, hundreds of thousands ‘are considered non-Jewish’ by Israel’s rabbinic courts. Yet these courts are ‘an arm of the Israeli justice system’. ) For another, do they think (at one end of the spectrum of possibility) that ‘a Jewish state’ means a state whose public culture reflects the ethnic and religious identity of the majority of Israelis – who, as it happens, are Jewish? Or (at the other end) do they mean a state whose laws, institutions and official practices discriminate in favour of Jews? Furthermore, how many of them would distinguish the idea of ‘a Jewish state’ from Netanyahu’s full-blown notion of Israel as ‘the state of the Jewish People’? Or would they see this as a distinction without a difference? There would, I imagine, be a good deal of vagueness or uncertainty on this point; it might not be a point to which they have given any thought. But, if pressed, I suspect that a sizable number of Israel’s Jewish ‘supporters’ would endorse the view that Israel is ‘our state’. If this is what Israel is, then ‘Israel’ means ‘the state of the Jewish people’; in which case, saying ‘Israel has a right to exist’ is not just saying that this state has a certain right; it is saying that a certain people has a right to this state. This is a rather different matter. And it brings us, I believe, closer to the heart of what is driving the demand that is under discussion in this chapter. If this is what Israel is to the people who need us to say the obligatory words (‘Israel has a right to exist’), then (to get back to an earlier point that I left dangling), they will hear us saying something else implicitly: they will hear us affirming the source of moral authority that grounds this right. Once again, it is not altogether clear what they take this to be; nor do they all necessarily give the same grounds. And yet, by and large, the various reasons given are variations on certain themes. Netanyahu, in his speech in June 2009, struck a familiar chord when he said: ‘The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.’ (This leaves the Palestinians where? According to Netanyahu, it places them ‘in the heart of our Jewish Homeland’.) Treating Genesis as a historical document, he spoke of the ‘connection of the Jewish People to the Land’ going back ‘more than 3,500 years’ and referred to ‘Judea and Samaria’ as ‘the places where our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked …’. This is hiding the divine light under a bushel: citing the bible without invoking God. Begin was more direct: ‘We were granted our right to exist by the God of our fathers, at the glimmer of the dawn of human civilization, nearly four thousand years ago.’ 

Examples could be multiplied and there are other themes that could be exemplified. But, for the purposes of this chapter, it is beside the point to go further into the stock of arguments. The point is this: Suppose we would have complied with the advice we were given and had prefaced the IJV statement with the words: ‘Israel has a right to exist’: given the way these words are likely to be heard by the audience for whom we would have been saying it, we would, in effect, have been signing on to a whole political ideology, the ideology of Jewish nationalism centred on Palestine. But we would not have known it in advance.

To put it another way: On the one hand, declaring support for Israel’s ‘right to exist’ is like signing a blank cheque; for it is a form of words, the content of which is intrinsically unclear. On the other hand, the likelihood is that the cheque will be cashed in favour of some version or other of a fully-fledged theory about the state: a theory that is not merely about its existence but its essence. It then becomes impossible to say, for example, ‘I support Israel’s right to exist but I propose that it redefine itself as “the state of the Israelis” rather than “the state of the Jews”’. You cannot say this if ‘belonging to the Jewish people’ is written into the very concept of the state and if you have underwritten this concept – as you will have done, whether you meant to or not, in signing the blank cheque. Your proposal might be intended to secure the future of the state, but you will stand accused – by many ‘supporters’ of Israel – of seeking its ‘destruction’. (Proposing, say, a bi-national state would put you further beyond the pale.) The precise meaning of ‘Israel’ determines what counts as ‘exists’, and therefore what satisfies its ‘right to exist’.

Thus, if you fall in with the demand to proclaim Israel’s ‘right to exist’, you may find yourself more restricted than you would like when you enter into a debate about the future. Furthermore, the continual focus on the right to its existence insinuates that Israel faces a continual threat to its existence – either from the Palestinians or from other states in the region. This tends to reinforce a whole outlook – ‘us against the world’ – and the militaristic approach that naturally accompanies it. It suggests that no other issue in the conflict matters as much as this does; that the conflict might come to an end if only the enemies of Israel would take their collective boot off Israel’s throat; and that this constant ‘existential threat’ justifies every illegal act that Israel performs and every controversial policy that it adopts…

…Perhaps the deepest confusion of all in this entire debate is the failure to distinguish clearly between a state and an individual. I do not know whether, or in what sense, a sovereign state has ‘a right to exist’. But, if it does, this right is neither inherent nor absolute. An individual, on the other hand, does have an inherent, absolute right to exist; it is called ‘a right to life’ and, as I read the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it is grounded in ‘the dignity and worth of the human person’. The state belongs to ‘human persons’ but it is not itself a living, breathing human being. It is not endowed with dignity purely by virtue of being a state. And whatever worth it has is purely a function of how valuable it is to the people to whom it belongs. I long to hear the ‘supporters’ of Israel switch their emphasis from Israel’s ‘right to exist’ to its ‘duty of care’: a duty it owes all its citizens equally – and to everyone under its sway. 

Certainly, it would not be prudent for any state to ignore the aggressive language of another state, even if this turns out to be mere sabre-rattling. I am alluding to the hostile speeches of President Ahmadinejad of Iran. But prudence is not the same as paranoia; and reality is the realm of differences. If Israel cannot alter its posture of warrior, if the mentality of perpetual war where every border skirmish is a battle for the survival of the Jewish people persists, then the consequences will be as fatal for Israel as they are lethal for others. Israel’s rhetoric of ‘existence’, which is part of its posture of warrior, puts its very existence at risk.

In order to secure its future, Israel does not need anyone – not Hamas, nor you nor I – to recognise its ‘right to exist’. UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed shortly after the June war of 1967, speaks of ‘a just and lasting peace’ that is based, inter alia, on the principle that every state in the area has a ‘right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force …’. The same wording occurs again in ‘Frameworks for Peace’, signed jointly by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin at the Camp David Summit in 1978. Similar language is used in the peace treaties between Israel and Jordan (1994). In other words, specific rights are what states require in reality. The ‘right to exist’ either speaks for itself – or says nothing useful. 

It is time to end this preoccupation – if not obsession – with Israel’s ‘right to exist’. Israel should be treated like any other country. It has the rights that (all other things being equal) every existing state possesses. But no state is exempt from challenges to its constitutional arrangements, whether those challenges are made by its citizens or by others. This extends to the question of whether the state should break up or, conversely, enter into a union with another state. These are perfectly legitimate and proper issues that people ought to be free to discuss, having an eye to what is best for every ‘human person’ affected by the question; for it is people that matter, not states, not in themselves. But it is impossible to conduct the kind of open discussion that is urgently needed for the sake of all inhabitants of the region if first – as a sine qua non – you have to say, ‘Israel has a right to exist’.


[1] Abba Eban, ‘The Saudi Text’, New York Times, 18 November 1981. Eban was responding to ‘the Fahd Plan’, put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd ibn Abd al-Aziz, August 7 1981.

[1] ‘Statement to the Knesset by Prime Minster Begin upon the presentation of his government, 20 June 1977’. Available at the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

[1] Eban, ‘The Saudi text’. There are now 192 states belonging to the United Nations.

[1] Begin, ‘Statement to the Knesset’.

[1] This was the phrase used by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he read out the Quartet’s statement (‘Hamas rejects unfair aid demand’, BBC News, 31 January 2006. The other two tests are: ‘non-violence’ and ‘acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap’.

[1] ‘President Bush Remarks on Hamas Election Victory’, 30 January 2006. Available at Jewish Virtual Library:

[1] The text of the IJV statement is available on the IJV website at

[1] John V. Whitbeck, ‘What “Israel’s right to exist” means to Palestinians’, Christian Science Monitor, 2 February 2007.

[1] ‘Full text of Netanyahu’s foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan’, Haaretz, 14 June 2009.

[1] Anshel Pfeffer, ‘This conversion row could hit us all’, Jewish Chronicle, 30 May 2008, p. 27.

[1] Gershom Gorenberg, ‘How Do You Prove You’re a Jew?’, New York Times (Magazine), 2 March 2008.

[1] ‘Full text of Netanyahu’s foreign policy speech ’. ‘Eretz Israel’ means ‘the Land of Israel’

[1] Ibid.

[1] Statement to the Knesset’.

[1] ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), in P. R. Ghandhi, Blackstone’s International Human Rights Documents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 22.

[1] Walter Laqueur & Barry Rubin, The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 116.

[1] Ibid., p. 223

[1] Ibid., p. 478.

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127 Responses

  1. RoHa
    RoHa on October 9, 2011, 8:05 pm

    ‘It would not enter the mind of any Briton or Frenchman, Belgian or Dutchman, Hungarian or Bulgarian, Russian or American, to request for his people recognition of its right to exist. Their existence per se is their right to exist. The same holds true for Israel.”

    And this is the sort of shifty argument the Zionists love to use. The existence of the Bulgarian people (interpreted either as (a) an aggregate of individuals or (b) some sort of collective entity) may be sufficient to give them(a) or it(b) a “right to exist”, but that does not give a Bulgarian state a right to exist.

    (Which is one of the points Klug wishes to make.)

  2. RoHa
    RoHa on October 9, 2011, 8:18 pm

    ‘The right to establish our sovereign state here, in the Land of Israel, arises from one simple fact: Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People.’

    Another example of a bad Zionist argument.

    How does “Eretz Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish People” imply “the Jewish People” have a right to establish a sovereign state there?

    “Birthplace” cannot be taken literally. (I was born in Sale Cottage Hospital. Do I have a right to establish a sovereign state in the hospital?) A “people” is not born in the literal sense. I would have to interpret “birthplace” as “formed a tribe and labelled themselves there”.

    Is there a general principle to the effect that “If a group formed a tribe and labelled themselves in a particular territory, members of that group thereafter have a perpetual right to establish a sovereign state in that territory”?

    I have never heard of such a principle, and it has the obivous difficulty that several groups could form tribes, etc., on the same territory, and thus claim conflicting rights to the same territory.

    A further difficulty is that such a principle denies the rights of the current inhabitants to establish a sovereign state in the territory.

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