Israel’s ‘right to exist’ and the Palestinian right to resist

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Israel’s demand that Palestinians recognize it as a ‘Jewish State’ is a demand for legitimizing Apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and Palestinians certainly have a right to resist it. So does everyone else. No state has a ‘right to exist’ that renders invalid its actions and policies, just as the right to resist occupation does contain limitations on violence against civilians.

In one of their numerous breathtaking summations, Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley wrote in their recent UN report that the UN retracted:

“Finally, identifying apartheid as a regime clarifies one controversy: That ending such a regime would constitute destruction of the state itself. This interpretation is understandable if the State is understood as being the same as the regime. Thus, some suggest that the aim of eliminating Apartheid in Israel is tantamount to aiming to “destroy Israel”. However, a state does not cease to exist as a result of regime change. The elimination of the Apartheid regime in South Africa in no way affected the country’s statehood”. 

(UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia commissioned report, Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid, P. 18.)

The claim that denying Israel’s “right to exist” is tantamount to seeking the complete annihilation of its (mostly Jewish) people has long sat at the core of Israeli apologia.

As Joseph Levine, professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, noted in his New York Times opinion piece titled ‘On Questioning the Jewish State’ (2013),

[T]he phrase “right to exist” sounds awfully close to “right to life,” so denying Israel its right to exist sounds awfully close to permitting the extermination of its people…

but he adds a crucial notion to his analysis:

The key to the interpretation is found in the crucial four words that are often tacked on to the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” — namely, “… as a Jewish state.”

This is indeed the core notion which sits behind this “right to exist”. The question is not about whether the State of Israel has a “right to exist” as such, as a sterile question void of any mention of ‘Jewish State’. As Ben White noted in his article on this subject (2015),

[N]o states have a “right to exist”, without exceptions. States come and go, are formed, and broken up. South Sudan was created in 2011. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993.

The question is thus not really whether Israel has a “right to exist” as an absolute a-priori timeless question. Such a right doesn’t really exist in advance – states exist simply because they do, and they get recognized (or not) for their existence as an a-posteriori matter. Hence the question is, and must be: exist as what?

Here the demand to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State is central to Israel’s demand for legitimacy as an Apartheid state. The demand for Palestinians to recognize Israel not merely for its existence (which they did by treaty already in 1993 Oslo accords), but also for its existence as a Jewish State, has been a central addition imposed by Netanyahu in his premiership from 2009 and on.

As Sari Nusseibeh, professor of Philosophy at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, writes in his article ‘Why Israel can’t be a Jewish State’ (2011),

[R]ecognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word “Jewish” to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word “Jewish” to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy – something which has rightly been the pride of most Israelis since the country’s founding in 1948.

This is one of his many points in the article noting the problems of such a definition.

Nusseibeh’s argument is only made more stark when he establishes the distinction between racial and religious definitions of Judaism:

First, let us say that confusion immediately arises here because the term “Jewish” can be applied both to the ancient race of Israelites and their descendants, as well as to those who believe in and practice the religion of Judaism. These generally overlap, but not always. For example, some ethnic Jews are atheists and there are converts to Judaism (leaving aside the question of whether these are accepted as such by Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who are not ethnic Jews.

In effect, both notions do not hold fully, but the ‘Jewish’ notion of ‘Jewish state’ does, in the sense of an ethnic nation-state with a religious-mythical Jewish-nationalist notion. Hence, one could argue that Israel is a Jewish ethno-theocracy. The ‘religious’ notion is anyway applied as an ‘ethnic’ aspect for all practical purposes of the state, translating it to ‘nation’ (there is no Israeli nationality). Thus I would say that whichever way we turn it, Israel is an Apartheid state, by direct merit of its definition and application of ‘Jewish State’. Needless to say, such a state is not democratic.

Israel does not want to be ‘Jewish State’ just as ‘France is French’ (an analogy which both Nusseibeh and Levine apply and refute). Because, as Levine notes,

[W]hereas there is both an ethnic and a civic sense to be made of the term “French people,” the term “Jewish people” has only an ethnic sense.

Israel would have to be an “Israeli state” if it would want to apply for the analogy. But as mentioned, there is no Israeli nationality, so such an application is invalid. We can even attempt to be more generous, and suggest that Israel could be “Jewish” just as UK is “Christian”. Well, it could – but then a whole lot of things would need to happen. It would need to recognize an Israeli nationality, and it would need to reduce state religion to a mere anecdote which does not supersede, infringe upon or discriminate with respect to civil rights.

I am not even going as far as requiring Israel to follow the Norwegian model of complete separation of state and church, which Norway did in 2012. I am merely pointing out that Israel cannot be compared to the ‘western democracies’ that it seeks to compare itself with. Israel has singled itself out in so many ways, and continues to do so.

But the Palestinians – they are being asked to not only recognize Israel, which they already have. They are being demanded by Israel to recognize it as a Jewish State, with all that it entails – which includes their dispossession and Apartheid as intrinsic features.

As Norman Finkelstein wrote in Knowing Too Much,

[I]t might be recalled that although Mahatma Gandhi recognized the division of India as an “accomplished fact” that he was “forced to accept,” he adamantly refused to believe in a distinct Muslim nationalism and India’s “artificial partition” (p. 47).

It is precisely such ‘Jewish nationalism’ that Palestinians are being asked to recognize and effectively endorse.

Palestinians certainly have a right to resist such a demand. But this right is not recognized by Israel. Their refusal to recognize a Jewish State is conveniently read as intransigence – a convenient trick from the Israeli box of magic to turn public opinion against them. What can Palestinians do to resist their occupation? They can resort to armed resistance – but then they are considered “terrorists” by Israel, even if they attack purely military targets, and must suffer draconian backlash and collective punishment. They can resort to unarmed yet physical protest, as in peaceful marches – but Israel has military laws in order to quash these by violent means, and they are regularly applied. Then the Palestinians can protest in means which are so peaceful they don’t even require a march – boycotts, which are considered protected speech also in USA by virtue of the 1st Amendment and Supreme Court rulings. But to no avail – Israel considers it ‘diplomatic terrorism’ and fights it like it was a military confrontation.

So Israel wants no conditions placed on its “Jewish State”, whilst it wants all conditions placed on Palestinians (not to mention the Palestinian State which has always really been fiction for Zionists). By Israel’s standards, a Jewish State should be allowed its Apartheid, with no limitations, while resistance to it can have no real outlet.

So like the Palestinian occupied territories geographically, everything is walled in for Palestinians in terms of resistance, as far as Israel is concerned. No options are left; and it is not enough to recognize the occupier. It is necessary to bow to it, and to recognize its ethnic-religious superiority, the same superiority by which it kills, maims and dispossesses you. To kiss the ground and declare the Jews your masters, with their ‘Jewish State’.

How much anti-Semitism will this end up generating? How long will Israel be able to hold its claim that anyone who resists Israeli Apartheid in the name of Jewish State is an anti-Semite?

Once, the notion of Apartheid as pertaining to Israel was a taboo notion. It has become far more discussed today. The notion of Genocide, nonetheless, is still more contentious. But former Israeli Minister MK Shulamit Aloni all but spelled out Israeli genocide in 2003, in her article ‘Murder Under the Cover of Righteousness’. Here she concludes:

“So it’s not yet genocide of the terrible and unique style of which we were past victims. And as one of the smart Generals told me, we do not have crematoria and gas chambers. Is anything less than that consistent with Jewish ethics? Did he ever hear how an entire people said that it did not know what was done in its name?”

“Jewish State” is doing what it does in the name of Jews. You cannot get around that one, it’s in the name, in the definition. It’s doing what it does to all Palestinians in Jews’ names. That is, a global population of roughly 25 million people (Jews and Palestinians) are complicit or affected. Then there is every other person of conscience. It is upon us to resist this.

As Falk and Tilley noted in the UN report, ending the Apartheid regime would NOT constitute destruction of the state itself. Israel could potentially be as Jewish as UK is Christian (although I would much prefer it to separate religion and state like Norway). But there are no compromises with Israel on these terms; and that means Apartheid.

No state has a “right” to commit crimes against humanity. Genocide and Apartheid are the two of the gravest of them. And if a regime’s existence is based upon the continuance of these crimes? Then the regime has no right to exist.

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