For a truly jaw-dropping admixture of sophistry and chutzpah it’s hard to top the claim made by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) Working Definition of Antisemitism that, “Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” represents a dispositive indicator of anti-Semitism.
But because this assertion has now become an endlessly repeated Zionist talking-point; and because the U.S. State Department and Department of Education have adopted the IHRA’s “working definition,” while an Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, incorporating the IHRA standard, is currently pending in Congress; it’s imperative to analyze the various ways in which the IHRA’s deployment of “self-determination” is dangerously obfuscatory.
To begin with the most obvious: If denying Jews the “right of self-determination” is evidence of anti-Semitism, then what should we call denying the same right to those indigenes who have lived in Palestine for centuries? Netanyahu’s Likud party has never endorsed a sovereign Palestinian state. More revealingly, however, the vast majority of Israelis that has endorsed some kind of “two-state solution” has done so on for purely pragmatic reasons and not as a matter of “right.” Proponents have argued that two states would eliminate the “demographic threat” to Israel’s Jewish character. They’ve claimed it would reduce the level of violence and bring about peace. They’ve maintained that a Palestinian state would allow Israel to continue (sic) being democratic. What all these ostensibly “enlightened” arguments share in common is the presumption that Israel (which is to say, Israeli Jews) should, for self-interested reasons, grant some sort of state to (some) Palestinians. The idea that Palestinians have a “right” to a state, a right derived from the principle of national self-determination; and the acknowledgment that such a right, like all rights, is not for Israeli Jews (or for anyone) to “grant” or “negotiate;” has never been part of this discourse.
There’s a genuinely breathtaking hypocrisy in asserting that the denial of a Jewish right to “self-determination” is wickedly anti-Semitic” while the denial of the same right to Palestinians is justifiable or irrelevant.
But that’s only part of the problem.
According to the IHRA a tell-tale sign that the denial of a Jewish right to self-determination is an expression of nefarious anti-Semitism is provided when the denial is accompanied by the claim that the State of Israel is a “racist endeavor.” The logic here is cloudy, to say the least. There are some people who maintain that European, North African, Ethiopian, Yemeni, North American and Iraqi Jews did not and do not possess a “right of self-determination” in Palestine, yet deny that Zionism and the State of Israel is “a racist endeavor.” Are these people anti-Semites? There are other people who maintain that the Jews of the world do, in fact, have a right to national self-determination in Palestine, yet insist that the Zionist project has been consistently “racist” in practice. Are these people anti-Semites? And there are still other people who believe both that Israel has been racist and that the Jews of the world have no right to self-determination in Palestine. Is holding both these views more anti-Semitic than holding merely one of them? Why?
The truth is, that there is nothing about any of these opinions that is ipso facto anti-Semitic, if we understand anti-Semitism as it has always been understood, i.e., as inveterate Jew hatred and a conviction that Jews are congenitally wicked and universal threatening.
The claim that “peoples” have a “right of self-determination” is a relatively recent one. It was part of the new nationalist discourse that emerged in central and eastern Europe during the 19th century; it was given global currency by Woodrow Wilson and, in a different key, by Lenin, at the end of World War I; and it became more-or-less enshrined as a principle of international life after World War II. It was directly expressed, among other places, in U.N. General Assembly Resolution #2625 (1970), which stated that, “all peoples have the right freely to determine, without external interference, their political status and to pursue their economic, social and cultural development . . . and [that] every State has the duty to respect this right.”
While there is much that is inspirational about the idea of a “right” to national self-determination there is also much about the concept that is obscure and problematic. The most obvious problems involve (a) the difficulty of ascertaining what constitutes “a people; ” (b) the difficulty of determining the identity of those particular “peoples” that should legitimately exercise their putative “right;” and (c) the difficulty of specifying what it means for “a people” to possess its own state.
None of these problems is easily resolvable.
Should Basques be considered a “people” possessing a right to national self-determination? Should Bretons? Australian Aborigines? Lakota Sioux? African-Americans? How about Jews? What precisely makes them a “people” in the same way that, say, Norwegians are?
Is it anti-Basque or anti-Semitic to suggest that Basques or Jews are not “peoples” possessing a political-territorial “right” to self-determination? What criteria can and should be invoked to resolve these questions?
“Peoplehood” is not merely problematic in theory. The “right of self-determination” is honored only very selectively in the actual world of international politics. There are an estimated thirty-five million Kurds living in a contiguous area of present day Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Most of these people regard themselves as “Kurds,” None of them are currently able to exercise, de jure, their “right” of national self-determination. Nor are Tibetans. Nor are the Igbo of Nigeria. Nor are Chechens. And so on. What sort of label should we assign to those who oppose their doing so?
And then there’s the question: What does the exercise of the “right of self-determination” entail, in the sense of what does it “permit?” Should ethnic Poles, for example, be thought of as “owners” of Poland? Is it their state, such that Polish citizens who are not ethnic Poles are effectively “guests,” welcome or not, in the Polish national “household?” A few years ago, most thoughtful observers believed that this sort of volkisch, “integral” nationalism was a thing of the past. But no longer. As numerous commentators have observed, racial-nativist nationalism is frighteningly resurgent, not only in places like Hungary and Poland but also in Trump’s America. And as Eva Ilouz aptly observes, “Israel has, in fact, long pioneered the model to which these nations aspire: predicating citizenship on ethnic and religious affiliation” and vigorously combating “the ethnic, religious or racial dilution of their country by immigrants or universalist rights.”
Years, nay decades, before the Knesset’s passage of the noxious “Nation-State” law, the State of Israel considered itself, in Shlomo Sand’s words, “the collective property of the ‘Jews of the world,’ whether believers or not, rather than as an institutional expression of the democratic sovereignty of the body of citizens who live in it.” Yet in the strange moral universe of the IHRA, challenging the “Jewish people’s right” to exercise their “self-determination” in such a manifestly reactionary manner constitutes “delegitimization” – and “delegitimization” is evidence of anti-Semitism. The implications are truly bizarre. As Nathan Thrall has pointed out, by such a logic those who hold “the view that Israel should be a state for all its citizens, with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews” are ipso facto categorizable as delegitmizing anti-Semites, and “virtually all Palestinians (and a large proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, who oppose Zionism for religious reasons) are [likewise] guilty of antisemitism, because they want Jews and Palestinians to continue living in Palestine but not within a Jewish state.”
The principle of national self-determination is clearly a vexing one. There are very few folks anywhere who are consistent in supporting its application. The Left has historically tended to promote internationalist principles and to look askance at most expressions of national irredentism or atomizing particularisms, yet has also enthusiastically endorsed anti-colonial struggles of national liberation in Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique and Palestine. The Right has historically tended to support the perpetuation of white-dominated settler regimes, felt at home with nativist invocations of racial purity, and endorsed essentializing notions of ‘peoplehood,” but has also been uncomfortable with universalist Wilsonian idealism. During the 1990s, both Left and Right seemed rather flummoxed about how to respond to the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the U.S.S.R. and the consequent creation of a great number of new nation-states. Indeed, at the end of the day it appears that positions and attitudes concerning ‘”nationalism” and “national self-determination” are contextual, temporally fluid and not always consistent.
So what does any of this have to do with ‘anti-Semitism?’ Well, if there is a coherent line of thought in the current Zionist mantra it’s that the denial of “the Jewish people’s right to national self-determination” is anti-Semitic because it’s “selectively” (read: prejudicially) invoked. Jews are allegedly being treated differently than all other peoples. Israel is being “singled out” for special criticism, opprobrium, and delegitimization. And why? Anti-Semitism, 21st century style.
Leaving aside the fact that the all-too-familiar Zionist refrain about “singling out” has always been deeply problematic, not to say disingenuous (see my article, “Why Israel is ‘singled out'”). it’s pretty far-fetched to suggest that anyone, outside of Alan Dershowitz’s fever dreams, seriously holds the view that all the “peoples” of the world have a right to national self-determination except for the Jews! But that really does seem to be what the current Zionist punch line is suggesting.
Meanwhile, back in the world of reality, the Israeli government and its allies are pulling out all the propaganda stops in a frantic and thuggish effort to suppress both criticism and active resistance to Israeli policies with respect to the Palestinians. An important role in the current campaign is being played by the spectral threat of a “New Anti-Semitism” spearheaded by those defending Palestinian rights. (The actual anti-Semitism of Orban and his ilk are downplayed or ignored.) And in contriving this “new” kind of anti-Semitic threat, its promoters have shamelessly sought to wrap Israel in the mantle of universalist principles by invoking the Wilsonian language of “self-determination.”
The propagandists, useful idiots, fellow-travelers and true believers who talk this talk are throwing conceptual spaghetti at the wall in the hope that some of it sticks. It’s important we ensure that it doesn’t.