Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Critique of Israel’s Right to Exist

Most men have wives. Studies have shown married men to be happier than single men. They live longer, commit fewer crimes, and are more likely on average to actively raise their children than single men. Likewise married women are measurably happier than single women on average, and children do better when raised by two married parents, so it’s safe to say that marriage overall does society more good than harm. Yet despite the many benefits of marriage and family values, we simply do not talk about a man’s right to a wife. In a world without slavery, a right to a wife makes no sense at all; one could state with certainty that there is obviously no such thing.

It is less obvious but equally true that there’s no such thing as an absolute right to health care. You can have a right to be left alone, a right to speak your mind, a right to pray to your own god in your own language, but you can’t have a right which requires that another human being go to school for 24 years and then treat you for free. You might want free health care, you might need free health care, we as a society probably ought to provide some level of free health care to everyone, but no one can claim free health care as an unalienable right, for the simple reason that it requires the services of others who have not been born under a symmetrical obligation.

The notion of restricting the concept of human rights only to natural rights that don’t require the services of others is perhaps the biggest reason why the approach taken by Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence has had so much more traction and political acceptance than the broader unrestricted case for entitlement proclaimed in the UN’s still unenforced Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Some rights are arguable; some are clear. But no right is as fundamental as the right to exist. The right to life is the most clear-cut, basic right, and murder is the clearest right violation. It’s clear, that is, as long as you are talking about human beings. Extend it to fetuses, animals, or countries, and the right to exist becomes highly controversial, dependent on various details, and anything but clear-cut.

Supporters of abortion rights have long been angered by the wide adoption of the term "pro-life" to describe opposition to abortion. The notion that the right to life should be extended to fetuses and should override the mother's right to make choices concerning her body is a controversial one. Framing it into a term like "pro-life" is an old attempt to influence the narrative by linking the prohibition of abortions with the most fundamental right of all. Getting to name your own controversial position is half the battle. A widely adopted name is a crucial fulcrum in forming the perception of truth.

A similarly unreasonable extension of the right to life is made by using the concept to refer to countries. Who can oppose Israel’s right to exist if the term implies respecting the right to life of Israel’s Jewish inhabitants? The usage is particularly insidious because it implies a simple numerical aggregation: the right of Israel to exist sounds like the combined right to life of all Israelis, which is clearly even more fundamental than the right to life of any one individual. Given that Israel was created largely as a response to a relatively recent, deliberate, and partly successful attempt to murder every Jew in the world, it is particularly easy to associate Israel’s right to exist with that fundamental right to life, and to hold people who deny it in great contempt. But is it in fact a reasonable association?

Taking a closer look at the language, the right to exist of a certain country is a very different thing than the right to life of its inhabitants. Specifically, Israel’s right to exist refers to the right of the nation to call itself “Israel”, and by implication to consider itself a Jewish state. And that unfortunate framework demands that all others, particularly the large and growing Arab population of both Israel proper as well as of its occupied territories, also consider the nation they live in to be a Jewish state. Arabs may have some substantial rights in Israel. In some ways their lives may be better than those of people in neighboring countries. But living in an officially Jewish state, no Arab child can grow up with the full dignity and pride of citizenship.

Even with anti-discrimination laws on the books, and amendments to the constitution ensuring that we are in fact one nation with liberty and justice for all, it took a black president for many African Americans to begin to feel equal in the United States. Imagine how blacks and Latinos would have felt if the US was re-named to a word with the historic meaning of “White nation under God”, and they were asked to affirm its right to exist as a White and Christian State?

The framers of the American constitution had it right. The concept of the nation-state formed along ethnic lines got us out of the middle ages, but has long since outlived its usefulness. The world is evolving away from ethnic divisions and towards equality and human rights, naturally selecting post-ethnic open-access societies, and rewarding them with prosperity. Meanwhile the same long term global evolution is slowly but surely presenting Nazi Germany and her lesser cousins, in places like Rwanda, Cambodia, and Darfur, with the ultimate future of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

But by responding to genocide with a Jewish state, the Zionists have inadvertently surrendered their humanist ideals to survivalist realpolitik. In forming their core political philosophy as an antithesis to Hitler’s rhetoric, they have extended the damage done to them by fascism. A more progressive, post-ethnic response would have been to create a refuge for all victims of attempted genocide, and to include all existing residents as equal citizens of this refuge-state. Unfortunately the path of division was taken instead, resulting in 60 years of bloodshed, recriminations, and deepening desperation.

Pragmatists inside and outside of the region continue to shout for a separate but equal two-state solution. But history shows that the two ethnically divided states will never be equal, and that in the long term, states based on ethnic division will become extinct. Only a single, bi-national, inclusive, post-ethnic Israeli-Palestinian state will have an absolute right to exist. And when an era of justice and equality for all comes to the region at last, ending thousands of years of pogroms and crusades, Barack Obama’s inaugural words will ring as true in the Middle East as they do now in America: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”