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.”


  1. Wow Semyon - this is a really great piece, and was worth the wait. I particularly appreciated the notion of a refugee state that accepts all. That seems much more in line with the mission of the U.N. than does the support of what Jimmy Cater has described as an apartheid system in Israel.

    Very thoughtful examination of a really controversial subject. Nice work.

  2. Of course, to be consistent with this, the US must also refuse to acknowledge the sovereignty of any and all existing ethnic and religious states.

  3. Interesting ideas, I tend to agree on your
    analysis, but would note, that countries do have borders, they form it base on ethnicity first, they unite with some STRONG idea
    and support it, they have some culture and history - and that holds them together.
    They tend to NOT MIX with others (USA is 1st exception, as NEW LAND)
    (Europe is EU, but every country is different)

    I do not think that the Idea of Refuge Camp is strong enough to hold a country together, especially in the Middle east.
    Idea of Free economy and Financial and Science paradise with excellent military on the other hand may work (Like Dubai, Singapore)
    It's either belief or and salvation gets divided by strong neighbors....

  4. Well reasoned. I think that your proposal is the only one that will ultimately lead to peace, but I am also challenged to see how the Jews will ever cede their power to rule Israel. At the same time, I am not sure how to ensure that Jews will have the right to live peacefully and practice their own religion should they chose to embrace a one state solution.

  5. Only a single, bi-national, inclusive, post-ethnic Israeli-Palestinian state will have an absolute right to exist.

    This would seem to be your main point, and yet it is buried in the middle of a paragraph, and you don't make any argument to support it.

    The logical -- but unstated -- conclusion of most of your argument is that *no* state has a right to exist. You seem to think that the US -- coincidentally, not doubt, your own country -- does have a right to exist. But this in no way follows from your argument.

    The closest I can find to a statement of which states have a right to exist is when you write: "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." But the US meets neither condition. Nor is the US a "naturally selecting post-ethnic open-access society."

    And of course you explicitly reject the right of all nation-states to exist. So let me suggest that you remain silent about Israel, and start questioning the right to exist of Denmark, Germany, Japan, Russia, China, and all the other ethnically-based nations in the world.

  6. It's nice to hold up the vision of a single inclusive post-ethnic state, but Jews aren't the ones who have to change to make that happen. The intense Jew-hatred fostered and nourished by Islam, soundly grounded in the Koran, makes such side-by-side existence impossible. When Arabs are willing to live in peace with Jews, then we can talk about such a state. But you can't get to that state by assuming harmony first.


  7. What country:
    Has WMDS.
    Practices torture.
    Has racist laws.
    Seizes property from a specific race without proper compensation.
    Kills civilians of a specific race as a form of political pressure.
    Bombs other countries during peacetime, that is without a declaration of war.
    Wears funny hats.

    Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?
    United States?
    Nazi Germany?

    It was racist of me to think that humans in a particular country would make wise choices simply because they identify themselves as a persecuted nationality.

    I heard a lecture about bigotry and intolerance. One study showed that people who value "tolerance" are easily provoked by telling them that a particular group of people are intolerant. In that situation the "tolerant" people score as high on the "intolerance" scale as self-identified "intolerant" people.

    That explains why the following false argument is convincing to many: Country X must act in a cruel way because it is surrounded by hate-filled Islamic people.

    I've seen no sign of Jew-hatred among my many Islamic friends. Anger at cruel things done by Israelis, yes. And yes, I have met anti-Jewish racists who are not Islamic.

    Israel has conducted a gigantic experiment on the Palestinians. Depending on where they were when the shooting stopped in 1948 and 1967, they were treated very differently. Some were made Israeli citizens with many rights. Some were refugees in camps with no passports or ability to leave. Some were under military occupation in the West Bank but retained some property.

    Some were trapped in a hellhole called Gaza.
    Gaza freaked me out when I saw it as a child. Dust, broken masonry, and too many people and children crowded together.

    To summarize the results of this experiment, it is the present situation.

  8. Well, "MetaExpert," what's the answer? Surely there are many countries that meet your criteria. And obviously Israel has WMDs, but doesn't meet any of your other criteria. So which countries do you have in mind? Don't forget to provide evidence.

    By the way, it is very strange that you blame only Israel for the 1948 and 1967 wars. Most people think they were started by Israel's enemies.

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