May 5, 2008
Israel, Zionism, and "The Inherent Right to a State"

James Adler

A recent letter in the Jerusalem Post makes the very frequent claim that it is not the Shoah, but the inherent right of the Jewish people to a state, that is the foundation of Israeli statehood.  I wonder about this.  The more and more deeply that I go into it, the less I find myself sure about what such a right to statehood could ever mean.

The problem seems to be that the question of whether Jews have the right to a state is simply too abstract. For example, do Basques, Sikhs, and Jains also have the right to separate sovereign states of their own?  Do each of the innumerably many and diverse tribes and ethnic and linguistic groupings of India -- and of sub-Saharan Africa -- each have the right to separate sovereign states?  Do each of the various ethnic and linguistic groupings of western China?  What about those throughout Russia and the Asiatic regions of the former Soviet Union?  What about in Afghanistan? Or the Al Qaeda-run tribes of northern Pakistan? Do the Shia and Maronite Catholics of Lebanon, and the Greek- and Turkish-speakers of Cyprus each have the rights to separate sovereign states?  Do the Copts?  Do the Baha'i, perhaps with their capital at the Baha'i international headquarters in Northern Israel?  Do the Arab majority of Galilee have the right to a sovereign state?  Do the Bedouins?  Do the Druze?  Do the remaining Samaritans? Do the Afrikaner-speaking Afrikaners?

These questions and those like them simply don't seem able to be answered in the abstract.  They have to be based on realism and "how."  For example, people have the right to a million dollars, but not, say, through the means of bank robbery. It is too abstract to ask the question of whether individuals have rights to millions of dollars: The relevant and meaningful question would instead appear to be--"how."  And it seems the same for the question about whether Sikhs and Jains have the "right to a state."  It can only be addressed in terms of "how"-- the amount of ethnic cleansing and disruptive social suffering and structural upheaval and explosiveness and dangerously expanding regional and international conflict it would generate.

Did the Jews have the right to a state?  Again this seems just too abstract. Did they in 1920?  It is a bare possibility that that particular question would have been answerable--*if* there actually had really been a "land without a people" on which to constitute it.  But no such land existed at the time.  The early Zionists claimed, seized, and cleansed Palestine anyway.  But would they have been able to have done it if the whole of western Palestine had been as densely populous as today's Gaza Strip? Or as densely populous as the Island of Manhattan? Probably not.  But then the critical question would become, what could even be the meaning of such a right?  Any more than if they could have, but if it had caused vast amounts of suffering and indefinitely spiraling conflict.   And any more than for Copts or Jains or Druze. 
What if an integrated one-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict ultimately caused less social upheaval (including to Jewish Israelis) than the following? --an escalating conflict involving nuclear Iran, a future nuclear-powered 300 million Arabs like Egyptians and a billion Muslims, a Muslim demographic explosion in the flashpoint region between Mediterranean sea and the Jordan river, and new Intifadas and wars?

And then again: Should the Afrikaners have fought hard and on to carve out their own separate state in South Africa? Or should they have accepted what they did accept in 1989 -- the integration of the entire region?

It's not a matter of simple abstract rights or not.  We all prefer easy questions and answers, but often there aren't any. Often they are more a matter of difficult complex issues of anticipating social benefits and costs for any ethnic and linguistic grouping and society and surrounding region of the world.

It's messier, but the present state is based on recent history, not abstractions. There could not have been a state without the Shoah:  The state's existence is based on the three-legged stool of Balfourian imperialism, European persecution of the Jews and their refugeeship, and the self-defeating self-destructiveness of the Arab violence against the Jewish refugees.  It is by no means a right based on eternal truth and could disappear from demographic reasons or even through (--God forbid--) a nightmarish future nuclear exchange or mass invasion or internal uprising -- if this state, the only expansionist one in the Middle East, does not handle the situation right and continues to perpetuate the settlements, the large land claims and confiscations beyond the green line, and the refusal to share Jerusalem.

Perhaps rights are best seen as privileges and trusteeships, such as the human privilege and trusteeship of living on the earth, a privilege which we will all lose if we destroy her through climate change and intense ecological devastation. If the Israelis are charitable custodians and stewards and trustees of their statehood, they may well be able to hold onto the privilege of it.  If they are careless and avaricious and generally poor stewards, however, they may well lose the privilege, as with any of us for any state and any other kind of social trusteeship throughout our common history.


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