Discourse 3: Doubting Israel’s Right to Exist; or, The Continuation of a Useless Debate

The following is the continuation of a useless debate. Or rather, it is the repetition of a useless exchange of words which, colpa mia, never was a debate, but an extensive miscommunication without either argument or inquiry from my side, but simply the statement of dogma.[1] Much of what will follow will be obvious to the point of banality for some while being alien, ridiculous and even infuriating for others. However, I hope that nobody will read this without feeling both. In addition, there is some arrogance in talking about these matters as a gentile who has never even visited the Levant. I am therefore mindful of what Orwell wrote about this, and though I argue in the abstract I do not forget that finally there are human beings behind this concept and for this reason have tried to make bold statements very precise and imprecise statements very nuanced. The central question which sparked this exchange, which is interesting and deserves elucidation, goes as follows:

Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?

My position on this is affirmative: it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel. To establish why, the following needs to be defined more precisely:

  1. What is meant by “anti-Semitism”?
  2. What is meant by “the state of Israel”?
  3. What is meant by “to exist”?

For first of these I will follow the understanding of anti-Semitic as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA):

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The reason for choosing this definition rather than another is that is has a broad support in inter- and supranational fora; includes not only physical, but also discursive violence; that it includes expressions of anti-Semitism which are directed towards non-Jewish people, but make use of anti-Semitic tropes or presume people to be Jewish; and that by not pinning down what perception this “certain perception” is, takes into account the ever-shifting form of anti-Semitism.[2]

I would like to address the question of what is meant by “the state of Israel” by going through the following steps, which are meant to go to the essence of what is meant by the concept:

  1. By “the state of Israel”, we firstly mean a state. That is, an entity which has territorial basis which can exert a monopoly of power over it.
  2. By “the state of Israel”, we do not simply mean a state which bears the name of Israel. If a state, say the Republic of Ecuador, would rename itself Israel, without any connection to the Jewish people, it would not be the state referred to in the central question. If the state of Israel were to rename itself, it would still be the state referred to in the central question.
  3. By “the state of Israel”, we do not simply mean a state on the territory of the current state of Israel. If there were a state on this territory, named Israel, without any of the other characteristics – social, legal, political or otherwise – of the current state of Israel, it would not be the state referred to in the central question. Instead, we mean a state which happens to be on the territory of the current state of Israel, which has other additional characteristics to this.
  4. By “the state of Israel”, we do not just mean a state with a significant Jewish population. Were the Republic of Ecuador, for example, to invite Jewish people into it with as result it becoming a country with a significant Jewish population, it is still not the state referred to in the central question, though it might be anti-Semitic in this case to deny its right to exist (replace Ecuador by Belgium, and one sees why this is not necessarily the case). However, despite not being a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one for being “the state of Israel” referred to in the central question. It is not sufficient, because it alone will not capture the essence of why it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence to this state. It is necessary, because we are not referring to an abstract entity, but a really existing one. 
  5. By “the state of Israel”, we also do not mean a state which is the nation-state of the Jewish people, as “the state of Israel” which is referred to in the central question was not explicitly defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people until 2018. Instead it was left ambiguous. That means that having the feature of being a nation-state is neither a necessary nor a sufficient characteristic to define the entity which we call “the state of Israel”.
  6. Most importantly perhaps, by “the state of Israel” referred to in the central question we refer to a polity, which is distinct from the politics and policies of said state, because the politics and policies of said state can change without the polity itself necessarily changing (which does not mean that a change in politics and policies cannot conceivably change the polity). That means that if we treat the question “Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?”, we do not say “Are denying the right to exist of the politics or policies state of Israel anti-Semitic?”. However, the politics or policies of the “the state of Israel” can be referred to as reasons for denying its right to exist, though this does not mean that it justified to do so or excludes the denial of its right to exist from the characteristic of being anti-Semitic.
  7. Instead, what is properly meant by “the state of Israel” which is referred to in the central question is a state which has the characteristic of being a “Jewish state”. That is, a state where the monopoly of power is directed towards enabling the exercise of the right to self-determination of the Jewish people, and which has a significant Jewish population

Before continuing to the third part of the central question which needs to be elucidated, I need to do a little excursion for some surprising objections I have heard: that it is open for interpretation if there exists a Jewish nation, because there are Jews who oppose the concept of Jewish nationhood. Or, that a state where Jewish people can exercise their right to self-determination isn’t possible, because as Judaism is a religion there is no such thing as the Jewish people, like there is no such thing as a Catholic people.

As to Jewish nationhood, we can fall back on Benedict Anderson’s classic definition of a nation: “an imagined political community – and both imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” That is to say, there is such a thing as a Jewish nation, not because of any historical, ethnic, linguistic coherence between a group of people, but because a body of people hold it to be true that there is such a thing as a Jewish nation to which they belong. The presence of people who are presumed to be members of the nation, but argue against its existence is of no consequence for the existence of this nation as long as this body of people holds on the idea that their nation exists. It is reasonable to presume that there is the number of Jews who believe that there is such a thing as a Jewish nation which they are part of is larger than some of the smaller nations which exist. Thus it is unreasonable to state that it is uncertain if such a thing as a Jewish nation exists.

As to the latter, there is the problematic status of the word “people”, which cannot be taken to be synonymous with “nation”. However, the issue with this statement can be addressed in other ways. First, while there is a Jewish religion, there have been too many Jews who were either atheists or adherents of other religions, there is too great a secular Jewish tradition loose from Judaism, to realistically claim that one needs to be an adherent of Judaism to be a Jew. Second, Judaism, though not without a history of proselytism, has historically not had the universalist aspirations of some other religions. That is, there is no appeal to peoples in Judaism. Instead it is a religion which is the reserve of a specific people. This means that it is not possible to exclude the concept of a Jewish people from Judaism, since it is a religion which presumes the existence of that people. Thus the status of Judaism as a religion, does not entail that Jews cannot have the status of a people.

Thus, we come back to the question of what is meant by the existence of the state of Israel. It can reasonably be thought to mean the possession of the essential features which define the state of Israel. Based on the discussion above, “the state of Israel” can be said to have the following essential features:

  1. The capability to exercise a monopoly of power over a territory, i.e. statehood;
  2. The capability to exercise the right to self-determination of the Jewish people;
  3. A significant Jewish population.

These features constitute, in my understanding, the core of what “the state of Israel” currently is properly understood to mean. As the concept of “the state of Israel” is a social construct, these features are contingent. As such, “the state of Israel” can gain features. An addition of features does not necessarily imply the loss of the current essential features, though it has consequences for what we understand by “the existence of the state of Israel”. However, as we are still not referring to an abstract entity, but a really existing one it cannot reasonably lose one of the features outlined above without leading to the end of the existence of “the state of Israel”.

Having stated all this, the question “Is denying the right to exist of the state of Israel anti-Semitic?” can be answered.

It hopefully does not need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right of an already present significant Jewish population to reside in an area. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the Jewish population in Israel can legitimately be removed from where it currently lives on any basis while one does not deny the right of an already present population to reside in an area in its entirety.

It hopefully does not need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right of self-determination of the Jewish people. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the Jewish people can legitimately be denied the possibility to determine their own political status and to determine their own form of economic, cultural and social development while one does not reject the concept of the right to self-determination in its entirety.[3]

It does need explanation that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right of existence of the state of Israel if this means denying the right to the already existing capability to exercise a monopoly of power over a territory. Important to remember here is that this capability is comes forth from the right to self-determination of one’s political status. If one holds this to be the case, it means believing that the institutions which currently enable the exercise a monopoly of power over a territory can legitimately be dismantled, without regard to the right of self-determination of the Jewish people, while one does not entirely reject the concept of monopoly of power over a territory or the concept of the right to self-determination. Thus the opposition to the statehood of Israel being anti-Semitic or not stands in function to its relation with the right to self-determination.

Thus, we can answer the central question by saying: yes, denying the right to exist of the state of Israel is anti-Semitic, because:

  1. one cannot reasonably conceive of the state of Israel without relating it to the right of self-determination of the Jewish people or the already present significant Jewish population within its territory;
  2. one cannot reasonably argue that to deny its right to exist means arguing that it ought to encompass more features than it currently does;
  3. one cannot reasonably argue that, stated in the form discussed here, it is the particular expression of a general statement against the right to self-determination or the right not to be displaced;
  4. one can reasonably conceive this statement to generally be understood to mean that the current state of Israel’s existence is seen as, at best, a favour, because of it’s nature as Jewish, which can or ought to be retracted.

As conjecture is common when discussion Israel, let me clearly state what the above does not mean. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to be against the politics and policies of Israel, especially that politics and those policies connected to the persistent and intentional violation of civil and human rights, the climate of racism and colonialism, and the oppression of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to point out that much of what denying the right to exist of Israel would mean were it implemented is in fact what constitutes the oppression of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to be in favour of the right to statehood, of self-determination, of continuing to reside where they already reside or even of the right of return of the Palestinian people. It does not mean that it is anti-Semitic to question the territory over which the state of Israel has a monopoly of violence as opposed to the principle of being able to have a monopoly of violence. It does not even mean that it is anti-Semitic to think that, were it possible to repeat the past, it would be undesirable to establish the state of Israel in the way it has been established. It does not need to mean that to disagree with Zionism is anti-Semitic, though there certainly is anti-Semitic anti-Zionism. Nor does it mean anything else than simply this: that it is anti-Semitic to deny the right to exist of the state of Israel.

* * *

[1] I do not mean dogma in a derogatory sense, but simply as a label for a position within a collective of opinions: a necessary and non-negotiable position on which compromise, as far as the content of the position is concerned, is not possible.

[2] In the same way a non-Muslims can be the victim of Islamophobia when they are targeted for being presumed to be Muslims.

[3] For the basis of this definition of self-determination see the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

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