Israel’s definition as a ‘Jewish state’

The alternative to Israel as a “Jewish state” is not a Palestinian Arab state, but a state where all have equal rights.

palestine flag
With Israel having expelled most of the Palestinians to forcibly create a Jewish majority and create the basis for an ethnocratic state, its defenders now claim that opposition to this programme is "discriminatory" [EPA]

In recent years, there has been a growing, critical questioning of Israel’s definition as a “Jewish state”, and the system of privilege (and discrimination) that it entails. This has happened for a few different reasons, including: attention-grabbing efforts in Israel to implement cruder ethnocratic legislation, the political mobilisation of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their subsequent targeting by the state, the treatment of non-Jewish African migrants, Netanyahu’s repeated demand that Palestinians “recognise” Israel as a Jewish state, the focus of the BDS call, and increasing anti-Zionist dissent within the Jewish community in the West. 

In response, Israeli diplomats and Zionist organisations internationally have been hammering home what they see as the unanswerable talking point: that to oppose Jewish self-determination (meaning Israel as a Jewish state) is racist, and thus anti-Zionists and/or advocates of a single democratic state are anti-Semitic bigots. 

It is a defensive discourse, aimed at drawing a red line around what is considered off-limits – challenging Jewish privilege between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea (with the added bonus of appropriating the language of “rights” that Palestinians are seen as disingenuously monopolising). 

As part of recent efforts to counter the annual Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW), Israel lobby group and “media watchdog” CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) accused IAW organisers of a “double standard on self-determination”. 

CAMERA cites three sources to build an argument regarding self-determination: the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a quotation from Martin Luther King, and the UN Partition Plan (General Assembly Resolution 181). We can disregard the King quote, since it adds no substance and is just a transparent attempt to name check an iconic civil rights figure. 

And yes, it is ironic that a group like CAMERA reaches for international law to make its point, while laughing in the face of that same body of law when it comes to defending West Bank settlements. 

Right of ‘self-determination’

CAMERA cites the ICCPR that “all peoples have the right of self-determination”, adding that “the Jewish people” should not be “uniquely denied this right”. However, self-determination does not necessarily mean statehood and, even if it did, does not mean exclusive – and exclusionary – statehood only for members of one group. 

As legal scholar Michael Kearney told me, self-determination is “less understood these days as a right to one’s own exclusive state, and more as a right to non-discrimination and to democratic participation in society”. 

In addition, there are numerous examples of groups without their own state (Basques, Kurds, etc), with people opposing statehood in cases like these without being accused of “racism”. In the words of South African professor, Ran Greenstein, commenting to me about the issue: 

“There are legitimate debates about how self-determination can be expressed but nowhere does it imply automatic right to statehood (and never a right to statehood that excludes others in the same territory).” 

Then there is General Assembly Resolution 181, which CAMERA cites as evidence of the “international community” recognising “Jewish self-determination” through the text’s call for the establishment of a “Jewish state”. 

Yet what the partition resolution did was define “Jewish” and “Arab” states based on prevailing population distribution in the country, at the time (1947). It did not grant Jews and Arabs superior political and civil rights in their own states, nor did it extend the notion to encompass Jews and Arabs who were not already living there (that is, avoiding invoking an abstract right to self-determination of Jews as an extra-territorial group). 

CAMERA quotes the IAW’s “Basis of Unity” document and its stated opposition to Zionism on the basis that it “inherently discriminates against those who are not Jewish” – a claim that CAMERA interestingly does not contest, and for which there is plenty of supporting evidence (see here, here and here, for example). 

In her essay titled “The Jews’ Right to Statehood: A Defense”, Israeli legal scholar Ruth Gavison made the frank acknowledgement that Palestinians in the Jewish state are limited in “their ability to… exercise their right to self-determination”.  

As philosophy professor, Joseph Levine, pointed out in his recent essay for The New York Times, “true equality… is only realisable in a state that is based on civic peoplehood” – in other words, a “state of all its citizens”. 

Levine subsequently responded to his critics, and correctly noted that unless “one waters down” what Zionists mean by the idea of a Jewish state “to such an extent that it ceases to perform the function it was meant to serve, it will of necessity be exclusionary. This is the dilemma facing anyone who advocates a Jewish and democratic state”. 

The exercise of the right to statehood (or political independence) always depends on the geographic and demographic context. No group has a right to ignore/dispossess/marginalise other groups in the same territory to which it lays claim. The opposition to Israeli practices has nothing to do with rejection of the rights of Jews and everything to do with the violation of the rights of “non-Jews” who live in the same places. 

CAMERA also claims that the IAW document “does not raise any concerns about Irish nationalism inherently discriminating against those who are not Irish, Greek nationalism discriminating against non-Greeks, Finnish nationalism privileging Finns, or Saudi nationalism discriminating against non-Saudis”. 

First, Irish, Greek and Finnish nationalisms are open to all residents of these countries: not only to Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans. Jews of Irish origins are just as entitled to return to Ireland as Catholics, and if they live there they are entitled to full citizenship without any restrictions. The equivalent is Israeli self-determination, not Jewish, as captured in the notion of Israel as a state for all its citizens, not a Jewish state. 

“The exercise of the right to statehood (or political independence) always depends on the geographic and demographic context.”

‘Singling out’ the Palestinians

You can see the difference by taking the following formulation and applying it to Israel: 

“France is the state of the French, every French person is a citizen of France and all citizens of France are French.” 

Yet with Israel, the self-proclaimed state of all Jews worldwide, the same statement is impossible

Israel is the state of all the Jews; all Jewish persons are by definition citizens of Israel; and all citizens of Israel are… Jews. The third part of the proposition is clearly empirically wrong; thus the assertion that Israel is as Jewish as France is French cannot be sustained.” 

As for “singling out Israel” – well yes, of course: it is not Norway colonising the Palestinians. Who would accuse Tibetan activists of “singling out” China, or aggressively query why a campaigner against human trafficking is not focusing on global warming? As Joseph Levine put it to me: 

“The demands of consistency do not entail that every time you argue in favour of a policy or advocate for a cause based on a universal principle that you must always take up the issue or cause of every other instance.”  

Thus in fact, it is CAMERA and other Israeli advocates who are “singling out Israel” – for impunity – and “singling out” the Palestinians as being prohibited from resisting the denial of their rights and seeking international allies in doing so. Not to mention that Israel is already “exempted from sanction for breaking international legal norms, benefitting from generous aid and preferential trade agreements from the US and EU while doing so”. 

What CAMERA and other Zionists are defending is a definition of “Jewish self-determination” whose foundations lie on the ruins of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages. With Israel having expelled most of the Palestinians to forcibly create a Jewish majority and create the basis for an ethnocratic state, its defenders now claim that opposition to this programme is “discriminatory”. 

“Self-determination” as understood by the international law CAMERA disingenuously cites, does not give permission for an American Jew to go and live on the land of a Palestinian who is legally barred from returning home on the grounds s/he is not Jewish. 

The alternative to Israel as a Jewish state is not a Palestinian Arab state, but a state where all are granted equal rights, and, as Noura Erakat wrote in The Nation, where “those institutions that confer privilege to any particular ethnic, religious or national group [are dismantled]”. 

Within this framework, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can exercise their rights to cultural, linguistic and religious freedom and autonomy if they wish. It is about a future solution that protects the rights of the Palestinian people and Jewish Israelis, an understanding of “self-determination” that means both groups sharing a common homeland “based on full group and individual equality”. 

As Jerry Haber (a pseudonym) summarised recently, the dispute is “between those who hold that the collective right of a settler people to self-determination trumps the human and civil rights of the indigenous natives, and those who do not”. 

Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.