In his article ‘Israel’s definition as a ‘Jewish state’, Ben White belatedly addresses the main criticism of anti-anti-Zionism and BDS; namely, that through BDS anti-Zionists seek to replace a Jewish state with a Palestinian-Arab one, rather than the so-called “state where all have equal rights”, which White claims to be the movement’s goal.
He begins by reluctantly acknowledging the principle of national self-determination which underpins Zionism, before arguing that this “does not mean exclusive – and exclusionary – statehood only for members of one group”. There is the usual problem here of presumption and imprecision, but – based on his previous writings – it seems that White’s objection is to Israel defining itself as the State of the Jewish people and not of its citizens, at least 20 percent of whom do not consider themselves to be members of the Jewish people. As White knows, the result of this has been some de jure and far too much de facto discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian minority.
I have many objections to how White describes the situation faced by Israel’s Palestinian-Arab minority (those who favour Jim Crow/South African apartheid analogies might ask if a television program like Arab Labour would have been made under those regimes), but let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that Israel’s current political arrangement necessitates the exclusion of non-Jews. What would be the best way to solve this problem? Well, to campaign to cancel discriminatory legislation, to guarantee funding for minorities, and perhaps to support positive discrimination. While even this would not make Israel “completely equal”, it would certainly be a significant improvement on the current status quo, and Israel would still be a Jewish state.
White’s solution, though, is to “unite” pre-1967 Israel, the occupied West Bank, and the half-occupied/half-autonomous Gaza Strip into one state, and then to invite back all the descendants of the Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948, numbering nearly five million (and presumably to annul the “racist” Law of Return), conveniently ensuring that there would be a permanent Palestinian majority and Jewish-Israeli minority. In other words, his prognosis is to replace the Jewish state with a Palestinian-Arab one, a strange form of equitable solution; the equivalent of amputating a leg when a plaster would suffice.
Next, White points out that the partition resolution “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)”. He has a point here, although perhaps not the one he was trying to make (surely the GA had some goal in mind when it voted for creating a “Jewish” and “Arab” state). According to the anarchic international system which prevails, state sovereignty is supreme. This is one of the reasons why so many people – including Ben White – opposed the invasion of Iraq. And, although CAMERA cite General Assembly Resolution 181 as the source of Israel’s legitimacy, the truth is that the real source is Israel’s diplomatic relations with a majority of the states in the international system, each of whom have different positions regarding the contradictions at the heart of the Israeli polity, while at the same time recognizing that those who talk about an “equal” state are really talking about a Palestinian-Arab state in place of a Jewish one. It may or may not be true that “true equality” [a slogan which White never defines]…is only realisable in a state that is based on civic peoplehood”, but there are plenty of states in the world that even one as myopic as White would acknowledge are more “unequal” than Israel, and yet he does not think that their sovereignty should be revoked.
White then claims that the following sentence would be impossible if France was replaced with Israel and French with Jewish: “France is the state of the French, every French person is a citizen of France and all citizens of France are French.” What if Israel had been called Jewland? Would that solve the problem? The anomaly emerges because the Diaspora preceded the modern nation-state; it certain makes Israel rather unique. But being rather unique is not a crime; nor does Israeli exceptionalism justify its elimination.
Finally, this visionary of coexistence reveals his true animus: ‘Self-determination…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 ground s/he is not Jewish.” If he’s referring to ‘Israel-proper’, this simply isn’t true. Ben White can say “international law” until the cows come home; the above statement remains merely an assertion based on his presumptions and whims. The international consensus continues to hold that there will be a “Jewish” state and a “Palestinian” state, side-by-side, that the societal culture of the Jewish state will be “Jewish” and the societal culture of the Palestinian state will be “Palestinian”, and that the descendants of Palestinian refugees who want to return will do so to land that stands between 10 and 100 miles from where their ancestral villages once stood. Mr. White is entitled, of course, to state his ideals, but it is disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that they are normative.
White devotes the tiniest of spaces to explaining how this utopia would work, relying on slogans and not explaining why the Palestinians, who, according to White, would have good reason to despise the Israelis, would want to share this glorious new homeland with them: “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.”
This is the crux of the matter. They do wish. Poll after poll shows that a solid majority of Israelis and Palestinians support the two-state-for-two-peoples principle, even if they disagree on the details. It may be that there has been a spike in support for a one-state solution amongst Palestinians recently, but this is surely the result of years of stagnation on the diplomatic front (and settlement expansion) and because they recognize a useful doomsday weapon when they see it, rather than any ideological shift. Why can’t the second part of White’s vague vision not be fulfilled in a two-state, or a federal model? Why the insistence on one state in which Palestinians are guaranteed to outnumber Jews? More importantly, given Jewish history (which White never acknowledges), and the justifiable fear of surrendering the sovereignty that was regained 2000 years after it was lost, why does he not offer some comfort, some qualification beyond the usual slogans? Why is he not interested in gaining the trust of those who – if he is to be believed – will be at the heart of this wonderful new state?
Only he can answer these questions. But the constant evasions, accompanied by the arguments outlined above, suggest that, whatever his denials, White’s commitment to “equal rights” is actually a commitment to replacing Israel with a Palestinian-Arab state after all.7 comments