Israel’s right to exist

The reason why the claimed ‘right to exist’ is problematic is a question of definition, not of dematerialisation. A reply to Mary Davis’ reply.

Jonathan Rosenhead
23 September 2016

Activists from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, a global campaign started by over 150 Palestinian non-governmental organizations, protesting in August, 2014. Nasser Ishtayeh/Press Association. All rights reserved.First a mea culpa. Mary Davis accuses me of making an ‘incorrect and snide’ assertion that she wrote her first piece to support the Jewish establishment’s attack on Corbyn. I see how it can be read that way. What I wrote was “The issue is: just why Mary Davis is writing this piece now?” and went on to detail the coordinated, no-holds barred onslaught alleging that antisemitism that has been taking place. What I meant was that antisemitism in the Labour Party was a significant issue only because of this onslaught; and that she was writing her piece only because this misplaced salience had made it an issue. I did not mean that she was part of that campaign.

Before getting down to business I should also mention her rebuttal of my assertion that actual anti-Semitic incidents were relatively insignificant. She cites Community Security Trust figures for anti-Semitic incidents running at a total of 557 in the first 6 months of 2016. For a sense of scale, official figures show the total number of hate crimes averaged 222,000 per annum over the years 2012-5. I rest that part of my case.

To business. What ultimately divides our positions on the contentious issue of how anti-Zionism relates to antisemitism? It does not seem, at least directly, to be our views on Zionism itself. Mary says that she does not regard herself as a Zionist, and it is quite a few decades since I did so. And we are both highly critical about what Israel actually does. Yet it is clear that we do have grave differences on what can legitimately be done to end these excesses. These disagreements seem to stem ultimately from what she identifies as “the issue of the right of the state of Israel to exist”.

The right to exist

This is treacherous ground. In the present era of witch-finders general in the Labour Party I could still lose my leadership vote. (I am writing just ahead of the result being announced.) Many have already lost theirs for less. So forgive me if I tread warily. To question this ‘right to exist’ is not to toy with the idea of ejecting the 5 million or so Jewish inhabitants of Israel plus its illegal settlements into some external dumping ground (or worse). All the same, don’t forget that this dumping is exactly what happened to those hundreds of thousands of Palestinians ejected in 1948 who have since been denied their internationally attested right to return.

The reason why the claimed ‘right to exist’ is problematic is a question of definition, not of dematerialisation. States come and go, change their names and their borders, bifurcate and merge. That’s history for you. We don’t think that Mercia, dead these 1100 years, has or even had a ‘right to exist’. Coming more up to date the issue of exactly what is Ireland’s state-ly expression has sparked both bloody and peaceful struggle, and is not yet definitively resolved. Yugoslavia wasn’t a state, then it was, and then it wasn’t again, all in the course of about 70 years. Yugoslavia fractured in bloody fashion, but Czechoslovakia broke up into component parts by agreement.

There is nothing in international law that says that states have a right to exist. They either do or don’t exist, and there are criteria. As you would expect academic lawyers don’t speak with one voice on this, but (very roughly) to be a state you need to have a central government, a permanent population, a defined territory, etc. It helps to have international recognition, but that is probably not essential.

There are certain things that states cannot do in international law – attack others, practice ethnic cleansing or apartheid, things like that. But if a state violates these rules its transgressions don’t licence violent attacks on it by other states, and it doesn’t stop being a state.

Israel, the special case

Israel is of course a special case. As I said in my last piece, Zionism could realise its ambition of national self-determination in a defined territory only by taking someone else’s, and on behalf of people not actually living there. That contradiction between two claims and concepts of legitimacy remains and poisons the politics of the area. Israel’s supposed ‘right to exist’ is inevitably problematic if it excludes another co-located nation’s right to the same recognition.

There are two ways out of this dilemma, but they are both routes that no Israeli government, and indeed no currently conceivable Israeli government, is willing to contemplate. One is to allow, encourage and indeed support the formation of an entirely independent and sovereign Palestine, undominated by Israel, with control over its own territory, its borders, its policies and its security; and to end discrimination against those Palestinians who remain within the ‘not-Palestine’ state. (Currently Palestinians living in pre-1967 Israel have very different rights from Jewish citizens: see here for example, or here.)

The other way forward is to construct a unitary state (embracing the entire current territory and population of Israel and Palestine) in which all citizens are equal, though certain sectional rights (but not privileges) are protected. These are conventionally known as the two-state and one-state solutions. To lance the festering boil either of these solutions would need to accommodate the right of return of the refugees and their descendants.

What makes the simple question of whether Israel has the right to exist not so simple is that under either of these solutions the meaning of ‘Israel’ changes. So, afterwards, would ‘Israel’ exist?

Would Israel exist, in ‘one-state’?

The differences are more stark in a one-state solution. With an electorate more or less numerically balanced between Jews and non-Jews there would need to be a carefully engineered constitutional framework replete with entrenched guarantees. For a parallel, think of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive set up to contain and make manageable a fractured political realm. Who knows what name such a state would be called by. But if it was still to be called Israel, then it would be a very different Israel. Not the ‘Jewish and Democratic State’ so often proclaimed by Israel’s current leaders (who ignore the internal contradiction in their labelling), but a binational state that is a real democracy.

Where this argument takes us is that Israel, as currently configured and complete with its array of discriminatory laws and violent suppression of Palestinian human and national rights, lacks legitimacy. There is nothing antisemitic in this statement. There are other forms of nation, under whatever name, and with its Jewish population firmly in place, that would be accepted I think by most of those who now campaign for Palestinian rights.


Mary Davis deploys the ‘right of Israel to exist’ as the killer argument against the Boycott movement. BDS, it is claimed, illegitimately challenges this (elusive) right when it fails to make a distinction between civil society and the state. In my first contribution to this discussion I pointed out that academic boycott, her chosen paradigm case, does not in fact target individuals – but I will avoid repeating that argument. And there is at least an indirect sense in which boycott does target civil society there.

Israel is not going to be changed into one of those other possible ‘Israels’ by external military aggression or internal Palestinian armed revolt. A reduction in the sale of Jaffa oranges, or even in the diamond trade, still less a reduction in the number of academic visitors, will not bring the country down.

Its voting inhabitants will have to decide that this change is better than the alternative, and find some way of choosing a government that will make that difficult cross-country trek. So its inhabitants are indeed the ultimate but indirect target of BDS. The educational campaign that is BDS is actively transforming the view of Israel in civil society world-wide and, as with South Africa, this will in time manifest itself in Divestment and Sanctions as well as Boycott. Only when the actual and impending consequences of the maintenance of ‘Israel as it is’ is felt by its civil society will it choose a government that will negotiate its way out of its cul-de-sac.

This is a long way from antisemitism. It is certainly anti-Zionism. They are not even nearly the same.

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