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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fisking Nusseibeh's "Why Israel can't be a 'Jewish State'

A couple of days ago Al Jazeera published an article called "Why Israel can't be a 'Jewish State'" by Sari Nusseibeh.

It has garnered over 5000 Facebook recommendations and hundreds more retweets.

Like the idea that the Neturei Karta represent "True Judaism," this article gives people who already made up their minds a thread of scholarly-sounding nonsense for them to grab onto to justify their opinions.

And it is, indeed, nonsense.

If we consider the subject dispassionately, the idea of a "Jewish State" is logically and morally problematic because of its legal, religious, historical and social implications. The implications of this term therefore need to be spelled out, and we are sure that once they are, most people - and most Israeli citizens, we trust - will not accept these implications.

...First, let us say that confusion immediately arises here because the term "Jewish" can be applied both to the ancient race of Israelites and their descendants, as well as to those who believe in and practice the religion of Judaism. These generally overlap, but not always. For example, some ethnic Jews are atheists and there are converts to Judaism (leaving aside the question of whether these are accepted as such by Ultra-Orthodox Jews) who are not ethnic Jews.
This is true. Judaism is more than a religion and Jews are more than just adherents of a religion - they are a people, they are a nation, and they have been recognized as such way before the establishment of modern Israel.

This is not to say that Israelis are congruent with the Jewish people, as obviously they are not. But that doesn't contradict the idea that Israel is a Jewish state.

Second, let us suggest also that having a modern nation-state being defined by one ethnicity or one religion is problematic in itself - if not inherently self-contradictory - because the modern nation-state as such is a temporal and civic institution, and because no state in the world is - or can be in practice - ethnically or religiously homogenous.
This is a red herring, as no one is saying that Israel must be ethnically or religiously homogenous. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find even the most extreme right-wing Zionist advocating that Israel kick out its non-Jewish citizens or residents (or forcibly convert them), which is what Nusseibeh is implying.
Third, recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" implies that Israel is, or should be, either a theocracy (if we take the word "Jewish" to apply to the religion of Judaism) or an apartheid state (if we take the word "Jewish" to apply to the ethnicity of Jews), or both, and in all of these cases, Israel is then no longer a democracy - something which has rightly been the pride of most Israelis since the country's founding in 1948.
.More nonsense. Keep in mind that Israeli leaders have considered Israel to be a Jewish state since its inception, and by any yardstick Israel cannot be considered a theocracy nor an apartheid state. Israel's policies are created by its own leadership, not by the rest of the world - so why would recognition of this reality by the outside world affect Israel's internal policies? It's being recognized as a Jewish state by outsiders would not change Israel's internal character one bit.
Fourth, at least one in five Israelis - 20 per cent of the population, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics - is ethnically Arab (and are mostly either Muslim, Christian, Druze or Bahai), and recognising Israel as a "Jewish State" as such makes one-fifth of the population of Israel automatically strangers in their own native land and opens the door to legally reducing them, most undemocratically, to second-class citizens (or perhaps even stripping them of their citizenship and other rights) - something that no-one, much less a Palestinian leader, has a right to do.
Again, almost complete nonsense. I would be the first to admit that there is a certain amount of tension between the concepts of a "Jewish state" and a pure democracy; a Jewish state would give small amounts of preference to Jews in terms of citizenship and perhaps a couple of other areas. Other countries have other criteria for citizenship that discriminate between desired immigrants and undesired immigrants. European countries do not allow most Muslim Arab immigrants to become citizens very easily. This just shows that no one is purely democratic and similar tensions exist everywhere - it does not repudiate the idea of a democratic state that identifies with some people more than others.
Fifth, recognising a "Jewish State" as such in Israel would mean legally that while Palestinians no longer have citizens' rights there, any member of world Jewry outside of Israel (up to 10 million people perhaps), should be entitled to full citizens' rights there, no matter wherever they may be in the world today and regardless of their current nationality. Indeed, Israel publicly admits that it does not hold the land for the benefit of its citizens but holds it, in trust, on behalf of the Jews of the world for all time. This is something that happens in practice, but that obviously Palestinians in the occupied territories - including Jerusalem - do not see as fair, especially as they are constantly forcibly evicted off their ancestral homeland by Israel to make way for foreign Jewish settlers, and because Palestinians in their diaspora are denied the same right to come and live.
Here Nusseibeh shows that he is knowingly being deceptive.

He admits that Israel already has this policy, and therefore nothing would change if the world would admit that Israel is the Jewish state. The rest of his discussion about occupation and settlements is meant to inflame, but it does not inform. Obviously Israel's policy towards areas it has not annexed and towards non-citizens is going to be different from areas that are within the Green Line and Jerusalem and towards Israeli citizens.

Sixth, it means, before final status negotiations have even started, that Palestinians would have then given up the rights of about 7 million Palestinians in the diaspora to repatriation or compensation; 7 million Palestinians descended from the Palestinians who in 1900 lived in historical Palestine (ie what is now Israel, the West Bank including Jerusalem, and Gaza) and at that time made up 800,000 of its 840,000 inhabitants; and who were driven off their land through war, violent eviction or fear.
Those rights are nonexistent, and if Arab leaders had been honest with them and treated them like other refugee populations they would have normal, productive lives today. In the same decade of their losing their homes, tens of millions of other people lost theirs - and yet today they are no longer refugees! The "refugee" problem is an artificial issue kept alive for one reason only - to destroy Israel demographically.

And I have to re-emphasize that the majority of Palestinian Arabs did leave because of fear - fear that was largely unfounded, fueled by wild rumors and by the fact that their leaders fled first. Beyond that, they never imagined that their Arab brethren would turn them into pariahs. Every single time Palestinian Arabs had the chance to become citizens of their host Arab countries, they enthusiastically grabbed the opportunity. Even if you want to blame Israel for the initial displacement, the only party that has kept this issue alive are Arab leaders by enforcing what can only be considered apartheid against their Palestinian brothers.
Seventh, recognising a "Jewish state" in Israel - a state which purports to annex the whole of Jerusalem, East and West, and calls Jerusalem its "eternal, undivided capital" (as if the city, or even the world itself, were eternal; as if it were really undivided, and as if it actually were legally recognised by the international community as Israel's capital) - means completely ignoring the fact that Jerusalem is as holy to 2.2 billion Christians and 1.6 billion Muslims, as it is to 15-20 million Jews worldwide.
More nonsense. Israel has not erased any Muslim or Christian history from Jerusalem. Israeli archaeologists regularly uncover and publicize ancient Muslim sites, just as they do for Byzantine and Jewish sites. The only people who tried to excise a religion from Jerusalem were the Arabs in 1948, as the Jordanians bragged about destroying some 70 synagogues in the course of a single month.

[I]t remains true that, in the Old Testament, God commands the Jewish state in the land of Israel to come into being through warfare and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants. Moreover, this command has its roots in the very Covenant of God with Abraham (or rather "Abram" at that time) in the Bible and it thus forms one of the core tenets of Judaism as such, at least as we understand it. No one then can blame Palestinians and descendents of the ancient Canaanites, Jebusites and others who inhabited the land before the Ancient Israelites (as seen in the Bible itself) for a little trepidation as regards what recognising Israel as a "Jewish State" means for them, particularly to certain Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews. No one then can blame Palestinians for asking if recognising Israel as a "Jewish State" means recognising the legitimacy of offensive warfare or violence against them by Israel to take what remains of Palestine from them....

In short, recognition of Israel as a "Jewish State" in Israel is not the same as, say, recognition of Greece today as a "Christian State". It entails, in the Old Testament itself, a Covenant between God and a Chosen People regarding a Promised Land that should be taken by force at the expense of the other inhabitants of the land and of non-Jews. This idea is not present as such in other religions that we know of.
This is beyond ridiculous. Even the most religious extremist Zionist Jew isn't calling for the genocide of all non-Jewish inhabitants of Biblical Israel, and in fact nothing of the sort has happened. Nothing would change in that regard by Arabs recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

I can find plenty of Arab and Muslim quotes from the past century that echo the most violent parts of the Bible - and the Koran, for that matter - mostly against the very Jews that Nusseibeh is trying so hard to paint as bigoted ethnic cleansers.

And this is a crucial point. In 1947, scared by the chance that the UN would partition Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state, the Arab leaders scrambled to come up with a plan for a single state where the Muslim majority would treat its Jewish minority impeccably - which is, they said, how they always had treated Jews. Yet immediately after the UN vote - before the State of Israel was declared - Arabs attacked and killed Jews in other Arab countries!

In fact, how Jews were treated by the Arabs in the 1940s and afterwards is the major reason why a Jewish state is correct, moral and necessary. The Jews of Arab countries at the time, whether they were Zionist or not, were scapegoated and subjected to a reign of terror. Their only recourse was to flee, penniless, to the new Jewish state.

Nusseibeh never deigns to mention why a Jewish state is necessary, why the Jewish people have the right to self-determination as well as anyone else does, why the existence of such a state could have saved millions of lives in the 1940s. He uses tunnel vision to frame the argument in terms of "rights" - but only Arab rights. The Jewish right to have a physical nation as much as, or more than, any other people is completely ignored. It is not an issue of Arab human rights - it is an issue of competing human rights between two groups of people.

One of those groups claims to be part of a larger nation that stretches across hundreds of millions of square miles across two continents. The other has nowhere else to call home, has fervently wished to return to its home for millennia, and indeed has rarely felt to be full citizens of any other country that hosted them.

This is why Zionism is a moral expression of Jewish nationalism. As much as possible, Zionist leaders have and continue to do everything possible to give the most possible rights to non-Jewish citizens and others under their control - up to the point of endangering the human rights of Jews themselves. The line between the two exists and it sometimes moves from one side to the other as Israeli leaders wrestle with the difficult ethical issues of how to maximize human rights for all - non-Jews and Jews alike. For the most part, they have been spectacularly successful in finding the best way to balance the two, and Arabs in Israel have far more rights than any Jews have ever had in Arab countries.

There is one other point that Nussibeih pointedly ignores. All Arab countries define themselves in their respective constitutions as Arab countries, and almost all of them define themselves as Islamic countries. The exact same arguments that Nussibeih posits here apply to all of them, including "Palestine." If Israel calling itself a Jewish state is so problematic, then every Arab country is on much weaker rhetorical ground - especially since their discrimination against non-Arabs and often against non-Muslims far outstrips the worst Israel could be credibly accused of. Where are Nusseibeh's anguished articles  in Al Jazeera about how Arab countries need to stop being defined as Arab and Muslim?

This article is high-minded, pseudo-intellectual, hypocritical claptrap.

UPDATE: Elliott Abrams looked at it as well, and noticed a few things I missed - especially some very egregious selective history at the beginning of the article.. (h/t David G)