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Israel has a right to exist. Its political system does not.
When I write essays, like the one I recently published on antisemitism in The New York Times, people sometimes respond with questions via email or Twitter. I appreciate that. Questions are more thought-provoking, and more pleasant, than epithets. (Some recent examples of the latter: “You are a pathetic loser,” Aug 31, 6:36 PM. “You’re a fool,” Aug 31, 7;07 PM. “You are nothing but a self-hating Kapo Jew who will be cursed by G-d,” Sept 2, 5:12 PM.)
But it’s often hard to give questions they attention they deserve. So I’m devoting today’s newsletter to responding to one I get a lot: Do I believe Israel has the right to exist?
Before that, though, a word about this week’s Zoom call for paid subscribers. We’ll be joined by Ariel Koren, who recently quit her job at Google after claiming the company retaliated against her for opposing Google’s growing partnership with the Israeli military. The New York Times covered her resignation last week. Here are some of the upcoming protests she’s helping to lead. There aren’t many people who can explain, from the inside, how high-tech companies approach human rights. And there aren’t many people in any industry who jeopardize their careers over issues of conscience. Ariel is among the few. Which is why I’m excited to talk to her this Friday. As always, paid subscribers will get the Zoom link this Wednesday and the video the following week.
Back to Israel’s right to exist. Here’s how someone phrased the question to me last week on Twitter:
“Peter, genuine question. Why have you never suggested that any other country be dissolved in the name of human rights? Not North Korea, not Myanmar, not Cuba, why is that?”
Answering the question requires distinguishing between countries and political systems. There are people who believe in a world without countries, a borderless globe that is ruled by some universal government that represents everyone on earth, or perhaps by porous local communities that allow free movement across their terrain. I’m not one of those people. I want countries to cooperate to create and enforce norms of international behavior. But I don’t want them to disappear. Given that people are flawed, power-seeking creatures, I don’t see why breaking humanity into smaller political units or amalgamating it into one gargantuan whole would create more justice and peace. At least today if your government turns tyrannical you can try to leave. What would people do if the single world government became oppressive? Emigrate to another planet?
So I don’t support dissolving Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea (though I’ll put an asterisk next to the latter and return to it later) or any other country. I’m not opposed to borders, anthems, and flags. My problem is with the repressive political systems that govern North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar. I’d like to see them dissolved in favor of political systems that give the people in those nations greater rights and a greater voice in how they are governed.
The Twitter question suggests that in seeking that Israel “be dissolved in the name of human rights,” I’m revealing an unhealthy fixation on the flaws of the world’s lone Jewish state. Why—Israel’s defenders often ask—is Israel the only country on earth whose very existence is routinely challenged? But if you replace “country” with “political system,” the premise makes no sense. The United States seeks to dissolve the political systems of many countries. For the time being, it has largely abandoned doing so via force of arms because the regime change wars of the early twentieth first century—in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya—didn’t work out well. The US does, however, still frequently express its displeasure with repressive political systems by imposing sanctions against them. The US sanctions Myanmar, Cuba, North Korea, and roughly twenty other countries, sometimes because we oppose their foreign policies but often because their political systems violate human rights. And even when the US doesn’t sanction countries it often slashes their foreign aid—or at least scolds them rhetorically—for failing to guarantee free elections and equal treatment for members of different racial, religious, or ethnic groups.
There’s nothing unfair, let alone antisemitic, about applying those same standards to Israel. Israel doesn’t oppress all the people under its control, as North Korea, Cuba and Myanmar do. For Jews, it’s a free society. But in its treatment of Palestinians, Israel’s political system fails the liberal democratic criteria that the US espouses, at least rhetorically, all across the world. Most of the Palestinians under Israel’s control—those in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip—can’t vote for the government that wields ultimate sovereignty over their lives. (If you don’t think Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza ask yourself whether Palestinians can legally enter and exit those territories without Israel’s permission. With small exceptions, they cannot.) And throughout the territory that Israel controls—the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Israel proper—Palestinians are legally inferior. Even the minority of Palestinians who enjoy Israeli citizenship (sometimes called “Israeli Arabs”) face immense, state-sponsored discrimination. Consider Israel’s allocation of land. The Israeli government controls 93 percent of the land in Israel proper and East Jerusalem. It distributes it via the Israel Land Authority, which allots almost half its seats to the Jewish National Fund, “whose explicit mandate”—as Human Rights Watch has noted—“is to develop and lease land for Jews and not any other segment of the population.” (The Israel Land Authority’s remaining seats go to representatives of the Israeli cabinet). Think about what this means for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. If 93 percent of the land in the United States were controlled by a government body composed in significant measure of representatives of an organization explicitly dedicated to developing the land for Christian use, do you think American Jews would feel equal?
This is just one example of why I support replacing Israel’s political system—which the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem characterizes as “Jewish supremacy”—with one based on equality under the law irrespective of religion and ethnicity. Under such a system, all the people under Israel’s control would vote in its elections. In taking that view, I’m not singling out Israel. I’m applying the same principles—free elections and equality under the law—that I support in every country, including my own.
Supporting those principles, of course, doesn’t dictate how best to pursue them. I don’t want the US to change Israel’s political system by invading it. I don’t want the US to place Israel under the kind of embargoes the US imposes on Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, and Syria—embargoes that largely cut off those nations from global commerce and hurt the ordinary people already suffering under repressive regimes. But the US isn’t sanctioning Israel. It’s giving it more than $3 billion annually in essentially unconditional military aid. And since I believe in liberal democracy, I don’t think the US should underwrite a political system that violates the political principles it claims to cherish.
So back to the original question: Do I think Israel has a right to exist? What’s tricky about the question is that Israel isn’t just the name of a country. In a sense, it’s also the name of Israel’s political system. In the Bible, Israel is the name God gives Jacob, the patriarch of the family that becomes the Jewish people. So in its very name, “Israel” declares that this is a country dedicated, first and foremost, to the welfare of Jews—not to the welfare of Palestinians who constitute a roughly equal share of the people between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
When political systems become more free, political leaders often change their country’s name to reflect that greater freedom. When Rhodesia enfranchised blacks, its new government felt it inappropriate to continue to name the country after a renowned British imperialist. In South Africa, some Black nationalists toyed with renaming the country “Azania.” But because “South Africa” implied no racial preference, the African National Congress kept it even after the country’s political system changed. Even name of the United States changed, albeit subtly, when America’s political system underwent a fundamental change. Before the Civil War, the USA was generally considered a plural noun—“The United States of America are”—to reflect power of the states. After the Civil War, which vindicated the federal government’s claim that states had the right neither to secede nor hold slaves, the USA became a singular noun: “The United States of America is.”
The point is that if Israel replaced Jewish supremacy with political equality, its leaders would probably want a name that reflected the identity of all its people, not just the Jews. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Palestine Liberation Organization wanted to replace Israel with a country called “Palestine”—the name of the territory under British mandate. And to this day, some Palestinians claim that “Palestine” isn’t ethnically exclusive: That “Palestine” historically included Muslims, Christians, and Jews and that anyone who lives in that territory today is thus “Palestinian.” I find that argument wholly unconvincing. Jews are a people, not just a religion. Barely any Israeli Jews consider themselves “Palestinian.” Thus, a country built on legal equality should have a name that reflects the identities of both of the peoples in the binational country between the river and the sea: “Israel-Palestine” or “Palestine-Israel” or both. In his 2007 book, One Country, Ali Abunimah writes that,
“‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ are dear to those who use them and they should not be abandoned. The country could be called Yisrael-Falastin in Hebrew and Filastin-Isra’il in Arabic. We shall just have to toss a coin to decide whether ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’ will come first in the English version of the name.”
That makes sense to me.
One last point. When political systems change, sometimes borders do to. When the Soviet Union relinquished its grip over East Germany and East Germans gained the right to determine their own political fate, they decided that they didn’t want a separate country called East Germany. They wanted to live in one reunified Germany. That’s why I put an asterisk next to North Korea at the beginning of this essay. If North Koreans gain political freedom they may make a similar decision, in which case dissolving North Korea’s totalitarian political system would also mean dissolving the country itself. After the Soviet Union collapsed, its member states declared their independence. After 1989, Yugoslavia broke apart too, in a gruesome series of wars. Czechoslovakia did so too, but far more peacefully.
What does this mean for Israel-Palestine? For many years, I—like many others—hoped that Israeli and Palestinian leaders would agree to partition the land. To have worked, such a decision would likely have required a democratic mandate from both peoples, perhaps via separate referendums in which both Israelis and Palestinians ratified a partition deal. I no longer think that’s possible. Were it possible I’m not sure it would be desirable. But if Israel-Palestine granted voting rights and legal equality to all its people, and those people decided to separate—in a legal and constitutional process, as in Czechoslovakia—that would be up to them. As someone who believes in liberal democracy, what matters to me most is not whether Israelis and Palestinians choose one state or two but that the members of both peoples enjoy political freedom, which is the prerequisite that allows them to make a legitimate choice.
At the end of the day, what really matters is the right of individual human beings to exist, in safety and freedom. Any political system, any border, any country must ultimately be judged on how well it safeguards that.
I was interviewed recently on the Cato Institute’s “Power Problems” podcast about US foreign policy a year after the Afghan withdrawal.
On September 14, I’ll be participating in a virtual panel on US policy towards Israel-Palestine at Rutgers University’s Center for Security, Race and Rights with Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
See you on Friday,