We need to talk about Israel’s ‘right to exist’
There was outrage last week when the University of Southampton cancelled a forthcoming conference on Israel and international law, ostensibly on the grounds of “health and safety”.
The university had been under pressure from pro-Israel advocacy groups, and organisers have begun legal efforts against what they see as a concession to outside interference and bullying. The story of the campaign to shut down the conference should not, however, distract from why Israel’s supporters found the topics scheduled for discussion so objectionable.
One theme dominated criticism of the conference, summed up by this headline in the Daily Express: “Outrage as BRITISH university questions Israel’s right to exist.” This is therefore a useful opportunity to examine what has become a cliché in discussion about the Middle East by politicians and pundits.
So, does Israel have a “right to exist”? The answer, or at least an important part of the answer, is that no states have a “right to exist”, without exceptions. States come and go, are formed, and broken up. South Sudan was created in 2011. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993.
There is popular discussion and scholarly work about the legitimacy of numerous states. This debate is generated by factors such as the legacy of decolonisation, or the dozens of active independence and separatist movements across the world.
But what about whether Israel has a “right to exist” as a “Jewish state” specifically? The UN Partition Plan and General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 did indeed call for the establishment of an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state” within the boundaries of British Mandate Palestine.
However, it did so based on population distribution at the time – it did not define a “Jewish” (or Arab) state so as to encompass Jews not already living there. It avoided, in other words, “invoking an abstract right to self-determination of Jews as an extra-territorial group”.
The Partition Plan also contained guarantees of “equal and non-discriminatory rights” for all citizens, Jews and Arabs, living in both states. In the words of the text, Jews and Arabs would “become citizens of the State in which they are resident and enjoy full civil and political rights”.
But there’s another issue here. The Zionist Federation-run petition against the conference claims that “Israel is the expression of the inalienable right to self-determination of the Jewish people.” A writer in the Telegraph declared that “[the Jewish] struggle for self-determination was no different to Martin Luther King Jnr’s against segregation or to Nkruhmah’s against imperialism.”
Crucially, however, self-determination does not equate to statehood – and it certainly does not equate to exclusive, ethnocratic statehood. Indeed, the Telegraph piece (unintentionally) acknowledges as much with its reference to the US civil rights movement.
The total number of ethnic groups worldwide are estimated at anything between 600 and several thousand. One study identified 820 ethnic groups in 160 countries. Uganda alone is home to some 40 different ethnic groups. Do they all have the “right” to self-determination through their own state?
It is this conflation of “Jewish self-determination” with a “Jewish state” and “Zionism” that points us to what the pro-Israel groups are most desperate to hide, a parallel process of denial and erasure that lies behind the invocation of Israel’s “right to exist” (and threats directed at those with questions).
Firstly, it was the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, that enabled a majority-Jewish state to emerge on the ruins of emptied homes and villages. Dynamite and bulldozers, not UN Resolution 181, are the true foundations of the “Jewish state”.
Secondly, the reality of Israeli ethnocracy today is an institutionally racist legal system that excludes Palestinian refugees and marginalises Palestinian citizens. Meanwhile, the same logic that shaped the colonisation of the Galilee has, for half a century, been at work on the hilltops of the West Bank.
The historic Nakba, contemporary ethnocracy, and the relationship between the two – these are the taboo topics which Israel’s die-hard defenders (including self-defined “liberals”) try to obscure – and which the Southampton conference was set to examine.
As the organisers put it, their goal was to provide a forum for “historical scholarship and legal analysis of the manner by which the State of Israel came into existence as well as what kind of state it is.” Replace “the State of Israel” with say, Nigeria, or Indonesia, and you will see how unremarkable an academic exercise this would be in another context.
The fact that the main groups which advocate for Israel in Britain were determined not simply to challenge the ideas of the conference but to stop it from taking place at all is an example of the brittle anxiety and bullying that emerges when Israel’s colonial present-past is laid bare, stripped of mythology, talking points and insinuations about anti-Semitism.
There is no “right” to ethnic cleansing, no “right” to settler-colonial displacement, no “right” to discriminatory legislation, and no “right” to a majoritarian, ethnocratic state that continues to deny the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination.
It is not a zero-sum game. As Orthodox Jewish studies and philosophy professor Charles H. Manekin put it, 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”.
These recent attacks on freedom of speech, while troubling, indicate the insecurity of the former group at a time when there is a growing understanding of, and opposition to, what a “Jewish state” has meant, and continues to mean, for Palestinians.
Published first by Middle East Eye.