Questioning Israel’s Right to Exist

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The Survey of Antisemitism in New Zealand 2021 was released last week by the New Zealand Jewish Council. The survey covers a range of manifestations of antisemitism including far-right nationalist, Islamic, leftist and anti-Zionist.

A striking aspect of the survey was the proportion of ‘don’t know’ responses to many of the questions, especially when it related to knowledge of Israel.  Many New Zealanders appear confused over questions such as whether Israel is an apartheid state, whether Israel should be boycotted and whether Israel is carrying out mass murder. This is not surprising if the respondents’ primary sources of information are mainstream and social media.The survey found that a total of 47% of Kiwis held one or more anti-Israel antisemitic views, and 8% held 4 or more (out of 7). 

Predictably, it is the findings concerning the anti-Israel form of antisemitism that has received the most pushback from commentators, who argue that anti-Israel views should not be conflated with antisemitism. 

The survey text was careful to emphasise that ‘Legitimate criticism of Israeli policy is certainly not antisemitism. However, mainstream scholars of contemporary antisemitism agree there is a connection between extreme anti-Israel views and anti-Jewish racism’.

While some of the questions do require unpacking, it is apparent that the survey questions do indeed uncover significant anti-Jewish racism. 

Take for example the question, 

“The State of Israel has every right to exist as a majority Jewish state.” 

Concerningly, 48% answered ‘did not know’.

Do we ever hear the “right to exist” question raised in regard to any other nation? Even those nations that are the most egregious abusers of human rights are not subject to such a question. 

Is majority Arab status ever questioned in the case of the 22 Arab states? Is the majority Muslim status ever questioned in the case of the 50 Muslim states?

Detractors will counter that it’s about democracy: is it democratic for Israel to remain a majority Jewish state?

The reality is that if there wasn’t a Jewish majority in that land, there wouldn’t be a country called Israel. It would become yet another Arab state, renamed Palestine – that is the Palestinian goal and meaning of the phrase, ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. It is a call to destroy the Jewish state of Israel and replace it with a Palestinian state,  in which, as in the current situation in the Palestinian Territories and Gaza, Jews would be forbidden.

Anyone who thinks otherwise does not know Jewish history, ignores the statements of Palestinian leaders or is naively optimistic.  

So, in reality, the question about whether “The State of Israel has every right to exist as a majority Jewish state”, is effectively asking, does Israel have a right to exist?

The survey points out that a version of this question (“Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people”) was asked in a 2020 British survey where 51% agreed and 43% were unsure. This question was also asked in New Zealand in 2017 and 55% of Kiwis supported Israel compared to 13% who disagreed with the statement.

At the time of the establishment of modern Israel there was near universal agreement of the need for Jews to have a homeland. And it was not simply because of the horror of the European genocide of the Jewish people, although that certainly silenced most opposition. The rights of Jewish people to build a home for themselves in their ancient land was not so controversial in the nineteenth century. In 1899 the Mayor of Jerusalem, Yusuf Ziya Pasha al-Khalidi stated, “Who can contest the rights of the Jews regarding Palestine? Good Lord, historically it is really your country!” 

Let’s not forget that the land we’re considering, which is half the size of the Canterbury province of New Zealand, was considered a G-d forsaken land at the beginning of the nineteenth century, trodden underfoot by many conquerors and colonizers over two millennia.  It was a forgotten corner of the Ottoman empire with a small, diverse population, described as a ‘…human patch-work of Jews, Arabs, Armenians, Kalmucks, Persians, Crusaders, Tartars, Indians, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Sudanese, Turks, Mongols, Romans, Kharmazians, Greeks, pilgrims, wanderers, ne’er-do-wells and adventurers, invaders, slaves …’ 

The notion that there existed for millennia a Palestinian nation or unique Palestinian civilisation, is mythical. While the Arab people and culture are indigenous to Arabia, Jews are indigenous to Israel. The West Bank is the ancient land of Judea and Samaria where the unique Jewish culture, language and religion had their ethnogenesis. Even though Jews were dispossessed by colonizers and the majority dispersed for millennia, the indigenous connection to the land was maintained in the diaspora. Indeed, even through the worst periods of persecution, there remained a Jewish presence in the land. 

The possibility of a Jewish state emerged as a reality at the end of World War One, with the carve-up of the defeated Ottoman Empire by the Allied Powers.  Boundaries were drawn for the new countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Palestine/Israel and the respective territories were placed under British and French Mandates until they were considered ready for self-determination.  While each attained statehood at different times, their beginnings were the same, a result of the post-war realignment of the Ottoman Empire. 

The emergent Jewish home was welcomed by some Arabs. In 1919, Hashemite Prince Feisal ibn Hussein stated in a letter, “We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home” and “The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist.” 

The Mandate period saw vigorous development in the land through Zionist efforts and this attracted Arab immigrants from throughout the Middle East. Certainly, many Arabs resisted Jewish presence and when in 1947, the UN proposed a division into two states, one for the Jews and one for Arabs, the Arabs rejected it and have continued to reject subsequent offers of land for peace.  Israel was founded in 1948 based on Resolution 181 (II) of the United Nations General Assembly – a resolution which attracted New Zealand’s support. Indeed, New Zealand’s Prime Minister of the time, Peter Fraser, was a passionate Zionist and supporter of the Jewish people. 

But to return to the absurdity of the question of a nation’s right to exist – is this ever asked of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Yemen, countries whose gestation occured at the same time as Israel, under the same conditions?

Critics may point out that Israel’s short history has been riven by conflict and war. But what of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen?  The civil war that has engulfed Syria since 2011 has seen more than 570,000 people killed, including 4,048 Palestinians.  7.6 million people have been internally displaced and over 5 million have become refugees. How often is Syria in the news? How many condemnatory UN resolutions have there been? How many NGOs line up to condemn her? Who ever questions Syria’s right to exist? And how often do we hear in mainstream media about the plight of the Palestinians in Syria? Aside from those who have been killed, 333 Palestinians have gone missing, and 1,797 are being held in prisons. Like most Arab countries, Syria denies citizenship to Palestinians. Why are the Palestinians in Syria considered less valuable than the Palestinians in Israel? Is it because the Israelis cannot be blamed for their plight? 

Oh, but the ‘occupation’. Here again, there are genuine occupations in various locations around the world, and these barely receive any attention from the world’s media. The rights of countries like Morocco or Turkey to exist is never questioned despite their occupation of the Sub-Sahara and Cyprus respectively. 

The list of accusations against Israel continues; apartheid, genocide, settler colonialism etc, but none of these stand up under scrutiny. Such are a-factual, a-contextual and a-historical and ultimately amount to antisemitic accusations. 

Israel is treated as if her birth was an original sin and her continued existence needs erasure. Israel has unique challenges and has made many mistakes to be sure, but her transgressions have never been such that her existence should be questioned. 

Israel has always been willing to make compromises for peace, while the Palestinians continue to demand all or nothing. Further, Israeli Arabs thrive compared to many of their kin in other Middle East nations. And a number of Arab nations are lining up to normalise relationships with Israel under the Abraham Accords. 

There is no just or ethical reason to question whether Israel has a right to exist as a majority Jewish state. It would appear that the only Jewish state in the world is held to a different standard to every other nation and that Israel is treated as the Jew amongst the nations. The unavoidable conclusion is that ‘Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination and a national homeland is antisemitic because it denies the religious and historic ties of Jews to the land of Israel’.