Is it worth the effort to debate those who question Israel’s legitimacy? In one sense, the answer has to be no. Israel’s right to exist should no more be a matter for debate than that of any other nation on the planet. If no one questions the right of Saudi Arabia to exist as a nation-state predicated on an extremist view of Islam (where practitioners of other faiths have no rights) or the rights of any European state, including those based on narrow ethnic identities (such as that of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, for whose benefit the United States went to war in 1999), then why should we bother even answering those who question whether the one Jewish state in the world is one too many?
And yet there are some instances in which there is no choice but to acknowledge such arguments and to answer them. The deluge of abuse directed at Zionism and Israel from much of the Arab and Muslim world is easily dismissed even if the sheer volume of these expressions and the way they have seeped into European popular culture have serious consequences. But when the New York Times devotes space on its website to an attempt by an academic to justify the position that Israel has no right to exist, attention must be paid. That’s what happened this past weekend when the Grey Lady published a lengthy article along these lines by University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Joseph Levine. Levine’s purpose was not just to try to prove that Israel shouldn’t exist but to claim that holding such a position was not anti-Semitic. He failed on both counts, calling into question not only the disreputable arguments that can be arrayed against Israel but also the Times’s decision to treat the question as one which is worthy of legitimate debate.
Levine’s basic position is that denying the right of Israel to exist is not the same thing as anti-Semitism. While he denies that the Jews are a people or that they have any particular right to Israel, he puts those points aside to concentrate his 2,000-word rant to the question of whether Israel has the right to be a nation. To do so he must draw a distinction between those like himself who merely wish there was no state of Israel and those who are trying to depopulate that state of its Jews. In the course of this strained argument he seems to be saying that he has no problem with Israelis being Israeli (i.e. the right to live in the country, speak Hebrew and have their own culture and national identity) just as the right of the French to be French is unquestioned. But he thinks the idea of a government that recognizes the particular rights of Jews to self-determination in the country is illegitimate. Doing so would acquit those who agree with him of any taint of would-be genocide, let alone prejudice. But these are distinctions without differences.
Levine’s basic argument with the Israeli state is that any country that grants a privileged status to a particular group—in this case the Jewish people whose existence he denies—is inherently undemocratic. His point seems to be that any nation that is not one in which all citizens are viewed as individuals has no claim on the world’s sympathy and ought to be replaced with something else.
It might be intellectually defensible, if unrealistic, to argue that all nation states ought to be disbanded and that the entire world should be governed under the principles of the U.S. Constitution. But that is not what Levine or the Times is debating here. His sole interest is in the one Jewish state, not the scores of other nations whose identity is based in other national identities or faiths. What he calls the “ethnic hegemony” of Jews in Israel is replicated in various ways in the vast majority of United Nations member states–though in almost all cases with far less concern for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities than is enshrined in Israeli law. Though he claims he is not judging Israel by a double standard, that is exactly what he has done.
Thus, any attempt to deny to the Jews what is not denied or even questioned when it comes to other groups is by definition a form of prejudice. Such prejudice against Jews is called anti-Semitism. That’s why the claim that to be anti-Zionist is not the same as being anti-Semitic is mere sophistry.
But the truly contemptible aspect of Levine’s treatise is the disingenuous attempt to treat the question of Israel’s right to exist as separate from the real world consequences of anti-Zionism.
While Jews deserve the same rights of self-determination that are accorded to others, the particular importance of Israel stems not just from the Jewish demand for equitable treatment but from the consequences of 2,000 years during which they were denied statehood.
It is a popular misnomer to speak of Israel’s legitimacy as having stemmed from the Holocaust. Contrary to Levine, the right of the Jews to their ancient homeland transcends that tragedy and is rooted in history and law that existed long before the Nazis. But the legacy of Jewish powerlessness was 20 centuries of persecution that culminated in the murder of 6 million European Jews. Being deprived of sovereignty not only fueled contempt for the Jews; it made their defense and survival dependent on the whims of an international community whose lack of interest in their plight was a source of encouragement to Adolf Hitler.
Even if we take the Holocaust out of the discussion, the same paradigm applies today. Without an army and a state specifically dedicated to the defense of the Jewish people, the more than 6 million Jews who live in Israel (whose continued existence Professor Levine says he has no desire to interfere with) would be in a similar position to that of European Jewry 70 years ago. One need only listen or read the unceasing stream of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda emanating from Tehran, Cairo, Ramallah and half a hundred other centers of anti-Zionist agitation to understand what would happen to the Jews of Israel were they not protected by a sovereign Jewish state. In a majority Muslim state, Jews would revert to dhimmi status, and that means subjugation and persecution. Talk of the creation of a bi-national democratic state in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza (the traditional demand of Palestinian nationalism) is merely code for the expulsion and slaughter of the Jews, something that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah have no trouble affirming.
There are many aspects of the complex Middle East conflict that persons of good will may debate. But the notion that Israel should be eradicated is not such a notion. Support of this position, even when couched in academic or intellectual arguments such as those that Levine attempts to muster, always boils down to denying the Jews rights that are held sacrosanct and unworthy of discussion when applied to others. Moreover, the denial of these rights cannot be separated from the active desire of some to do more than merely replace one form of democratic government with another. One can no more debate Israel’s legitimacy without taking that into account and placing it in the context of the history of persecution and genocide of Jews than one can debate the merits of Stalin’s economic policies without mentioning the millions who died as a result of his schemes.
Levine’s piece is therefore not merely wrong but a disreputable intellectual gloss on a policy based in hatred. Those who deny the right of Jewish self-determination are aiding the cause of those who make war on the Jews and cannot be cleansed of the taint of that association. No one disputes his right to spew his bias wherever he can get it published, even if this is the sort of thing that ought to be beyond the pale in terms of the conduct of decent persons. But we don’t doubt that were he or any other employee of a state institution of higher learning to associate himself with support of segregation or South African apartheid, they would face serious consequences. That the New York Times would give so much space to it is a shameful reminder of the fact that prejudice against Jews (even when articulated by those who claim Jewish identity as does Levine) is alive and well even in the seemingly respectable corridors of our mainstream media as well as the academy.