Tony Greenstein | 31 March 2017 | Post Views:

A very interesting article in the New York Times of
all papers.  I agree with it almost in
its entirety.  Perhaps the only lacuna is
that Joseph Levine doesn’t mention that there is no Israeli nationality, just a
Jewish nationality and a myriad of other, quite nonsensical nationalities in Israel.  In other words there is only one important
nationality, that of the dominant ethnic group or race – those who are Jewish.
It was a pamphlet by Theodore Herzl in 1896 that began the Zionist movement
But his main thesis, that a Jewish state in which
nationality and self-determination pertains only to one ethnicity in a state is
bound to be racist is correct.  Britain is
a Christian state but it is a state of all its peoples.  Christianity is a constitutional adornment,
it has no effect on my rights as a Jewish citizen of Britain.  But in Israel being Jewish means real
privileges – access to land, the best schools, grants to universities, better employment,
political privileges etc.  That is why a Jewish
state must be an apartheid state.
Tony Greenstein
Professor Joseph Levine
By Joseph Levine 
NY Times
March 9,
2013 7:30 pm
I was raised in a religious Jewish environment, and
though we were not strongly Zionist, I always took it to be self-evident that
“Israel has a right to exist.” Now anyone who has debated the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict will have encountered this phrase often. Defenders
of Israeli policies routinely accuse Israel’s critics of denying her right to
exist, while the critics (outside of a small group on the left, where I now
find myself) bend over backward to insist that, despite their criticisms, of
course they affirm it. The general mainstream consensus seems to be that to
deny Israel’s right to exist is a clear indication of anti-Semitism (a charge
Jews like myself are not immune to), and therefore not an option for people of
What does it mean for a people to have a state “of their own”?
Over the years I came to question this consensus
and to see that the general fealty to it has seriously constrained open debate
on the issue, one of vital importance not just to the people directly involved
— Israelis and Palestinians — but to the conduct of our own foreign policy and,
more important, to the safety of the world at large. My view is that one
really ought to question Israel’s right to exist and that doing so does not
manifest anti-Semitism. The first step in questioning the principle, however,
is to figure out what it means.
An unusual article for the pro-Zionist New York Times
One problem with talking about this question calmly and rationally is that the
phrase “right to exist” sounds awfully close to “right to life,” so denying
Israel its right to exist sounds awfully close to permitting the extermination
of its people. In light of the history of Jewish persecution, and the fact that
Israel was created immediately after and largely as a consequence of the
Holocaust, it isn’t surprising that the phrase “Israel’s right to exist” should
have this emotional impact. But as even those who insist on the principle will
admit, they aren’t claiming merely the impermissibility of exterminating Israelis.
So what is this “right” that many uphold as so basic that to question it
reflects anti-Semitism and yet is one that I claim ought to be questioned?
The key to the interpretation is found in the
crucial four words that are often tacked on to the phrase “Israel’s right to
exist” — namely, “… as a Jewish state.” As I understand it, the principle that
Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state has three parts: first, that
Jews, as a collective, constitute a people in the sense that they possess a
right to self-determination; second, that a people’s right to
self-determination entails the right to erect a state of their own, a state
that is their particular people’s state; and finally, that for the Jewish
people the geographical area of the former Mandatory Palestine, their ancestral
homeland, is the proper place for them to exercise this right to
The claim then is that anyone who denies Israel’s
right to exist as a Jewish state is guilty of anti-Semitism because they are
refusing to grant Jews the same rights as other peoples possess. If indeed this
were true, if Jews were being singled out in the way many allege, I would agree
that it manifests anti-Jewish bias. But the charge that denying Jews a right to
a Jewish state amounts to treating the Jewish people differently from other
peoples cannot be sustained.
To begin, since the principle has three parts, it
follows that it can be challenged in (at least) three different ways: either
deny that Jews constitute “a people” in the relevant sense, deny that the right
to self-determination really involves what advocates of the principle claim it
does, or deny that Jews have the requisite claim on the geographical area in
In fact, I think there is a basis to challenge all
three, but for present purposes I will focus on the question of whether a
people’s right to self-determination entails their right to a state of their
own, and set aside whether Jews count as a people and whether Jews have a claim
on that particular land. I do so partly for reasons of space, but mainly
because these questions have largely (though not completely) lost their
The fact is that today millions of Jews live in
Israel and, ancestral homeland or not, this is their home now. As for whether
Jews constitute a people, this is a vexed question given the lack of consensus
in general about what it takes for any particular group of people to count as
“a people.” The notion of “a people” can be interpreted in different ways, with
different consequences for the rights that they possess. My point is that even
if we grant Jews their peoplehood and their right to live in that land, there
is still no consequent right to a Jewish state.
However, I do think that it’s worth noting the
historical irony in insisting that it is anti-Semitic to deny that Jews
constitute a people. The 18th and 19th centuries were the period of Jewish
“emancipation” in Western Europe, when the ghetto walls were torn down and Jews
were granted the full rights of citizenship in the states within which they
resided. The anti-Semitic forces in those days, those opposing emancipation,
were associated not with denying Jewish peoplehood but with emphatically
insisting on it! The idea was that since Jews constituted a nation of their
own, they could not be loyal citizens of any European state. The liberals who
strongly opposed anti-Semitism insisted that Jews could both practice their
religion and uphold their cultural traditions while maintaining full
citizenship in the various nation-states in which they resided.
But, as I said, let’s grant that Jews are a people.
Well, if they are, and if with the status of a people comes the right to
self-determination, why wouldn’t they have a right to live under a Jewish state
in their homeland? The simple answer is because many non-Jews (rightfully) live
there too. But this needs unpacking.
First, it’s important to note, as mentioned above,
that the term “a people” can be used in different ways, and sometimes they get
confused. In particular, there is a distinction to be made between a people in
the ethnic sense and a people in the civic sense. Though there is no general
consensus on this, a group counts as a people in the ethnic sense by virtue of
common language, common culture, common history and attachment to a common
territory. One can easily see why Jews, scattered across the globe, speaking
many different languages and defined largely by religion, present a difficult
case. But, as I said above, for my purposes it doesn’t really matter, and I
will just assume the Jewish people qualify.
The other sense is the civic one, which applies to
a people by virtue of their common citizenship in a nation-state or,
alternatively, by virtue of their common residence within relatively defined
geographic borders. So whereas there is both an ethnic and a civic sense to be
made of the term “French people,” the term “Jewish people” has only an ethnic
sense. This can easily be seen by noting that the Jewish people is not the same
group as the Israeli people. About 20 percent of Israeli citizens are
non-Jewish Palestinians, while the vast majority of the Jewish people are not
citizens of Israel and do not live within any particular geographic area.
“Israeli people,” on the other hand, has only a civic sense. (Of course often
the term “Israelis” is used as if it applies only to Jewish Israelis, but this
is part of the problem. More on this below.)
So, when we consider whether or not a people has a
right to a state of their own, are we speaking of a people in the ethnic sense
or the civic one? I contend that insofar as the principle that all peoples have
the right to self-determination entails the right to a state of their own, it
can apply to peoples only in the civic sense.
After all, what is it for a people to have a state
“of their own”? Here’s a rough characterization: the formal institutions and
legal framework of the state serves to express, encourage and favor that
people’s identity. The distinctive position of that people would be manifested
in a number of ways, from the largely symbolic to the more substantive: for
example, it would be reflected in the name of the state, the nature of its flag
and other symbols, its national holidays, its education system, its immigration
rules, the extent to which membership in the people in question is a factor in
official planning, how resources are distributed, etc. If the people being
favored in this way are just the state’s citizens, it is not a problem. (Of
course those who are supercosmopolitan, denying any legitimacy to the borders
of nation-states, will disagree. But they aren’t a party to this debate.)
But if the people who “own” the state in question
are an ethnic sub-group of the citizenry, even if the vast majority, it
constitutes a serious problem indeed, and this is precisely the situation of
Israel as the Jewish state. Far from being a natural expression of the Jewish
people’s right to self-determination, it is in fact a violation of the right to
self-determination of its non-Jewish (mainly Palestinian) citizens. It is a
violation of a people’s right to self-determination to exclude them — whether
by virtue of their ethnic membership, or for any other reason — from full
political participation in the state under whose sovereignty they fall. Of
course Jews have a right to self-determination in this sense as well — this is
what emancipation was all about. But so do non-Jewish peoples living in the
same state.
Any state that “belongs” to one ethnic group within
it violates the core democratic principle of equality, and the self-determination
rights of the non-members of that group. 
If the institutions of a state favor one ethnic
group among its citizenry in this way, then only the members of that group will
feel themselves fully a part of the life of the state. True equality,
therefore, is only realizable in a state that is based on civic peoplehood. As
formulated by both Jewish- and Palestinian-Israeli activists on this issue, a
truly democratic state that fully respects the self-determination rights of
everyone under its sovereignty must be a “state of all its citizens.”
This fundamental point exposes the fallacy behind
the common analogy, drawn by defenders of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish
state, between Israel’s right to be Jewish and France’s right to be French. The
appropriate analogy would instead be between France’s right to be French (in
the civic sense) and Israel’s right to be Israeli. 
I conclude, then, that the very idea of a Jewish
state is undemocratic, a violation of the self-determination rights of its
non-Jewish citizens, and therefore morally problematic. But the harm doesn’t
stop with the inherently undemocratic character of the state. For if an ethnic
national state is established in a territory that contains a significant number
of non-members of that ethnic group, it will inevitably face resistance from
the land’s other inhabitants. This will force the ethnic nation controlling the
state to resort to further undemocratic means to maintain their hegemony. Three
strategies to deal with resistance are common: expulsion, occupation and
institutional marginalization. Interestingly, all three strategies have been
employed by the Zionist movement: expulsion in 1948 (and, to a lesser extent,
in 1967), occupation of the territories conquered in 1967 and institution of a
complex web of laws that prevent Israel’s Palestinian citizens from mounting an
internal challenge to the Jewish character of the state. (The recent outrage in
Israel over a
proposed exclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties from the governing coalition
for example, failed to note that no Arab political party has ever been invited
to join the government.) In other words, the wrong of ethnic hegemony within
the state leads to the further wrong of repression against the Other within its
There is an unavoidable conflict between being a
Jewish state and a democratic state. I want to emphasize that there’s nothing
anti-Semitic in pointing this out, and it’s time the question was discussed
openly on its merits, without the charge of anti-Semitism hovering in the

Levine is a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst, where he teaches and writes on philosophy of mind, metaphysics and
political philosophy. He is the author of “Purple Haze: The Puzzle of

Posted in

Tony Greenstein

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.