By Rima Najjar
For some time now, the discourse on Israel has been shifting from a place where Israeli “hasbara” disinformation had the upper hand no matter where one turned, to a place where Israeli criminal policies are more frankly discussed and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), which is now championed by some academic associations, church groups and labor unions in the United States and elsewhere.
Jewish Voice for Peace and other activist groups have come out with statements not only advocating BDS, but also criticizing Zionism and its definition of Jewish nationalism as practiced by the Jewish state. In a letter protesting the cancellation of a hiring search for the ‘Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies’ professorship at CSU Fresno, Jewish Voice for Peace states: “The Jewish people are not a monolith on this or any other issue.”
In response to these advances in the struggle for Palestinian liberation, one area remains taboo and that is to question (and thereby delegitimize) Israel by opposing its heart of darkness – i.e., its “right to exist” as a Jewish state (a partition of Mandate Palestine) belonging, not to its indigenous population, but to the “Jewish people” worldwide. This right to exist as a Zionist entity presupposes that Jewish communities around the world are a monolith Zionist “nation” in the way Israel defines Jewish identity, which in its corollary, denies the self-determination of Palestinian Arabs in their own homeland.
What’s appalling is that not only is it taboo to discuss the legality and legitimacy of Jewish self-determination, it is also taboo to even ask the question. The following is my answer to a question asked on the social media Q/A service called Quora, which was promptly thrown into the trash bin along with my answer and that of others posted there.
Because Israel’s creation is based on force of arms, Zionist terror and pre-planned ethnic cleansing, that is to say, the near-eradication of Arab Palestine, as well as violations of international law and is therefore an easy target of delegitimazation, it has relied heavily on the Balfour Declaration (1917), which supports the establishment in Palestine of a “Jewish national home” for the “Jewish people” to legitimize itself.
The Balfour Declaration was incorporated by the League of Nations in 1922 into the British Mandate of Palestine (with the caveat that the rights of the absurdly-phrased “non-Jewish communities,” then 90% of Palestine’s population, would be maintained). That document, however, does not translate into “self determination in the form of a Jewish state,” nor was it meant as such, despite its deceptive language .
Jewish identity politics and literature are rife with contradiction, controversy and confusion, But Israel, while denying the legal existence of Palestinian Arabs as “a people,” defines Jewishness through descent – a supposedly unbroken bloodlines from antiquity to the present.
The State of Israel enshrined the central importance of descent in its Law of Return of 1950 (amended in 1970), which states that: “For the purposes of this Law, “Jew” means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”
Descent is crucial to Jewish identity discourse in Israel because direct lineal descent from antiquity is the main reason given by political-Zionist philosophers for why Jews today hold the right to self-determination in the land of Palestine. In this view, all Jews retain a special relationship and rights to the land of Palestine, granted by covenant with God: some schools of Zionism hold that Israel is the successor State to the Jewish kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon. That claim is expressed, inter alia, in the Declaration of Independence of Israel, which affirms that Jews today trace their ancestry to an earlier national life in the geography of Palestine and therefore have an inalienable right to “return”, which is given precedence over positive law…. That claim to unbroken lineal descent from antiquity attributes collective rights to the “land of Israel” to an entire group on the basis of its (supposed) bloodlines. The incompatible claim that Jewishness is multiracial, by virtue of its character as a religion to which others have converted, is simply absent from this formula.
So where does that leave the Palestinians, the indigenous people of Palestine? Keep in mind that indigeneity is defined as:
…populations composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition; who today live more in conformity with their particular social, economic and cultural customs and traditions than with the institutions of the country of which they now form part, under a state structure which incorporates mainly national, social and cultural characteristics of other segments of the population which are predominant.
- (a) they are the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there;
- (b) precisely because of their isolation from other segments of the country’s population they have almost preserved intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterised as indigenous;
- (c) they are, even if only formally, placed under a state structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to their own.
In 1986, the following rather important line was added;
any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person.
Today, Israel pursues its claim to legitimacy primarily through discrediting Palestinians, the indigenous people, in a relentless, public relations, diplomatic and lawfare campaign, so successful, it has rendered the international community impotent in upholding international law as it applies to the Palestinian people, including the right of self-determination. Lawfare efforts, for example, are currently focused on criminalizing Boycott (BDS) activism.
The European Union Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism has accordingly included in its working definition of anti-Semitism as: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavour”.
In 2016, the United States passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, in which the definition of anti-Semitism is that set forth by the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism of the Department of State in a fact sheet of June 8, 2010. Examples of anti-Semitism listed therein include: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist”.
In my opinion, Israel will be legitimized only when it stops obstructing the exercise of Palestinian right to self-determination, a right “authoritatively” recognized by international law:
“The status of the Palestinians as a people entitled to exercise the right of self-determination has been legally settled, most authoritatively by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in its 2004 advisory opinion on Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”.
The counterarguments advanced by Israel and supporters to rationalize and legitimize policies that deny Palestinian rights and affirm the rights of “the Jewish people” include claims that the determination of Israel to remain a Jewish State is consistent with practices of other States, such as France; Israel does not owe Palestinian non-citizens equal treatment with Jews precisely because they are not citizens; and Israeli treatment of the Palestinians reflects no “purpose” or “intent” to dominate, but rather is a temporary state of affairs imposed on Israel by the realities of ongoing conflict and security requirements. … A further claim that Israel cannot be considered culpable for crimes of apartheid because Palestinian citizens of Israel have voting rights rests on two errors of legal interpretation: an overly literal comparison with South African apartheid policy and detachment of the question of voting rights from other laws, especially provisions of the Basic Law that prohibit political parties from challenging the Jewish, and hence racial, character of the State.
Yes, Palestine does exist and will continue to exist, because of Palestinians’ incredible steadfastness.
As Rabbi Brant Rosen expressed it:
“The choice we ultimately face is one between a Jewish state vs. international law, justice and human rights for all.”
– Rima Najjar Merriman teaches at Al Quds University in the West Bank. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.