The very idea of questioning Israel’s right to exist is often dismissed as anti-Semitic and consequently unacceptable. Indeed, there seems to be a double standard in questioning Israel’s legitimacy as a state, without applying the same questions to any other. For instance, why not question the legitimacy of other young states such as India or Pakistan, or perhaps states entrenched in a colonial history such as the United States or Canada. Nevertheless, it is counter-productive to entirely shutdown this debate and immediately dismiss it as anti-Semitic, because it is this very issue that divides the two very distinct camps within this fundamentally tribal conflict.
When you grow up in exclusively Jewish circles, the legitimacy of Israel’s statehood and support for Zionism is a given. The right for a Jewish State to exist in the land of Israel is not just seen as a divine and biblical right, but also a politically secular and justified right in the context of modern nationalism and the historical persecution of the stateless Jewish people. The very idea of denying a people their own nation seems grossly unjust – there are some 196 nation states in the world, and only one of them is Jewish, so why do they always target us?
But the truth is, when you step out of these religious and ethnic circles, this assumption is not shared by everyone. In fact, depending on your political persuasion, your assumption may be quite the contrary. How can you justify the oppression and removal of the incumbent inhabitants of a land in the name of the historical persecution of settlers reclaiming their biblical and traditional homeland? Why is there no fully recognised and functioning state for the indigenous Palestinians, whilst the established Jewish state, mostly comprised of relatively recent immigrants, is both recognised and respected by the international community?
It is true that both of these views are extremely simplified. The political ideology, justification and motives of Zionism varies immensely within the movement, and the means by which Israel’s statehood was acquired were comprised of a multitude of actions: some peaceful, diplomatic and legal, whilst others intolerant, violent and illegal. But the enormously contradictory starting assumptions regarding Israel’s legitimacy do not lend themselves to a productive discourse and debate in any matter involving Israel; from statehood to settlements, from occupation to terrorism, and in assessing the justification of war. In order to ever see eye-to-eye in an argument, you need to first agree on the base assumptions. In the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the base assumptions of the two antagonistic camps could not be further apart.
Whilst it’s exceedingly useful and necessary to question the legitimacy of any state when questioning the legitimacy of Israel, it is practically impossible to make a direct comparison, because Israel is such a unique case. There are some states that were created in the same period, but no state has been granted to a people that have so recently settled in a region. There are some states mostly composed of settlers with a colonial past, but it is somewhat inaccurate to label Zionism as a colonialist movement due to the very different motives for settlement and statehood. There are also states that are fundamentally religious, but few determine immigration policy according to a genetic relation to that religion, and equally few are as secular and as tolerant to other religious groups as the Jewish state.
So, does questioning the legitimacy of Israel and the justification for Zionism have a place at our universities, conferences and literature? If you seek to reverse the recognition of Israel’s statehood and displace or threaten the lives of innocent people that now inhabit the land, then the answer is: no. This would just cause further harm, sorrow and injustice. But if you’re willing to accept that this can never be a solution, then perhaps such discourse would be fruitful. Perhaps a deeper insight into the justification for Zionism in general can help supporters of Israel determine the limits and means by which such a project should be pursued. Perhaps a better understanding of the historical context and ideological variation within Zionism would help advocates of a Palestinian state criticise Israel less generally and have a finer focus on specifics. But ultimately, such discourse is necessary if either camps could ever become a united force and campaign side by side for two independent, recognised states in the land of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza with equal human and civil rights for all. In the meantime, there isn’t much point in even having a conversation.