Israel Must Choose Between Being a Jewish or Democratic State

Jill Holzbauer | FLICKR
Jill Holzbauer | FLICKR

In the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust, the world was left with the critical question of how to prevent future genocides: how to ensure “never again” became a reality. One response was the formation of the United Nations. and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The UDHR articulates universal, inalienable rights such as the right of all people to equality under the law, freedom of religion and participation in government. The Geneva Conventions and the Hague Conventions provide guidelines for the treatment of non-combatants and enemy combatants in times of war.

Together these documents provide an international legal framework and a vision for a world in which: 1. people need not resort to violence, since their human rights are respected, and they have access to democratic methods of seeking change; 2. the international community is in a position to intervene to prevent egregious human rights violations, such as genocide; and 3. should violence arise, all parties seek to minimize the amount of harm and destruction it creates. While these documents are not perfect and have not been well-implemented, I strongly believe in the vision they represent.

I give this background because international law and human rights provide the basic framework I use to understand the violence and suffering in Israel and Palestine and the ways in which to work towards  justice and peace. I understand much political violence as a response to the denial of human rights. The U.S. was founded with a violent revolution that was, in large part, a response to “taxation without representation.”

Lacking political representation, and given the lack of British response to petitions from the colonists, revolutionary colonists resorted to violence. I understand Palestinian political violence largely to be a response to the systematic denial of Palestinian human rights and the lack of a non-violent means of rectifying the situation.

Thus, I believe the only way to end the violence is to support non-violent processes to adjudicate the various disputes involved, and I believe international law and human rights must guide these processes. Blaming Palestinian incitement ignores the reasons Palestinians are motivated to use violence and ignores Jewish-Israeli incitement.

When I recently wrote an op-ed criticizing the Day of Coexistence sponsored by several pro-Israel groups at Emory, my main critiques were the exclusion of any groups with ties to Palestinians and the refusal to discuss any details about the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict or to affirm Palestinian human rights.

College sophomore Jay Schaefer wrote an op-ed in response to my article. While Schaefer’s op-ed does address various details about the situation in Israel and Palestine, it does little to challenge the fundamental claims of my previous op-ed (such as that Israel is a Jewish supremacist state), misrepresents my article and lacks a basis in human rights and international law or any other consistent logical framework.

Schaefer argues that the exclusion of Palestinian voices from the Day of Coexistence was logical given that, Schaefer says, Palestinians and those who side with them reject coexistence. However, my article explicitly states that “I am fully supportive of a path forward involving coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians…but strongly opposed to any path that involves Jewish lives being treated as more valuable than Palestinian lives.” By claiming that I reject coexistence, Schaefer changes the definition of coexistence. In my article, I discussed coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians: people and people. Schaefer instead, without any mention of the switch, discusses coexistence between the State of Israel as a Jewish state and Palestinians. Coexistence between different people is a concept that naturally arises from a human rights framework since all people have a right to exist.

However, coexistence between a state and a people is a bizarre concept. The fundamental principle of democracy, articulated in UDHR, is that ”the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” The U.S. Declaration of Independence uses similar language. States do not have a natural “right to exist,” and they definitely do not have a right to exist with a specific ethnic identity. Rather, people have a right to participate in democracy and determine the types of states they live in.

But Schaefer is not alone in attempting to put the Jewish nature of the State of Israel beyond the reach of democracy and negotiations. In Israel, anyone who rejects the idea that Israel is and should be a Jewish state is formally ineligible for a position in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Similarly, Palestinians are often expected to “recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state” before beginning peace negotiations.

Schaefer argues that the creation of Israel as a Jewish state was a justified response to widespread, often deadly anti-semitism. Many others argue that the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state is necessary to protect the Jewish people from present day and future genocide. However, this view places the memory of past Jewish suffering and the possibility of future suffering over the present-day reality of Palestinian suffering.

Israel’s Jewish identity comes into direct conflict with the internationally recognized Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Regardless of the circumstances in which more than 750,000 Palestinians left their homes in 1948, they have an internationally recognized right to return back to their homes or, if they choose, be paid reparations. The fact that the original U.N. resolution affirming this right stipulates that it applies to refugees willing to “live at peace with their neighbors” does not justify denying all Palestinian refugees their right to return because some have committed acts of violence against Israelis. That’s mass profiling. The stipulation that these refugees “should be permitted to [return] at the earliest practicable date” cannot be used as an excuse for the fact that Israel denied Palestinians their Right of Return for 67 years. Obviously “the earliest practicable date” should be within the lifetime of the original refugees.

Regardless of historic ties to the land, Palestinian refugees lost their homes and many of their possessions. Refugees and their descendents often keep documents of ownership or the keys to the houses they left, passing them down from generation to generation, to symbolize their connection to the land they left. While allowing all these refugees to return would be a true logistical challenge, Israel is not even slowly addressing the issue. Rather, it continues to grant preferential treatment to Jews, allowing them automatic citizenship in Israel if they desire.

Schaefer asked why I think Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is fundamentally racist, comparing Jews to people of other nationalities who have states. The answer is simple: because other nationalities are expected to be open to people of any ethnicity and arise naturally from the people living in a certain area’s sense of common political identity. Promoting a national identity that excludes immigrants and people of racial/ethnic minorities is xenophobic and racist. Founding a country on land where another group of people is living requires the removal or subjugation of the indigenous population.

In America’s early beginnings, the European settlers used genocide and violent mass relocation to clear the way for their state. These are not moral ways to form a country. While Israel tries to maintain a distinct Israeli national identity open to members of any ethnic group, it simultaneously declares itself to be a Jewish state, sets its Jewishness off-limits for its democratic institutions and uses racist immigration practices to ensure it maintains a Jewish majority. This fundamentally undermines Israeli democracy. States cannot use racist practices to control their demographics and then derive their democratic legitimacy from the votes of the artificial majority they’ve created. Israel must choose between being a democracy that respects human rights and being a Jewish state, and the international community must hold Israel accountable as long as they continue to choose the latter.

Anaïs Hussung is a College junior from Jefferson City, Tennessee.

The author did not find the print headline to be representative of the editorial’s content and so has requested that it be changed to the current headline.

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