Murray Glickman deconstructs the fallacious claim the the Jewish people’s “right to to self determination” is sacrosanct, and that demurring from it is necessarily antisemitism. Murray is a long-time signatory of JJP and member of the JJP lobby group.
“Denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination [is] antisemitism.”
Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, quoted in the Guardian, June 14th 2016
The Idea of Right-to-Exist Denial
Defenders of Israel’s unending oppression of the Palestinians have elevated to virtually totemic status what they refer to as the Jewish people’s ‘right to self-determination’ and its corollary, Israel’s ‘right to exist’. Show the slightest reservation in assenting to either and, as far as they are concerned, that settles it — you are an antisemite!
No one questions the right of other peoples to a homeland, or so promoters of this ‘right-to-exist’ test argue. From this, they infer that to deny the right to Jews alone must constitute flagrant discrimination. On that basis, they claim to have uncovered a new, ultra-modern form of racism directed at Jewry alone. They are even able to specify what it is that leads individuals — many of whom have impeccable anti-racist credentials — to be drawn into right-to-exist denial. It is antisemitism, the same old antisemitism that Jews have suffered through the ages, albeit in a 21st-century guise. In infinitely pained tones, they tell anyone prepared to listen that Jew-hatred is simply ingrained in European culture. Accused of right-to-exist denial, some may well protest that they consciously reject all forms of racism. If they do, their accusers have a Freudian answer ready: so deep-rooted in European culture is Jew-hatred in fact, that an individual’s actions may be driven by antisemitic motives which are not even accessible to the conscious mind!
Enthusiasts for this ‘right-to-exist test’ clearly think that, in it, they’ve come up with something they’ve long been looking for — a sure-fire way to demolish the legitimacy of those who dare to criticise.
Right-to-Exist Denial — a form of antisemitism unlike any other?
Though it seems to have gone totally unnoticed, there is in fact something rather unusual, not to say perverse, about this supposed new form of antisemitism. Standard Jew-haters wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the prospect of their ‘local’ Jews upping and going off somewhere else — in fact, anywhere else! On the contrary, what the typical antisemite detests is having to live cheek-by-jowl with Jews. This detestation has historically been rationalised by reference to a whole range of supposed innate ‘Jewish’ moral and physical defects the litany of which is too familiar to need spelling out. It was therefore rights in the home domain that antisemites of past centuries sought to deny to Jews, key amongst them being the right to reside, work or study where and how they wished, the right to play a full part in wider society and, most tragically, the right just to remain where they were and live in personal safety. In a phrase, what all previous generations of antisemites denied to Jews was the right to live as their neighbours in conditions of freedom and equality.
Now, suddenly, all is reversed. Those deemed antisemites under the ‘right-to-exist’ test never seem to utter derogatory comments about Jewish moral character or physique. Nor do you ever hear a squeak of protest from them about having Jews live, work, play and vote right next to them. Much less do these ‘antisemites’ seem to want to do Jews any physical harm. Quite the opposite. Many seem positively to enjoy Jews’ company. Instead — and uniquely in history — this posited new form of Jew-hatred concerns itself exclusively with legal abstractions — the rights and wrongs of Jews deciding to live together on their own, somewhere else entirely. How odd!
At this point, it is with no facetious intent that I recall my father telling me how, in the East End of London in the 1930s, Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts wandered the streets taunting Jewish people they came across. A favourite among these taunts, Dad told me more than once, was: ‘Go back to Palestine.’ If a significant number of British Jews had at the time chosen to do just that, one cannot imagine that Mosley would have stood in their way! Nor do his modern-day successors in organisations like the BNP ever seem to give cause to be accused of right-to-exist denial.
The Unconditional Rights Illusion
No doubt about it, there’s something pretty paradoxical about the ‘right-to-exist’ test: people who under any other criterion would clearly be identified as anti-racist are classed under this test as antisemitic, while those who on any other criterion would be deemed extreme racists are not!
The problem derives from the flawed nature of the supposed underlying universal principle that all ethnic groups (or all peoples if you prefer) have an unconditional right to self-determination. The validity of the right-to-exist test, it needs to be stressed, rests totally on this principle. For, if it can be shown that other ethnic groups do not in fact enjoy an unconditional right to self-determination, how could denying such a right to Jews be judged automatically and of itself discriminatory?
To make clear the flaws inherent in the principle, we need only see what happens if we try to apply it as a basis for deciding international political disputes. Suppose that:
1 Jews wish to exercise their supposed unconditional right to self-determination and to do so in a specific part of the planet
2 Palestinians wish to exercise their equivalent right in exactly the same place.
It would be physically impossible for both peoples to exercise their right at the same time and on the same patch of ground. Clearly, therefore, we are forced to choose:
(a) to assent to Jews exercising their right and to deny it to Palestinians, in which case we have violated the universal principle
(b) to assent to Palestinians exercising their right and to deny it to Jews and so again violate the universal principle
(c) to deny the right to both Jews and Palestinians and a fortiori violate the universal principle.
To labour the point, these three cases are the only possibilities. In each of them, we start by trying to applying the universal principle and end up violating it. It follows necessarily that any principle of universal unconditional right to self-determination is a logical non-starter and, since that is so, the right-to-exist test goes straight out of the window with it. Outpourings of righteous indignation at ‘right-to-exist denial’ there may be but they cannot change this situation.
It is important to emphasise that, quite apart from its logical deficiencies, the universal principle is not actually operative in the real world. To appreciate that, we have only to shift our focus a short distance from the contested terrain of Israel/Palestine and consider the position of the Kurdish people. In the carve-up of former Ottoman territory after the First World War, their interests were comprehensively ignored and trampled on, and many Kurds still dearly aspire to territorial self-determination. One can readily sympathise with them in this, given the shabby treatment they have received over the past century. All the same, we would not, for a moment, countenance the idea that Kurds should exercise a territorial right of self-determination without reference to the consequences for other ethnicities in the region. And if, even given their tragic history, that is the view we take in the Kurdish case, why should we take a contrary view towards Jews?
We come here to the nub of the issue. In the fantasy world conjured up by proponents of the right-to-exist test, the right to self-determination is unconditional and Jews, if they are denied it, are singled out for discrimination. However, in the real world any right to self-determination cannot be other than severely hedged about with qualifications. Hence, for us as Jews to claim an unconditional right is, in actual fact, to ask for a pedestal to be reserved for us and us alone. In other words, it is to demand special, privileged, status.
Ultimately, the right-to-exist test comes down to nothing more than inflammatory bluster. Its purpose is to put individuals with the humanity to challenge oppression into the dock and in that way bury the issue of the continuing gross injustice suffered by the Palestinian people*. It is not difficult to understand the reason for this classic diversionary tactic — the mistreatment of the Palestinians, going on decade after decade, is literally indefensible.
* For an article which presents parallel and complementary arguments, visit:
Anti-Zionism and antisemitism • Jewish Voice for Labour