Where to draw the line when it comes to legitimate criticism of Israel?
“There are enough people who criticise Israel; us Jews should never join the chorus”: this old line can be heard up and down Friday night dinner tables across the UK. I, for one, do not buy into this blind support for Israel, and nor does Yachad. Judaism thrives on lively debate and discussion – as evidenced in the fearsome rabbinical Talmudic debates. Only through discourse can we ever come to an accurate, nuanced conclusion, which is why the recent Israeli anti-boycott law is so worrisome. Moreover, it does not follow that, simply by virtue of being born Jewish, my beliefs are automatically at one with that of the present government of Israel.
But what about non-Jews? Can they legitimately criticise Israel? If the question is one of Israeli policy (such as the settlements, the Gaza blockade, aid issues or the status of the Golan), then there is no problem; just as I can comment upon Syrian, French or American policy, so anyone can question Israeli policy. There is one issue, however, on which I find myself recoiling in anger and frustration, and on which the debate is a non-starter: Israel’s right to exist.
Almost all Jews, of course, accept that Israel should exist in some form. There is, however, a tendency for non-Jews, particularly from a younger generation, to reject the state’s legitimacy. My view is as follows: such a rejection can never be justified, and should thus not be part of public discourse.
Denying Israel’s right to exist is tantamount to defining the Jews as a people out of existence. If nations conceive of themselves as a distinct group, then they are entitled – under a concrete right established in the wake of both world wars – to determine their own ‘political status’ (according to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). That is why Hitler’s invasion of the Netherlands, the USSR’s subjugation of the Armenians and China’s oppression of Tibet can never be defended; the people of a nation were, and are, being denied their right to define themselves. Exactly the same is true of those who deny Israel’s right to exist. A philosophical justification for Jewish self-determination, in conjunction with the democratic vote at the UN in November 1947 that located the state where it is today, thereby precludes any lazy argument or throwaway comment about Israel’s illegitimacy.
If confronted with this attitude in practice, it is worth explaining that the same logic implies that the South Sudanese can be denied the state they expressly voted for, that the Bosnians can legitimately be subsumed into another political entity against their will and that the Palestinians can have no qualms about living under Israeli military rule. And that outcome is something that none of us should abide.