Last week’s decision by the International Criminal Court to accept jurisdiction over possible war crimes committed in the Palestinian territories has put the Israel/Palestine debate back in the spotlight, confronting Joe Biden with a foreign policy headache that he could well do without. I might look at the legal question at a later date, but for now I’m more interested in the underlying philosophical issue, particularly as raised in a piece by Peter Beinart the previous week.
Beinart is a prominent opponent of Israeli government policies and of the outlandish claims sometimes made in the west to justify them. In this piece he’s arguing against the unconditional adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and particularly its examples, one of which is “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination.”
The way this works is that self-determination is supposed to be a universal right, so denying it specifically to the Jews is antisemitism. So anyone who supports, for example, converting Israel into a state of all its citizens, where Jews and Palestinians would have equal status, can be accused of being antisemitic. As Beinart puts it,
The claim that opposing Jewish statehood constitutes bigotry because it denies Jews the universal right of national self-determination has become a widely accepted axiom of American and global political discourse.
Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of self-determination. I’ve argued consistently for the rights of such groups as the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Chechens, the Falkland Islanders, the West Papuans and many others to decide for themselves on independence or belonging to some other country. Beinart, however, denies that this is what self-determination entails – as expressed in his title, “There Is No Right to a State.”
Beinart rightly points out the way that the United Nations has backtracked on the right of self-determination and instead endorsed the interests of its existing governments in protecting their “territorial integrity”. But I think he goes to far in inferring that self-determination doesn’t necessarily involve the option of statehood, and that therefore selectively denying it can’t amount to bigotry.
He argues that the supporters of the Israeli government have not
called Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez a bigot for refusing a vote on independence for Catalonia, nor Boris Johnson for refusing a new referendum on statehood for Scotland, nor Narendra Modi for refusing to allow a plebiscite on sovereignty for Kashmir.
– and says that to make that claim in the case of Israel is “inventing a right that does not exist.”
Well, allow me to put my hand up. Modi, at least, is a bigot in relation to the rights of the Kashmiris; Johnson, whatever his personal views, is clearly pandering to bigots in his own party, and Sánchez is doing what he thinks is politically necessary to stop his opponents from capitalising on the bigotry of the electorate.
Of course, a principled position of respect for existing boundaries at all costs would be immune to the charge of bigotry. But support for the national claims of some but not others is bound to be problematic, and whether those claims are couched in terms of national independence or some lesser status is relatively unimportant.
Beinart quotes David Miller saying that “Having a state of its own may, under certain conditions, be the preferred way for a group capable of self-determination to achieve it … but often there will be better alternatives available.” That’s perfectly true, but when such a group constitutes a clear majority on its own territory, the choice of whether statehood is the best option is a matter for it to decide, not for outside pundits.
Beinart is actually making a much broader claim than he needs. As he realises, his opponents are arguing in bad faith; they do not in fact believe in an equally-applicable right to self-determination, because they deny that right to the Palestinians. They embrace, in Beinart’s words, “the perverse argument that treating Jews and Palestinians equally constitutes bigotry but privileging Jews over Palestinians does not.”
The problem in Israel/Palestine is that there are two competing national groups with conflicting visions, neither of which commands a solid or uncontroversial majority among the whole population of the territory. The principled options therefore are either (a) partition between them, the “two-state solution”, or (b) a single state that accords equal rights and cultural recognition to both groups. The same two options apply to any territory with a similarly mixed population.
Those who are trying to weaponise the charge of antisemitism, however, are not interested in either principled option. Their preference is for Israeli imperialism, treating the Palestinians as a subject race, but that’s a preference that can’t be explicitly avowed. Hence their notable failure to articulate just what future shape for the region they have in mind.
Beinart’s view is that in present circumstances, the single-state solution is the way to go. For what it’s worth I agree with him about that, although I take rather less rosy a view of Palestinian intentions than he does. But it doesn’t follow that self-determination has nothing to do with national independence, only that not every case will meet the appropriate conditions for it.
I don’t dispute that there are some problems with the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, and certainly with the use that some groups have made of it. (Ben White had a good account of them a couple of years back.) But to respond by weakening our understanding of self-determination is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.