Collective rights — or a competing nationalism?

Arye Tepper, in a review of Yehuda Shenhav’s book “The Time of the Green Line”:

The issue that divides the two camps is Zionism. The Zionist left wants to consolidate a Jewish-democratic state within the “green line”—that is, the borders that existed from 1949, fixed by the armistice that ended Israel’s war of independence, until the June 1967 Six-Day war—and to help engineer a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The post-Zionist or “radical” left is in favor of a one-state solution, i.e., doing away with Israel as a Jewish state and creating a “state of all its citizens” in its stead.

To the Zionist left, the post-Zionist left isn’t so much post- as anti-Zionist. But to the post-Zionist left, the Zionist left isn’t liberal — or leftist — at all…

Shenhav puts forward two large claims about the Zionist left, the first being that it lives in a state of complete denial regarding the fundamentals of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. According to Shenhav, the Zionist left has persuaded itself that the basic point of contention in the conflict lies in the results of the Six-Day war, which ended with Israel having seized the Sinai peninsula (long since returned to Egypt), Gaza (now under Hamas), the Golan Heights (claimed by Syria), and, especially, the West Bank with its large Palestinian population. Therefore, reasons the Zionist left, once Israel hands back the West Bank, “1967” will have been reversed and peace will become possible.

To Shenhav, this is a delusion. Zero hour for the Palestinians, he contends, was and remains not 1967 but 1948: i.e., the founding of Israel itself. Averting its eyes from this fact, the Zionist left has fabricated an artificial starting point in time (1967) and space (the green line) in order to preserve to its own satisfaction the basic legitimacy of Israel’s establishment in 1948. The trouble is that the Palestinians will never agree to this construction of history, because it fails to take into account their most fundamental grievances. [my emphasis]

Shenhav’s second claim is that the Zionist left’s stubborn fidelity to the notion of a specifically Jewish state is inherently anti-democratic. How so? Democracy, writes Shenhav, is more than a matter of individual rights; it is also a matter of collective rights. So long as the collective rights of native Palestinians living within the state of Israel go unrecognized—and, in a state that calls itself Jewish, they are by definition unrecognized—that state, no matter how much it pretends otherwise, cannot be regarded as democratic in any meaningful sense.

You can read the rest of the review here (thanks to Israel Academia Monitor for bringing it to my attention).

The division on the Israeli Left is mirrored here in the US, with the traditional Zionist Left represented, for example, by the Union for Reform Judaism and the post-Zionists by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, etc. I’ve argued that J Street pretends to belong to the former category in order to get liberal support but its policies — and the identity of some of its supporters — actually place it closer to the latter.

Shenhav is absolutely right about Palestinian grievances and goals. The Palestinian Arabs themselves have always been quite clear about them to anyone who is willing to listen. The non-Zionist Left has done Israel a great disservice by doing its best to obscure this fact, by promulgating the idea that there is a Palestinian partner for a two-state solution that would end the conflict when at best there are some Palestinians who would agree to establish a state as a stepping stone to replacing all of Israel with an Arab state.

Shenhav correctly realizes is that there can’t be a compromise between Zionism — the belief that there should be an independent state of the Jewish people in the land of Israel — and Palestinian nationalism, which denies that. But then he argues (unsoundly) that Zionism is incompatible with democracy and rejects it. What’s left, although the argument tries to obscure it with concepts like ‘a democratic state of all its citizens,’ is Palestinian nationalism.

This is where the post-Zionist position becomes dangerous, because it’s certain that such a state would be unstable:

Shenhav offers a number of one-state schemes for sharing the land, including something called “consociational democracy”; in doing so, he silently passes over the inconvenient fact that this fanciful arrangement has already been tried and found wanting in such distinguished islands of tranquility as Cyprus and Lebanon.  “Any reasonable person,” [Gadi] Taub sums up, “realizes that the one-state solution would constitute a chronic civil war,” a war from which posturing professors like Shenhav will be able to escape while those “with nowhere to go — both Jews and Arabs — will end up . . . drowning in rivers of blood.”

But Shenhav’s argument is unsound. The assertion that democracy requires the protection of “collective rights” as well as individual rights is false. If you replace “collective rights” with “national aspirations” — which is what is driving the Arab citizens of Israel who are demanding this — you expose his conflation of these ideas, and the source of the instability. Indeed I would argue that, on the model of the US constitution, Democracy is all about individual rights.

In the US, a sharp distinction has been made between movements to guarantee (individual) civil rights for minorities, which are supported by the great majority of citizens, and such things as black or Mexican-American nationalism which are generally regarded as inimical to democracy. One could even cite as an example the insistence by some southern states on a culturally-based right to hold slaves, probably the most destructive such demand in our history.

The idea of ‘collective rights’ — or should I say ‘competing nationalisms’ — has gained some traction in the West with regard to Muslims, where some have suggested that Muslim communities should be given special consideration where Sha’aria conflicts with civil law, etc. This is a very bad idea which contradicts the basic ideas of the Enlightenment, the ideas that gave rise to Western democracy.

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One Response to “Collective rights — or a competing nationalism?”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I agree with the analysis. Shenhav is right about the Arabs true concern being 48′ and not 67′. He is wrong about ‘collective rights’ for a minority which would in fact deprive the majority of its right. A Democracy has to guarantee individual civil -liberties not the collective national aspirations of a minority which would destroy the state itself.