A Jewish state can be democratic and moral

Joseph Levine is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he has published an essay in (where else?) the New York Times, in which he argues that the proposition ‘Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state’ is false.

There are many things in the article to complain about, but I am going to content myself with pointing out the single massive howler by which his argument collapses.

He makes the distinction between “a people in the ethnic sense” and in the “civic sense,” which means either residents of a geographical area or citizens of a state. He generously grants that there is a Jewish people in the ethnic sense who live in Israel, but only an ‘Israeli people’, which includes Arabs, in the civic sense. Then he tells us,

…insofar as the principle that all peoples have the right to self-determination entails the right to a state of their own, it can apply to peoples only in the civic sense…

But if the people who “own” the state in question are an ethnic sub-group of the citizenry, even if the vast majority, it constitutes a serious problem indeed, and this is precisely the situation of Israel as the Jewish state. Far from being a natural expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, it is in fact a violation of the right to self-determination of its non-Jewish (mainly Palestinian) citizens. It is a violation of a people’s right to self-determination to exclude them — whether by virtue of their ethnic membership, or for any other reason — from full political participation in the state under whose sovereignty they fall…

Any state that “belongs” to one ethnic group within it violates the core democratic principle of equality, and the self-determination rights of the non-members of that group. [my emphasis]

His exposition is much more lengthy and you should read it. But I think I have extracted the gist of it.

Interestingly, while he explains what he means by ‘a people’ and draws a distinction between two senses of the expression, he does not even hint about his understanding of the concept of ‘democracy’ and especially “the core democratic principle of equality,” the violation of which he believes disqualifies Israel from continued existence as a Jewish state.

Levine explains how Israel violates these principles:

The distinctive position of [a favored ethnic people] would be manifested in a number of ways, from the largely symbolic to the more substantive: for example, it would be reflected in the name of the state, the nature of its flag and other symbols, its national holidays, its education system, its immigration rules, the extent to which membership in the people in question is a factor in official planning, how resources are distributed, etc.

Actually, concerning the “more substantive” things, Arab citizens of Israel are doing quite well: they have the right to vote, to hold political office, and a large degree of control of their educational system; there are rules against discrimination in housing and employment (with exceptions related to national security), etc. In other words, they have full civil rights.

Naturally there are differences in the treatment of Jews and Arabs. Some are due to cultural differences — Arab towns are governed by Arabs and distribute resources differently — some are related to security, and some to anti-Arab prejudice. But the degree of prejudice in Israeli society is not particularly great compared to other advanced nations like the US, and nobody is suggesting that the US does not have a “right to exist” unless all discrimination can be eliminated.

In any event, discrimination in what he calls “substantive” ways are not essential to the definition of Israel as a Jewish state, and there is a general consensus that such discrimination is wrong and should be eliminated.

Israel’s immigration rules are certainly unequal. But immigration rules by definition do not apply to citizens; and few — if any — of the world’s nations permit free immigration.

Levine also does not consider security issues at all. If Israel ignored them it would cease to exist without philosophical arguments. This would be bad both for the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel (just ask any of them if they would prefer to be citizens of Israel or the Palestinian Authority).

Levine is quite correct, though, that symbolic items like the name of the state, the flag, and the national anthem belong to only one group of citizens. But are these included in the “core democratic principle of equality?” Why should they be?

After all, many states with ethnic or religious symbolism associated with them have been called ‘democratic’ since the word was invented by the ancient Greeks (incidentally, most of the residents of Athens, the paradigm of democracy, weren’t even citizens).

I could argue strongly that only civil rights are essential to democracy, and that “equality” in many senses is not. And Arab citizens of Israel have civil rights, even if they find the national anthem — which they are not required to sing — offensive.

And here we come to the fallacy in Levine’s argument. Can you say petitio principii? No? Then how about “assuming what you purport to prove?”

Because that is exactly what this Professor of Philosophy has done. He has built the negation of the fundamental idea of an ethnic nation-state — the expression of the beliefs, yearnings and fellow-feeling of an ethnic group in the symbols and moral principles of a state — into his definition of ‘democracy’, and then ‘proves’ that no such state can be democratic, and therefore ought not to exist in that form!

Another way of looking at it is that there is a hidden premise that is not true. In this case, that would be that democracy entails “group political equality” in which every group, whether a majority or minority, has an equal vote on all matters. But the usual idea of democracy is that each individual has a vote, as long as the civil rights of minorities are maintained. This is quite different.

There is another hidden premise, which is that if a state is not completely democratic, it is morally defective. This is also not self-evident; indeed, both Plato and Aristotle thought the opposite.

Many years ago, I had a short career as a college teacher of Philosophy. This is an undergraduate error; Levine should be embarrassed.


But now I have further questions for Professor Levine:

Why did you not write an article about whether Saudi Arabia has a right to exist as a Kingdom, or indeed whether any of the kingdoms, dictatorships, Islamic ‘republics’ or other undemocratic entities have a ‘right to exist’ as such?

Why did you not argue that the Kingdom of Jordan should not exist as such, not only because is it an undemocratic monarchy, but because a minority of Bedouins there rule over a majority of other Arabs? This is especially relevant, because Transjordan was created from the territory called ‘Palestine’, precisely to create an Arab state that would be a counterpart to the Jewish National Home that Britain was supposed to nurse into existence in Western Palestine.

Why do you find the relatively mild discrimination against Arab residents of Israel — especially in the context of the security situation — important when so many other Middle Eastern states with ethnic or religious minorities completely disenfranchise, even viciously oppress them (e.g., the Kurds or the Palestinians in Lebanon)?

You will say that this is because the question of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is much-discussed today, and as a philosopher you are equipped to add clarity to the discussion.

But it is discussed today precisely because those who deny it primarily do so not as an academic exercise, but in the context of a desire to end Jewish sovereignty, to establish insecure borders, and to allow the almost 5 million claimants to ‘Palestinian’ nationality (an absurdity if there ever was one) to enter the territory, which would result in the re-dispersal  of the Jewish people and quite probably the deaths of many of them. If this isn’t an antisemitic enterprise, I don’t know what is.

So your focus on Israel among states, your hypersensitivity to its perceived (by you) moral defects, your fallacious attempt to lend support to those who would destroy it, is de facto antisemitic, even if some of your best friends (and relatives) are Jews.

The antisemitic shoe fits. Wear it proudly.

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4 Responses to “A Jewish state can be democratic and moral”

  1. Robman says:

    Well, of course Professor Levine is an anti-Semite. And if he is a Jew – as I presume from his name – then he is a Judenrat. But don’t take my word for it, or even yours, Vic.

    Just ask the EU.

    The EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism includes subjective Israel to a pejorative standard of behavior unique to Israel, that would not be applied to any other state.

    And, most of the EU member states go on to prove this by their actions, I guess as a public servce, so that by way of demonstration, this point is not lost on anyone.

    So, of course, this is yet another example of an impossible moral standard being applied to Israel and Israel alone, that would not be applied to any other country.

    Now, that said, yes, there ARE some countries in which the basis of their national identity is not so much a particular ethnicity or ethno/religious group (as is the case for Israel), but rather an idea or a set of ideas married to a set of historical circumstances, and as such, are not bound to favor one ethnic or ethno-religious group over another (even though they have and to an extent, still do in many cases, in real terms). The United States, Canada, and Australia are examples of this.

    But such countries are the EXCEPTION, not the rule. Most countries exist precisely as a social/political/cultural “anchor”, if you will, for a particular national ethnic group. If the standard Professor Levine applies to Israel were to be applied to all countries, then most countries in the world today would also be illegitimate.

    The fact is that Jewish identity is not only religious in nature, but also ethnic/national in nature. If that were not so, there could be no such animal as a “Jewish atheist”. If one considers the basic characteristics of what constitutes a national ethnic group from which the prerogative of political self-determination derives, the Jews meet that definition – far better than do the Palestinians – quite apart from religion.

    So, to say that the Jews have no right to construct their society in terms of immigration laws, etc., so as to consciously maintain a “Jewish” character to the state, within the context of remaining a democratic state, would be like saying the French have no right to maintain the French character of their state, or the Japanese have no right to maintain the Japanese character of their state, and still maintain their own respective status as a democracy in either case.

    As a Jewish citizen of the U.S., I don’t expect this society to accomodate every aspect of my Jewish identity. As long as I intend to live here as a citizen, I realize that I will have to concede at least some aspects of my identity as a Jew in recognition of the fact that the larger country in which I live is not a “Jewish” country. So, for example, I cannot demand that my employer grant me time off or special compensatory pay for working on Jewish holidays. If I want to live in a “Jewish” country that respects every aspect of my identity as a Jew, then I have to go halfway around the world and live in Israel. Does that mean that he U.S. cannot call herself a democratic country? Does that mean that the U.S. is “illegitimate”?

    Meanwhile, if a Palestinian Arab living in Tel Aviv does not feel that Israeli society respects his identity as a Palestinian Arab enough…all he has to do is move a shorter distance than I would have to move to relocate to another state for say, a better job, and he could then live in a Palestinian majority society.

    That society would be Jordan, ruled over by an autocratic, minority sect Hashemite monarchy that today, will trample on his rights far more than any Israeli government.

    Why is Professor Levine silent about this, if he cares so much about the Palestinians?

    Well, obviously, because he’s a self-hating, Judenrat anti-Semite, that’s why.

  2. Noah Farbstein says:

    It appears that Levine basically is a modern reincarnation of Tony Judt, Virginia Tilly, or even more so, the radical wako Norman Finkekstein, etc. (take your pick from any of the Arab or non-arab one-staters), in disguise (a wolf in Grandmas clothes). As such, I assume he means to imply that if Israel in its current form is illigitimate and has no right to exist as the Jewish Nation State, that the only alternative is a “non-secular” binational state, the likes of which has been promoted by Israel’s detractors for decades (at least since the 1960’s and even the 1990’s when the PLO was pretending to seek a 2-state solution).

    Ignoring his blatant lies regarding the main reason for Israels’ creation, which was the 2,000 year Jewish desire to return home, and not the holocost (this only made it somewhat more urgent), your questions regarding the existence of the Arab nation states particularly are relevant. In fact, if Israel can’t exist for the Jewish people, why then should Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, etc. exist solely for the Arabs?

    Even more alarming, is his failure to highlight (or at a minimum to question) the obvious, which is the nature of such an alternative. (what would the new state look like). Further, if it is true that Arab population growth far exceeds that of the Jews (what I believe to be another myth) then at best such a concoction would result in the subjugation of the Jewish minority, but more likely in its cleansing. In fact, one need not look any further than the treatment of Coptics in Egypt or any closer than woman and minorities in Gaza. Even if some sort of population parity between Arabs and Jews was maintained, the bloodshed would be unbearable, such as was the case in 1920/21, 1929, 1936-1939, etc.

    Clearly, Israels’ elimination as the Jewish National Homeland would not result in a bi-national “non-secular” democratic state, but merely would replace a democratic state (with civil rights for all) with yet another Arab Nation state. Most likely, one that is secular Islamic and radically fundamentalist.

  3. Shalom Freedman says:

    This response or at least part of it should have been posted in the Comments section of the NYTimes. I posted a small much less powerful response in which I suggest that Professor Levine actually belongs to the enemy camp of would -be destroyers of Israel. He is one of the ‘save us from ourselves by destroying us ‘ people who marshal long arguments to miss the point.

  4. Vic Rosenthal says:

    There were around 100 comments on the Times article, so I didn’t think posting there was worthwhile.
    Incidentally, this particular academic antisemite is a pro-Palestinian activist, supporting BDS, etc. I will update the post later.