The ‘Jewish State’ and human rights

The ‘Jewish State’ and human rights

Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights by Alexander Yakobson & Amnon Rubinstein (reviewed by Haviv Rettig in The Jerusalem Post, Oct. 23, 2008):

…. Released in English translation in Britain in July, Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights, though accessible to the educated layman, is a thoroughly researched academic work. … The authors are Hebrew University history professor Alexander Yakobson, a former Meretz activist and Peace Now member with a regular op-ed column in Haaretz, and renowned professor of constitutional law Amnon Rubinstein, a Meretz minister of education in the Oslo years [and a retired Meretz MK– ed.] and author of the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

This background informs their argument. This is not a book that defends government policies. As Yakobson explained in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, … the two scholars are tackling … “an ideological assault … on the basic premise of a Jewish state and the two-state solution.”

“Internationally this is a very widespread argument,” Yakobson notes. “Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books wrote that the very idea of a Jewish state is … an anachronism….” The significance: Judt “is not some Trotskyite or radical. He belongs to the liberal mainstream. …”

… they quote Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling arguing that Israel must change its Law of Return for the sake of the “normalization and democratization of the state.” Kimmerling is one representative of those learned detractors who argue that Israel’s relationship to the Jews of the world, its favoring a particular group of non-citizens (the Jewish Diaspora) over other non-citizens, is discriminatory and even racist.

But, note Yakobson and Rubinstein, this view … is actually opposed to the theory and practice of democratic states, particularly in Europe.

Their proof is exhaustive. In 2001, they write, a commission of European legal scholars was convened to advise the Council of Europe on constitutional issues “that conform to the standards of Europe’s constitutional heritage.” It concluded, in the authors’ words, that “it is a recognized European norm that a nation-state can maintain official ties with its [ethno-cultural] ‘kin’ outside its borders and treat them preferentially in certain areas, including immigration and naturalization.”

Thus, the European lawyers, sitting as the European Commission for Democracy through Law (the “Venice Commission”), not only praised the connection of “kin minorities” abroad to their “kin states” through ethnic and cultural ties, but in their report noted “favorably the growing tendency of kin states” to act to protect their ethnic minorities abroad – minorities who are not and have never been citizens of that state.

In fact, legislation offering both favorable naturalization and some benefits without naturalization to non-citizen “kin minorities” can be found in Ireland, Greece, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Russia and Armenia. International agreements protecting kin minorities exist between Austria and Italy (establishing specific rights for German-speakers in Tyrol), Denmark and Germany, Italy and Slovenia and among several “new democracies” in Eastern Europe.

In Germany, the constitution and subsequent legislation have conferred on all ethnic Germans from ex-USSR countries the right to automatic citizenship. As the book explains, “This applied to a large population of ethnic Germans living in those areas for hundreds of years, without any civic or geographic connection with the modern German state.”

Even Finland, “a long-standing Western liberal democracy” with a national identity that includes all citizens, the Swedish-speaking alongside the Finnish-speaking, has a Finnish-speaking law of return. According to this legislation, ethnic Finns who emigrated from modern-day Finland to lands in Russia and Estonia as far back as the 17th century enjoy Finnish governmental assistance in preserving their ethno-cultural identity where they live, while their immigration to Finland is expedited and defined by the state as a “repatriation” to their homeland.

… Indeed, the Palestinians themselves will enjoy such a relationship with their own extensive diaspora, Yakobson points out. “Everyone understands that if and when there is a Palestinian Arab state it will have a law of return within its boundaries. …”

… In dealing with the argument equating Zionism with colonialism – a favorite in both academia and Arab politics – the authors once again bring homegrown Israeli anti-Zionists into the ring.
The claim that Zionism was “a movement of ‘pure’ colonialist settlement” is taken from the writings of Ben-Gurion University professor Oren Yiftachel, who explains in passing that this is true despite a few “clear differences when compared to other colonialist movements.” These differences, he elaborates in a footnote, are “the character of Zionism as an ethnic-national project rather than an economic one; the refugee status of most of the [immigrating] Jews; a loosely connected network of Jewish communities in the Diaspora rather than well-organized mother states; and the concept of ‘the Return to Zion’ anchored in the Jewish tradition.”

In other words, Yakobson and Rubinstein note with some sarcasm, “Zionism is in every sense a colonialist phenomenon … except for its being a national movement not motivated by an economic profit motive, that it grew out of Jewish distress and was implemented by people definable as refugees, that the settlers did not have a colonial mother state and that the connection to the Land of Israel was part of the traditional historic identity of the Jewish people.” …. one is left with the sense that those arguing against the possibility of a Jewish and democratic state (and often against the viability of modern Israel) are more the victims of intellectual laziness than rabid ideology. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the claim made often in the Arab world and Western academia – and even among some Jews – that the Jews are merely a religious community and not a people, and therefore don’t “qualify” for a nation-state.

“On the Left, it is usually said that ‘peoplehood’ should be defined by the people in question and not externally. This is why we rejected Golda Meir’s statement that the Palestinian Arabs are not a distinct ‘Palestinian people.’ We claim for the Jews the same privilege,” Yakobson insists. “The international community explicitly recognized the Jews as a people with national rights – the UN in voting for partition and a Jewish state in 1947, and the League of Nations which supported a ‘Jewish national home’ in Mandatory Palestine. Even those who speak of a binational state, like Judt, must base this on the premise that there are two national peoples, two national communities.”

Most importantly, the Palestinians themselves “accept that there are two peoples here. In all their constitutional documents, the Palestinians define themselves as the Palestinian Arab people, part of the Arab nation. They never claimed that the Jews in this country are a religious community within the Palestinian people. In fact, maybe the only thing Jews and Palestinians agreed on is that they belong to two different peoples.”

In short, he says, “the whole argument is absurd.” So absurd, in fact, that Yakobson wonders if “the right to national self-determination is some kind of a club with a ‘no Jews allowed’ sign hanging at the entrance. The principles of national self-determination are widely accepted by the Left worldwide as a universal principle. We support this right when it comes to the Palestinians. Why do many people on the Left refuse to apply this principle to the Jewish people?”

AT THE end of the day, Yakobson and Rubinstein are doves, and their motive for writing the book reflects that sensibility. Efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state are not just intellectually dishonest, Yakobson argues, but they are actually preventing peace….
“Whoever supports a two-state solution should know that you cannot then evade the question of the legitimacy of the Jewish state. If you attack the idea of a Jewish national home as colonialism and imperialism, you are contributing to the conflict and to the price the Palestinians have paid. And clearly,” Yakobson adds, “it is the Palestinians who have paid most of the price.”
This article can be read in full at the Jeruselam Post Website.

By | 2008-11-05T13:37:00-05:00 November 5th, 2008|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD November 5, 2008 at 6:36 pm - Reply

    The authors and the editor seem to harbor the notion that colonialism is bad, Israel is good therefore it is not colonialist. Israel had very distinct origins from other settler colonies, but because of the conflict with the Palestinians developed similar institutions and phenomena. The only other Western democracies that had traditions of former senior officers serving in elective office are/were the U.S., South Africa, and France. In both the U.S. and South Africa the phenomenon lasted for over a century, in France it last for a mere 35 years. In both the U.S. and South Africa as well as Northern Ireland there were legal distinctions between the native and settler populations and in all three of these countries the native question was the definer of whether a party was defined as left or right. All of these phenomena occur in Israel today as well as parties with paramilitary roots, such as occur in the West only in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Thus Israel has developed along similar lines to settler societies in the West. We should take advantage of these similarities in examining successful peace processes in some of these other societies such as Northern Ireland and in looking at Israeli politics in a similar fashion. Examination of colonial origins does not mean automatically that one is anti-Israel.

  2. Anonymous November 10, 2008 at 1:28 am - Reply

    Thank you very much Tom for asserting correctly that Israel is a settler colonial state, and that solutions must flow from that recognition.


  3. paul gertz November 17, 2008 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    The authors and the editors seem to be suffering from a case of historical amnesia.Colonists by their very nature have mother countries to return to – a moral responsibility for their brethern. Jews when expelled, in th annual frenzies of the fearful and the demagogic, have been turned into beggers pleading for refuge. Have they forgotten the ships to no where full of Jews trying to escape the Nazi scourge?

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