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THE JEWS: A PEOPLE, A NATION, A STATE

by Salomon Benzimra

  

Many questions have been raised about Zionism. Those who oppose Zionism have recently turned up their vociferous voices with uncommon fury. Branded as racism, imperialism, apartheid, akin to Nazism, Zionism has been prey to the most vicious bigots, anti-Semites, radical Islamists and their fellow travelers. The fact is that most of these people do not have the foggiest clue about Zionism, its origins and its natural achievement in the birth of the State of Israel.

Zionism is Jewish nationalism.

There have been three main waves of nationalism in recent history: the Latin American experience in the 1800s promoted by Simon Bolivar; the post-WWI nationalism in the early 1920s encouraged by Woodrow Wilson and his Fourteen Points on self-determination; the post-WWII nationalism, starting with India, extending to Africa and Asia, and coinciding with the end of Western colonial powers; and the post-Communism nationalism which more recently spawned new nations out of the breakup of the Soviet bloc.

Zionism fits in the second wave. It shares many of the characteristics of the other forms of nationalism (self-determination, liberation of the land from foreign powers, etc.) but it also exhibits two main singularities. Whereas most colonies have been under foreign occupation by a single power and for no longer than three centuries, Zionism called for the liberation of a land which has been under foreign occupation for over eighteen centuries and a multitude of successive powers: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mameluks, Turks and eventually British. The other striking difference is that Zionism undertook to gather the mainly dispersed Jewish people to their historical land where only a few still lived.

Whereas nobody questions the legitimacy of newly born countries in the past half-century such as Ghana (the old British "Gold Coast") or Burkina Faso (the old French "Upper-Volta") as nations freed from colonization, many oppose the very essence of Zionism. I believe the reason for this persistent opposition (aside from, or combined with, anti-Semitic feelings) lies in the two singularities mentioned above. These opponents believe that if a land has been occupied by a long series of foreign powers and has been largely emptied of its original population for almost two millennia, there is no longer any valid claim to nationhood, even if this claim comes from the people who never relinquished their deep attachment to their historical heritage. But the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was adopted in 1966, states that "all peoples have the right of self-determination." This begs the question: are the Jews a people?

Jewish peoplehood

This point must be made absolutely clear. There has always been a Jewish people and, as long as any other human group claims any specificity of peoplehood, there is surely no reason to create an exception for the Jews. The French "newspaper of reference" Le Monde writes "people" under quotes when referring to the Jews. Le Monde and other negationists are grossly misinformed. This is the definition of "people" from the Webster International Dictionary, Third Edition: "A body of persons that are united by a common culture, tradition, or sense of kinship -- though not necessarily by consanguinity or by racial or political ties -- and that typically have common language, institutions and beliefs." (emphasis added). Only when Burkinians, Ghaneans -- and, for that matter, most of the other 188 nations recognized by the United Nations -- will be able to show that they have stronger claims and a wider civilizational impact than the Jews have had in any of the six attributes highlighted above, I will be prepared to reject Zionism as an illegitimate national movement of the Jewish people.

A small parenthesis here about the origin of these six attributes of a people. There is no doubt that for the Jews the origin of these specific attributes resides in the Torah, the biblical literature and its later commentaries, the Kabbalistic works, etc.. Religious Jews will assign the ultimate origin of these particularities to God and its revelation at Sinai. Non-religious Jews will look at the same books and will see them as the work of brilliant men with a keen sense of ethics, legislation, philosophical thought and universal values. Regardless of the theological aspect, the main point is that these thoughts have welded a unique People together which, to this day, can be differentiated from the others and whose immense contribution to civilization no unbiased observer would deny.

When a people becomes a nation

A People can only become a Nation when they have a Land of their own. When they freely choose self-determination, they create a State. The Roma are a people but not a nation. The Basques are a nation but have no sovereign state yet. The Scots have a strong cultural nationalism, but are not eager to engage in political separation. Many current states have no specific connection with a given nation: they are "multicultural", such as Canada, Australia and many others populated by waves of diverse immigration. Iceland, on the other hand, is probably the typical nation-state. The United States became a new nation by fusing a multitude of peoples into a common "melting-pot". As for the Jews, when in July 1922 the League of Nations recognized the "historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine" and the "grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.", the Jewish nation reappeared after 1,852 years of dispersal. In 1948, the Jewish nation established in Palestine decided to create the State of Israel, in conformity with the provisions of UN Resolution 181. It can be argued then that Zionism, as a national movement born in the late 1800s under the impulse of Theodore Herzl, has fulfilled its objective of nation building. Now that the State of Israel exists, the national character of the Jewish people should no longer be in question, negationists notwithstanding. What is in question is the form of government that the State of Israel should have.

So, equating Zionism with Racism, as the UN ruled in 1974, is pure nonsense. Any nationalism is exclusive by its own very nature. And that UNGA Resolution (rescinded since) is not the only instance where the UN breached its own principles in matters concerning Israel.

It should be interesting to review the notions discussed above as they apply (or, rather, do not apply) to the recently minted "Palestinian people". As the social anthropologist Ernest Geller observed, "nationalism [often] invents nations where they do not exist." The charade of the "Palestinian people" can best be summarized by the candid declaration of Zuheir Muhsin, a senior official of the PLO:

"There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation. It is only for political reasons that we carefully underline our Palestinian identity, because it is in the interest of the Arabs to encourage a separate Palestinian identity. Yes, the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes. The founding of a Palestinian state is a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel." (excerpted from the Dutch newspaper Trouw, 1977).

Consequences of being a Nation-State

As for the State of Israel, one of the burning questions is how it should treat its Arab minority. Being a nation-state, Israel must keep a predominant Jewish majority, lest it loses its raison d'Ítre. Israel's raison d'Ítre encompasses many things. For the religious Jew, it is the settlement of the Promised Land, according to God's mission to His chosen people and the fulfillment of the prophecies. Even though the theological aspect is essential to many, we should avoid religious considerations if we want to keep the topic in the purely secular, rational domain. Israel's raison d'Ítre is then no more and no less than the raison d'Ítre of every existing people on earth who realized its national aspirations in its historical land. So, insofar as the world acknowledges even only ONE nation on earth, the Jews certainly deserve (and have arguably more solid grounds, given their contribution to humanity per capita) to build their own nation.

Since Israel is a nation-state, if the original people who willed that state fall into a minority in their own land, then it ceases to be a nation-state because its core, founding people would be diluted into a "multicultural" haze, thus defeating its original purpose. If Iceland opens its doors wide open to immigration, it will have the same fate. This is precisely what the proponents of the "one-state solution" advocate: to turn the nation-state of Israel into a multicultural society, eradicate the "Jewish state", and transform it into a "state of all its peoples".

On the other hand, the state must also embrace democratic principles not only because democracy is the widely accepted norm or advanced societies but because the democratic principles of equality, liberty and justice are embedded in Jewish thought. However, there is a difference between the people and the population. The people in a democratic nation-state are all citizens, as sharing in the sovereign power. For the Arab population to share sovereign power in the state, they must first become citizens, that is embrace the common goals and spiritual principles of the founding nation. If not, this segment of the population is reduced to subjects or residents living under the laws of the state but deprived of any sovereign power. The question of democracy is therefore closely linked to the criteria of citizenship.

Conferring the privilege of citizenship to the Arab population living in Israel should be done through an oath of allegiance to the State. I suppose many of the Arabs presently living in Israel would not object to swear allegiance. But the growing Islamist groups within Israel would refuse any such allegiance to the State, since they are committed to the destruction of the Jewish State of Israel and its replacement by an Islamic entity ruled by Muslims. Their opposition to Israel was made quite clear last week when Ibrahim Sarsur, who heads the southern Israel Islamic Movement, said: "The Judaization of the state threatens us. But we want to be Israelis in the civil sense of the word." Here is an Arab Israeli, who is presently a "citizen" of the state (because of the unfortunate laws of citizenship currently in force in Israel), and who does not understand the nature of the Jewish State of Israel. And that is why he wants to be "Israeli in the civil sense of the word", because in his mind, already deeply confused by the nature of theocratic Islamic states, he believes that Israel is also a religious state based on Judaism, rather than a nation-state centered on the Jewish people.

People harboring such views should not be citizens of Israel. Neither should be citizens those secular Arabs -- such as Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, both MK at the Knesset -- whose main purpose seems to be the destruction of the state in what can only be defined as sedition. In the same way, the Neturei Karta and other secular, rabid anti-Zionist Jews should have their citizenship revoked and not partake in the political life of the country. Being a citizen of the Jewish State of Israel is not a right to which its entire population is entitled: it is a privilege that should only be bestowed to those who accept the responsibilities inherent to citizenship.

Nothing in the above is anti-democratic. Israel, as a nation-state, is entitled to formulate laws that protect its unique character. The Canadian province of Quebec does the same by promulgating its French language laws; Switzerland too has its own restrictive citizenship laws. All the ruckus about "Israeli apartheid" emanates from groups intent on the destruction of Israel. In Europe, there is another anti-Israel dimension fuelled by their distaste for nation-states, following their endless succession of bloody wars in past centuries. But as long as any people is accepted by the community of nations to live and flourish in their own land, the State of Israel should not be apologetic, it should stand tall, and be rightly proud of its outstanding achievements under uncommon hardship.

 
Salomon Benzimra, P.Eng. is a chemical engineer, who does front end design for the petrochemical industry. He lives in Toronto, Canada. Contact him by email at sbenzimra@sympatico.ca

This essay was submitted March 7, 2006.

 

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