“I hereby announce the establishment of a Jewish state… in Germany!”

It’s 1945. The Second World War has ended. Germany lies defeated and the concentration camps have been liberated. The Jews of Europe prepare to flee to the Promised Land, but the victorious Allied powers meet at Potsdam to announce an astonishing initiative: the creation of a Jewish state… in Germany.

It sounds like a preposterous scenario, but this was the topic of debate at the semi-final of the prestigious Cambridge Inter-Varsity debating competition this weekend. The motion was:

Instead of creating a Jewish state in the British Mandate of Palestine, with the benefit of hindsight, This House would have created a Jewish state in Germany.

Motions about Israel are extremely common in the debating world, and this particular motion was recycled from a Paris competitionThe debate was of staggeringly high quality, and competitors made powerful and insightful arguments – in contrast to some of the more absurd things that have been said about Israel in debates before. 

DISCLAIMER: Debaters are given only fifteen minutes to prepare for the debate and may not consult the internet or anyone other than their partners. They also do not get to choose from which side to speak. This means that what they say in a debate does not necessarily reflect their own views or opinions: they simply have to make the most convincing case for the position they are given, whether they believe it or not. What the debaters said should not be taken in any way whatsoever to be indicative of their personal beliefs, convictions, opinions or understanding of history. 

In the first semi-final, Hart House opened the case for the proposition. They proposed the foundation of a Jewish state in West Germany, somewhere rural, sparsely populated and preferably by the seaside. The Jewish people needed a state, but putting it in Palestine meant that the Jews were left in a place where they could never be at peace, surrounded by hostile Arab states. If Israel were founded on land dismembered from Germany, however, “it would be safe forever”: next to a demilitarised Germany, Israel would not have had to pump billions of dollars into defence. The displacement of the Palestinians in 1948 could have been completely avoided, and Europe had no right to make them pay the price for its own anti-Semitism anyway.

Oxford’s Tash Rachman opened the case for the opposition by pointing out the obvious: there wasn’t any empty German land by the seaside, which could have been converted into a Jewish state. The conversion of Schleswig-Holstein into a Jewish state, however, would have required the eviction of Germans – and this would have aggravated anti-Semitism by confirming Germans’ fears about an international Jewish conspiracy hellbent on subverting Germany from within. It would not have been inconceivable, therefore, that a remilitarised Germany might attack Israel. In any case, Jews could never have felt secure next door to a country that had tried to annihilate them: “Jews already know what it is like to be surrounded by people who don’t recognise your right to exist, and this would be worse if surrounded by people who have attempted to exterminate you before,” Rachman added passionately. “Sorry, I get quite worked up about this,” she explained: “paranoid Jewish grandparents!”

Hart House rejected Oxford’s case: if Germany grew to live with the deportation of the Sudeten Germans after the war, it could have also accepted the deportation of Germans to make way for a Jewish state. There would have been no anti-Semitic backlash, whereas in reality, the creation of the State of Israel did provoke a wave of anti-Semitism, in the Arab world. In contrast to what really happened, Israel would never have had to fight for its survival. Germany, in short, was as guilty as sin, and deserved to lose territory in order to make reparation to the Jews for the Holocaust. 

Oxford fought back. Germans did not confront their country’s guilt until the 1960s, but denazification could never have happened if the Jews had been responsible for the dismemberment of Germany and an exodus of German refugees. Moreover, setting up a Jewish state in Europe would have cultivated a Eurocentric view of what it meant to be Jewish, which would have excluded the non-Ashkenazi Diaspora from the Jewish nation-building project. Today, Jews are no longer persecuted on a global scale – and one doesn’t need hindsight to recognise this guaranteed benefit.

In the second half of the debate, Harvard extended the proposition’s case: it attacked Oxford for exaggerating the threat that Jews might hypothetically feel surrounded by Germans, contrasted to the real existential threats they actually faced from Arab states. US global leadership was based on a credible commitment to protect its allies, so Washington would have protected Israel from Germany if it sought revenge. Harvard rejected the suggestion that Germans didn’t feel guilty after the war: the only reason they never had to confront their guilt in the immediate aftermath of the war was that the surviving Jews had left. Since the Holocaust destroyed an entire European Jewish civilisation, Germany had a unique responsibility to help resurrect the Ashkenazi cultural heritage and mitigate the post-Holocaust crisis of faith. Only in Germany could Ashkenazi culture be properly restored: in Israel, a new melting-pot Israeli national identity had to be cultivated. Moreover, in hindsight, the Middle East would have been better off without Israel, because the wars of 1948, 1967, 1973, etc., would never have happened. “The Jews belonged in Germany. The Germans were responsible. We say make them pay, not the Palestinians.”

BPP Law School then extended the case for the opposition. Ben Dory, the best speaker at the Red Sea Open 2013 in Eilat, put Zionism in perspective: the Jews had been persecuted for millennia before the Holocaust, so it was weird to base Jewish territorial claims on “who oppressed the Jewish people last”. War guilt might have sustained acceptance of the Jewish state in Europe for a generation, but future Germans would not have felt responsible for their ancestors’ crimes  – does the descendent of any Jew-oppressing civilisation? Germans would resent Jews even more, believing that the Holocaust was a myth designed to perpetrate designs over German land.

It was time to give the Jews their own state in Palestine, to which they had longed to return for generation: “after being messed around so much by Europeans… the only place Jews could accept to set up long-term home was Israel”. The Jewish underground in Palestine would surely have continued, abetted now by a Jewish state in Europe. Arab anti-Semitism would have happened anyway, and the Palestinians would have suffered equally from the territorial greed of Jordan and Egypt. The Jews had a right to self-determination in their own homeland.

The bottom line for Harvard, in summary, was that the Jews would simply have been better off with a state in Europe: they wouldn’t have faced multiple wars of extermination, and wouldn’t have had to struggle with desert conditions. Moreover, a Jewish state in Germany was an ethical imperative, because Germany was uniquely responsible for the Holocaust, so had to pay. 

BPP concluded the debate by arguing that the only way for the world to make it up to the Jews for centuries of persecution and expulsions was to let them choose where they wanted to live. The Jews deserved a state in Palestine, if only because leaving them in Europe would have left them in perpetual fear of another genocide – and in hindsight, we know that Israel didn’t lose the wars of extermination waged against it where it is now, and survived.

And that was it. The debate was extremely well grounded in history and fact, excepting the amusing claim from Harvard that “Next Year in Jerusalem” was a slogan made up by Herzl! (“Er, no,” retorted BPP, “it’s actually from the Torah!”) In the end, the judges decided for Harvard and Hart House: the proposition won.

Not to denigrate Harvard and Hart House’s victory, the judges’ voting patterns raises questions about the fairness of the motion. In debating, a motion is considered fair when it does not systematically favour one side over the other, such that equally good teams have an equal chance of winning no matter which side they are on. There are two semi-finals, and each judge on a panel of seven casts two votes for which teams to put through to the Final. Of the 28 votes cast, however, only three were in favour of opposition teams.

This may, of course, simply reflect the strength of the teams that happened to speak in favour, but it could also reflect the fact that motions like this are prop-heavy, favouring the proposition (i.e. the side favouring a Jewish state in Germany). Although the proposal itself is preposterous in the real world, the laws of argumentation work differently in ‘Debate Land’. For whereas the proposition has an easy job pointing out the problems that followed Israel’s establishment, the opposition has the harder job of pointing to imaginary, hypothetical harms that would follow the establishment of a Jewish state in Germany. If the motion was prop-heavy, therefore, this had not so much to do with bias against Israel as with the inherent difficulty of constructing convincing counterfactuals harms. 

Der Judenstaat will be in Germany. Herzl would no doubt be pleased!