World Jewish Congress president Ronald S. Lauder stirred controversy with his recent doom-and-gloom op-ed in The New York Times (March 18), warning that Israel faces “grave threats that. . . could endanger its very existence.”
The source of his lamentation is the doomsday scenario, by now a cliché, that unless current demographic trends are reversed, “Israel will face a stark choice: Grant Palestinians full rights and cease being a Jewish state or rescind their rights and cease being a democracy.” To avoid this dire prospect, he suggests, “the only path forward is the two-state solution.”
Lauder’s gloomy forecast is fed by “extensive Jewish settlement-building” in what he revealingly identifies as “the West Bank” – not Judea and Samaria, the biblical homeland of the Jewish people. Israel’s “capitulation to religious extremists” explains “the growing disaffection of the Jewish diaspora” and the alienation of ”a large segment of the Jewish people.” He warns that American Jewish milennials, “distancing themselves from Israel because its policies contradict their values,” display “assimilation, alienation” and “a severe erosion of . . . affinity for the Jewish homeland.” If that were not enough, “the spread of state-enforced religiosity in Israel is turning a modern, liberal nation into a semi-theocratic one.”
Lauder’s lament for Israel and its future rests on a foundation of conventional demographic platitudes, framed within his implicit assumption that Jews have no right to inhabit their ancient homeland. The notion that Jews cannot live in the Land of Israel is a strange claim for a president of the World Jewish Congress. But “the Jewish people,” as Gush Emunim asserted decades ago, “are not a foreign occupier in their own land.” Although settlements have long and repeatedly been vilified by Jews (including Israelis) on the left as illegal colonies of occupation, their outrage is misplaced.
History matters. Nearly a century ago, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, denying the right of Jews to settle east of the Jordan River, explicitly protected their “close settlement” in the land west of the river, thereafter to be called “Palestine.” That guarantee, never rescinded or superseded, remains the enduring international legal foundation for the legitimacy of Jewish settlements. Article 80 of the Charter of the United Nations, known as “the Palestine clause” (drafted by Zionist representatives), preserved the right of Jews to settle throughout their historic homeland west of the Jordan River.
After the Six-Day War, UN Security Council Resolution 242 permitted Israel to administer its newly acquired territory (the West Bank, Gaza and Golan Heights) until the achievement of “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Even then, Israel would only be required to withdraw “from territories” – not from “the territories” or “all the territories.” This was not an accident of phrasing; it was the result of months of diplomacy. “The Jewish right of settlement in the area,” asserted Undersecretary for Political Affairs Eugene V. Rostow, who played a major role in framing Resolution 242, was “unassailable.” Subsequent legal rulings and opinions by Israeli international law experts affirmed Rostow’s conclusion.
International law aside, there is the question of demography, with incessant (and exaggerated) warnings – including Lauder’s – that Israel confronts a looming demographic (and therefore democratic) catastrophe unless it relinquishes the West Bank. But within Israel’s recognized (pre-1967) boundaries, live 6.4 million Jews and 1.6 million Arab citizens. Even including West Bank Palestinians, Israel still enjoys nearly a 2:1 Jewish majority west of the Jordan River. So much for demographers of doom.
Lauder nowhere indicates how his proposed ethnic cleansing of 400,000 Jews from Judea and Samaria, fifty times the number removed from Gaza in 2005, would be managed without plunging the nation into civil war. It would be a self-inflicted national tragedy of epic proportions. He would do well to reread the Israeli Proclamation of Independence, approaching its 70th anniversary. Its opening sentence reminded the world: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people,” where “their spiritual, religious and national identity was formed.” Grave threats to Israel, it seems, can as easily come from its professed friends as from its proclaimed enemies.
Jerold S. Auerbach is author of the forthcoming book Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, to be published by Academic Studies Press.