“Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”
Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times, October 16, 2002
Although one should be extremely cautious in using the caustic term “anti-Semitic,” applying Thomas Friedman’s nuanced definition above, it is appropriately applied in many instances regarding the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While the world has been obsessed for seventy years with the fate of approximately 700,000 Palestinian refugees who fled the conflict in 1948, no similar concern is expressed for the over 800,000 Jews who were forced to flee their ancestral homes in Arab countries at the same time.
One can hardly open a newspaper without reading of “settlements” in the “occupied” West Bank of Israel. When was the last time one spotted an article about civilian settlers from Morocco living in occupied Western Sahara, or settlers from Turkey in Northern Cyprus? The Jewish “settlements” are routinely called “the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.” Hardly ever mentioned are the five occasions in the last century when the Palestinians adamantly rejected good-faith offers for a state of their own living side-by-side in peace next to the State of Israel. The United Nations selectively condemns Israel for “disproportionally” defending itself from horrific terrorist attacks launched by Palestinian extremists. Yet what other country, including the United States, would be called upon to “exercise restraint” in the face of daily rocket attacks and suicide bombers dismembering civilians on buses and in schools?
The double standard was out of control this past week. What horror has Israel committed this time? On July 19, Israel’s democratically elected parliament (the Knesset) passed a “nation state law” that, among other things, provides as a “basic principle” that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.” The new law also provides for an official flag (white with two blue stripes near the edges and a blue Star of David in the center) and a “state emblem” (a seven-branched menorah with olive leaves on both sides and the word “Israel” beneath it).
These mostly declaratory and self-evident proclamations of statehood provoked the following responses: the New York Times called the move “incendiary” (apparently not noticing the irony of using such a term in the midst of ongoing terror attacks from Gaza into Israel using incendiary kites) and stated that the law had been “denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic.” The Washington Post called the law “contentious” and observed that it was being “described by critics as anti-democratic and draconian.” Turkey’s President Erdogan stated that the “spirit of Hitler” was apparent in “fascist” Israel’s new nation state law. NPR maintained that the new law undermines Israel’s commitment to democracy and jeopardizes the rights of Israel’s approximately 1.7 million Arab citizens (21% of the population).
It does nothing of the kind. The notion of Israel as the “national home of the Jewish people” is the founding principle of Zionism and has been repeatedly recognized by the international community. In 1896, Theodore Herzl, the father of Zionism, set out his vision of a Jewish State and “homeland” for the Jewish people in his book Der Judenstaat. The First Congress of the Zionist Organization declared in 1897 that “Zionism seeks to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” The first official use of the phrase “national home for the Jewish people” was in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which referred to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” When David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948, he announced “the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.”
At the same time, Israel’s Declaration of Independence firmly stated that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Contrary to this week’s conventional wisdom, nothing about the new nation state law changes either the Jewish character of the Jewish State or its commitment to democratic values. While Israel, like the United States, and most other countries in the world, must remain vigilant in safeguarding the rights of all of its citizens, nothing in the new law undermines existing laws protecting the civil rights of all of Israel’s citizens. The prominence of Arab citizens in all aspects of Israeli society is proof of a vibrant democratic society. Arab Israeli citizens hold 17 seats in Israel’s parliament (a number in proportion to their population). Arab Israeli citizens have served in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, on the Israeli Supreme Court, in Israel’s foreign service, its army, and police and are a significant force in Israel’s culture, including the arts, music, theatre, and film. Can any of this be said of the 40 Jews left in Egypt or the one remaining Jew in Afghanistan?
While the world gasps in horror as Israel reiterates that (after 6 million Jews were slaughtered in Europe during World War II) it remains the one safe haven for Jews in the world, no one seems particularly disturbed by the fact that, according to Professor Eugene Kontorovich, seven European states have constitutional “nationhood” provisions, which describe the state as the “national home” for the country’s majority ethnic group. Nor is anyone getting worked up by the fact that more than 20% of the countries in the world have an “official” state religion (including 27 Muslim countries). There is, and never has been, an official state religion in Israel. No one seems particularly upset that France is French, Poland is Polish, or Turkey is the “home” of the Turks.
Of course, as has been the case since the founding of the State of Israel seventy years ago, the real reason for the most recent recrimination against Israel is the fact that it exists at all and proudly proclaims itself to be the “home” of the Jewish people. The Arab world’s refusal to accept this basic reality is the root cause of the conflict and remains the underlying reason that the Palestinians repeatedly have rejected offers to establish their own state.
This is because merely having a state of its own is not the goal of Hamas and other like-minded organizations. The elimination of the State of Israel is, and always has been. After all, it was President Nasser of Egypt who declared shortly before the 1967 war (before there was any “occupation” of the West Bank or Jewish settlements) that “our aim is the full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people. In other words, we aim at the destruction of the State of Israel.” At the same time, Iraq’s president, Abdul Rahman Arif,declared: “This is our chance * * *our goal is clear: To wipe Israel off the map.” Two days before the war broke out, PLO founder and leader Ahmad Shukieri said of the Israelis: “Whoever survives will stay in Palestine, but in my opinion, no one will remain alive.”
The double standard which is used as a tool in the war to delegitimize and destroy the State of Israel is on display again on the front page of your daily newspaper as Israel once again declares itself to be the “home of the Jewish people.” As noted above, while one should be extremely careful before bandying about the toxic label of anti-Semitism, “if the shoe fits * * *”