On Hetsroni, Zionism and the Right of Return

Amir Hetsroni, a leftist communications and media lecturer at Ariel University, has been the focus of much attention in Israel after comments he made on national television deriding the Moroccan heritage of the program’s host. He attributes the Left’s loss in the recent elections to the inherent idiocy of Jews of Middle Eastern origin and the poor decision to give them the right to vote.  He compounds his racism in a TOI blog post where he claims that Israel’s weakness lies in its policy of accepting any Jew, regardless of economic and cultural productivity and output, unlike much more successful countries like Canada and Australia who screen their immigrants based on those criteria.  “[T]here are no signs of racism on my part,” he adds, “only evidence of a logic that might be out of synch [sic] with a society that is addicted to myths.”

Not only do his statements betray his deeply embedded personal racism, but they also display a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the international system – one at which we did not arrive arbitrarily but which is based on precedent and real events – and the intentions with which the State of Israel was founded.

The current system is one based on political realism, which means that the only entities recognized in the international arena are States and in that arena their primary concern is external defense.  Realism supposes that States are rational-unitary actors – rational meaning they make decisions in the international arena based on those external defense concerns; unitary meaning that all arms of the State (diplomatic, executive, military etc.) express the same foreign policy (i.e. the army does not engage in actions not in accord with the policy of the executive).  There is no overarching governing body for this system of sovereign States, only international agreements.  In today’s world, only sovereign States have the right to armed defense.

Our international system has transformed dramatically since the French Revolution.  Over the course of the 19th century, empires began to erode in the face of nationalisms.  All of today’s States are nationalist bodies: some like France and the United States are founded on civic nationalism; the vast majority are based on ethnic nationalism (from Germany to Egypt, Japan, Denmark, Russia, Turkey, China, the Koreas, all of the Gulf States – the list goes on).  In a civic nationalism, a citizen gains his identity from the symbols, culture and direction of the State – learn English, become a citizen and you’re American.  In ethnic nationalism, a person’s ethnicity entitles him/her to citizenship.  Israel is obviously in the latter category, but it is important to examine why.

Zionism gained traction concurrently with, or perhaps somewhat later than, other ethnic nationalist movements throughout the 19th century.  As the Ottoman Empire weakened, European powers were happy to chip away at its territory by embracing the ethno-nationalist claims of Christians living under Muslim rule, namely that of the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and later Wallachs (Romanians) to the neglect of similar claims made by peoples under their own sovereignty (Poles, Czechs, Magyars et al.).  After all of the great European continental empires were dismantled following their defeat in the First World War, the victorious allies created new states to reward these ethno-nationalist movements (Poland, Czechoslovakia).  American President Woodrow Wilson explained in his famous 14-points that national self-determination for the oppressed peoples of Europe was one of the Unites States’ primary goals in entering the war.

As Jews faced ever increasing violence in Europe throughout the 19th century, a nationalist movement sprung up in the East in the 1870’s and 1880’s, a cause 15 years later taken up by Theodore Herzl who made Zionism (Jewish ethnic nationalism) the main ideological motivation for world Jewry henceforth.  Herzl and his contemporaries understood that for Jews to defend themselves, they needed a State, for only a State would have the kind of legitimate use of violence the Jews needed for security.

The Balfour Declaration of 1917, a British promise to the Jews to create a national homeland for them in Palestine, was drafted in that context and included in the Mandate for Palestine given to the UK by the League of Nations.  The mandates in the Middle East, French and British, were intended to bring order and infrastructure to the lay the foundation of eventual States.  The inclusion of the Balfour Declaration in the Mandate meant that founding a national home for the Jews was an inextricable aspect of the State to be built.  This policy was embraced wholeheartedly at the beginning of the Mandate, but with growing Arab opposition, limits were placed by the British on Jewish immigration to Palestine in the early 1930’s.

Following the Arab Revolt of 1936-9, a White Paper restricted Jewish immigration for the period of 1940-44 to 75,000 souls, after which permission for further Jewish immigration would depend on the approval of the Arab majority.  This coincides with the period in which Nazi Germany perpetrated the majority of the six million murders it committed against the Jewish people; the same period in which the world closed its borders to Jews fleeing Hitler, most of whom found their ends in mass graves and crematoria.  In this same period, tens of thousands of Palestinian Jews joined the British forces with the motto, “we’ll fight the White Paper as if there’s no Hitler, and fight Hitler as if there’s no White Paper”.

Despite a 1947 decision of the United Nations to partition Palestine, the world did not give the Jewish People her State.  Between the end of the War and the British withdrawal on 14 May, 1948, the British impeded almost all attempts of holocaust survivors from reaching the shores of Eretz Israel.  They were interned in Cyprus, some few outside Haifa.  In those years the Jews of Mandate Palestine fought the British tooth and nail entirely for the purpose of bringing more Jews to Palestine.

After the State of Israel’s declaration of Independence, Jews across the Arab world faced mass persecution and deportation.  The nascent State was forced to quickly absorb millions of Jews from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East while fending off enemy armies on all of her borders.  After the Six-Day War, the remaining Jewish communities in the Middle East all but emptied.

The State of Israel does not exist for itself but for the Jewish People.  It is the answer to centuries of persecution of that people, functioning within the parameters of the currently accepted international system.  The international community did not grant Israel entry, but the People of Israel fought for the creation of an entity to be represented in that system.  The Right of Return is the raison d’être of the State of Israel; it exists as a safety net for global Jewry and there is no reason to believe the Jewish People have no need for such a safety net.

About the Author
Avi Taranto is a tour guide, chef, translator and photographer based in Tel Aviv. A native of New York City, he has a BA from McGill University in History and an MA from Tel Aviv University in Diplomacy.
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