The discussion about Israel's right to exist was until not so long ago considered very marginal. Now it has infiltrated the central discourse in the West. How did it happen?

Pro-Israel Rally in Chicago (photo: Josh Evnin)

A country in question

PUBLISHED IN |  Jan 22, 07

“Nobody does Israel any service by proclaiming its ‘right to exist,’ wrote Abba Eban in a November 1981 article in The New York Times. “Israel’s right to exist, like that of the United States, Saudi Arabia and 152 other states, is axiomatic and unreserved. Israel’s legitimacy is not suspended in midair, awaiting acknowledgement by the Saudi royal house. Nor does the Palestine Liberation Organization have the legal status to grant recognition to any country, or to deny it recognition.”

The article by the former foreign minister, one of Israel’s most impressive spokesmen in the international arena, was written in response to the plan by Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who proposed an implicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist as part of an initiative to end the Israeli-Arab conflict. “There is certainly no other state,” wrote Eban, “big or small, young or old, that would consider mere recognition of its ‘right to exist’ a favor, or a negotiable concession.”

Since then, the discussion of Israel’s right to exist is no longer just the realm of Arab parties in conflict with Israel, and has become part of the European and American discourse. In recent years, particularly since the second intifada and the failure of the Camp David talks, one can find an increasing number of discussions like “Was it a mistake to establish a Jewish state?” or “Should we work to abolish Israel?”

No European government, and certainly not the U.S. government, supports this position. Moreover, the 25 members of the European Union declared in 2005 that denying the Jewish people its right to self-determination – for example, by claiming that the State of Israel is a racist endeavor – is equivalent to anti-Semitism. However, this discussion, which used to be the realm of ephemeral groups, has infiltrated the central discourse. Nowadays, one can find it in almost every Western country.

This phenomenon has apparently led the organizers of the Herzliya Conference on the Balance of Israel’s National Security, which began yesterday, to include a special session on the denial of Israel’s right to exist. The session, which will take place tomorrow evening, will be moderated by Dr. Fania Oz-Salzberger of the University of Haifa, who writes on the subject for American and European newspapers. Other participants will be former Canadian justice minister Prof. Irwin Kotler; Natan Sharansky; American historian Richard Landes; Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Too late in coming

Eban. "Right to exist is axiomatic" (photo: Lavon Institute)

Eban. 'Right to exist is axiomatic' (photo: Lavon Institute)

A prominent example of this trend is the article by Tony Judt, a highly regarded American-Jewish historian, that was published in the October 2003 New York Review of Books. In the article, entitled “Israel: The Alternative,” Judt proposed abolishing the Jewish nation state and replacing it with a binational state in the western Land of Israel.

Judt’s main argument is that the State of Israel is anachronistic. He claims that the European national movements – the source of Zionism – established nation-states with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of World War I, but that the Jewish national home was forced to wait another three decades, until the fall of the British Empire.

Ignoring examples that contradicted his thesis (India, Pakistan and most of the countries in the Middle East and Africa), Judt wrote that Israel simply “arrived too late … The very idea of a ‘Jewish state’ – a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges, from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded – is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.”

Judt’s article aroused great furor in Israel and around the world, and in its wake, his name was removed from the masthead of The New Republic, which had listed him as a contributing editor. But during last summer’s Lebanon war, another, even harsher article was published, this time in Europe. Norwegian intellectual Jostein Gaarder, author of the international best seller “Sophie’s World,” wrote in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “We no longer recognize the State of Israel. We need to get used to the idea: The State of Israel, in its current form, is history.”

In an article with harsh religious, eschatological and apocalyptic elements, which resembled a messianic prophecy, Gaarder wrote: “The State of Israel, with its unscrupulous art of war and its disgusting weapons, has massacred its own legitimacy. It has systematically flouted international law, international conventions and countless UN resolutions, and can no longer expect protection from the same. It has carpet-bombed the recognition of the world. But fear not! The tribulation will soon be over … The State of Israel has raped the recognition of the world, and shall have no peace until it lays down its arms.”

Gaarder concluded his article with a doomsday prophecy that predicted the destruction of Israel and another Jewish exile: “If the entire Israeli nation should fall to its own devices and parts of the population have to flee their occupied areas into another Diaspora, then we say to their neighbors: ‘Stay calm and show them mercy.’ It is an eternal crime, without mitigating circumstances, to lay a hand on refugees and a stateless people.”

Talking about Jews

US Army Apache in Iraq (photo: James Gordon)

US Army Apache in Iraq (photo: James Gordon)

The most fundamental defense of Israel’s right to exist was provided by Prof. Alan Dershowitz, who is scheduled to speak at the Herzliya Conference via a satellite broadcast from the U.S. In his book “The Case for Israel,” Dershowitz claims that when discussing the Jews or the State of Israel, people often employ double standards. When Israel is attacked for violating human rights, for example, the accusers often ignore parallel violations committed by its neighbors and other countries. This naturally gives rise to the question of how, of the 200-some UN member countries, the State of Israel is the only one whose very right to exist is in question.

The conclusion is that denying Israel’s right to exist says more about the denier than the State of Israel. Oz-Salzberger agrees with this argument, and tries to classify Israel’s harsh critics. First and foremost, she distinguishes between “arguments based on what Israel actually does, which can be legitimate criticism, and arguments not related to what Israel does.”

The next stage on the “slippery slope,” as Oz-Salzberger describes it, is criticizing Israel as one homogeneous entity, without differentiating between the people and the government, or among the various political groups. “When Germans attack the U.S., for example, they always distinguish between the Bush administration and the American people. They say they have a problem with the current administration, such as its decision to go to war in Iraq, but emphasize that they have no problem with the American people. I have not seen a single harsh critic who makes this distinction about Israel. When one does not distinguish between the range of ideas within Israeli society, that is a clear sign of anti-Israel sentiment.” The various academic boycotts of Israel fall into this category, Oz-Salzberger says.

The next stage on the path to denying Israel’s right to exist is the claim: “It’s a shame Israel was established.” As an example, Oz-Salzberger notes the 2003 European survey that determined Israel is the country most dangerous to world peace, ahead of Iran and North Korea. These arguments may have an anti-Semitic background, joining theories of Jewish conspiracies (“The Jews control Hollywood,” “The Jews are pulling the strings in the Bush administration”), but they can be simply anti-Israel. In the latter case, they focus on denying Israel’s right to exist.

Dr. Richard Landes, who will also be participating in the session tomorrow, approaches the subject as a medievalist. “In my field,” he says, “I noticed a pattern – the great outbreaks of anti-Semitism came after periods characterized by very positive attitudes toward the Jews, which could be called philo-Judaic. The best examples are the crusades and Martin Luther’s Reformation. Since 1945, especially in the U.S. and Europe, the Jews have been treated very well, and this is apparently the longest period in history when this was the case. I believed the outbreak would come from Christian fundamentalism, which might be disappointed by the exaggerated expectations prior to 2000, but in the end it actually came from the secular left.

“The turning point was the Camp David summit. Until then, many American journalists spoke of great optimism, of a feeling that all problems could be solved, and that humanity was moving in a better direction. And then the talks failed, the intifada broke out, and Israel was blamed for all the world’s problems.”

For guilt feelings

Russian soldiers in Chechnya (photo:

Russian soldiers in Chechnya (photo:

Landes’ Web site,, keeps track of Western media reports about the Middle East: “There had been voices in the Arab world that denied Israel’s right to exist, but in recent years we have found them in the West as well. One of the reasons for that is simply realpolitik. Nobody questions the right of China or Russia to exist, although it is clear that they violate human rights much more than Israel does – in Chechnya or in Tibet – but Israel is a small country, and one can definitely imagine it hypothetically ceasing to exist,” says Landes.

“But another explanation is schadenfreude, mainly on the part of secular leftist Europe. Many Europeans really enjoy blaming Israel and claiming that it is the source of all problems, because it alleviates their guilt feelings about the Holocaust. That is actually the goal of the Europeans, to feel that they are no longer guilty, or at least that their guilt is not so terrible.” Landes says it is usually leftist Western intellectual circles that deny Israel’s right to exist. They are trying to avoid being catalogued as “sinners” for wronging other nations. “But if Israel was born in sin,” says Landes, “then all the countries in the world were born in sin – much more so a country like the U.S.”

Landes says with a smile that he does not categorically reject the idea of the UN General Assembly passing a resolution stating Israel does not have the right to exist. “On the diplomatic level, we are talking about an alliance with the Arab world. Europe is trying to counterbalance the U.S. in the international arena, and therefore it is trying to move closer to the Arab world. This, of course, has demographic consequences that can be seen in every European city. Europe’s serious problem with the Muslims has led it to turn Israel into a scapegoat. They see that as a convenient solution to the Muslim threat.”