On Israel’s “Right to Exist” and Other Myths

On Israels “Right to Exist” and Other Myths

IfNotNow Macalester, Macalester Student Organization

As the Israeli public begins its ninth week of massive protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concentration of power, the far-right government is murdering Palestinians in the cities of Jenin and Nablus, taking legal steps towards annexation of the West Bank and empowering settlers in their destruction of Palestinian villages. We should note that there has been violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israelis as well, but news coverage and public discourse so often fail to understand the power differential at play. Palestinian resistance, violent or otherwise, pales in comparison to the scale of violence committed by Zionist militias and Israeli military forces, now institutionalized through military occupation and apartheid.

We are IfNotNow Macalester, a group of Jews and allies fighting for Palestinian liberation and against antisemitism. We feel that Macalester students writ large are not in need of convincing that oppression of the Palestinian people is a bad thing, but we also know that the “complexity” of this issue keeps many people from voicing their opinions. We have found that one of the biggest barriers to students becoming involved in our work is a feeling that they do not know enough. Supporters of the Israeli government tend to use the language of complexity as a deliberate strategy to immobilize activism, inspiring responses like “It’s not complicated. It’s apartheid.” We do not wish to diminish the nuances of this issue (of which there are many), but we do think that a significant amount of confusion arises from the intentional obfuscation of pro-Israel pundits. The purpose of this article is to dispel a number of myths about Israel and Palestine.

  1. “Israel has a right to exist.” If you are confused about what exactly a “right to exist” is, we assure you that you are not alone. This myth is wrapped up in a larger debate over Zionism—the belief that the Jewish people should have their own state in the land that is currently Israel—which frequently centers around questions of Israel’s “right to exist” or the Jewish people’s “right to self-determination.” We believe these questions are a distraction. Israel’s creation in 1948 entailed the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and Jewish self-determination is maintained through the marginalization of Arab citizens, exclusion and oppression of non-Jewish immigrants (as well as Jews of color) and disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians living under effective Israeli control in the West Bank. No country has a right to establish itself through ethnic cleansing, and no people have a right to self-determination at the expense of another’s. Israel is built on settler colonialism, which exists in practice as the ongoing nakba. We must therefore move from the distracting question of “right to exist” to that of “right to resist.”
  2. “Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.” Antisemitism—the oppression of or discrimination against Jewish people because they are Jewish—remains pervasive. An animating force of white nationalism, antisemitism also functions by using Jews as a scapegoat for social problems created by the powerful. We are tremendously grateful to the Jewish students, faculty and staff (including some of our own members) who worked hard to bring education on antisemitism to campus earlier this school year. Although they decided to avoid engaging in debates about Israel while planning last fall’s event, the current moment demands clarification. Zionism is a political project. Judaism is a religion. They are not the same thing. Anti-Zionism can be motivated by a hatred of Jews but it does not have to be, nor do all Jews support Israel. Many (including us!) do not. Those who call themselves anti-Zionists because they believe that the Zionist project requires forced displacement of Palestinians are motivated by justice and are not inherently antisemitic. Anti-Zionism and antisemitism are conflated in an effort to insulate Israel from criticism, but it also allows antisemites to couch their malignant Jew-hatred in support for Israel. For instance, John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, believes that a powerful Jewish family controls the federal reserve and that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to help the Jews move to Israel. He has used his support for the Jewish state to cover for these statements and, choosing to instead focus on Palestinian activists, mainstream pro-Israel organizations have let him. 
  3. “Israel is singled-out for criticism.” Of all the countries in the world that commit human rights abuses, why does Israel seem to receive such a disproportionate amount of criticism? There are actually a few reasons. First, some of the loudest critics of Israel, both around the world and in the U.S., are the people directly affected: Jews and Palestinians. Claiming to act on behalf of the Jewish people as a whole, Israel keeps Palestinians under apartheid rule. It should not be surprising that either group is particularly invested in and vocal about this issue. Second, Israel also receives a disproportionate amount of support from the international community. Many of the world’s most powerful economic powers, the United States being the most obvious example, consistently vote down UN resolutions criticizing Israel’s conduct. Third, Israel is exemplary of the workings of Western imperialism that have caused suffering for disparate peoples around the world. This claim is not necessarily about the colonial nature of the Zionist project, but rather about the decision on the part of European powers after World War II to solve the age-old “Jewish problem” by underwriting the displacement of disposable (read: non-white) populations. To be clear, the Zionist project was only possible because it had the support of imperial powers (British soldiers trained Zionist militias and did nothing to stop them from invading Palestinian land while it was still ostensibly under British rule).
  4. “Israel has a right to defend itself.” Israel’s “right to defend itself” is invoked every time there is an escalation of violence. Whether it is a “right” or not, it is naive to imagine that any government would do nothing in response to violence perpetrated against it. Provocation begets retaliation, and violence begets violence. However, this narrative is far from applicable to Israel. Israeli military responses are almost always disproportionate to the incident in question. There are also “preemptive” strikes and more quotidian forms of violence. Apartheid is not self-defense. Occupation is not self-defense. Assassination of journalists is not self-defense. Suppression of human rights organizations is not self defense. Incarceration without charge is not self-defense. We do not endorse violence, but we do believe that Palestinians can never “break the peace” by committing acts of violence because they live in a state of constant war.
  5. “The Israel-Palestine conflict is a dispute between equals.” The Israel-Palestine conflict is not a war over land fought by two pre-existing nations. Israel is a massively industrialized and militarized power supported by a coalition of the world’s most powerful military-industrial complexes. The Palestinian people have been refused sovereignty and statehood by imperial powers and now suffer under apartheid and occupation. Israel was formerly a client of the British Empire and today arguably functions as a tool for American imperialism in the Middle East, while Palestinian organizations and governmental entities have spent much of the last century being bullied by those very same powers. These two entities are not on an even playing field, and pretending that they are ignores the massive military and financial leverage Israel maintains in their military and colonial project in occupied Palestinian lands.

There is a fundamental difference in character between the violence with the intent of ethnic cleansing committed against the Palestinian people by the Israeli government and military, and the violence of resistance against ethnic cleansing, colonialism and oppression. The Israeli military implements this violence through the nakba, pogroms and the physical replacement of Palestinian villages with Israeli settlements with the goal of establishing “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In distinct contrast, Palestinian resistance commits violence against this occupation in an act of self-defense against extinction, with the goal of a decolonized Palestine free from colonization, imperialism and apartheid.


Interested in taking action? IfNotNow meets weekly on Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. in CC215.