When is Anti‐Zionism Morally Legitimate?

Evan Oxman. Nations & Nationalism. Volume 24, Issue 4. October 2018.

The claim that Zionism is fundamentally or intrinsically morally compromised is unfortunately more commonly articulated and expressed than it deserves to be. While there are certainly good reasons to be critical of Israeli governmental policy (both now and in the past), those who question the very right of a Jewish state to exist on land approximating the current territory of Israel without extrapolating this principle to other cases are being philosophically disingenuous. While I concede that it is perfectly reasonable to object to the creation and maintenance of a Jewish state on the basis of either its exclusionary character or its problematic history, I suggest that such arguments should equally apply to virtually every other nation‐state. Thus, while anti‐Zionism is not necessarily a morally illegitimate claim, unless its claims are paired with a more radical rejection of the nation‐state tout court, it should be considered as such.

A paper with a title like this one most certainly owes its readers a clear definition of the key term in play so as to avoid a situation in which debates over terminology envelop the substantive moral and political questions that are really meant to be addressed here. Alas, like most ‘isms’ with any sort of interesting history, defining Zionism uncontroversially is next to impossible. However, I can at least be clear about how I am using the term here.


By Zionism, I mean the movement to create and maintain a ‘Jewish and democratic state’ on territory approximating the current state of Israel. By a ‘Jewish state’, I mean a state that affirms the Jewish people’s right to self‐determination. This would include both formal and informal recognition of the language, holidays and other symbols (such as the flag and national anthem) that reflect and endorse Jewish culture, history and identity. In terms of immigration policy, it would also allow for some level of priority to be given to potential Jewish immigrants over members of other ethnic groups. Thus, I should be clear and upfront that crucial to Zionism at its most fundamental level is an opposition to the goal of state neutrality. However, insofar as Zionism defends the idea of a Jewish and democratic state, there are certainly limitations on the extent that privileges/priorities can be accorded to Jews as opposed to other citizens of Israel. In addition to the right to participate in free and fair elections, all citizens of Israel should be entitled to the protection (both formally and informally) of their basic rights including (but not limited to) free speech, free exercise of religion, protection of private property, access to an impartial judicial system and full opportunities to enter the labour market without discrimination.

I want to be very clear that by anti‐Zionism, I am referring to arguments that claim that the very idea of a Jewish democratic state on land approximating the current state of Israel is either fundamentally morally flawed, illegitimate or oxymoronic. Criticism of a particular Israeli government or set of Israeli policies does not in and of itself constitute anti‐Zionism. In fact, those (including Israelis themselves) who criticise Israel for failing to do enough to achieve peace with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank or for failing to fulfil its obligations to its Arab citizens are properly seen as friends of Zionism insofar as their goal is to achieve a just and stable solution that will ultimately allow a Jewish and democratic state to thrive in peace with its neighbours. One might even argue that such criticism is in fact central to the Zionist project insofar as one believes (as I do) that the status quo is unsustainable and/or harmful to Zionist aspirations from a long‐term perspective. Therefore, it bears repeating that by no means am I labelling critics of Israel as necessarily anti‐Zionist and certainly not anti‐Semitic, nor would I encourage them to be silent. Quite the opposite is true.

Having said that, what I wish to highlight is the negative reaction Zionism seems to evoke when compared to the much more widespread sympathy (at least given publicly) for claims of national self‐determination more generally. Of course, merely demonstrating differential treatment is not enough to prove nefarious discrimination. While it certainly could be the case that Zionism is somehow fundamentally more morally flawed than other similarly situated movements, I argue that it is not. Rather, to be a consistent and philosophically acceptable anti‐Zionist, one should be equally opposed to the very idea of the nation‐state, at least as it is most commonly implemented in today’s geopolitical universe. In order to press this claim, I am focusing my attention here on the two most basic families of arguments put forward against Zionism: (1) its inherently exclusivist nature and (2) its chequered history, specifically concerning the site of its location. I argue that even if both of these claims are true, their consequence would be to rid almost every current state of its legitimacy. I want to emphasise that reaching that conclusion is perfectly legitimate. One can find the kernels of just such a critique of the nation‐state in an incredibly broad range of political theories: libertarian, Marxist, cosmopolitan and anarchist, just to name a few. However, I do not believe there is justification in singling out Israel for criticism when the most basic charges levelled against it could also be raised at virtually every other state, democratic or otherwise. Thus, I do not argue so much against the merits of the typical claims raised against Zionism as much that their seemingly universal scope is all too often inappropriately narrow and unfocused. I then conclude by noting that even if one wishes to maintain it is a certain configuration and/or combination of these criticisms (rather than any one in particular) that renders Zionism morally problematic, there remain important reasons for not maintaining that these flaws are somehow inevitably intrinsic to or inseparable from the Zionist project writ large.

Argument 1: A ‘Jewish and Democratic’ State Is an Oxymoron

It should be obvious to say that the universalistic and liberal demands of democracy (when it is properly conceived) are in inevitable tension with a state that is ethnically demarcated and defined such as Israel. After all, how can a state uphold the equality of all its members when it gives certain privileges including state recognition to a dominant ethnocultural group in its territory? The easy answer is that it cannot. But this is a tension that on some level all democracies inevitably face and which can never be tightly resolved. For while if democracy means something like ‘political equality distributed amongst all members’, there is always the thorny question of who will count as a member and who will be excluded. There is no procedural device that will allow for an obviously fair solution here. Any attempt to do so will inevitably lead to an infinite regress. Performative fiats and/or proclamations (e.g. ‘We the people …’ ‘La Nación Española …’) are really the only way out of what has been associated with the ‘paradox of founding’. In other words, it is in the very nature of democracy, both ancient and modern, to be founded on an act of original exclusion and differentiation.

In the modern world, the dominance of the sovereign nation‐state has led to a privileging of the category of ‘the nation’, the identity of which inherently necessitates a separation from others similarly situated. The political prowess of ‘the nation’ is probably best seen by its ability to be marshalled by representatives of such a diverse set of points on the political spectrum. The fact that even some so‐called Marxist regimes have been able to incorporate ‘the nation’ into their official ideology indicates its incredibly emotive power across the globe under a wide range of circumstances.

The prominence and dominance of ‘the nation’ can also be explained by the formal role it serves in answering the membership question sketched above. Given that most sovereign states wish to claim the mantle of legitimacy derived from popular sovereignty, typically thought to be embodied by an original act of popular authorisation that endows the state with authority, the sovereign people must be conceived of, at least on one level, to precede the state. But given the state’s inherent (even if ultimately arbitrary) relationship to its territorial boundaries, allowing the popular sovereign the ability (at least in theory) to consider dissolving those boundaries at will inevitably reopens the question of who will count and who will not. ‘Nations’ provide convenient answers to this question insofar as they typically provide a narrative (whether real or imagined) that includes historical claims to the territory in question of a particular differentiable ethnocultural group. The fact that ‘nations’ are often successfully mythologised to be prepolitical only enhances their viability in the modern lexicon, despite their inevitably socially constructed natures.

The point of this rather abstract discussion is that it is not clear what the formal difference is between the exclusionary nature of a Jewish state and that of, say, a French state or a German state, or even an American state (or for that matter the European Union). All currently existing democratic nation‐states will inevitably struggle with the tension between the universalistic claims they attempt to embody and their particular histories, contexts and territories. How could it be otherwise? The US Declaration of Independence is, of course, an obvious, but no less striking example of this interplay. While ‘all men [who] were created equal’ once did not include slaves and women, now it apparently fails to include ‘illegal’ immigrants. Can that exclusion really be justified without at least acknowledging the inherent tension with the Declaration’s own universalistic aspirations? Thus, those like Norman Finklestein who maintains that ‘I am opposed to any state with an ethnic character, not only to Israel’ (Sheleg) should certainly oppose an awful lot of states (including many that are commonly labelled as democracies). At a minimum, the names of many states would have to change in order to lessen their reliance on any ethnic character that hovers in the background.

But even if there is no formal difference in the concepts, perhaps there might be a difference in terms of how the concepts are actually applied de facto. If I am right in suggesting that it is just a truism that all democratic states can be called ‘exclusionary’ on a certain fundamental level, perhaps it is better to judge them based on a spectrum. It may well be that instead of having to object to all nation‐states (even those widely viewed as inclusive and pluralist liberal democracies), there is a line that can be drawn between certain necessary and/or acceptable exclusionary practices and ones that deviate from liberal and/or democratic norms. It certainly could be the case that in practice, the Zionist project has been so fundamentally tied to illegitimate exclusionary tactics when compared with other democracies that it merits being excluded from the ‘democracy club’.

Rather than get into a terminological morass, it will be easier if I outline concretely what is included by my definition of a Jewish state and what policies naturally follow from such a definition and then assess whether such policies violate any ‘red lines’ so to speak. Because there is such vibrant disagreement amongst Jews and Zionists themselves, I’d prefer to start with the three‐pronged definition of such a state as proposed by the Israeli Supreme Court: ‘(1) maintenance of a Jewish majority, (2) the right of Jews to immigrate and (3) ties with Jewish communities outside Israel’ (Dowty: 10). Clearly, such a definition demands an immigration policy that is exclusionary in some respects, although to be clear, note that it need not be synonymous with the current policy in which all Jews in the diaspora are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship. Whether or not the general character of Israeli immigration policy is all that different from the policies of other states is an issue which I will return to shortly. But I would also like to add my own additional piece of substance to the definition: namely, the allowance for some level of enduring Jewish hegemony over the symbols and trappings of the state including, but not limited to, the name of the state, the flag, the national anthem, the official language, the demarcation of holidays and the general institutionalisations of certain cultural practices of the majority group.

It is worth noting, however, that the rationale behind ensuring a Jewish majority is hotly debated amongst Zionists themselves. Chaim Gans, for example, argues that ‘one should support the existence of a Jewish majority in Israel for reasons of security and not because a Jewish majority is inherent to the right of self‐determination’ (140). Gans’s point is that many of the protections a Jewish state provides can be upheld via mechanisms of self‐determination other than statehood. However, if Gans is correct, it is a criticism that can be applied to all national claims for statehood, including the Palestinian one. I should therefore acknowledge that the definition of Zionism I am offering here assumes the maintenance of a Jewish majority even in an ideal world in which no security threats are present. As I see it, this is the only way to democratically justify the kind of Jewish hegemony I have sketched. This is not to imply, however, that accommodations/protections should not be equally guaranteed to the Arab minority via statute or constitution, nor is it to imply that there are no moral restrictions related to the mechanisms of how this Jewish majority is ensured.

In order to assess whether the kind of hegemony I have articulated is morally legitimate, the first question is whether these admittedly exclusive overarching state symbols in a sufficiently multi‐ethnic society is out of bounds. Certainly, there is a decent argument to be made that the formal prioritising of Jewishness negates the possibility of its minority citizens from ever fully identifying with the state, thereby removing the potential of ever achieving ‘first class’ membership. But when it comes to things like the flag, national anthem and state demarcation of holidays, Israel is far from alone in making it difficult for members of a minority ethnocultural group to fully identify with such symbols, and thereby, the state. As Shlomo Avineri writes,

One can appreciate the difficulty of an Israeli Arab in identifying with the blue and white flag and with the Star of David. But the cross appears on the flags of many democratic states: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and of course, the intertwined crosses of England and Scotland in the British Union Jack. Does that prevent Jews who are citizens of these states from swearing allegiance to the flag? Of course, it is difficult, because even in democratic countries it is difficult to be a minority. On this symbolic level, the Arabs of Israel are in good company. In any event, there is no democratic norm requiring one to change the nature of the symbols of a nation‐state (quoted in Smooha: 2011).

As Avineri points out, this applies equally to national anthems (e.g. God Save the Queen), and as anyone who has been stuck on a Sunday in a ‘blue’ county or state can attest, the same can be said of the state sanctioning of certain holidays over others. It seems to be entirely inevitable that certain enthocultural practices will be formally and informally recognised and sanctioned over others in every state. Is there then a relevant difference between the promotion of Jewish hegemony in Israel and say, French hegemony in France, or German hegemony in Germany?

According to Sammy Smooha, the main difference between Zionism and Western liberal democracies ‘with clear ethnic characteristics’ is that in Western liberal democracies:

ethnic features are secondary, many of them being remnants of the past, and Israeli ethnic democracy, where ethnicity is imminent in its nature, identity, institutional organization, and public policy. The fact that there is no shared Israeli nation for all the citizens of the state – that there is no sense of nationhood conveying an equal status upon all – gives discriminatory significance to exclusively Jewish symbols like the flag and anthem of the state. On the other hand, being equal members of a common civic nation, minorities in Western democracies do not mind the historical ethnic symbols of these states (Smooha: 211-2).

Smooha’s bold claim that most minorities ‘do not mind’ these symbols that are ‘mere remnants of the past’ only makes sense if they really do see themselves as ‘equal members of a common civic nation’. Certainly, as an empirical matter, it is hard to argue that any Western democratic state has fully achieved the production of a common civic nation that is open to all of its prospective citizens. How could one otherwise explain Basque resistance to Spanish rule or the real challenges that have been presented by the need to integrate Muslims into European society? Moreover, it is unclear why Jewish ethnicity is ‘imminent’ to Israeli democracy, but German ethnicity is not also ‘imminent’ to German democracy. Given that language has come to play an increasing role in differentiating national identities, perhaps Smooha means to suggest that while no liberal democracy has perfectly constructed a civic national identity that can transcend all ethnocultural differences, they are at least on the path to doing so. Maybe the same cannot be said for Zionism which might be posited to inherently deny the possibility of a civic nation that is capable of extending beyond Jewish identity. Whereas assimilation is then thought to be merely a practical problem in Europe, it is conceived of as a fundamental one in Israel. After all, while those of Turkish descent living in Germany might reasonably be expected to learn German and thereby one day fully identify as Germans (with a hyphen or not depending on their choice), Israeli Arabs will never be able to fully identify with Israel, it is argued, insofar as they would always reasonably reject converting to Judaism even if they may agree to learn Hebrew.

However, it is far from clear why we should accept the assumption that it is inherently impossible for Israel to build a civic nation in addition to upholding its fundamental Jewish political identity. Given that the construction of civic nationhood in Europe was an often times centuries‐long project, there is no reason why a similar transformation could not take place in Israel. It seems just as plausible to argue that the failure to build a civic nation in Israel is a result of the relatively short time it has been in existence rather than as a result of anything ‘imminent’ to Zionism. To put it bluntly, even if tropes of ethnicity are merely ‘remnants of the past’ in mature Western democracies, it only seems fair to give Israel a bit more time such that it is guaranteed to even have a past.

Moreover, two factors can help to at least explain Israel’s lack of progress on this front. In the first place, the construction of the state of Israel was as concerned with (re)building Jewish identity as it was ideologically dependent on assuming such an identity was firmly historically grounded. The Jewish people are a far more diverse lot than is often acknowledged by critics of Zionism. The need to establish a new national language is illustrative of the need to (re)define Jewishness in a world in which Jewish identity is incredibly open‐ended and ambiguous. Having to focus so much on firming up the amorphousness of Jewish identity, it should be of little surprise that the Israeli state has focused its attention mainly on the construction of Jewish identity in its first half century in existence, nor should it then be equally surprising as to why Jews have placed such rhetorical emphasis on the concept of a ‘Jewish state’. For better or for worse, the role that the (idea of) the state of Israel has played in the modern Jewish sociopolitical imaginary cannot be understated.

The other potential exculpatory factory is that Israel undeniably faces real and legitimate security concerns. This is true even if one thinks Israel is entirely responsible for that security situation. While it may be unjust and ultimately counterproductive for the Jewish population to see the Israeli Arab population as a potential ‘fifth column’, such attitudes are at least understandable. Naturally, such attitudes would become far less justified in the context of the achievement of a comprehensive peace settlement that established two states for two peoples. If mainstream Israeli opinion rids itself of its fears of its native Arab population (and vice versa), the possibility of fully including Arabs as full participants in a Jewish state would most certainly rise.

Such a possibility is far from impossible. And even assuming all of the state symbols of Israel remain entirely the same as they are now, as Alan Dowty argues: ‘[n]othing in the “Jewish” nature of the state inherently compels discrimination in local government budgets, health and welfare services, education, economic opportunities, or treatment in the courts’ (1999: 12). Could one really say that a Jewish state was still illegitimate even if it actually met all those criteria just because its state symbols are still inherently and inappropriately exclusionary? What about, after achieving a comprehensive peace solution, if it earnestly sought to cultivate a separate ‘Israeli’ identity in addition to its ‘Jewish’ one that would include Arabs through, for example, common holidays that could be celebrated by all citizens and a more complete equality given towards the Arabic language, while still firmly maintaining its formal status as a Jewish state? If one still thinks such a state would be illegitimate, it is unclear why every state that has any degree of an ethnic character formalised (even as a ‘remnant’) that is not entirely ethnically homogenous is not equally rendered illegitimate for the same reason.

Moreover, the distinction Smooha is relying upon between ‘ethnic’ and ‘civic’ nations to make his point is analytically questionable. (Civic nationalism presumably defines commonality more on the basis of shared principles and values rather than on the basis of ascriptive characteristics.) In the first place, many nations that claim to be based purely on civic conceptions purposely downplay their less than rosy reliance on ethnic conceptions of identity that may lurk beneath the surface (both historically and in the present). Given the virulence of racism in the USA, for example, would it really be entirely implausible to characterise it more as an ethnic state that has prioritised certain racial groups over other ones?

Similarly, the history of actually achieving a civic identity is typically messier than idealised accounts might suggest. After all, most such conceptions are not the product of an open and equal deliberative process in which an ‘overlapping consensus’ of principles and values eventually surfaces. The history of nation‐states is not the history of Quaker meetings. Much more commonly, the production of this common identity is often a product of coercion that has taken the form of a kind of domestic colonialism. And if the production of civic unity is itself generally a product of violence, more so than reflection and choice, it would be odd indeed to trumpet the fostering of civic unity as the solution to the problem of ethnocentric hegemony. It would seem a bit perverse to praise states that have achieved ‘civic unity’ only because they were so successful at transforming previously deep ethnolinguistic divisions into ‘mere remnants of the past’ through coercive mechanisms.

Lastly, it is not even clear that civic identities can successfully do the job of fostering the kind of inclusivity that they are meant to achieve (in opposition to ethnic identities). To see this clearly, we could contrast the very different civic identities that are fostered by French and American takes on the relationship between state and church. For an orthodox observant Muslim woman living under laïcité for example, it is not inconceivable that she might fill disconnected from ‘French’ identity because of legal restrictions placed on her right to cover her face in public. Conversely, an atheist might be very uncomfortable in associating with the pledge of allegiance or funding congressional chaplains, such that his desire to identify as an ‘American’ could itself waver. The point here is not to assess the relative merits of each of these models. Rather, it is to emphasise that even civic identities based presumably on philosophical and/or neutral principles are likely to exclude some prospective members whether by design or by effect. Any sort of commitment to a liberal democratic form of politics is bound to make this exclusion inevitable, even if such an exclusion is ultimately defensible. One sees this in the recurrent struggle that many democracies face when confronted with the conundrum of banning certain ‘unreasonable’ actors and/or political parties who, while engaging in the democratic process, have underlying goals to dismantle the existent liberal democratic order. In other words, the hope that civic identities are somehow inherently more inclusive than ethic ones seems empirically hard to defend. Simply too much depends on the specific context and history of each potential candidate identity in order to assess its compatibility with liberal and democratic ideals.

Even if Smooha is mistaken that the civic/ethnic distinction provides us with a working distinction between Zionism and other forms of nationalism that can be found embodied in democratic states, perhaps there is something else that can fit this role. Given the ambiguous nature of Jewishness in terms of both ethnicity and religion, critics might wish to emphasise the inherently religious nature of Zionism in order to separate it from other forms of nationalism. As mentioned before, there is certainly an argument to be made that linguistic and civic ties are inherently much more malleable than religious ones. Therefore, presumably, it could be the addition of religious ties to the mix that make Zionism sufficiently distinctive and unattractive. As Noam Chomsky, for example, has argued: ‘I objected to the founding of Israel as a Jewish state. I don’t think a Jewish or Christian or Islamic state is a proper concept. I would object to the United States as a Christian state’ (Solomon). Notice here how the ambiguous nature of Jewish identity allows Chomsky to compare it to a ‘Christian or Islamic’ state even though the concept of a ‘Jewish state’ could at least in principle be defined purely in terms of ethnicity in a way that makes no possible sense in the context of a Christian or Islamic state. By specifically comparing it to other religiously based states, Chomsky’s comment only makes sense if we read ‘Jewish state’ as specifically referring to (at minimum) a quasi‐theocracy. The question is if this characterisation makes any sense at all given the political reality of the situation.

On one level, it could be the case that Chomsky is mainly objecting to the symbolic identification of the state with an ‘official’ or ‘established’ religion, even if in practice such identification has little practical import on the civic and political life of religious minorities in that state. But if this is the case, is the UK then properly considered a ‘Christian state’ since there is an established church and religious qualification in place on who can take the throne? What about the allusions to crosses and crescents on the flags of various European nations and Turkey? From Chomsky’s perspective, are these also inherently illegitimate and symptomatic of theocratic foundations? While the answer may very well be yes, this critique should have a much larger bite than simply Israel.

Of course, it could very well be that Chomsky is less concerned with the ‘remnant’ symbols of the past and more interested in the respective policies of the states in question. Focusing on concrete policies is helpful in part because otherwise one inevitably enters messy terminological disputes. Within the Israeli context, for example, there is considerable dispute about whether the Israeli state even has an ‘official’ religion. Analysing what Israel does, rather than how it labels itself or is labelled by others, is significantly more helpful here for the purposes of comparative analysis.

It is certainly the case that the system of Israeli law is significantly impacted by its desire to be the homeland of all Jews. Although Zionism has its roots in a largely secular movement, it has undeniably made compromises so that more observant Jews can feel at home within the Zionist enterprise. One can see the specific effect of this in the context of Israeli marriage law. In order to grant all religious communities autonomy over their internal affairs and membership, civil marriage is largely missing from Israel. Because there are certain religious restrictions placed on who can marry legally within Israel (as determined by the relevant religious authorities), this is certainly an example of where the attempt to accommodate the desires of observant Jews could be seen as discriminatory towards all secular members of the polity. However, notice how much more of an easy case it would be to assess if Israel tried to impose a single set of ‘Jewish’ marriage laws on all its citizens. Such an approach would be infinitely more problematic than the one currently in use. A similar claim could be made about the Chief Rabbinate’s state‐sanctioned authority to certify which restaurants are kosher. While some might see this as an inappropriate state intrusion into religious matters, imagine how much more theocratic a policy would be that mandated that all food served and eaten in Israel be religiously certified as kosher. Given that other religious communities besides Jews in Israel are given similar levels of autonomy in these sorts of spheres, it is hard to argue that such policies render Israel dangerously close to a theocracy in the way that Chomsky’s rhetoric seems to imply. How many theocracies really allow the kind of individual and collective religious freedom that Israel does?

In point of fact, it is important to remember that the ‘status quo’ agreement worked out by Ben‐Gurion and the orthodox parties prior to independence that established the relationship between state and religion was meant to accomplish two things: (1) allow observant Jews to see themselves as part of the broader Zionist project while (2) ensuring that the state is not given the role of mandating any particular theological commitments, activities or beliefs on the population at large, Jewish or otherwise. That is achieved by in essence, outsourcing those religious questions to certain authorities representative of all faiths. Religious questions, therefore, are emphatically not questions that the state has put itself in a position to answer. While those who reject any mixture of politics and religion might be loath to accept (1), simply ignoring (2) obscures the underlying context and purpose for which such accommodations were made. Moreover, the ‘status quo’ agreement helps to ensure that there is a certain ambiguity that will always be present over what it means to be a ‘Jewish state’. For those who worry about the rigidity of ethnic and/or religious conceptions of identity, such ambiguity should not be greeted with alarm; in fact, it, combined with a liberal political culture, virtually assures that democratic opportunities for critical contestation over that identity will always be present.

A different argument that seeks to criticise the nature of Israel’s ‘Jewishness’ might instead try to claim there is something problematic about Judaism that renders it particularly unfit for the basis of a state (at least in its present territory). If one is so inclined, one can certainly find Biblical passages where after covenanting with the Jewish people, God commands them to violently occupy and destroy the territory that has been ceded to them. This is, for example, the tactic of Sari Nusseibeh who argues:

in the Old Testament, God commands the Jewish state in the land of Israel to come into being through warfare and violent dispossession of the original inhabitants. Moreover, this command has its roots in the very Covenant of God with Abraham (or rather ‘Abram’ at that time) in the Bible and it thus forms one of the core tenets of Judaism as such, at least as we understand it… No one then can blame Palestinians for asking if recognizing Israel as a ‘Jewish state’ means recognizing the legitimacy of offensive warfare or violence against them by Israel to take what remains of Palestine from them (Nusseibeh).

There is little doubt that some right‐wing Israelis (and others) share this understanding of what of the ‘Jewishness’ of the state of Israel should entail. However, to argue that this view represents the core of either Judaism or Zionism is a tremendous category mistake. Associating the views of a minority (even a vocal one) with a much broader population is deeply problematic, as is, for example, the jeremiad commonly penned that suggests Muslims are inherently violent because of a few passages in the Koran that emphasise jihad. Associating the term ‘Jewish state’ only with its most right wing of proponents is simply unfair. As I have implied before, there is no reason to think that a Jewish state with the pre‐1967 borders would be any less inherently Jewish than a state that comprised all of the territory currently possessed by Israel. Equally, to imply that a two‐state solution would be inherently anti‐Zionist is misguided, mistaken and counterproductive. Any moral defence of Zionism not only could, but must recognise the valid self‐determination rights of the Palestinian people in principle as a matter of reciprocity.

Let me now return back to the definition of a ‘Jewish state’ as articulated by the Israeli Supreme Court and the issue of immigration. Recall that the first two prongs of that definition are (1) maintenance of a Jewish majority and (2) the right of Jews to immigrate. If my argument is persuasive, rejecting (1) would be tantamount to rejecting Germany’s right to maintain a German majority. (1) is simply an articulation of what it means formally to institutionally ensure a Jewish democracy. In my view those who would reject (1) as inherently incompatible with democracy should also reject the very idea of the nation‐state if they are being consistent.

The immigration question raises more difficulty because Israeli policy on this question is undoubtedly exclusionary in giving priority to Jews over other groups. The charge of racism is often identified with Israel’s Law of Return, which grants all Jews the presumptive right to emigrate and take citizenship in Israel. But such a law is not entirely unique. Various states (including Germany) have adopted similar provisions to grant such a right of ‘return’. Moreover, on an even more fundamental level, it just is the case that insofar as states do not have open borders, immigration policies will inevitably prioritise some persons over others. It is far from uncommon, for example, for states to place quotas (whether formal or informal) based on ethnicity and nationality. Therefore, it cannot be the mere fact of exclusion that is thought to set Israeli policy apart from other states.

Presumably, it could be the size and scope of Israeli policy that differentiate it. It is true that Israel grants citizenship to very few members of other ethnicities and nationalities than Jews. Such an admittedly extreme policy cannot probably be defended in the long term. But to assume that Zionism demands such a permanent policy is mistaken. While the Supreme Court talks about the right of Jews to immigrate, it leaves open the possibility that this could be a more limited right than is currently formulated.

Within the short‐term context, it is at least understandable why such a policy has been instituted. In the first place, building a stable Jewish majority in the land of Israel obviously required that Jews be given a significant priority in emigrating. Given the tense situation and the real hostility that is often expressed to the idea of a ‘Jewish state’, it is not surprising that Israeli policymakers have sought a de facto mechanism of ensuring their majority for both security and demographic reasons. The other major reason supporting such a policy is the real intimidation and oppression that Jews have faced around the globe. In a post‐Holocaust world, denying any Jew a haven from a persecuting state is simply not a tenable option for Israeli policymakers. Of course, if global anti‐Semitism declines, such a rationale will become less relevant. Similarly, if a ‘Jewish state’ is recognised de facto and de jure by its neighbours, the anxiety Israel faces to ‘change the facts on the ground’ by encouraging unlimited immigration of Jews would also decline. Counterintuitively, the Law of Return is not so much a necessary product of Zionism as it is a defensible response to the anti‐Zionism expressed by Israel’s foes.

Given that other states pursue immigration policies based on ethnicity and nationality, presumably the real problem lurking behind the scenes is not that Israel gives priority to Jews, or that it denies priority to Koreans or Ugandans, but that it refuses to allow Palestinians to (re)‐enter Israel. In this sense, comparing Israel’s immigration policy to Germany may be unfair in that while Germany has historically prioritised the ‘return’ of ethnic Germans, it has accepted millions of non‐German refugees and asylum seekers in need of safe haven who had no previous relationship or connection to Germany. As a result of the desperate conditions many Palestinians find themselves in, it could certainly be argued that Israel has a humanitarian obligation to allow Palestinians to immigrate into Israel, even if one were to bracket their genuine historic ties to the land. (Of course, once those ties are factored into the equation, their claims for repatriation would be even stronger.) However, one has to be honest about the fact that were Israel to grant an unlimited right to Palestinians to repatriate, Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state would be existentially threatened. Despite Germany’s admittedly generous policy with respect to refugees, it is only fair to note that they are still accepting only a relatively tiny fraction when compared to their population as a whole. The same would not be true in the case of Israel.

Moreover, the discriminatory effects of Israeli immigration policy towards the Palestinians mainly arises because the Palestinians do not currently have a viable state of their own and are forced to live under what they view as an occupying power while being denied various economic and political rights. Were such a state to be implemented in a manner that was agreed to by both sides, however, the criticism directed at Israeli immigration policy would be severely weakened because no longer would Palestinians be forced to be quasi‐permanent refugees. Moreover, as I suggested earlier, a Palestinian state (along with its Arab neighbours) that recognised Israel’s right to exist as a ‘Jewish state’ (in some form or another) would severely lessen Israel’s need of relying on such a defensive immigration policy in the first place. Thus, if the real problem here is the lack of viable Palestinian national self‐determination options, the culprit here is not Zionism per se, but the lack of a Palestinian state. This is just one of the reasons why Zionists should support a two‐state solution.

The point of this discussion has been to establish that if a ‘Jewish democracy’ is indeed an oxymoron, so then is ‘German’ or ‘Japanese’ democracy. If I am right, there are simply no principled ways of differentiating between these cases. Of course, this is not to imply that Israeli policy cannot be criticised. Within the context of a comprehensive peace, Israel must do a better job of integrating and assimilating its Arab citizens for the preservation of its own democracy. But labelling almost every contingent Israeli policy as a foundational cornerstone of the Zionist project is untrue and unwise. Thus, Chomsky is certainly right that it is ‘grotesque’ that ‘critics of Israeli policies are seen as either anti‐Semites or self‐hating Jews’. However, he continues this statement by asking: ‘[i]f an Italian criticized Italian policies, would he be seen as a self‐hating Italian’ (Solomon)? Notice here that Chomsky purposely fails to ask the real analogous question: what about the Italian who criticises the very idea of an Italian state? While such a person may or may not be self‐hating, to be philosophically consistent, they would also have to criticise the very idea of the nation‐state in all its permutations. The bottom line here is that if we are comfortable with the idea of an Italian state, there is no prima facie reason we should be uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.

Argument 2: Israel’s Historical and Territorial Foundation Is Illegitimate

The other kind of argument typically made against Zionism rests not on its claim for national self‐determination but on the site of that claim. To such critics, the idea of a ‘Jewish state’ may not be problematic, if, for example, the Jews decided to settle on an uninhabited Pacific Island. But given that Jews chose a model at least resembling settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing that significantly harmed the Palestinians who were already settled on the land, the site of the state of Israel is viewed as historically and morally illegitimate.

Presumably, many would agree that after the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, Jewish claims for a homeland of its own that would permanently guarantee safety and protection to its citizenry became urgently pressing. While the persecution of the Jewish people obviously has a long and sordid history prior to the Holocaust, I am fully prepared to acknowledge that it was in part a result of the extreme moral horror of the Holocaust that the case for a Jewish state in its present territory was significantly stronger than it was before. The international community’s broad acceptance of the UN partition plan of 1947 shows that this was a widely recognised assertion. (Having said this, it is important to note that even prior to the Holocaust, in 1922, the League of Nations acknowledged the right of Jews to settle in Palestine because of their widely accepted historical connections to the territory.)

Again though, why did the site of this state have to be in Palestine? Couldn’t the rightful claim of Jewish self‐determination be located somewhere else? In theory, of course, the answer is yes. But in reality, such a site where there would be (1) little conflict with the indigenous population to establish such a state and (2) broad willingness by the Jewish community to emigrate there was simply not on the map. With respect to (2), to be sure, the strong Jewish connection to Israel as opposed to other possible sites has biblical roots. But as the history of the Zionist movement makes clear, it was not the historicity of these biblical claims that gave them force, but rather the sociological role they have played in constructing a coherent Jewish mythology and cultural identity for both believers and non‐believers. Simply no other location could have brought together the incredibly diverse Jewish community who were separated by all sorts of geographical, linguistic, political and religious divisions. Again, if we remove the pernicious and horrendous effects of anti‐Semitism from the table, it is probably the case that given that the Jews only had one viable location to pursue their claim of self‐determination, the international community would have been right in rejecting that claim. If there was no pressing need for the creation of a Jewish state, Jews could have been justifiably told that if they wished to pursue a claim of self‐determination, they would need to find a place where they could do so peacefully without harming the indigenous population (culturally or individually). If Jews had responded by suggesting that a Jewish state was not possible in such a location because it would never be able to inspire Jews to emigrate there, that in and of itself could have been evidence that a Jewish state was not that important or all that necessary to Jews themselves.

But if one agrees that the Holocaust made the selection of a site for Jewish self‐determination immediately necessary and that the only possible and viable location for such a site was Palestine, it seems difficult to argue that the Jews did not have a right to establish a state in part of Palestine. To say this, however, is not to imply that the Palestinians who were living there had an obligation to accept this claim. That is to say, even if we grant the Jews had an ’emergency’ right to form a state there, this does not imply that the Palestinians did not also have a right to the land themselves, and correlatively, the right to contest Jewish claims for unilateral self‐determination. The fact that there could be two equally legitimate yet contradictory rights claims makes this far from a unique case in the international legal sphere. If this analysis is correct, the situation in 1947 was inextricably a tragic one and would have been regardless of the outcome eventually achieved. (Supposing the Arabs defeated the Israelis in 1948, would the likely resulting situation have been a perfectly just one?) In addition, it was (and is) a situation that the international community is at least in part responsible for.

But let’s not sugarcoat the situation. Post 1947, all of Israel’s territory has been achieved through war and occupation. There can also be little doubt that Israelis engaged in acts of ethnic cleansing. Surely, if Israel was founded and maintained in such a fashion, its claims to legitimacy should be questioned. However, if being built on morally shaky foundations is all that is needed to strip away democratic legitimacy from any state, virtually every state currently in existence is illegitimate. As Hobbes famously noted some time ago, ‘there is scarce a commonwealth in the world whose beginnings can in conscience be justified’ (Hobbes [1651]: 492). Of course, we are free to lament this condition and wish that this were not the case, but empirically, it is hard to argue with Hobbes’s assertion. What state wasn’t initially formed by some combination of oppression, domination, colonisation, forced assimilation, and/or ethnic cleansing? I can think of none offhand. Also, if we think most territory claimed on the basis of war (whether defensive or offensive) is prima facie illegitimate, wouldn’t virtually all current state boundaries have to be redrawn, or at least be open for renegotiation? Moreover, if we are right to condemn the Jews for their colonising behaviour, could we at the same time defend the Arab conquest of Palestine centuries before?

One might wish to resist this conclusion by pointing out that Israel presents a much more recent, and thereby, troubling case. It certainly is true that international legal and moral norms concerning colonisation and ethnic cleansing have changed dramatically (for the better) just in the last century alone. Even without adopting a moral/historical relativist position, one could argue that given the heightened awareness and sensitivity around such issues, Israel deserves more blame than states who committed similar atrocities say, in the eighteenth century. But what then about the Armenian genocide that occurred in the Ottoman Empire? Is there any reason why that should not seriously call modern Turkey’s legitimacy into question given its relatively homogenous population (at least with respect to religion) today? Can the temporal distance between 1915 and 1948 really be used to separate the two cases in a principled fashion?

A different way of proceeding might be to suggest that what makes the Israeli case different is that many of the victims of its aggression are still alive, providing an opportunity for such harms to be directly remedied. In contrast, even if Americans or Australians wanted to fully take account of and remedy the harms both states have done to their indigenous populations, such an endeavour would be impossible. Symbolic reparations could certainly be made, but those who were directly harmed (and even their direct ancestors) would not see those benefits. With respect to Israel, however, part of the reason a Palestinian ‘right of return’ is so popularly endorsed is that many of the people asking to ‘return’ can definitively provide legitimate titles and claims to the land. Even strong defenders of the ‘right of return’ tend to recognise that this intergenerational issue is a real one: ‘[i]t is not evident that the rights of the original refugees automatically transfer, as it were, to subsequent generations’ (Marmor). But as the same author tries to argue, this philosophical problem is ‘more complicated’ when dealing with issues of Western colonisation because such situations go back ‘hundreds of years’, whereas the Palestinian issue is only around sixty years old.

The only way of reading such an argument is that the ‘right of return’ comes with a statute of limitations. Let us suppose then that the current status quo situation in Israel remains the same for ‘hundreds of years’. Would the Israeli unwillingness to remedy the situation they are in part responsible for then have the effect of weakening the Palestinian claims to return to the land? If so, what incentive is there for Israel not to try and run out the clock on Palestinian claims? Perhaps Israel might one day agree to pay generous symbolic reparations, but this would be far different from granting a basically unlimited right of return to Palestinian refugees and their direct descendants. Is the lesson that by continuing to commit acts of injustice, Israel will eventually become just?

Even more perversely, if the main problem of the Israeli founding is that a native population was harmed, but is still present to be given direct remedies and satisfaction, what would the case look like if Israel had committed genocide rather than ethnic cleansing? Surely, the founding of Israel would then be incredibly illegitimate, but would the fact that no Palestinians would be present to contest Israel’s claim to the land, make Israel more legitimate in the present? Obviously, that cannot be right. The conclusion here is that if what makes Israel a different case from other states is that the victims, or their direct descendants, are still alive and capable of pressing their direct claims, Israel might have been encouraged to commit much more heinous acts of atrocities at the time of its founding so as to dissolve any potential claims by the victims. Surely, we should not be in the position of incentivising states who would behave in that way.

What I am suggesting here is that no state can really defend its origins. I have no problem in stipulating that Israel’s founding story is nowhere near perfectly just or even close to analogous to an idealised social contract story that political philosophers have put forward. But I am also suggesting that there is no actual existing state that could pass that test. Israel’s aggressive actions are unfortunately quite similar in scope and degree to almost every other state that has ever existed. If one wants to argue that the founding of Israel calls its contemporary legitimacy into question, the same claim should be made of every other state.


To summarise, my argument is that criticism of Zionism as an idea(l) is philosophically understandable and morally legitimate so long as it is matched with a similar criticism towards most (if not all) other currently existing nation‐states. For such critics, the Zionist case may even be an excellent case study as to why the nation‐state is such a morally deficient concept that needs to be rejected in order to achieve global justice. If I am right, Israel’s two most criticised traits (its chequered history and its exclusive nature) are both applicable to most other Western democracies at least in some shape or form. And if this is correct, there is little reason why Zionism should be singled out or held to a different standard than other similarly situated cases.

However, I want to acknowledge that to radical critics of Zionism, the approach I have taken here may not be fully satisfactory because I have tried to tackle Israel’s flaws individually rather than collectively. By doing so, one could argue that while any particular moral failing of Israel can be rationalised by showcasing its existence in other states, it is only by examining the entire configuration (or excess) of such flaws together that a fairer assessment can be put forward. To such critics, I may be purposely not seeing the forest for the trees. From this perspective, one could certainly ask whether there is any state in the post‐war West founded on violence, settler colonialism and an exclusionary mentality that from the point of view of its purported victims continues to occupy their land with no end in sight and seemingly no prospect of reparations for the harms caused. However, even if it is entirely fair to judge Israel differently from other states based purely on the fact that international norms and values concerning colonialism, violence and ethnic pluralism in place after World War II were far more morally capacious than they were before (when the vast majority of other liberal democracies were founded), it is also important to weigh Israel’s relative youth. As the real (rather than idealised) history of young democracies demonstrates, building a diverse, inclusive, tolerant and respectful civic culture often takes a great deal of time and does not happen without strenuous effort and struggle.

Even more importantly, the problem with such a radical criticism is that it fails to properly distinguish between criticising Zionism as a philosophical principle and the Israeli state/society as it exists today. As I hope I have made clear, I am not interested in defending many of the current Israeli government’s policies and tactics. But to suggest that because Israel has many serious flaws, the very idea of a Jewish state is somehow an intrinsically irredeemable project is a significant category mistake.

Moreover, from a pragmatic perspective, critics who continue to rhetorically emphasise the fundamental injustice of Zionism rather than focusing on specific Israeli policies will only make Jewish Israelis more insecure and defensive. Such a criticism ironically plays into the hands of those who believe Israel will never be fully accepted into the international community and therefore see no reason for Israel to make any concessions whatsoever to the Palestinian population. Of course, as should go without saying, Israel holds quite a bit of responsibility for why a viable Palestinian state has yet to be institutionalised. But Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are not inherently in conflict with each other. Implying that they are is both philosophically disingenuous and politically problematic. In fact, the two movements must rise and fall together. Hopefully, one day they will.