In to the Fray: Israel’s imperative : Jewish and democratic

A crucial intellectual battle has begun, to strip the Jews of their political independence and national sovereignty.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate Fatah's 48th anniversary 370R (photo credit: Mohammed Salem / Reuters)
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate Fatah's 48th anniversary 370R
(photo credit: Mohammed Salem / Reuters)
The very idea of a Jewish state is undemocratic, a violation of the self-determination rights of its non-Jewish citizens, and therefore morally problematic.
Joseph Levine, “On Questioning the Jewish State,” The New York Times, March 9.
The nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things... constitute this soul or spiritual principle.One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received.
Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” 1882
Well there you have it. The mainstreaming of the once-unthinkable is now upon us... courtesy of the “paper of record.”
In an over 2,000-word opinion piece, published last Saturday in the Times, Joseph Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, disputes the rights of Jews to national self-determination, the exercise of political sovereignty and a nation-state of their own – even within the Green Line.
This is the first of a two-part response to this perniciously poisonous piece – in which I will show why for Israel to be democratic it is imperative that it be Jewish.
Asinine analysis
Over the years, we have learned that when it comes to the topic of Israel and the Mideast conflict we should expect the asinine rather than the astute to be the paper’s standard fare.
It seems nothing is too outrageous, outlandish or out of touch with reality for the Times to refrain from subjecting its readers to it. Being manifestly misinformed, blatantly biased, deliberately distortive – even deceptive – has never been an obstacle to publication in the “Gray Lady’s” opinion section, so long as the sentiments conveyed do not diverge from some prevailing politically correct paradigm.
But even given the cavalcade of the harebrained and the hallucinatory that have (dis)graced the opinion pages of the paper, Levine’s hapless harangue stands out as a real doozie.
Illogical and self-contradictory
Given the constraints of space, I cannot engage in a detailed refutation of all of Levine’s (il)logical contortions and self-contradictions and will therefore confine myself to a few of his more glaring nonsensical contentions.
For instance, he declares that even if a “people” deserve self-determination, they don’t.
Sound a little far-fetched? How else could we interpret the following extract? I will focus on the question of whether a people’s right to self-determination entails their right to a state of their own. My point is that even if we grant Jews their peoplehood and their right to live in that land, there is still no consequent right to a Jewish state.
After all, the state is the instrument through which a people express their self determination and by which they administer it. It would seem that Levine would concur: For he writes: “What is it for a people to have a state ‘of their own?’ Here’s a rough characterization: The formal institutions and legal framework of the state serves to express, encourage and favor that people’s identity.”
Abolition of majority rights?
He goes on to elaborate, correctly: “The distinctive position of that people would be manifested in a number of ways, from the largely symbolic to the more substantive: for example, it would be reflected in the name of the state, the nature of its flag and other symbols, its national holidays, its education system, its immigration rules.”
However, he then proceeds to expound a truly remarkable principle, that if in a given state, the group identity of the minority is incompatible with that of the majority, the latter – even if it comprises a “vast majority” – will have to forgo, or at least significantly dilute, its identity. For if it does not, “it violates the core democratic principle of equality, and the self-determination rights of the non-members of that group.”
So in a stroke, Levine abolishes the rights of the majority and expunges the notion of majority rule from the core principles of democratic government.
In the case of Israel, he claims “it constitutes a serious problem indeed, and this is precisely the situation of Israel as the Jewish state. Far from being a natural expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, it is in fact a violation of the right to self-determination of its non-Jewish (mainly Palestinian) citizens.”
This leads him to conclude, therefore, that “There is an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state,” which seems to strongly suggest that only if the Jewish majority defers to the aspirations of the minority and abdicates the expression of its identity, can Israel be democratic.
Is Levine seriously suggesting that the tyranny of the minority should be the touchstone of democratic governance?
Diverse not divergent
I imagine Levine would probably protest that I am distorting his claims and that he is not advocating the abolition of majority rights, but the protection of minority rights.
He would doubtless contend that the existence of functioning multi-ethnic democracies vindicate the validity of his assertion, and expose the error of mine.
He would, of course, be wrong.
Clearly, minority rights should be ensured – up to a point where they begin to substantively annul the rights of the majority.
Moreover, multi-ethnic democracies are eminently feasible entities – both in theory and practice – despite the fact that the constituent ethnic groups have disparate collective identities and formative narratives.
They will, however, not be able to sustain either their durability or their stability if those identities and narratives are not only diverse but divergent. This would certainly be the case if they were mutually exclusive and incompatibly antithetical.
And it is precisely here that Levine’s case begins to fall apart – both in theory and practice.
Grave omission
The source of Levine’s error can be traced to his defective definition of the notion of peoplehood, to which he ascribes only two connotations: An essentially legalistic one and a socio-cultural one.
He writes: “There is a distinction to be made between a people in the ethnic sense and a people in the civic sense.”
He then stipulates that “a group counts as a people in the ethnic sense by virtue of common language, common culture, common history and attachment to a common territory. The other sense is the civic one, which applies to a people by virtue of their common citizenship in a nation-state or, alternatively, by virtue of their common residence within relatively defined geographic borders.”
In so doing, he makes a crucial omission.
For there is a third meaning that can be imparted to the term “people,” which for the purposes of the current discussion. is the most important. This is the political connotation which refers to “people” in the sense of “nation.”
The litmus test of “a nation” is not assignment of legal rights or citizenship, nor membership of a particular socio-cultural group, but a sense of political allegiance.
Such allegiance may prevail because of ethnic homogeneity or despite ethnic heterogeneity.
But, it is this sense of allegiance which comprises the sine qua non not only for nationhood, but for democratic governance of a nation-state and its capacity to sustain itself. It is this crucial element – this essence of nationhood – that Levine’s article fails to capture. Its omission leads necessarily to his disastrously flawed conclusions.
The issue of allegiance
Levine would find himself seriously at odds with figures who, over the past two centuries, have been pillars of liberal political theory. Thus, John Stuart Mill in his seminal treatise On Representative Government (1861) stipulated in a similar vein to the sentiments expressed by Renan in the introductory excerpt, that a portion of mankind may be said to constitute a nation if its members “are united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others – which make them cooperate with each other more willingly than with other people, desire to be under the same government, and desire that it should be government by themselves.”
Mill then goes on to map out the causal nexus that needs to prevail between this sense of allegiance (i.e. “common sympathies” or “fellow-feeling”) and the feasibility of democratic institutions in a given country: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of... a people without fellow-feeling [where] the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government, cannot exist.”
Mill also specified what might constitute the sense of allegiance or “fellow-feeling.”
While he acknowledges that “the effect of race and descent... [c]ommunity of language, and... religion [may] greatly contribute to it,” this is not the most important parameter.
For Mill, “the strongest [element] of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.”
Now think ‘Nakba’
So consider for a moment, a single “incident in the past,” say the 1948 war between Israel and the Arabs – including those who now call themselves “Palestinians.” The Jews see this as their War of Independence and celebrate it as a source of collective pride and pleasure; while the Arabs, including those within the Green Line, see it as a catastrophe (Nakba) and commemorate it as a source of collective regret and humiliation.
Little analytical acumen is needed to conclude that given the diametrically opposing collective narratives, there is scant chance of generating the required “fellow-feeling” to create “the united public opinion, necessary to the working of representative government,” thus making “free institutions...
next to impossible.”
Any attempt to contrive such an implausible and artificial hybrid identity, comprised of antithetical and antipathetic opposites cannot, and will not, result in a stable multiethnic democracy, but the Balkanization or Lebanonization of the land.
More than a random amalgam
But the view that a stable democracy cannot comprise a random amalgam of individuals, bound by nothing more than their equality before the law and the accident of their inclusion within certain geographical confines, has not been confined to scholars of Mill and Renan’s era.
Over 200 years later, Stanford’s Francis Fukuyama underscored the required spiritual like-mindedness as the essential ingredient for the growth/sustenance of modern liberal democracy.
Articulating sentiments remarkably similar to those laid out previously, he pointed out: “For democracy to work, citizens need to develop an irrational pride in their own democratic institutions... frequently based on religion, ethnicity, or other forms of recognition that fall short of the universal recognition on which the liberal state is based.”
He then raises a trenchant question which should be directed at Levine: Is not the man who is completely satisfied by nothing more than... equal recognition something less than a full human being.
Indeed, does not the desire for unequal recognition constitute the basis of a livable life, not just for bygone aristocratic societies, but also in modern liberal democracies?
Crucial intellectual battle
A crucial intellectual battle has begun, to strip the Jews of their political independence and national sovereignty. Next week (Part II), I will continue to deal with this hugely important matter and address issues such as the alternatives available to non- Jewish minorities, the insufferable insolence of opponents of the Jewish nation-state and why denying Jewish self-determination is indeed anti-Semitism.
Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.