Anti-Semitism and Jewish Self Determination

by Rich Rubenstein on April 29, 2019 · 6 comments

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The following article also appears in the TRANSCEND Media Service for the week of April 29, 2019:


Anti-Semitism and Jewish Self-Determination


Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service


24 Apr 2019 – Once upon a time, what “anti-Semitism” meant seemed fairly clear.  According to Webster-Merriam, the term denotes “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”  Recently, however, things have gotten a good bit foggier.

Earlier this year, for example, New York Times political columnist Roger Cohen asserted that Britain’s Labour Party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, were not only critics of the State of Israel, but also anti-Semites.  The key to this argument can be found in the following passage.  See if you can spot the point at which the definition expands like a hot air balloon:

      But where anti-Zionism crosses into anti-Semitism should also be obvious: dehumanizing or demonizing Jews and propagating the myth of their sinister omnipotence; accusing Jews of double loyalties as a means to suggest their national belonging is of lesser worth; denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination; blaming through conflation all Jews for the policies of the Israeli government; pursuing the systematic “Nazification” of Israel; turning Zionism into a synonym of racism.[i]

Which of the ideas or activities listed above are genuine indications of Jew-hatred?  Dehumanizing or demonizing Jews?  Certainly.  Accusing them of disloyalty to their nations of citizenship?  To be sure.  Denying the Jewish people’s right to self-determination or calling Israel a racist state?  Whoops – not so fast!

Without stopping to catch his breath, the writer leaps from the traditional indicia of anti-Semitism to a new test.  Following a line of argument invented by the Netanyahu regime in Israel and publicized elsewhere, he extends the concept to ideas and acts that call into question Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish State.    

On its face, this extension makes no sense.  I am a Jew, not an Israeli.  Why should I feel that I am under attack if someone asserts that the State of Israel should not have been created on Palestinian land in 1948, or that its current definition as a state permanently governed by Jews ought to be changed?  If Israel’s existence in its present form were necessary to secure the lives and liberties of all Jews, I might feel personally threatened by such statements.  But, of course, this reverses the truth.  Israel’s security depends upon influential Jewish and Christian communities residing in the United States and Europe, not vice versa.[ii]

Roger Cohen’s underlying reasoning, therefore, is a good deal more convoluted than appears on the surface.  Whether or not Jews need Israel to exist as a Jewish state, he argues that they have a collective right to “self-determination,” so that those who deny this right are discriminating against them or treating them as inferior to other peoples to whom it is granted.  Secondarily, he implies that to consider Israel a racist or apartheid state also discriminates against Jews by ignoring the racism and denials of human rights practiced by other states.

Two main questions, then, demand discussion.  Do Jews have such a right?  If so, what forms of self-determination are legitimate?


Is There a Jewish Right of Self-Determination?

In answer, some Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians argue that God promised the land of Israel to Abraham and his descendants, and that this settles the matter.  Roger Cohen gives no indication that he believes this, and most of those who argue that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism don’t believe it either, at least not in its theological form.  Cohen and others do refer, however, to “the millennial Jewish link to the Holy Land.”

What rights, one wonders, is this “millennial link” supposed to convey?  If ancient historical connections created modern rights to land, Hindus could claim a millennial link to the nations now called Pakistan and Bangladesh.  Buddhists could claim such a link to China and Japan, and Muslims, of course, could claim a link to Palestine and Jerusalem.  Clearly, such links do not entitle religious, ethnic, or national groups to claim a right of self-determination on territory possessed for centuries by others.  If they did, the United States and Canada might be compelled to abandon (or at least “partition”) the continent as to which North American Indians can claim a multi-millennial link.

Already, we can see that discussing self-determination is complicated by the fact that this right can be defined in religious, legal, or moral terms (or all three ways at once, as in the Catholic doctrine of “natural rights”).  Advocates of self-determination in particular cases have a slippery way of moving from one form of definition to another when challenged.  For example, a secular legal definition is enshrined in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, in the Atlantic Charter, and in the UN Charter, which declares, “All peoples have the right to self-determination.”  If all peoples do, in fact, have this right, then to deny it to Jews would amount to anti-Semitic discrimination.

But the matter is not so simple.  Does “all peoples” include long-lived ethno-religious communities like the Kurds of the Middle East, the Muslims of the Philippines, the Serbs of Kosovo, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, or the Copts of Egypt?  Current international law says no.  Does self-determination imply a right to a specific territory such as Chechnya, Northern Ireland, or Israel’s West Bank?  Current international law says no.  Does it give self-determining groups the right to subjugate or expel other national, ethnic, or religious communities residing on their territory?  Current international law says no.

Perhaps because he understands some of these difficulties, Roger Cohen does not cite the UN Charter to justify a Jewish right to self-determination in historic Palestine.  Instead, he refers to UN Resolution 181 of November 1947, which partitioned that territory and established the legal rights of both Palestinians and Jews to rule portions of it.  Even though it was adopted under ferocious United States pressure and was opposed by virtually every state in the Middle East, Resolution 181 provides the primary basis in international law for a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land.

Interestingly, though, proponents of the partition plan did not argue that the Jewish people had a right to a state because every ethnic or religious community has such a right.  Rather, shifting the definition from legal to moral grounds, they argued that the unique suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust entitled them to a state of their own.  Clearly, this became the most important argument for a Jewish homeland.[iii]   The problem (as is often the case with moral arguments) was that the view that commanded a consensus among the World War II victors – both the Western powers and the Soviet bloc – was rejected by virtually the entire Arab world.  Those formerly colonized by the West reasoned that the near extermination of the Jews by Europeans, and the refusal of Western nations to admit the survivors as refugees, did not entitle the victims of Nazism to a grant of most of Palestine.

Even so, it seems clear that UN Resolution 181 supported the right of the Jewish community in the Middle East to enjoy a secure, self-governed existence in part of historic Palestine.  Of course, this is not the same as saying that they had a right to create a state with a permanent Jewish majority in all of Palestine.  We must therefore turn to the second question concerning the extent and limits of the right of self-determination.


Self-Determination on What Territory?

As we know, most Palestinians and five Arab states rejected the UN’s partition plan.  They attacked Israel and lost the War of 1948, leaving the Israelis in control of the land designated as Jewish by the UN, plus some 60% of the territory originally designated as Palestinian.  Some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homeland, after which the land of the “absentees” was expropriated by the Jewish authorities.  Three more wars followed, as a result of which Israel’s territory expanded to include East Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.[iv]

These events produced a further shift in the definition of the right to self-determination, since a right based primarily on UN Resolution 181 would be limited by its terms and would not include any territory subsequently conquered or occupied, such as Jerusalem (which the Partition Plan declared an international city), much land in the Galilee and the Negev, the conquests of 1967, and a good deal more.  Therefore, some partisans of Israel argued, the right extends to conquests made in “defensive wars” – a term the Israelis used to describe all the wars fought by the Jewish State since 1948.

The difficulty here is that unless territorial seizures made in war are confirmed by a subsequent peace treaty, international law condemns them.  The claim that nations fighting wars they deem defensive are entitled to annex enemy land is therefore questionable, to say the least.  (Israel herself acknowledged this problem by declaring the West Bank and Gaza to be “occupied” territories rather than simply annexing them.)  Some commentators have argued that a legal right to territory based on conquest can be created by the passage of time, since the law eventually recognizes “facts on the ground.”  Others define the right primarily as moral on the ground that keeping lands necessary for effective military defense protects the community from possible extinction, while still others define it as religious, based on the alleged Biblical warrant.

Whether conquest can give rise to rights in international law, and, if so, how, is beyond the scope of this discussion.  The upshot, for present purposes, is that a purported right of self-determination based on international law, whose denial would be tantamount to anti-Jewish discrimination, turns out, with regard to territory seized by Israel since 1948, to be a problematic claim based on conquest.  Clearly – at least this seems clear to me – Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish State does not make the questioning of such territorial claims an anti-Jewish act.  On the contrary, for those who embrace Judaism as a praxis aimed at creating a peaceful and just world community, there can be nothing more anti-Jewish than embracing the principle that “might makes right.”


Self-Determination for Whom and for What?

Even if there is a Jewish right of self-determination exercisable in some part of historic Palestine, the question that demands an answer is what the limits of such a right may be.  Does it empower a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group to define and operate the state in any manner it deems fit?  Does self-determination empower one group to maintain a permanent supremacy over other groups inhabiting the same territory?  Does it empower the dominant group to disenfranchise or expel the non-dominants?

To ask the question is to answer it.  This was the definition of self-determination defended by American Confederates on the eve of the Civil War, as well as by the Boers of South Africa when they established the apartheid system in that country.  And, of course, it was both defended and implemented by the Nazis.[v]  Many Israelis who do not want their country to move further in this direction have questioned the legitimacy of a state based on permanent Jewish supremacy.

Jewish leaders of the thirties and forties like Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Henrietta Szold believed that only a bi-national state or a United States of Palestine could express the legitimate rights of both Jews and Palestinians to the mandate territory of Palestine.  The alternative, they declared, would inevitably to reduce the Palestinian people to the status of a permanently inferior dependent and source of rebellion.  The bi-nationalists failed to gain power, and later generations of Israelis, ruled for more than three decades by left-center parties, tied their hopes for a Jewish and democratic state to the “two-state solution” that they believed could create a majority Palestinian nation living in peace with its Israeli neighbor.

This dream faded step by step with the failure of the Oslo peace process, the coming to power of the Likud Party in the late 1990s, and the Second Intifada of 2000-2005.  Attempts to revive it are currently being made by the Trump administration but face an insuperable obstacle: namely, the radical asymmetry of power between the Israeli state and any Palestinian entity that the Israelis would permit to exist.

A Palestinian state may have a flag, an anthem, a parliament and a police force – but it will not be permitted to have an army, control of its borders, an independent foreign policy, or substantial political autonomy.  Israeli economic power will be supreme, and one cannot imagine the Jewish state allowing Palestine to become either a platform for business competitors or a haven for political enemies. Barring an improbable revolution in Israeli public opinion, the Palestinians can forget about a right of return for their refugees, the repatriation of West Bank land settled by Jews, or a capital located in East Jerusalem.  Indeed, those living in Israel will be lucky to avoid an “invitation” to join their brothers and sisters in Nablus, Jenin, or Gaza.

In short, whether there is a single state or two states in the Holy Land, the governing principle, according to the current thinking of most Israelis, will be Jewish supremacy.  “Self-determination” has thus morphed, under pressure, from the right of the Jewish community to a secure existence in the Middle East to an alleged right to create and operate a state based on the systemic domination of non-Jews.  So long as they represent the majority of the population, Jewish Israelis can tell themselves that, notwithstanding anti-Arab and anti-Muslim laws and practices, their state is democratic.  But whether they form a majority or not (as the Netanyahu government’s 2018 “Nation-State Bill” makes clear), their controlling doctrine is that Jews must have decisive decision-making power over all the territory ruled by Israel.

Both in theory and in practice, the “Jewish State’ is thus a Jewish supremacist state.  Regardless of what Roger Cohen and his co-thinkers may believe, it is not anti-Semitic in the slightest to deny the legitimacy of such a constitution.  Would it be anti-American to oppose a United States based on the principle of white or Christian supremacy?  In fact, if there were not a strong tendency globally, as well as in Europe and the United States, to consider this sort of state illegitimate, Israel’s conservative defenders would not feel compelled to play the “anti-Semitism” card.[vi]

That this card is a loser is not only a misfortune for the supremacist cause; it is a long-term danger to the Jewish community in the Middle East.  The Zionist movement began by assuming that in an age of armed, competitive nation-states, a vulnerable community needs a state of its own in order to secure its future.  The Holocaust seemed to many to confirm this conclusion.  But, depending upon its structure and the socio-political environment, a communal state may turn out to be a major threat to the interests of its founding community.

This is happening before one’s eyes In Israel/Palestine, where the rulers’ response to civil unrest and international obloquy has been to assert their group‘s supremacy in increasingly narrow, exclusive, and militaristic terms.  Will this strategy work?  On the contrary, it seems clear that genuine security for both Jews and Palestinians requires that each community play a non-supremacist role in a democratic, bi-national state.  Constructing a polity capable of guaranteeing the autonomy and security of both peoples is now the only form of self-determination that makes sense.



[i] Roger Cohen, “Jeremy Corbyn’s Anti-Semitic Labour Party.” New York Times, Feb. 28, 2019 (

[ii] Note that this does not mean simply that the pro-Israel “Lobby” alone buys Congressional votes through campaign contributions.  Powerful U.S. corporations have long viewed the State of Israel as a guarantor of their interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.

[iii] Prior to the UN vote on partition, Zionist organizations conducted a vigorous and effective campaign to introduce various nations’ representatives to the horrors of the Holocaust by taking them to visit death camp sites and providing them with documentation of the genocide.

[iv] See George Bisharat, “Land, Law, and Legitimacy in Israel and the Occupied Territories.” American University Law Review, 43:467 (1994), 467-561.  The Sinai Peninsula was also conquered in the 1967 war, but was returned to Egypt under the terms of the Camp David agreement of 1978.

[v] Roger Cohen believes that to compare Israel with Nazi Germany is an anti-Semitic canard.  It is certainly a gross exaggeration, but the specter of Nazism is conjured up by arguments that justify the permanent subjection of one people by another on grounds of self-determination, as well as by practices that treat the subjected as dangerous inferiors requiring total control.

[vi] Some supporters of Israel may argue that other ethno-religious supremacist states, like Narendra Modi’s India, are not criticized as bitterly as is Israel, nor are they generally sanctioned.  This observation is correct. If  the Modi regime continues to permit the persecution of non-Hindus, it will surely be as deserving of censure and sanctions\ as any Israeli government.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University in Virginia.  His recent book, Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed was published by Routledge in 2017.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Griendling April 30, 2019 at 2:54 am

Often wondered how Americans would have reacted had the Allies decided that, for the atrocities of the Holocaust, they gave the Jews a different homeland, say, New Jersey.


Rich Rubenstein April 30, 2019 at 6:40 pm

Indeed — especially the best land and harbors in New Jersey! I think one also has to admit, however, that attacking Israel in 1948 was a disastrous miscalculation on the part of the five Arab states.


Tom Sharp April 30, 2019 at 8:45 pm

An excellent job of summarizing an infinitely complex issue in a few pages, although one reserves the right to hope a book by you on the subject may be in the offing.

One of my many questions on this issue is, Do you see anyone, (individual leader or government) among Israel’s neighbors or other “sworn enemy states” that is not in the “all or nothing” camp in terms of seeking a resolution policy?


Rich Rubenstein July 20, 2019 at 3:09 pm

Interesting question, Tom. Actually, I think that there is a fairly strong move away from “all or nothing” that is complicated by the Sunni-Shia conflict and the vagaries of U.S. policies in the region. A better person than I to discuss this with you would be my colleague, Marc Gopin, who has been doing peacework
in the region for decades. You can reach him at


Bernard Bohbot January 3, 2020 at 2:41 pm

Sorry Mr. Rubinstein, but you made a couple of mistakes.

1) The Zionist movement also invoked the universal right to self-determination to justify the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine; not just antisemitic persecution.

2) There is a difference between a homeless people wanting to recover part of its ancient homeland and a people that already has its own state that wants to reconquer territories that it owned in the past for expansionist reasons.

3) As for the so-called “supremacist” nature of Israel, let me remind you that most states are not culturally neutral. You have a couple of exceptions like the US and English-Canada (Quebec identifies as a French state and insists that French must prevail in public institutions, the workplace, etc.), but it’s certainly true for most states.

4) True, Palestinian-Israelis are discriminated against, but Israel is a state at war with a minority that identifies with the enemy. No country that found itself in a similar did better than Israel in terms of minority rights (certainly not the US where Japanese-Americans were detained during WW2). Once there will be peace, most of these discriminations will fade.

5) The Clinton parameters called on the Palestinian state to have full sovereignty over its borders and its airspace. However, it would have to be demilitarized. This is not unique. Other defeated nations were forced to disarm (Japan and Germany after WW2 for example). In fact, Germany and Japan were even forced to accept the presence of US military bases on their soil. The Clinton parameters did not go that far with Palestine.


Rich Rubenstein April 11, 2022 at 3:29 pm

I don’t want to trash your comment, Mr. Bohbot, but I don’t understand its relevance to my article. I didn’t write about Israel at all!


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