Thursday 28 November 2019

Legitimate and illegitimate Criticisms of Israel

On November 19, 2019, Canada voted at the United Nations for the establishment of a Palestinian state. At the same time, Canada reiterated its position that there were too many UN resolutions about Israel, unfairly singly it out for criticism.   Nevertheless, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN claimed that Canada’s vote delegitimated Israel.

This event prompts the question of what is legitimate or illegitimate criticism of the state of Israel, and when such criticism is anti-Semitic.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” It states that manifestations of anti-Semitism “might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” However, it also states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

Using this definition, Canada’s vote for creation of a Palestinian state does not delegitimize Israel, any more than Canadian criticism of any other state delegitimizes it.

One the other hand, activists for Palestinian rights who call for the state of Israel to be destroyed engage in illegitimate criticism. Regardless of the circumstances of its creation, Israel is a sovereign state that enjoys the right to exist. Like any other state, it also has the right to defend itself against attack

Activists who claim that Jews have no right to live in Israel also engage in illegitimate criticism. All states are permitted to determine who will live within their borders. Moreover, to suggest that Jews should not live in Israel is to advocate the creation of a huge refugee population based on religio-ethnic criteria.

Some critics call Israel a colonial power, assuming that it is illegitimate for any Jewish “settler” to live in Israel proper. This assumption is based in part on the notion that Jews are not indigenous to the Middle East. But Jews have lived in the Middle East for millennia. Israel was created in 1948 and an estimated 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled in the subsequent Arab-Israeli war. In later years, about 800,000 Jews left Arab countries, about two-thirds settling in Israel and the other third elsewhere: many of these Jews had been forcibly expelled.  As for European Jews, it is important to remember the context of pogroms and genocide that obliged many of them to flee to Israel.

This does not justify Israeli violations of the human rights of either Israeli Arabs or Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It merely provides some context as to why so many Jews have settled in Israel.

Having said this, it is legitimate to criticize Israel as one might criticize any other state. Thus, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel is legitimate, as long as it does not simultaneously question the right of Israel to exist as a state. Many Jewish people both within and outside Israel who are concerned about Palestinian rights support this movement. Similarly, although it is not strictly accurate to call Israel an apartheid state, it is within the realm of acceptable political rhetoric. Technically speaking, apartheid can only occur within a state, so that calling Israel an apartheid state suggests that it has legal sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza.

A better way to judge Israel’s actions in Gaza and the West Bank is through the universal standard of international humanitarian law, especially the fourth Geneva Convention. This Convention prohibits transfers of population, either from or into conquered territories. Thus, Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegal. So is the wall separating Israel from the West Bank, in so far as part of it is built outside Israel’s territory, as the International Court of Justice ruled in 2004.

International human rights law is also a universal standard that protects Palestinians. Israel definitely denies some human rights to people in the West Bank and Gaza. But so do Palestinians’ own political leaders, Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank. Both these political groups deny their subjects civil liberties and use torture and arbitrary arrest, all prohibited by international human rights law.

Other states also adversely affect the human rights of Palestinians. Not only Israel but also Egypt periodically blockades Gaza, thus denying Palestinians freedom of movement across national boundaries. Both these states have the right to control their own borders, but they frequently do so at the cost of Palestinians who cannot buy food, go to hospitals, or work in these sovereign states.
Arab states who have given shelter to Palestinian refugees and their descendants for decades, but refuse to grant them citizenship, also detrimentally affect Palestinians’ human rights.  However, these states are not obliged to grant citizenship to refugees and their descendants.

Serious concern for the human rights of Palestinians requires consideration of all the actors who violate their rights under international human rights and humanitarian law. These legal standards are universal. As long as they do not advocate eradication of the state of Israel and/or expulsion of Israeli Jews, states and activists who adhere to these standards are engage in legitimate criticism.