Several days ago, the New York Times gave space in its “Opinionator” blog to anti-Israel activist Professor Joseph Levine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was an ill-considered choice. Levine devoted his column to denying both Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
Levine’s argument goes like this: peoples only get a right to self-determination culminating in statehood when the peoplehood in question is “civic” rather than “ethnic.” This terminology is an invention of Levine’s, so he explains that he believes two kinds of peoplehood qualify as “civic”: peoplehood based on common citizenship in a nation-state, and peoplehood on the basis of common residence within relatively defined geographic borders. Naturally, Levine denies Jews entry to both categories.
Levine claims that the first kind of peoplehood, the civic kind, can’t justify the creation of a Jewish state. But it’s hard to believe he’s serious about this. Because if Levine’s claim were true, civic peoplehood would only justify creating a new state when the state already existed to give citizenship. By definition, this category is empty of new claimants. No stateless people could ever qualify for statehood on the grounds of self-determination. In any event, since there is already a Jewish nation-state (called Israel), Levine is wrong: the Jewish people are entitled to self-determination even according to Levine’s mistaken criterion.
Levine claims the second kind of peoplehood, ethnic, can’t apply to Jewish self-determination either because “the vast majority of the Jewish people are not citizens of Israel and do not live within any particular geographic area.” Why Levine demands “relatively defined geographic borders” as a condition for the moral claim of self-determination is unclear. Would Levine deny Kurds self-determination rights because they have never had the boundaries that go with political independence? Should the Roma people be denied the rights of other peoples because they live in communities throughout Europe? In any event, Levine is apparently mathematically challenged, because nearly half of all Jews in the world are Israeli citizens and live in Israel. So, once again, even if Levine’s criteria were well-grounded (and they are not), the Jewish people would qualify for self-determination according to Levine’s logic. Incidentally, it’s hard to ignore that Levine’s claim about the geographic locus of Jews is not only demonstrably statistically false, it is more than a little reminiscent of the Stalin-era description of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” as a justification for Soviet anti-Semitic persecution.
Of course, behind Levine’s illogic is a deeper argument. Basically, Levine seeks to persuade us that Jewish self-determination is illegitimate because since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Jewish ethnic identity has persisted separately from the citizenship in Israel. He writes:
… whereas there is both an ethnic and a civic sense to be made of the term ‘French people,’ the term ‘Jewish people’ has only an ethnic sense. This can easily be seen by noting that the Jewish people is not the same group as the Israeli people.
Levine concludes by inferring that the continued existence of Jewish ethnic identity separate from citizenship in the Jewish state proves that Israel is intrinsically “undemocratic” and therefore illegitimate.
This is simply playing with words. Self-determination is always about the right of an ethnic people to govern itself, and in no case (other than that of the Jews) has anyone ever claimed that the price of self-determination is surrendering ethnic identity to the state. Every nation state has an ethnic identity that characterizes the majority but not the entirety of the population, and all liberal and democratic nation states have had to resolve the potential tension between ethnic self-determination and democratic values by protecting equality and other liberal rights. The world is full of nation states whose ethnic identities and citizenship overlap imperfectly at best. While centuries of persecution and ethnic cleansing have made most European nation-states nearly ethnically “pure,” even in Europe, it remains the case that there are German citizens who are not ethnically German, and Italians who are not citizens of Italy. Surely Levine does not seriously intend to argue that the ethnic “impurities” of most states of the world make them undemocratic.
Levine’s “proof” from France and the French people is at best linguistic misdirection and at worst demagoguery. There have been different names for the political entity and the people of Israel throughout history. The common name for the people is “children of Israel” in religious literature, and ”Jewish” in common parlance, while the political entity is called Israel (although Israel’s founders also considered Judea).
If Israel renamed itself “Judea” tomorrow, calling citizens of Judea Jews, or if Jews started referring to the themselves only as the “children of Israel,” would Levine suddenly recognize the Jewish right of self-determination? If the French decided to change the name of their modern state to Gaul, while people of French ethnicity persisted in calling themselves French, would the French suddenly lose their right to self-determination? Do Kosovar claims to self-determination depend on calling the claimants Kosovars instead of Albanians? Does Albanian Kosovar ethnic cleansing of Kosovo’s Serbian minority enhance Kosovo’s legitimacy as a state by narrowing the gap between Kosovo’s ethnic identity and citizenship?
Ultimately, Levine’s claims boil down to the naked assertion that Jews alone among the peoples of the world should be denied self-determination, and that is because the general rules of self-determination should be selectively rewritten and reinterpreted to the detriment of the Jewish people only.
Levine’s argument is disingenuous and biased, covered up by pretend erudition and a lot of verbiage. It is as intellectually dishonest, illogical and bigoted as the assertion that “Arabs can’t be anti-Semites because they speak a Semitic language.” Levine should be mocked for dressing up his bigotry in pseudo-intellectual demagoguery. The New York Times should be ashamed of itself for publishing the result.