In his recent New York Times article “On Questioning the Jewish State,” University of Massachusetts philosophy professor Joseph Levine attempts to make the case that we should question whether Israel has a right to exist.
Levine’s main argument is that only certain kinds of groups of people have the right to form a nation. He draws a distinction between ethnic groups (e.g., Jews), which are defined by common heritage, and civic groups (e.g., Israelis), which are defined by common residence in a geographic area. Having drawn this distinction, he contends that the right of a people to form a state “can apply only in the civic sense” and that ethnic groups do not have the right to create a nation because this would violate the rights of other ethnic groups in that area. He thus concludes that Israel does not have a right to exist as a Jewish nation.
But neither ethnicity nor geography is the proper determining factor regarding the legitimacy of a government. The legitimacy of a government depends on whether it adheres to or deviates from the proper purpose of government, which is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. To the extent that a government protects rights, it is morally legitimate; to the extent that a government violates rights, it is morally illegitimate.
By this standard, Israel is a shining example of a moral state. It is the only (relatively) free nation in the region of the Middle East and North Africa protecting the rights of all citizens regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, or race. Although Israel does not protect rights flawlessly, when comparing the state to the other regimes in the area, one is tempted to use that word. Whereas Israel in its core functions protects individual rights, many of its neighboring states not only routinely and obscenely violate the rights of their own citizens; they also seek to destroy Israel.
Since its formation in 1948, Israel has had to defend itself against a constant rain of attacks from surrounding Arab nations. Any valid evaluation of Israel’s actions must account for this fact. Levine, however, manages to not mention it once. On the contrary, he asserts that Israel expelled Palestinians in 1948 and occupied Arab lands in 1967 as a means of maintaining its illegitimate Jewish character. This is a complete inversion of the well-known fact that, in both cases, Israel was defending itself in wars initiated by neighboring states.
Although it is collectivistic and irrational for Israel to identify itself by reference to a race or religion, this flaw is certainly not what motivates Israel’s enemies to wipe it off the map. Observe that Israel’s enemies have no qualms about identifying themselves ethnically, nationally, or religiously. Among myriad examples, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which openly seeks to destroy Israel, is a full-fledged Islamic theocracy.
Israel’s government is not perfect. One of its most glaring violations of rights is compulsory military service (from which, ironically, Arab citizens are exempt). And Levine is right that Israel should not promote itself as a Jewish state. (It should promote itself as a rights-protecting state—the point Levine misses entirely.) But Israel’s labeling itself a Jewish state has no bearing on its right to exist. Israel is a bastion of freedom in a region of barbarism, and that fact alone justifies its existence.