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Is it anti-Semitic to ask whether Israel has the right to exist?

I’m a Zionist, but not at any price. To ask for equal rights for all who live on the land cannot be branded anti-Semitic

Britain's Labour Party has been hit by a storm over the allegedly anti-Semitic comments of MP Naz Shah and former London mayor Ken Livingstone. The suspension of the two by Labour has put the issue of anti-Semitism in the spotlight, but very few commentators have stopped to define what they mean by anti-Semitism.

I am a Zionist. That is probably an unwelcome surprise to my Muslim students, but I do believe that Israeli Jews form a national collective, and therefore should have a right for self-determination. I also know that this Jewish national collective derives its meaning from its ties to Jews around the world, including in Britain, where I live.

But does the current State of Israel have a right to exist as a Jewish state? I’m not sure, and it is definitely not anti-Semitic to doubt it. It is not its Jewishness that puts Zionism under this spotlight; for me, there is really nothing inherently wrong with Jews having a state they can call their own. Rather, it is two generations of occupation and the denial of the rights of refugees that put a question mark about Israel’s legitimacy.

Why is Israel singled out? It is not because of its – undeniable - discrimination against its minority of Arab citizens, and Jonathan Freedland has been disingenuous in suggesting that it was. What hovers over Israel’s legitimacy is the disenfranchisement of a Palestinian majority – in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

The permanency of the occupation goes into the heart of Israel’s legitimacy, because there are as many Palestinians who live between the sea and the river as there are Jews, but Jewish sovereignty is maintained by denying citizenship to most of those Palestinians. To ask for equal rights for all who live on the land cannot be branded anti-Semitic, even if it would end the Jewish state.   

Israel is not the only state to have emerged after immigrant colonists took over land from indigenous population. But in Australia or Canada, while the indigenous inhabitants are likely to be the subject of discrimination, they have rights to citizenship. This is something that Israel does not grant the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza because it wants to maintain a Jewish state.

And there is another crucial difference between Israel and Australia. All the remaining aboriginal population now lives in Australia. If in the course of the conflict between Europeans and indigenous populations, aboriginal communities were driven out to other countries, there is no doubt they would now have the right to come back.  

But there are today six million Palestinian refugees who have a right to return to their lands. No doubt, fulfilment of this right for all of them will bring an end to the Jewish state as we know it. And yet, for them and for their supporters, to demand the right of return is not anti-Semitic. 

The recent debate in Britain is not a really about the British left, but about whether Israel has earned the right to be accepted by the Palestinians it has dispossessed and disenfranchised. All the recent discussion about anti-Semitism omits the Palestinians – they have no voice in this, because if they will say anything but acceptance of Israel’s existence they would be brandished as anti-Semites too. 

The Israeli government has waded into the row over anti-semitism and Labour, but isn’t it fair to ask the Palestinians too? Does anyone seriously expect a Palestinian whose family was driven out of their home in 1948, and who continues to live stateless and disenfranchised, to accept the right of Israel to exist? And yet, by default, they are all an anti-Semites – as well as everyone who represents their demands for justice and equality – because these demands mean the end of the Jewish state.

Cynics would say that I should have always known that Zionism and universal rights are incompatible. For me, this view is too deterministic, too pessimistic, and insufficiently cognisant of the hold of Zionism in Jewish life today to offer a constructive way forward. And there are strong anti-Jewish attitudes and stereotypes in the Muslim world which feed into this, and they will have to be tackled too.

But it is not anti-Semitic to ask whether - in the current circumstances – a Jewish state is simply not possible without suspending the basic principles of equality and justice. The jury is out there. I’m a Zionist, but not at any price.   

-Yossef Rapoport is a lecturer in Islamic History at Queen Mary University of London.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An Israeli flag is seen fleeting in front of a minaret and the Dome of the Rock on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in occupied Jerusalem's Old City, on 17 March, 2016 (AFP).

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