Thoughts on the Jersey City Shooting

In Israel, we are familiar with the story. A couple of armed terrorists walk into a building and start shooting Jews. A pigua (terrorist attack). Americans are also beginning to become familiar with it as well, after piguim  at synagogues in Pittsburgh and California, and now a Jewish market in Jersey city. Europe, too, has long since accustomed herself to such things.

In Israel we also have street attacks on Jews, sometimes with knives and sometimes with cars. In America the street attacks have mostly been with fists or bricks or bats, but unless something changes, the knives will come out soon, if they haven’t already.

Hardened as they may be to anti-Jewish violence, Israelis were shocked by Jersey City. Not so much by the attack, which was small by our standards with “only” three civilians and one police officer murdered, but by the response of the local community, captured in a video (here) which appears to show (I have reservations, discussed below) local residents blaming the Jews themselves for the attack, and expressing vicious hatred of them.

There are various factors contributing to the wave of violent Jew-hatred that has suddenly burst upon the world. It’s not simple. There are several foci of infection that have festered independently as well as cross-fertilizing themselves, gaining new ideas, strategies, connections – and adherents. There is the leftist/Arab Israel-focused thread which flourishes at the UN and in Europe, which grew from a seed planted by the KGB in the 1960s; there is the neo-Nazi thread which truly goes back to the original Nazis; there is the paleo-Catholic Christ-killer theme that Pope Paul VI’s nostre aetate never succeeded to stamp out; there is the Quran-based Islamic version; there is the Christian Identity movement in the US; there is the Nation of Islam’s ideology, beginning with Elijah Muhammad and espoused today by Louis Farrakhan; and there are countless small groups with various forms of antisemitic thinking, including the Black Hebrew Israelites with which the Jersey City killers were associated.

And those are just off the top of my head. Seventy years or so after the Holocaust, the pressure from all of these antisemitic memes – especially those connected with the Israel-Arab conflict – broke through the taboo against public expression of antisemitism. It became possible to say openly that Jews were every bit as bad as Hitler thought they were, and that the best thing would be for them to disappear. At the same time, the example provided by the Palestinians, who showed that if you really hate Jews, you can murder them, made killing Jews a thinkable option for today’s antisemites. Mix in a little social media to serve as a catalyst and medium for coordination, and here we are today.

So what can be done, say, in Jersey City?

First, I’m not sure that the video is an accurate depiction of the mood of most of the non-Jewish community. There are some accounts (also here) that say that the Hasidic community got along well with the local, mostly black, residents, despite tensions about gentrification of the neighborhood. I don’t entirely trust the video: it appears to be edited heavily, and none of the speakers responsible for the anti-Jewish remarks were visible. But still, I heard what I heard.

Let’s assume that at least some local residents share the feelings expressed in the video. Should we try to educate them, to explain to them that their attitudes are wrong – that the Satmar Hasidim who live in their neighborhood are people just like them, and don’t deserve to be shot? That would be hard to do. They are not just like them, they dress differently, eat differently, speak a different language, educate their children differently, and of course practice a different and perhaps sinister religion. They stay aloof from the locals, which is often interpreted as “they think they are better than we are” (I am not speculating on whether this is a correct interpretation).

The secret to educating antisemites so that they will stop being antisemites remains undiscovered. What exactly do you say to someone to make them stop hating Jews? Teaching them about the Holocaust just gives them ideas.

It is also not possible to make the Hasidic Jews more appealing to non-Jews. Should we tell them to dress differently? To eat the same food? To send their children to public schools? To convert to Christianity or Islam? All this was tried before, with very unhappy results. Trying to change Jews in order to reduce antisemitism is a losing proposition; antisemites will always find a reason to hate them. This was true for Spanish Conversos in the 15th and 16th centuries, for Germans of the Mosaic Persuasion in the 19th, and probably will someday be true for the progressive Reform Jews of North America. The problem resides with the antisemites, not the Jews, and it can’t be fixed by “fixing” the Jews.

But even if we can’t eliminate antisemitism, there are things we can do to mitigate the current wave of antisemitic acts. One is to understand and act on the principle that although we can’t guarantee that people will like Jews, we can force them to respect us, both as individual Jews in the diaspora and collectively in the State of Israel. In the diaspora, Jews should secure their institutions and arm themselves to the extent that the law permits. Self-defense training should be part of all Jewish education. Nobody is respected for being a victim.

The primary function of a state is to guarantee the security of its citizens. Insofar as we must depend on government, particularly when restrictive laws make self-defense difficult, then we have to demand that it does its job. When there is a crime wave targeting a specific sector of the population, police resources in that sector have to be increased. Jews ought to have enough political power in a place like New York City to insist that street violence against their fellow Jews, even if the perpetrators are black and Hispanic De Blasio voters, be suppressed. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Hudson County, New Jersey, where Jersey City is located.

Finally, if it turns out that diaspora Jewish communities cannot be defended or that their host governments do not care to do their part in doing so, there is the option of aliyah. This puts the Satmar Hasidim, who bitterly oppose the Jewish state, between a rock and a hard place. But that is their problem, not mine.

Posted in American Jews, Jew Hatred, Terrorism | Leave a comment

Trump Gets it Right about Antisemitism (Updated)

Note: since this post was written, the order was issued, and it was not precisely what was expected. Nevertheless, I think the post is still interesting, if not relevant to the same degree. See the update at the end for a full explanation.


President Trump is expected to issue an executive order that Jews should be treated as a “nationality*” as well as a religious group. This means that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans the use of federal funds for programs or activities that discriminate on the basis of “race, color, or national origin,” will now apply to antisemitism. And an administration official has said that the government would use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which the State Department adopted in 2016, as a working definition of antisemitism (a previous working definition in use from 2010 is similar in relevant respects).

This is a big deal, because the extreme anti-Zionism (misoziony) that characterizes the discourse on many Western colleges and universities clearly falls under the IHRA definition, which specifically mentions

Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.

Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.

Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.

Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis…

which are all the bread and butter of Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as countless other anti-Israel organizations. Of course, antisemitism in the form of assaults, discrimination, and other more subtle forms of harassment in the guise of “free expression” – incidentally, things that would never be tolerated if their object were other minorities – also will be able to trigger a shutoff of federal funds.

Naturally, the usual suspects are outraged. Some of the outrage comes from those who would be outraged if Trump were to issue an order recognizing motherhood and apple pie, because he is Trump. Halie Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America accused Trump of “hypocrisy,” blamed him for “emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and repeating stereotypes that have led to violence targeting Jews.” Even if these accusations were true (I am convinced that they are not), they are irrelevant to the reasonableness of this executive order.

But there are more substantive objections. They either deny that Jews are a nationality, or they object to the IHRA definition, usually saying it limits free speech by conflating “legitimate” anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Let’s take the issue of nationality first.

One group that objects to the idea that Jews are a people or a nationality, of course, is the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, who have always insisted that “Jewish” refers only to a religion, not a nation. They have therefore refused to accept the “two states for two peoples” formula or to recognize that Israel is the state of the Jewish people. This is one of the main reasons that the Palestinians have never accepted any of the generous offers of statehood proffered to them. Interestingly, there is also a strong current of “nationhood denial” among liberal American Jews. Some seem to think that attributing nationhood to the Jewish people would mean that they would somehow be “less American.” But of course nobody believes that granting this status to Italian-Americans would make them less American, or that Title VI doesn’t apply to discrimination against them.

This prejudice in the diaspora against the idea of Jewish nationhood goes back to the late 18th and early 19th century when Jews were first beginning to acquire rights in newly-enlightened Europe. The spectre of their “dual loyalty” to their country of residence and to the Jewish nation quickly arose. In 1789, the French Count of Clermont-Tonnerre, in a speech about the treatment of minorities in the new Republic, said “[w]e must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation, and accord everything to the Jews as individuals.” Let them have their religion and their quaint customs, but their national loyalty can only be to France.

Many Jews were happy to agree. In Germany, the newly-created Reform Movement adopted the idea of being “Germans of the Mosaic Persuasion,” nationally identical to their neighbors of the Lutheran persuasion. In America, the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the American Reform Movement included this unequivocal statement: “[w]e consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” By 1999, their platform refers to the Jews as “a people.” But many liberal Jews, uncomfortable about the possibility (and often the actuality) of accusations of dual loyalty, take pains to insist that they do not see themselves as anything other than Americans (or Canadians, or Britons). Their Jewishness is only a matter of religion, ethnicity, or some cultural artifacts.

They have a right to say that if they wish, and to distance themselves from the Jewish nation, but they do not have the right to say that there is no Jewish nation. The Jewish people, in fact, are the paradigm case of a nation: if you want to know what the characteristics of a nation are, look at the Jews. The Jewish people have

  1. A common geographical origin and a connection to their aboriginal home.
  2. A shared genetic heritage.
  3. A unique ancestral language.
  4. A unique religion.
  5. A shared culture.
  6. A shared historical experience.
  7. Self-identification as a nation.

It’s ironic that the Palestinian Arabs, who have multiple origins, a relatively short period of shared history, no unique language or religion, a culture based entirely on opposition to the Jews, and who have only self-identified as a nation since the mid-1960s, have the chutzpah to deny nationhood to the Jewish people!

What about the argument that the IHRA definition conflates antisemitism with anti-Zionism and thus limits speech that is critical of Israel? Despite what some say, it is actually quite easy to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. The criteria were provided by Natan Sharansky, who called it the “3D Test of Antisemitism.” I’ll quote him:

The first “D” is the test of demonization. When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz – this is anti- Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.

The second “D” is the test of double standards. When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored; when Israel’s Magen David Adom, alone among the world’s ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross – this is anti-Semitism.

The third “D” is the test of delegitimization: when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied – alone among all peoples in the world – this too is anti-Semitism.

I call irrational, extreme hatred of Israel misoziony. Misoziony is a form of antisemitism, the traditional Jew-hatred raised to a higher level of abstraction. And there is no better test for misoziony than Sharansky’s 3D criteria, which are implicit in the IHRA working definition of antisemitism. There is no reason to oppose the IHRA definition, except to enable antisemites to disguise their poison as legitimate political speech.

The growing phenomenon of antisemitism in Western universities – where it usually takes the form of misoziony – has given rise to a great deal of consternation and hand-wringing on the part of university administrators, who have in general done nothing practical to reduce it. Yet again, Donald Trump has come along and cut what appeared to be a Gordian Knot, just as he did when he finally fulfilled the promise of the US Congress to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.

And just as they did last May, Jewish progressives displayed their remarkable ability to cut off their own noses to spite their faces.

Update [12 Dec]:

This post was written on Wednesday morning in Israel, after news reports indicated that President Trump was going to issue an order that, among other things, would treat Jewishness as a “nationality” as well as a religious group.

It was thought that this would broaden the applicability of Title VI to prohibit discrimination against Jews, as Jews.

Apparently the reports were wrong. The final version of the order says nothing about treating Jews as a nationality, and reemphasizes that Title VI applies only to discrimination on the basis of “Race, color, or national origin.” It does note – something that the Justice Department already recognized back in 2010 – that belonging to a “group sharing religious practices” does not disqualify someone from being protected against discrimination on the basis of the initial three criteria.

This means that the applicability of Title VI has not been broadened.

However, as Prof. Avi Bell has noted (correspondence), the incorporation of the IHRA working definition of antisemitism into the order is important. The examples in the IHRA definition, in which Sharansky’s 3D criteria are implicit, clearly show what kind of “criticism of Israel” constitutes antisemitism. Therefore a university (e.g.) will not be able to excuse its inaction on complaints of antisemitism by groups like SJP on the grounds that they are “just” engaging in “criticism of Israel.”

The official text of the order can be found here.

* It should be understood that “nationality” is used in the older and broader sense of belonging to a people, or nation, and not in the narrow modern sense of citizenship in a country.

Posted in American Jews, American politics, Israel and Palestinian Arabs, Jew Hatred | 1 Comment

The Soul of the State Must be Jewish

There is a struggle for the soul of the State of Israel.

It isn’t about whether Israel should withdraw from Judea and Samaria, how the IDF should act in Gaza, or whether the buses should run on Shabbat, although your answer to these questions may be implied by your position on a more fundamental one. It isn’t a matter of Right and Left, religious or secular, hawk or dove.

It’s just this: how seriously do you take the idea that Israel is a Jewish state.

Most Jews in Israel and in the diaspora take it as a given. Of course it is a Jewish state, or more correctly, the Jewish state. But the struggle I mentioned starts when you try to explain what that means.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence says that Israel will be the Jewish state, and that it will be democratic in nature. It details at least some of the ways it will be democratic, but “Jewish” is not further explicated.

The former President of Israel’s Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, took an extreme position. He said

The content of the phrase “Jewish state” will be determined by the level of abstraction which shall be given it. In my opinion, one should give this phrase meaning on a high level of abstraction, which will unite all members of society and find the common among them. The level of abstraction should be so high, until it becomes identical to the democratic nature of the state.

And he added,

The basic values of Judaism are the basic values of the state. I mean the values of love of man, the sanctity of life, social justice, doing what is good and just, protecting human dignity, the rule of law over the legislator and the like, values which Judaism bequeathed to the whole world. Reference to those values is on their universal level of abstraction, which suits Israel’s democratic character, thus one should not identify the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish state with the traditional Jewish civil law. It should not be forgotten that in Israel there is a considerable non-Jewish minority. Indeed, the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish state are those universal values common to members of democratic society, which grew from Jewish tradition and history.

In other words, according to Barak, “Jewish values” are identical with secular democratic liberalism, and therefore when you call Israel a “Jewish state” you just mean a free, democratic, liberal one – so much so that even non-Jewish minorities will feel at home in it.

That is one side of the dichotomy. The other side could be represented by MK and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has often said that he – and any Orthodox Jew – would prefer the state to be governed according to the laws of the Torah. “Israel is a Jewish state, and it will return to be ruled as it was in the days of Kings David and Solomon, according to Torah law, in line with the way society lives in 2019,” he said in June.

Smotrich is not likely to get his way, because a majority of Israelis do not wish to be governed by religious law, even if it is updated to take into account the social and technological changes of the past 3000 years or so. But it would be a fatal mistake to move too far in the opposite direction and adopt Barak’s point of view, which removes virtually all content from the idea of a Jewish state.

The Jewish state is a refuge for persecuted Jews, and it is a homeland that is available at any time and with minimal friction to any Jew, persecuted or not. Most Israeli Jews agree with this, and they are proud of how Israel absorbed the Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. But someone who thinks that the “Jewishness” of the state is no more than its democratic nature might ask why only Jews should benefit from this refuge. Why not, for example, “Palestinians,” who also view themselves as exiles?

If a Jewish state is only a democratic state (even in the Jewish “prophetic tradition”), then there is no justification for it being more than a “state of its citizens,” as the extreme Left and Arab minorities in Israel have demanded. There would be no reason to privilege Jewish symbols, like the flag and the national anthem, the holidays and the calendar, and even the Hebrew language. Immigration need not be made easy for Jews and difficult for non-Jews. And maintaining a Jewish majority would not have to be a national goal. This is a prescription for the end of the Jewish state.

Barak, in fact, supports the Law of Return, the Jewishness of the symbols of the state, the holidays, and so forth. But whether or not he notices it, his arguments would remove the logical justification for them.

Israel is a nation-state, a country that exists as an expression of the unity of a single people. There are other nation-states, but Israel is unique in several ways. One is the Zionist principle that without a state of their own, the Jewish people would be unable to survive in a hostile world. Another is the religious principle of the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel that is explicit in the Torah. These principles answer the question, “why is there a State of Israel?”

Israel, in other words, was created and is defined as the state belonging to the Jewish people, not simply the people that inhabit it. In order to make this an explicit part of Israel’s “constitution,” its collection of Basic Laws, the Knesset passed the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People.

The law reserves the right of “National Self-Determination” only to the Jewish people. It establishes the symbols of the state, the national language, and so on. Other Basic Laws guarantee rights such as the right to vote and to hold office to all citizens, regardless of ethnicity.

The law was and remains extremely controversial, with opponents saying that it makes non-Jews “second-class citizens.” In a narrow sense they are right, but that is a consequence of the unique nature of the state of Israel. Despite the reservation of “national” rights to the Jews, every citizen without exception should have a right to equal treatment under the law; the allocation of resources to communities should be fair regardless of the ethnicity of the majority of their residents; opportunities for education and employment should be equal, and so forth. These aren’t necessarily easy goals to attain, but they do not conflict with the Jewish nature of the state.

The place of Judaism in the public sphere also can present difficult choices. On the one hand, the state shouldn’t execute someone who is caught gathering wood on Shabbat (Num. 15:32-36), nor should non-Jews or secular Jews be coerced into observing Jewish law. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine a Jewish state without some elements of Judaism in people’s day-to-day lives. How much and precisely where is complicated, but again I think this can be accomplished without ripping our society apart.

Although the discussion about the Jewish State Law seems to be on hold now, as are so many things in our paralyzed politics, I’m sure it will come up again as soon as there is a functioning Knesset and government. There will be initiatives to throw it out or change it, and I think they should be resisted as strongly as possible.

The concept of the Jewish state is, as I said, unique and special. I would go as far as saying that in today’s world, the survival of the Jewish people as a people is not viable in the diaspora alone. It is dependent on the existence of a vital and powerful Jewish state.

The state is threatened physically by its enemies, and I think we understand that. What we don’t understand is that it is also threatened by those who think that they want to make it “better,” by emulating the universalist, pluralist societies of Europe and North America. Like Aharon Barak, it’s possible that they don’t understand that by ending the explicitly nationalist definition of the state, they would also remove the foundation that underlies the ability of the state to be a refuge, a homeland, and a place – the only place on Earth – that Jewish culture can develop in its completeness.

Posted in Israeli Society, The Jewish people, Zionism | 2 Comments

Balancing Act

My home town of Fresno, California has a tiny Jewish community. The metropolitan area of about a million people, in almost the geographical center of the state, has only about 1000 Jewish families. There are three congregations: a Reform temple with several hundred members, a much smaller Conservative shul, and a Chabad house.

I haven’t been to the US since moving back to Israel more than five years ago. But I keep in touch. So recently I noticed an announcement on the Facebook page of the Reform congregation for a talk by a Rabbi John Rosove on the subject “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, an American Zionist Perspective.” I thought that was interesting, since I, too, am a Zionist and (you can tell by my accent) will always be an American.

Rabbi Rosove went to Berkeley (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and Hebrew Union College, and is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Israel in Hollywood. Investigating further, I found that the talk would be about “… the destructive impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinians, Israelis and the future of Israel’s democracy.” And I noted that Rabbi Rosove is a national co-chair of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, and is associated with several “Reform Zionism” groups.

This is not my kind of Zionism – it demands a suicidal “two-state solution,” and wrongly analogizes our conflict with the Palestinians to the American civil rights struggle, two things that couldn’t be more different.

A word or two about J Street. It would like you think that it has a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” platform, but ever since its beginnings in 2007, it has advocated against Israel’s interests. J Street lobbied against sanctions on Iran and for the nuclear deal, refused to denounce the Goldstone Report that falsely accused Israel of war crimes, lobbied against a congressional letter criticizing Palestinian incitement, invited numerous anti-Israel speakers and BDS supporters to its national conventions, called for the US to support an anti-Israel Security Council resolution in 2014 and applauded the Obama Administration’s abstention on one in 2016. More recently, it criticized Israel’s use of force to protect its border with Gaza, and on and on and on. One would think that maybe it isn’t “pro-Israel” at all.

But nothing is more telling than the sources of J Street’s money. One of the biggest contributors to anti-Israel organizations is George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. It pledged $750,000 to J Street for its first three years. J Street lied about it until an investigative reporter exposed the facts. J Street also got contributions from sources linked to Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as a Turkish film producer, and even stranger places. Of course much of its funding does come from Jewish “useful idiots.”

Let’s assume that Rabbi Rosove is one of these. His talk is being held at Clovis Community College, next door to Fresno, and is free. But who paid Rosove’s expenses? The announcement for the talk indicates that it is sponsored by GV Wire, a local progressive news website. GV Wire is a very slick production, with a professional staff including Bill McEwen, a former Fresno Bee columnist and editorial page editor.

The “GV” in GV Wire stands for Granville Homes, one of the biggest real estate developers and homebuilders in the Fresno area. And Granville Homes is owned by the Assemi family, who came to California from Iran just before the revolution. Among the founders of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, the Assemis are among the biggest philanthropists in the Central Valley of California. Granville has done some projects in the downtown area which have improved parts of town that many people thought were lost forever. They donate large amounts to numerous causes and organizations, especially “progressive” ones.

The publisher of GV Wire is Darius Assemi, Granville’s President and CEO. He is deeply involved in local politics, and is probably one of the most powerful people in the area. And of course, he’s no friend of Israel. He’s described Israel’s shooting terrorists climbing its border fence as a “massacre.”

So why would he bring a self-described “Zionist” speaker to the area (even if he’s as much a Zionist as I am Queen of England)?

The explanation is the reaction to Assemi’s previous speaker, Alison Weir, who appeared on September 18 (her presentation can be viewed here). Weir is viciously anti-Israel and antisemitic, to the point that even pro-BDS groups like Jewish Voice for Peace have disavowed her. Her position is that the Israel/Jewish lobby dominates the US government, causing it to act against American interests in order to help Israel oppress, exploit, and murder Palestinians, which it does in the most sadistic way possible. She asserts that US media, controlled by Jewish interests, is biased in favor of Israel, and that any criticism of Israel is derailed by accusations of antisemitism. She is a low-key, persuasive speaker, and if you don’t recognize the lies, lack of context, and distortions, she will convince you.

Weir was originally invited by the college, which canceled the event following complaints by the ADL and other Jewish organizations.

But Assemi thought that she should be heard, so he had GV Wire sponsor the event and rent the hall, absolving the college of responsibility. ADL and the others protested again, but rather than cancel the event, Assemi decided to also invite “a speaker who will explain the deadly realities in this region from the Jewish perspective.” Balance. That would be Rabbi Rosove.

So now we will get a “Jewish perspective” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a Jew who says he is a Zionist, but represents an organization that is actually anti-Zionist, and is even supported financially by Israel’s enemies. And a Jewish house of worship is advertising it.

Welcome to the highest level of useful idiocy!

Posted in American Jews, Zionism | 1 Comment

The Partition Resolution: a Paper Triumph

Friday was 29 November, the 72nd anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s passage of resolution 181, the “partition resolution” which recommended the division of the Palestine Mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. You will see this date on some calendars in Israel as a sort of holiday, called caf tet b’november.

When I learned about this as a child, I was told “that is the date the UN decided to give the Jews a state.”

I think a lot of people used to think – look at comic books and science fiction of the 1950s – that the UN was sort of a world government that can do things like give people a state or take one away. I am sure that a lot of people, even today, would like it to be so.

The truth is that the UN operates in accordance with international law, and international law is also not what people think. It is not law imposed on countries by some higher authority, because there is no such authority. Almost everything in international law is based on prior agreement of the parties concerned. For example, the common (and unsound) argument that “Israeli settlements are illegal” is based on an interpretation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel has ratified. If Israel had not agreed to accept the Convention, then it would not be possible to make that argument at all.

When a country agrees to join the UN it agrees not to threaten or use force, except in self-defense. The UN can enforce this requirement by the Security Council passing a resolution under Chapter VII of its Charter, “Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression.” Such resolutions are binding, and can be enforced by economic sanctions or even military action by UN members. In this way, and only in this way, can the UN establish international law (the UN does reserve the right to act against non-members, but this is technically outside the realm of law).

General Assembly resolutions, passed by a majority vote of UN member states, are non-binding. The partition resolution recommended the division of the land between the river and the sea into an Arab state and a Jewish state – with boundaries even less defensible than the pre-1967 cease-fire lines that Abba Eban called “Auschwitz borders.” The Arabs in a sense did Israel a favor by rejecting partition and preventing it from being implemented, because such a “two-state solution” would have been both strategically unstable and economically unviable.

So if the partition resolution does not constitute a justification in international law for the establishment of a Jewish state in the territory of the former British Mandate, what does?

The usual answer is the San Remo resolution, which established the Mandate for Palestine (as well as Syria and Mesopotamia at the same time). The Balfour Declaration, which called for a Jewish National Home in Palestine, was incorporated into the Mandate, and Britain accepted the responsibility for seeing that its provisions – including “close Jewish settlement on the land” – were implemented. The League of Nations approved the Mandates, as did the US separately (since it was not a member). When the UN came into being, the mandatory obligations were carried forward by Chapter 80 of its Charter.

But while the Mandates for Syria and Mesopotamia (Iraq) “provisionally” declared them as states, the Mandate for Palestine only called for a “National Home,” which could be a state, but which also could be something less than one.

The British did not want to give up control of Palestine for practical, imperial, reasons: the port of Haifa, access to the Suez Canal, a land route to India, and to keep Jerusalem in Christian hands. So they did their best to sabotage the intent of the Balfour Declaration insofar as it might lead to independence for a Jewish state. In 1936-9 the Arabs of Palestine revolted against the British, demanding among other things an end to Jewish immigration. The British put down the revolt quite brutally, but in 1939 issued a White Paper that sharply restricted Jewish immigration and “signaled Britain’s readiness to relegate the Jews in Palestine to minority status in a future majority-Arab state.”

By limiting Jewish immigration in the years preceding the Holocaust, their desire to keep Palestine part of the Empire was responsible for at least tens of thousands of deaths. But they could still claim that they were aiming to fulfil the terms of the Mandate by providing a “National Home.” Some home.

The left-wing labor movement that ruled the pre-state yishuv, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, wished to avoid violent conflict with the British before, during, and after the war, and hoped to obtain a state by diplomatic means. But the underground Etzel and Lehi movements continued attacking British interests until the British were forced out in May 1948.

Yehuda HaKohen argues (video, 36 min.) that the main reason the British cut and ran was the human and financial cost of the unceasing Jewish terrorism. In particular, he says that the March 1947 Lehi sabotage of the refinery in Haifa, through which the British were processing oil from Iraq, made continuing the occupation unprofitable.

On 15 May 1948 Ben-Gurion and his left-wing friends – Etzel and Lehi leaders were not invited – declared the independence of the State of Israel. In the Declaration of Independence, they recalled the partition resolution several times:

On the 29th November, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Eretz-Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of Eretz-Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.

This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.

Accordingly we, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish Community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist Movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British Mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel. …

The State of Israel is prepared to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of Eretz-Israel.

On the face of it, this is nonsense. The partition resolution, as we’ve noted, didn’t “require” anyone to do anything. If the right of self-determination is a “natural right,” then why do we need a resolution at all? And since the representatives of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab nations have already categorically rejected the resolution, how can it be implemented? It also appears to imply, unfortunately, that the boundaries of the state will be those in the partition resolution.

I think the correct answer to the question of where the legal justification for the state comes from is “not from any piece of paper.” Once she expelled the colonial British, Israel met the normal criteria for statehood and this was recognized by numerous states, including the major world powers. And now she has successfully defended her territory numerous times.

At best the partition resolution simply means that at a certain moment in time, a majority of nations accepted the idea of a Jewish state. If the UN were to vote today on whether there should be a Jewish state, I’m certain we would lose.

So why did Ben-Gurion mention the partition resolution several times in the Declaration of Independence? And why is this day considered memorable? There have been countless General Assembly resolutions which have not been implemented and which nobody remembers.

Yehuda HaKohen says that there was a simple reason: Ben-Gurion and the left-wing establishment that ruled every aspect of life in Israel from its founding until the electoral upset of 1977 when Menachem Begin became Prime Minister, wanted to emphasize the importance of the peaceful diplomatic path to statehood that they had chosen. They wanted to deemphasize the role of the Etzel and Lehi, the underground military movements that fought, until almost the last day, to get the British out so that there could be a Jewish state.

Without the underground, there would have been no state, says HaKohen, and I think he’s right. But there’s more: today Israel is in a continuing struggle to keep the state that was established at such great cost. And today’s Left wants us to believe that the best way to do that is by diplomacy, by negotiations with the PLO and Hamas mediated by the great powers, and by territorial concessions which will be guaranteed by them. So naturally they hold up the diplomatic achievement of the partition resolution as a great triumph that we should repeat today!

In fact, it was nothing, a paper triumph. Nobody “gave us” a state. The State of Israel had to be established and defended by blood, not paper. And so it is today, which is why caf tet b’november is nothing to celebrate.

Posted in Israeli or Jewish History, Israeli Politics, The UN | 1 Comment