Does Israel, or any other state, have a right to exist?
Does Israel, or any other state, have a right to exist?

Does Israel, or any other state, have a right to exist?

Does Israel, or any other state, have a right to exist? Image of an Israeli watch tower lording over a Palestinian refugee camp, saying "I have a right to exist".


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Does Israel, or any other state, have a right to exist?

Image of an Israeli watch tower lording over a Palestinian refugee camp, saying “I have a right to exist”.
Israel (or any other state) has a right to exist
“Do you affirm Israel’s right to exist?”

We would be surprised if you were at all involved in Palestinian activism and had not come across this question in one form or the other. This question often comes out of the blue and is unrelated to the discussion at hand. This is because it is not asked in good faith or to further any kind of dialogue, but rather to create a “gotcha” moment and derail the conversation.

To begin with, you will notice that you never ever hear of a state’s right to exist outside of the context of Israel. This is because this right does not exist. People have a right to self-determination, but this does not mean that a state -any state- has an inherent right to exist. After all, there are thousands of ethnic groups in the world and not even 200 countries. States either exist or they don’t, and as we’ve discussed [before], states and nations are not static entities, as they often change in form, parameters and even names over their history. Could you imagine the argument that former Yugoslavia had a right to exist? Who would have bestowed this right? Who would have upheld it, and how?

From the get-go, this is a ridiculous question that has absolutely no legal backing in international law or international relations. You’ve never heard, for example, of Belgium affirming the right of Canada to exist as a state.

To reiterate, the goal of this question is not to contribute to dialogue, but rather to shut it down. This is because there has been a concentrated effort on part of Israel and its advocates to conflate Israel with the Jewish people as a whole. When you combine this with long history of persecution of the Jewish people, any hesitation in answering this question in the affirmative is enough to paint you as a bloodthirsty antisemite. This is further aided by the typical settler anxiety shared by beneficiaries of settler colonialism everywhere, where any alternative to the current oppressive matrix of control is framed as genocidal in intent [You can read more about this here]. We saw this particularly in South Africa, where it was argued that full equality would mean the complete destruction of not only South Africa as a state, but the annihilation of the white minority entirely.

But let us try and imagine this question in any other settler colonial context: Could you imagine asking any indigenous nation on Turtle Island whether the United States or Canada have a right to exist? Keep in mind that these states could only exist through the destruction of indigenous life, language and culture.

It doesn’t feel right, does it? How could anyone demand that these nations rubber-stamp their own dispossession with approval, and lend it legitimacy?

If we naturalize the idea that nation states are inherently legitimate, and champion the false notion that they have a right to exist anchored in international law, then this restricts our ability to critique any country’s foundations. Suddenly, acknowledging the Zionist ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the attempted ethnocide of the Palestinian people in any meaningful way becomes an infringement upon Israel’s fabled right to exist. By “meaningful” we are not speaking of mere empty acknowledgment that functions to signal a superficial settler regret while continuing to profit off the dispossession of the natives, but a material acknowledgment that aims to be the first step in righting historical wrongs.

A conveniently one way street
This question also buckles under its own weight if applied consistently and taken to its logical conclusions. Would this also not grant Palestine a right to exist? Why is it then, that we never hear about the Palestinian right to exist? Especially when you take into account that the majority of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homes and scattered all over the globe. And as if this scattering was not enough, there are serious efforts to define them out of existence by denying their descendants any claim to Palestine or being a refugee [You can read more about this here].

After all, Israel could only be established through the destruction of the majority of Palestinian society and its appropriation, surely this clashes horribly with the Palestinian right to exist?

Once again, you never hear of this because it is not an actual right, and falls flatly in the exclusive domain of Israeli Hasbara.

As professor Salaita so succinctly wrote:

“I am happy, eager even, to affirm the right of Jewish people to live in peace and security, wherever that may be, a right all humans deserve in no particular order of worthiness. But I won’t ratify Israel’s bloody founding or its devotion to racial supremacy. Ultimately, when Zionists demand that you affirm Israel’s right to exist, what they really seek is affirmation of Palestinian nonexistence.“

This is the central and implied message of this question. It is about legitimacy. It is true that Palestinians do not hold any power or sway compared to Israel, but the one thing they have is legitimacy, and the power to withhold it from the settlers who crave it.

Despite the bravado, Israelis, even if on an unconscious level, know that they will never belong in the region unless they are legitimized by the very people they had to dispossess to build their settler state. They will always be seen as outsiders until the indigenous people validate them. Over 100 years later, and this has yet to occur, and it will not be occurring any time soon. The Palestinian Authority and Arab tyrannies can normalize all they want, but the Arab street has been adamant. There is a reason why the Israeli and US embassies are some of the first buildings to be protested when any kind of popular mobilization occurs.

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Further Reading
Salaita, Steven. How to answer the question, ‘Do you recognize Israel’s right to exist?’. Mondoweiss, December 10th, 2019.
Munayyer, Yousef. ‘Does Israel have a right to exit’ is a trick question. Forward. January 22nd, 2020.
Hammond, Jeremy. Why Israel has no ‘right to exist’. Foreign Policy Journal. May 15th, 2019.
White, Ben. We need to talk about Israel’s ‘right to exist’. Middle East Eye. April 7th, 2015.
Ketchell, Misha. Israel has no ‘right to exist’—and neither does any other state. The conversation. June 6th, 2011.
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