Israel, the Arabs, and the just state
One of my colleagues recently said that he was a fierce supporter of Israel, "not for religious but for sociological reasons." I like that. I believe that there is a sound moral argument to be made in support of the state of Israel, without significant reference to any Christian eschatological scheme.
To which I say, yes, but. . .
Obviously I believe that Israel's legitimate security needs must be taken into account in any just settlement of the longstanding middle east crisis. Those Palestinians wishing to push Israel into the sea are effectively wishing that a massive injustice be done to millions of people. One can hardly countenance this sort of thing.
At the same time, the existence of a state where citizenship is based on religion or ethnicity is problematic at the very least. The problem is multiplied where persons born within its territory but who happen to fall outside the bounds of the favoured titular nationality are not recognized as citizens.
During our trip to the holy land in 1995 Nancy and I talked with a Palestinian Christian who worked at a christian bookstore in the old city of Jerusalem. He was born in Lod, during the last years of the British mandate. He was not an Israeli citizen and his national status was in some doubt. He carried a 30-year-old Jordanian passport, but he was not certain of its validity. After the capture of the west bank, he was offered Israeli citizenship but turned it down, expecting that Israeli occupation would be temporary. The offer had not been repeated in the decades since then.
The just state offers equitable treatment to all persons residing within its territory, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, mother tongue, ideology, &c. Where it withholds citizenship from those born within its territory because they are of the "wrong" ethno-religious group, it does injustice. Because Israel offers citizenship to Jews born elsewhere but withholds it from hundreds of thousands born within its borders, this presents a political problem at the very least.
However, lest one think I am unduly picking on Israel, something similar can be said of many, if not most, countries now present within the vast lands once belonging to the Ottoman Empire a century or more ago. Large numbers of Orthodox Christians lived within the territory of today's Turkish republic, and large numbers of Sunni Muslims lived within what is today Greece. The Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 mandated a population exchange, which sent Greek Orthodox Christians "back" to Greece and Muslims "back" to Turkey, even if they didn't speak the language of the receiving country. After 1952 Alexandrian Greeks were "encouraged" to leave Naser's Egypt. After 1955 Constantinopolitan Greeks were pressed to leave Istanbul and Turkey.
Similar population exchanges -- now known as ethnic cleansing -- have occured in the former Yugoslavia. I could keep going in this vein. The past century has seen scores of millions of people uprooted from their homes and countries, mostly as a consequence of the rule of ethnic nationalists wishing to homogenize their subject populations.
Having seen my relatives in Cyprus become refugees in the events of 1974, I have great sympathy with people who are prohibited from returning to their homes. Thus I feel for Palestinians who are not permitted to return to theirs when a Law of Return
openly solicits citizens from elsewhere in the world.
At the same time, while the various Arab countries push for Palestinians to return to Palestine, I do not see them offering to allow the millions of middle eastern Jews to return to the countries of their birth. Some weeks ago I wrote of Bat Ye'or
and her fascinating historical account of The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam
. "Bat Ye'or" means "Daughter of the Nile" and is a pseudonym for an Egyptian Jew now living in exile in western Europe. The fact that she bears a pseudonym indicates that she obviously fears for her life. She is now a British citizen, we are told. If she were to show up at an Egyptian embassy and ask that her citizenship in that country be restored, I doubt very much that her request would be granted.
Thus if Israel is a state predicated on the ethnic rather than territorial principle, the same can be said of most other states in the region. Egypt is the Arab Republic of Egypt
, despite the presence of some 8 million Coptic Christians whose origins are non-Arab.
In short, although the argument against Israeli citizenship policy has a large measure of justice in it, it would be far more potent if it were matched with a similar demand that Israel's neighbours do justice to the plurality of peoples who currently live or once lived within their jurisdictions. Otherwise such an argument looks conspicuously like antisemitism pure and simple.