The author is a professor at Bar Ilan University’s Faculty of Law and the University of San Diego Law School…
Several days ago, the New York Times gave space in its “Opinionator” blog to anti-Israel activist Professor Joseph Levine of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. It was an ill-considered choice. Levine devoted his column to denying both Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish people’s right to self-determination.
Levine’s argument goes like this: peoples only get a right to self-determination culminating in statehood when the peoplehood in question is “civic” rather than “ethnic.” This terminology is an invention of Levine’s, so he explains that he believes two kinds of peoplehood qualify as “civic”: peoplehood based on common citizenship in a nation-state, and peoplehood on the basis of common residence within relatively defined geographic borders. Naturally, Levine denies Jews entry to both categories.
Levine claims that the first kind of peoplehood, the civic kind, can’t justify the creation of a Jewish state. But it’s hard to believe he’s serious about this. Because if Levine’s claim were true, civic peoplehood would only justify creating a new state when the state already existed to give citizenship. By definition, this category is empty of new claimants. No stateless people could ever qualify for statehood on the grounds of self-determination. In any event, since there is already a Jewish nation-state (called Israel), Levine is wrong: the Jewish people are entitled to self-determination even according to Levine’s mistaken criterion.
Levine claims the second kind of peoplehood, ethnic, can’t apply to Jewish self-determination either because “the vast majority of the Jewish people are not citizens of Israel and do not live within any particular geographic area.” Why Levine demands “relatively defined geographic borders” as a condition for the moral claim of self-determination is unclear. Would Levine deny Kurds self-determination rights because they have never had the boundaries that go with political independence? Should the Roma people be denied the rights of other peoples because they live in communities throughout Europe? In any event, Levine is apparently mathematically challenged, because nearly half of all Jews in the world are Israeli citizens and live in Israel. So, once again, even if Levine’s criteria were well-grounded (and they are not), the Jewish people would qualify for self-determination according to Levine’s logic. Incidentally, it’s hard to ignore that Levine’s claim about the geographic locus of Jews is not only demonstrably statistically false, it is more than a little reminiscent of the Stalin-era description of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” as a justification for Soviet anti-Semitic persecution.
Of course, behind Levine’s illogic is a deeper argument. Basically, Levine seeks to persuade us that Jewish self-determination is illegitimate because since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Jewish ethnic identity has persisted separately from the citizenship in Israel. He writes: