The limits of reconciliation: Rihani's view statezionism.

AuthorVasillopulos, Christopher


IT MAY HAVE TAKEN PROPHETIC inspiration to write in 1921, as Ameen Rihani did in The Descent of Bolshevism, that the Bolshevik revolution was an instance of egalitarian criminal conspiracies like the Assassins. When Rihani read the Balfour Declaration, he commented that: 'The British Government has either to perform a miracle or let one of its clients go to the devil' (Fate, p. 39).

His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. It did not require prophecy to write in the 1930s that State-Zionism would result in unending and increasingly violent conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine (Fate, p.26). I use the term 'State-Zionism' instead of 'political Zionism' to refer to those who believe that Jews must have their own state if they are to be Jews at all. Cultural or religious Zionists may or may not be StateZionists, just as State-Zionists may or may not be religious or follow any particular Jewish practice. Reading the Balfour Declaration in the context of State-Zionist claims would have sufficed. Unfortunately, for over fifty years

Christopher Vasillopulos is a professor in the History/Philosophy/Political Science Department at Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, Connecticut. Rihani's expectations have come true. State-Zionism, along with other destabilizing factors and absolutist movements, has been a 'menace ... to peace in the Near East' (Fate, p. 37).

Rihani knew who would make the journey to hell, as millions of Palestinian refuges can attest. For State-Zionism, from its inception, would make every effort to resolve the contradictory objectives of the Balfour Declaration in favor of a Jewish state. When in 1948 the West recognized the State of Israel, it in effect placed a period after the word 'object' in the Balfour Declaration. Seldom has a punctuation mark resulted in so much bloodshed and misery.

In contrast to this straightforward reading, consider the interpretation of a leading American exponent of State-Zionism: 'The Jewish people, like other historic nationalities, have a right to self-determination. The Jews, having been exiled from their ancestral homeland, cannot effectively exercise their right to self-determination until restored to sovereign possession of their country. Ergo, the Jews are entitled to sovereign possession of Palestine. The subordinate clauses that were appended to the Balfour Declaration had the following significance, in terms of this scheme: Other legitimate rights existed which might conceivably be affected by restoring Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. The restoration should be so conducted that these would not in fact be adversely affected. This was entirely possible, moreover, since the rights in question, by definition, were not incompatible with Jewish sovereignty in Palestine' (Halpern, p. 299). Leaving aside highly problematic historical premises, e.g., the forced exile of all Jews from Palestine without any possibility of return until sovereignty be achieved, note the question begging assumption that Jewish sovereignty in Palestine is to occur first, before other rights have to be considered. The plain reading of the English states that a Jewish Homeland in Palestine--note "sovereignty" is not used--is conditional upon the upholding of other rights of non-Jews already living in Palestine. Before a homeland can be pursued on the ground an agreement must be reached with the indigenous population regarding their rights. Note also, the Declaration refers to a homeland in Palestine, not a homeland of Palestine. Note also the enormous omission that the Palestinians, certainly a historic nationality, might have a right to selfdetermination. At the very least they have been an identifiable people living in the region for two thousand years since the Jews left, and several millennia before that.

The Balfour Declaration does not mention sovereignty at all. If Halpern wishes to introduce the term in his eccentric reading of the document, then he must allow the concept to be used by the Palestinians, the principal non-Jewish community in Palestine. That he does not do so demonstrates his avowed attempt to give an impartial "Wilsonian'" assessment of the idea of the Jewish state and thereby maintain the crucial distinction between scholarly discourse and political advocacy.

This picture of unending ethnic violence, to say nothing of dishonest scholarship, may seem an eccentric way to begin a paper on reconciliation. Yet reality must be confronted, if reconciliation is to be more than a pious hope. The reality of State-Zionist Israel has been disastrous for Palestine, but not because of Jews or Judaism. Like many moderate advocates of the Arab position, Rihani drew a sharp distinction between Jews, who wished to be considered citizens of a different faith and the proponents of State-Zionism, who considered themselves citizens of the Jewish nation, regardless of their domicile or legal status. This distinction has been the crux of the dilemma faced by all those who would understand the conflict in Palestine, including many Jews, particularly those who are fully assimilated into western countries, and Israelis. It was brought into high relief with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution and the consequent rise of the Nation-State.


The position of the nation-state dealing with ethnic minorities has never been framed more acutely than by Clermont-Tonneur in his famous address to the French National Assembly in 1789: 'Jews, as individuals, deserve everything; Jews as a nation nothing. One has to disavow their judges; they should have none, other than ours. The legal status of their pretended statutory Jewish corporations must be removed. Within the state there can be neither a separate political body nor an order. There can only be the individual citizen. It is being argued that they themselves would refuse to become citizens. Let them say that and they would be expelled, because it is inconceivable that there should be in the state a society of non-citizens, a nation within a nation (Katz, From Prejudice to Destruction, p. 109). Of course this declaration of exclusive sovereignty did not apply only to Jews but to all groups with political aspirations independent of the Nation-State, yet the Jews had been liable to the charge as voluntary outsiders and therefore not fully committed to the state of their residence. However acceptable their status as outsiders, with or without state granted privileges, was in a given European state, after the French Revolution it became unacceptable. Citizenship henceforward would trump ethnicity, whether of the dominant group or minority.

All nations are to some extent created and are to this extent precarious. Minority groups are inevitably wary of the linking of the nation to the state. Any group, however constituted, which qualifies its affiliation to the state cannot be tolerated. This is especially true when the nation-state, as France did in 1789, offers national citizenship to all without prejudice or qualification. Although citizenship need not presume cultural homogeneity, at least not to the degree that nation-states early in their development tend to insist upon, it does preclude political claims of any other national group. Citizenship must define the legal relationship of the individual to the state. There is little or no room for any legal relationship of any subnational group to the state. However much this concept of citizenship liberates individuals to...

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