I have long wanted to write a piece on “Israel’s right to exist” since this phrase, which is repeated by some as though it were a sacred, inviolable mantra, seems to me to be a bunch of meaningful words strung together in a nonsensical way to assert something that doesn’t stand up to five minutes of rational scrutiny.
These are the reasons I think this:
States do not have rights. People have rights, and these rights generally exist to protect them from states. When they don’t exist to protect them from states, they exist to protect them from other people.
No state has the right to exist. States exist because a group of people wants the state to exist for their benefit. If the state is no longer beneficial to its people, it can be changed or dissolved.
Some people, when they say “Israel has the right to exist” seem to mean that it is wrong to try to violently destroy Israel or kill its citizens. This is obviously true, and these things are wrong, yes. If that’s what we mean, though, I think we should say that: “It is wrong to try to violently destroy Israel or kill its citizens.”
If what we mean by “destroy Israel” is dissolve the nature of Israel as a Jewish ethno-state, than there is nothing wrong with saying so or doing so. If the demographics change, or the will of the actual people living in what is now Israel, want to re-imagine their country as a multi-cultural democracy or a binational state of Jews and Arabs, than they may do so, and there is nothing immoral or violent about saying so or advocating for this.
“Nation-states” or “ethno-states” not only have no right to exist, I think they are actively pernicious. When it is Israel we are talking about, what is generally meant by “Israel has the right to exist” is that “Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.” This is clearly no more true than the assertion that Rwanda has the right to exist as the state of the Hutus, or Canada has the right to exist as an Anglo-Saxon state, which, by the way, was what was widely believed in Canada previous to the 1970s and was used as a justification for refusing Jews refuge during WW2, cultural genocide against Indigenous people, and racist immigration policies of various kinds. I’m glad we don’t believe that in Canada any more. Are you? Then why would we agree that Israel has the right to be and remain a Jewish state?
It seems to me that the nature of states should be determined by the demographics and democratic will of the people that state governs. In the case of Israel, the choice the state has faced has been between allowing the Jewish Supremacist nature of the state to change to account for the democratic will of Arabs, African asylum seekers, and other non-Jews, or to deny those non-Jews citizenship and go one claiming to be a “democracy” in the same way that ancient Athens was a democracy- if you happened to be a Greek male citizen, but not if you were a slave, non-Greek, or a woman.
In practice, to say “Israel has the right to exist” is really code, intentional or unintentional, for “Israel has the right to maintain its character as a Jewish supremacist ethno-state.” This is currently happening through refusing Palestinians citizenship or collaboration as equals, or the right of return to their ancestral lands. Considering the fact that Palestinians have spent the last few decades either in ghettoized villages in the West Bank or in the open air prison camp of Gaza, and embrace absolute resistance to their own disempowerment and exclusion, to say “Israel has the right to exist” is a declaration of commitment to either eternal war, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.
For more on this see this great longform piece from the substack of Freddie DeBoer, I Assure You, I Am Permitted to Oppose the Existence of Any and All Nation-States.