Memo to Anti-Zionist Jews

(This post appeared on The Times of Israel blog platform on May 2, 2016)

If your anti-Zionism flows from a religious conviction that a Jewish state is a sacrilege if established before the coming of the messiah, read no further. I cannot alter your faith-based credo.

If your anti-Zionism flows from a conviction that the Jewish state of Israel is by its founding and nature a racist oppressor of Arabs, then I can try to dispel the “big lies” that have fueled that belief. Read on as I address the slogans and distortions that underlie efforts of anti-Zionists to demonize and delegitimize the state of Israel.

A fair definition of Zionism is a Jewish movement to reestablish sovereignty in part of the ancient Jewish homeland in Palestine in order to serve as a refuge for the multitude of Jews facing oppression in their foreign environs. In 1922, even before the Holocaust, the League of Nations acknowledged that centuries of inquisitions, mass expulsions, forced ghettoization, and pogroms warranted a Jewish refuge. Sparsely populated Palestine was an appropriate locus given the historical and ongoing connection of the Jewish people with that land.

Nothing in the Zionist vision entailed exploitation or expulsion of local Arab populations. The 1922 League of Nations mandate to Britain to manage the Palestine portion of the former Ottoman Empire endorsed Jews’ settlement in their ancient homeland but explicitly preserved the civil rights of existing non-Jewish communities. Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence pledged to develop the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants and to assure all inhabitants equal political and religious freedoms. The implementation of that vision is far from perfect, but it’s also far from the nefarious picture painted by anti-Zionist accusers.

The first anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel was founded as a colonialist enterprise intending to ethnically cleanse resident Arabs. A small Jewish presence remained in Palestine even after ancient diasporas. Starting in the 1860’s, more Jews migrated into sparsely populated Palestine (then a part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire) and purchased land for small, mostly agricultural enclaves. In the early 1900’s, those early Jewish settlers were joined by Russian migrants fleeing pogroms. In the 1930’s, German Jews fleeing Nazi persecution also sought refuge in Palestine. These 20th century Jewish migrants and refugees had equal legal and moral status with the many thousands of Arabs who were then migrating into Palestine from the surrounding Arab areas of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. During the early 20th century, both Jews and Arabs settled in Palestine and both ethnic groups revolted against the British mandatory rule that prevailed between 1922 and 1947.

In 1948, Israel agreed to a United Nations partition plan for Palestine under which Jewish residents would be sovereign over a small portion of original mandatory Palestine and Arabs would rule over another portion allotted to them by the U.N. (As noted, Israel agreed to equal rights for the Arab minority remaining under its sovereignty). Arabs rejected the partition and Arab armies from surrounding Arab countries promptly attacked the fledgling Jewish state vowing to drive the Jews into the sea. In the vast disruption prompted by the Arab-initiated war, several hundred thousand Arabs became refugees and hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to leave their homes in North Africa and Arab countries. Hundreds of thousands of local Arabs chose not to flee in 1948 and they became the source of the 1.7 million Arabs who today are full citizens of Israel. Any notion of virulent Israeli colonialism is also belied by Israel’s relinquishment of the Sinai peninsula (via a 1979 peace treaty with Egypt), by its unilateral withdrawals from Gaza (2005) and south Lebanon (2000), and by prior offers to Yasser Arafat (Camp David 2000) and Mahmoud Abbas (2008) to relinquish over 90% of the West Bank.

The second anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel is an “apartheid” state. As a resident of Tel Aviv and a former law faculty member at Tel Aviv University, I am well situated to refute that malicious distortion. Israeli Arabs have full political rights and occupy 10 percent of the parliamentary seats. Arabs work in most sectors of the Israeli economy, including as lawyers, judges, physicians, nurses, pharmacists, and hi-tech engineers. Arabs constitute over 10 percent of university students. Arab shoppers regularly mingle with Jewish shoppers in malls and on public transportation. While there is considerable discrimination against Arabs in Israeli society that needs to be overcome, the current scene is far from apartheid.

The final anti-Zionist calumny is that Israel is engaged in a genocidal campaign against Palestinian Arabs in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank. As to Gaza, Israel in 2005 unilaterally withdrew settlers and armed forces from Gaza, hoping that the Gazans would exercise self-rule for self-benefit. Instead, Hamas violently seized control, ruthlessly suppressed all forms of freedom, and launched thousands of missiles wreaking havoc and trauma in Israel’s civilian border communities. In an effort to end the missile barrages, Israeli forces have invaded and bombed Gaza 3 times, inflicting heavy casualties.

There have been many civilian casualties in those Gaza invasions, as was the case in comparable allied operations in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, and Yemen. When belligerents like Hamas (or ISIS) use mosques, schools, and other civilian structures for weapon storage and launchings, these misused structures become possible targets. Israel adheres to international legal standards of proportionality in selecting targets and takes steps (like telephoning possible civilian occupants) to avoid excessive collateral damage. See

Arab residents of parts of the West Bank are indeed subject to harsh Israeli control entailing serious limitations on travel, work access, and building. On occasion, either isolated soldiers or Jewish settlers exacerbate that harsh control via criminal acts of assault, vandalism, and even homicide. Such misdeeds are in no way part of Israeli policy and are subject to criminal punishment by Israeli authorities. Three Jewish terrorists were recently convicted for the vicious murder of a Palestinian teen in 2014. Two of them received life sentences. More Jewish extremists are now under indictment for criminal activities (including arson) directed against West Bank Arabs. An Israeli soldier who recently killed a disarmed Palestinian assailant is now facing homicide charges. All this refutes the notion that Israel is conducting a genocidal campaign toward Palestinians.

Many “liberal” Zionists are troubled by Israeli domination over more than 2 million Arab Palestinians in the West Bank and they therefore pursue a 2-state solution. People like Ari Shavit, Yair Lapid, Dennis Ross, and Alan Dershowitz are vocal critics of some of the Netanyahu government’s policies while still supporting Israel’s entitlement to secure borders and staunch defense of its citizens. These liberal Zionists recognize that Palestinian rejectionism toward prior peace offers and contemporary Palestinian incitement to violence against all Jews undermine the prospects of a peaceful resolution. These Zionist critics also recognize that anti-Zionism, the delegitimization of Israeli statehood, is counter-productive to the ultimate well being of both the Jewish and Arab populations of what was formerly mandatory Palestine. Any attempt to dismantle Israel would precipitate violent confrontation incalculably costly to all sides.

If you seek a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict, I urge you to forego the counter-productive anti-Zionist position and to join the liberal Zionist ranks.


Post-Election Reflections about Israel’s Center-Left

(This piece appeared in the Times of Israel opinion section on April 6, 2015)

Much of the commentary following Benjamin Netanyahu’s winning of 30 knesset seats (versus 22 predicted in pre-election polls) attributes the victory to “fear” on the part of Israeli voters. That fear is that the parties to the left of Netanyahu will give away the store if placed in charge of Israel’s fate. The underlying perception is that the left naively believes that only Israeli intransigence blocks permanent peace with the Palestinians. From the left’s supposed perspective, if Israel would only withdraw from most of Judea and Samaria and agree to Palestinian sovereignty there, all contending parties could grasp hands and sing Kumbaya.

If unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank were the Zionist Union’s (center-left) real position, public revulsion would be readily understandable. The great bulk of the Israeli public can’t reconcile unilateral withdrawal from territory with harsh historical facts. They don’t have to go back to Arab rejection of a 2-state solution in 1947-48 (with Arab states launching a war of destruction), or the founding of the PLO in 1964 (dedicated to violently reclaiming all of Palestine even before Israel occupied an inch of the West Bank), or the 1967 Arab rejection of negotiations to resolve the fate of the newly conquered West Bank. Israelis recall the Palestinian rejections of statehood offers in 2000 at Camp David and in 2008. And they have an indelible recollection of the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. That withdrawal was grounded on an expectation that Gaza’s residents would utilize the opportunity to peacefully self govern and would be deterred by Israeli military might from launching hostilities. That Gaza withdrawal instead engendered a violent takeover by Hamas (an entity dedicated to the violent destruction of Israel), imposition of harsh Sharia law, and the launching into Israel of many thousands of missiles wreaking such havoc on southern Israel’s civilian life that 3 military incursions have been necessary to try and quell those destructive barrages. A similar withdrawal from a “security strip” in southern Lebanon entailed Hezbollah’s further inroads into Lebanon and emplacement of rockets and missiles threatening Israel’s northern population.

Given these past traumas, it is no wonder that Israelis fear that facile concessions and/or unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) would have similar dangerous repercussions. Only this time the missiles would be launched from very short distances from Israel’s population concentrations. Add to the fear factor the recent advances of Islamic fundamentalism in nearby Syria, Iraq, and the Sinai desert. Consider also hostile Iran’s footholds in Israel’s environs – through Hezbollah’s emplacements in Lebanon and in the Syrian Golan.

Benjamin Netanyahu did make a concerted effort in the recent election campaign to play to Israelis’ security fears. He proclaimed that there would never be a Palestinian state “on his watch” and that he would take further steps to prevent such a development by building more of a Jewish presence in East Jerusalem. He shrilly condemned “anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state today” as simply providing a launching pad for further attacks on Israel; he accused the left of burying their heads in the sand. Netanyahu warned that Arab voters were streaming to the polls, an alarm not so much racist as an effort to present a frightening specter flowing from the United Arab List’s preoccupation with Palestinian affairs rather than the welfare of Israel and its Arab citizens.

The impact of Netanyahu’s scare tactics actually fell primarily on the right-leaning part of the voting spectrum. The last pre-election public opinion polls showed the Zionist Union with 26 knesset seats versus 22 for the Likud. The possibility that the Zionist Union might outvote the Likud triggered Netanyahu’s frantic warnings. Following this end-stage scare campaign, the Likud ended up with 30 seats. The likelihood is that Netanyahu’s shrill rhetoric influenced right-leaning voters from the Bayit Yehudi (Naftali Bennett’s party) and Yachad (Eli Ishai’s party). They were impelled to vote for Netanyahu to reinforce his chances to garner the largest electoral bloc and thereby get the first chance to form a new governing coalition. Both Bayit Yehudi and Yachad ended up with fewer seats than indicated in the pre-election surveys.

Some evidence supports the thesis that the fear factor indeed moved voters toward Netanyahu. The geographical distribution of election results shows that in areas most affected by missile barrages – places like Shderot and Ashdod – the Likud outpolled the Zionist Union by a ratio of four or five to one.

A major irony of Netanyahu’s claims about the left’s willingness to give away the store is that the Zionist Union’s actual positions were attuned to Israel’s security concerns. Its platform expressed readiness to renew negotiations toward a 2-state solution, but with careful regard for Israel’s security needs. The platform includes provisions on demilitarization of any future Palestinian state, on disarmament of Hamas and other radical movements, and on preclusion of weaponry from Hezbollah. The only “concession” to the Palestinian side was willingness to freeze settlement building outside the blocs likely to be retained by Israel in any future 2-state deal. In short, the platform attended to security concerns while recognizing the warnings of many former heads of intelligence services and former generals that the biggest long-term threat to Israel’s wellbeing lies in absence of permanent resolution of Palestinian grievances.

The Zionist Union’s election campaign focused on domestic economic issues rather than frictions with the Palestinians. The downplay of peace prospects was understandable, given the Israeli public’s incredulity about Palestinian desire for a peaceful 2-state resolution. That doubt is grounded on the Palestinian Authority’s heralded rapprochements with Hamas and its increasingly bellicose rhetoric toward Israel.

With 20/20 hindsight, perhaps the better election strategy would have been to confront head-on the issue of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Zionist Union might have recycled Ariel Sharon’s 2005 speech at the United Nations, where he said:
The right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors. * * * They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own. * * * It is possible to reach a fair compromise and coexistence in good neighborly relations between Jews and Arabs. * * * [However,] there will be no compromise on the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, with defensible borders in full security without threats and terror.
Of course, Sharon then slipped up when he unilaterally withdrew from Gaza without any security arrangements. He gave away the store in that instance.

It is the unenviable task of Isaac Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and like-minded people on the center-left to persuade Israeli voters (and the major world powers) that the vision of peaceful coexistence of Israel and a Palestinian state is not pie in the sky. The center-left’s task is to reassure that Israel’s extension of a peaceful hand toward negotiations would be circumscribed by constant awareness of Israel’s security needs – that it won’t give away the West Bank store. It must show that the real obstruction to a peaceful, 2-state resolution is Palestinian enmity and resistance to recognizing Israel’s right to subsist with security for its population.

Right now, the center-left’s task looks like mission impossible. Who in the Israeli electorate will be convinced about negotiations when daily reports arrive about Hamas’ continued missile rearmament, tunnel digging, and rededication to the goal of destroying Israel, all while the Palestinian Authority pursues hostile confrontation in international forums? To generate a negotiated end to Israeli domination over 2.5 million West Bank Arabs, the U.S., Europe, and all interested foreign powers will have to exert their influence on the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, to undertake good-faith negotiations toward a 2-state solution. Without significant changes in tone on both sides, the long-term peace prospects look dismal.

Hazards of Unripe Democracy in the Middle East

The following piece appeared in the March 11, 2011, English edition of the Israeli newspaper HaAretz.

 The  Hazards of Unripe Democracy

Norman L. Cantor

            Israelis are understandably apprehensive that the uprisings in nearby Arab countries will produce unripe democracy – elected governments lacking democratic checks and balances and subject to malevolent manipulation and usurpation of majority will.  Past experiences in Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza, and Iran, among other places, furnish good cause for such concern.

Yet Israelis should be concerned as well about internal trends inconsistent with basic democratic principles and values.  In a robust democracy, freedoms of thought and expression help provide a bulwark against intemperate oligarchic control.  Free expression makes a full spectrum of views and information available to an electorate to ensure informed electoral choice.  Protected speech includes dissent from current orthodox positions even when that dissent is distasteful to majority views.

A recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court illustrates how free speech protects even dissenting ideas that are hateful or unpatriotic from a majority perspective.   In Snyder v. Phelps, a Christian religious sect had picketed near the Virginia funeral of an American soldier who had fallen in Iraq with signs blaming American policies tolerant of homosexuals for provoking God’s wrath.  The picket signs proclaimed “God hates the U.S.” and applauded the soldier’s death as appropriate punishment for America’s tolerant policies.  The pickets’ hurtful message was that the soldier had died in shame, not honor, representing a profligate nation.  After the Virginia courts had awarded the dead soldier’s mourning family millions of dollars in damages for “intentional infliction of emotional harm,” the U.S. Supreme Court reversed on March 2, 2011.  By an 8 to 1 margin, the Court ruled that even the upsetting, offensive expressions by the defendant sect were constitutionally protected by freedom of speech.  The sect’s views about American policy might have been wrong, hurtful, and unpatriotic in a time of war, but they could not be suppressed by government unhappy with the speakers’ messages.  The remedy for distorted speech is counter-speech to criticize and correct the distortions and to elucidate the facts.

Within Israel, a disturbing tendency exists to equate dissenting voices – public expressions contrary to prevailing policies – as a form of punishable treason.  M.K. Miri Regev’s proposed bill to narrow parliamentary immunity is one example.  Her bill was triggered by presence and expressions of another M.K. on the Turkish flotilla seeking to reach Gaza.  Yet, consistent with free expression, an Israeli legislator could reasonably believe and say that the existing Gaza blockade was overly harsh and counter-productive so long as the legislator was not seeking to smuggle arms or forcibly resist the Israeli search team.  Nor is it treason even to believe and argue that a military operation intended as part of national defense – such as operation Cast Lead – might be premature or hasty or ill-planned in causing excessive collateral damage.

Another basic democratic principle is preservation of the rule of law.  Citizens are entitled, in a democracy, to protest government policies, but not to physically resist them with impunity.  A part of the settler movement in Judea and Samaria fails to grasp this notion.  An article in the March 6, 2011, English HaAretz brands the government’s destruction of unauthorized outpost Havat Gilad as “undemocratic” because a majority in the last Israeli elections had supposedly “voted against the destruction of the homes of Jews.”  Put aside the puerile notion that representative democracy demands implementation of every majority preference; recent settler outrage is still misplaced.  Settlers are indeed entitled to condemn the government’s destruction of unauthorized outposts like Havat Gilad, but they are also subject to appropriate punishment both for physical resistance and for protest actions blocking public transportation.  Likewise for vandalizing property (“price tag” retaliations).   These disruptive objectors may see themselves as justified by noble creeds, but they are in no better position than a conscientious soldier who refuses to serve beyond the green line and is then jailed for failure to adhere to army orders.

In a robust democracy, citizens can oppose and condemn public policies, but the rule of law ensures that opposition is not converted to illegal conduct disrupting public order.  Part of the recent apprehensiveness following Arab popular uprisings flows from the threat of mass violence usurping majority will.  A New York Times article of March 6 warns that “minorities that are organized and willing to use violence can establish reigns of terror over unorganized or passive majorities.”   Settlers engaging in physical resistance to government decisions pose a similar challenge to Israeli democracy.   In short, while Israelis have good cause to fear “unripe” democracy in nearby countries, they should also be alert to the maintenance of robust democracy within.

Norman L. Cantor is professor of law, emeritus, at Rutgers University Law School. He has taught about freedom of expression at both Rutgers and at Tel Aviv University faculty of law.









My Personal Day of Rage

The following item appeared in the Jerusalem Post on March 20, 2011:

My Personal Day of Rage

Norman L. Cantor

            It is fashionable these days in the Middle East and North Africa to conduct “days of rage” – a day of protest promoting any of various political causes.  The first manifestation was in Tunisia in January, via demonstrations directed against an autocratic regime.  On February 20, Moroccans widely demonstrated in favor of political reforms.  (Was it just coincidence that I was present in Morocco that day?  Perhaps.)  On March 2, Israeli settlers declared a day of rage to protest the army’s destruction of an illegal settler outpost on the West Bank.  They expressed their upset by blocking traffic on Israeli public roads and rails till physically removed.  On March 11, disgruntled Saudi Arabians conducted a day of protest demonstrations.

Those were organized days of rage, but I see no obstacle to conducting personal days of rage.  I live in the Middle East (Tel Aviv) and see plenty of things both abroad and locally that provoke my outrage.  So today is Cantor’s day of rage when I get to vent my upset about offensive conduct around me.

My first burst of outrage is directed toward the foreign pundits who chastise Israelis for their anxiety about the outcomes of popular uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.  People like Roger Cohen in the New York Times (March 3) find it morally “troubling” that Israelis are not wildly applauding these efforts to throw off oppression and gain freedom.  This supercilious journalist’s  scolding ignores legitimate apprehension flowing from experience with usurpation of “democratic movements” for oligarchic or theocratic ends as occurred in Iran, Lebanon, and Gaza (to name a few relevant areas).  The 30-year peace with Egypt has been a cold one in which Egyptians have avoided cultural, economic, and social interchange while largely portraying Israel as an oppressive Satan.  So pardon me, Roger, if I perceive and worry about potential for hostile exploitation of Egyptian political chaos and economic hardship for demagogic ends antagonistic to Israel.  This apprehension is not inconsistent with a fervent wish that the Egyptians use their uprising to promote dignity and security for their citizenry.

I preface my expressions of rage about internal Israeli matters by saying that the development of the State of Israel is a miraculous accomplishment.  I live here because I admire the progress in a scant 63 years, but there are significant blemishes, some of which arouse my anger.

Take, for instance, the notion of a greater Israel (settlers demanding expropriation of the entire West Bank with its multitudes of Arab residents who resist Israeli sovereignty).  The main claim is that Israel is entitled to control all that territory because it was part of the biblical heartland and divinely promised – according to the Old Testament — to the Jews.  This position is sadly reminiscent of the segment of American Jewry (mostly southerners) who, before the Civil War, supported slavery because the Old Testament ostensibly upheld slavery.  The ancient bible cannot, I think, justify a result so antithetical to the human dignity and will of so many people.  Permanent occupation and control is not slavery, but it is still inconsistent with the human dignity of an objecting population denied equal civil rights.

Turning to Israel inside the Green Line, I find plenty to remonstrate about.  I am proud that Israel’s declaration of independence endorsed the principle that Arab residents of Israel are entitled to full citizenship and equal rights.  Israel’s Supreme Court has embraced that principle in its rulings over the last 60 years.  But it is troubling to see erosions of that key democratic value in modern social norms and conduct.  Recent polls indicate that a shocking percentage of Jewish Israelis (close to 50%) oppose Arab citizens’ entitlement to full civil rights.  Along the same lines, a recent letter signed by more than 50 orthodox rabbis urges property owners in Sefad not to rent to non-Jews.  In other words, these rabbis want to obstruct Arab students at the local college who seek to live near their place of study.  Jewish extremists recently demonstrated in Jaffa trying to treat Arab residents as unwanted interlopers even though Arabs have resided in Jaffa for hundreds of years.  Such disrespect for fellow citizens surely undermines the long-term prospects of peaceful coexistence within Israel.

Don’t think that the Jewish sector of the population is the exclusive source of dehumanizing or demonizing treatment of “the other.”  Many Israeli Arabs show a distressing insensitivity to the interests of their Jewish fellow citizens.  On the rare occasions when Jews seek to rent property in Arab towns, the effort is usually repulsed by physical intimidation against any owner willing to rent.  When Operation Cast Lead was launched against Hamas in Gaza in response to many thousands of warheads fired into southern Israel, local Arab politicians reacted as though the army’s operation was an unprovoked assault.  They did not identify with the interests of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish Israelis living under bombardment.  Nor have Israeli Arab politicians shown any sympathy with the blockade of Gaza aimed at precluding the smuggling of weaponry into Hamas’ hands.

Arab sector politics in Israel has generally exhibited a counter-productive focus on Israel’s foreign policy (meaning Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria) while neglecting the legitimate claims of Arab citizens to equal treatment.  Israeli democracy offers channels for promotion of minority rights, but the actions and voices of Israeli Arab politicians are a far cry from the civil rights movement launched by African-Americans in the 1960’s. Voter registration,  elections,  non-violent protests, and anti-discrimination litigation  were the classic tools to combat prevalent discrimination against African-Americans.  To parallel the success of the American civil rights movement, Israeli Arabs would have to fully accept Israeli sovereignty and vigorously seek through democratic means to implement the equality set out in Israel’s declaration of independence and Supreme Court jurisprudence.

A final outburst aimed at public behavior.  For generations, Israelis have cultivated an image of superficial coarseness – supposedly, like the Zabra plant, prickly on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside.  Israelis were often short on manners (as recognized by those of us shunted aside in bus or bank lines).  That gruffness was tolerable.  Yet new heights of boorishness are being reached in contemporary Israel.  For example, in sports crowds.  Some Betar Jerusalem fans had often demonstrated despicable racism in insults hurled at Arab soccer players.  Now, they have added thuggery to their repertoire.  It’s pretty pathetic when a Tel Aviv fan cannot travel to the Betar stadium in Jerusalem without being threatened, chased, and having his car’s windows shattered, as has recently occurred.

That’s enough for one eruption.  I’m signing off till the next accumulation of bile generates another personal day of rage.