It is one of the great shames of the modern world that there is still a question as to whether Israel has a right to exist in its present form or any form at all. Despite the relative insecurity of the country militarily, this problem was absent during the first twenty years of Israel's existence. The actual threat to Israel's survival by the Arab armies meant that on an intellectual and international level there were fewer calls for its destruction, at least outside of the Arab and Muslim world. With the exception of some radical voices in the West, such as historian Arnold Toynbee's 1961 comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany, there were relatively few intellectuals in the West that called for the destruction of Israel or attempted to undermine its foundations as a Jewish, democratic state.
Recent years have seen a rise in academic circles and student movements throughout the Western world of a general cultural shift against the existence of Israel. From the ivory tower, a constant stream of relatively unscholarly and angry works have been issued by such academics and writers as Noam Chomsky, Tony Judt, and Edward Said, some calling for a bi-national state, a code word for the abolition of Israel. But the fringe, consisting of such works as Jonathan Cook's Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East and Alan Hart's Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews, is bolstered by a constant assault by some within international organizations, such as the U.N.'s special envoy Robert Serry and the U.N. Human Rights Council's Richard Falk, who have openly denounced Israel.
In response, recent years have seen the publication of several popular works such as Alan Dershowitz's Case for Israel and Yaacov Lazowick's Right to Exist. These follow in the footsteps of Chaim Herzog's Who Stands Accused: Israel Answers Its Critic. But there has been a gap in robust academic refutations of the accusations against Israel. Yakobson and Rubinstein's Israel and the Family of Nations is a brilliant effort to fill that gap.
Yakobson, a lecturer in the humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has lectured and written on such diverse themes as elections in the Roman republic, European academic boycotts of Israel, and Israeli democracy. Rubinstein, a much better known figure in Israel, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics and was the dean of faculty and professor of law at Tel Aviv University. Currently he is the provost and dean of the Radzyner School of Law at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. In addition he has served in a variety of capacities in the Israeli government, including that of minister of education from 1993-96. Most importantly, for any book that defends Israel, Rubinstein is a respected man of the Left. Given his credentials as a leading member of the dovish and leftist political party, Meretz, he is in an excellent position to defend the country on moral and intellectual grounds.
The methodology of Israel and the Family of Nations is not dramatically different from Dershowitz's attempt to defend Israel by providing a case by case examination of the accusations against it. This is, at one and the same time, a strength and weakness of the book. While it is absolutely necessary to defend Israel based on the accusations against the country, it also gives the accusations greater substance and means that the authors must present the entire research as a refutation. But none of this would be necessary in a world that accorded Israel the same rights and responsibilities that other nations are accorded, and this is the central point the authors are trying to make.
Yakobson and Rubinstein provide readers with six chapters devoted to answering five questions or responding to five accusations: Can Israel be both Jewish and truly democratic? Is the Israeli law of return unique? Is the nexus between Israel and the Jewish diaspora an exceptional one? How can a nation-state be a state of all its citizens? Along the way the authors discuss more extreme libels against the Jewish people and Israel such as the idea that the Jews are not a people at all or that Israel is a "colonialist" state.
Israel and the Family of Nations begins by addressing the U.N. partition plan passed on November 29, 1947. The authors have chosen to begin here not only because this is the plan that led to the creation of Israel but also to show that "the debate that has gained momentum in recent years over the legitimacy of Israel's definition as a Jewish state usually ignores a basic fact: The 'Jewish State' is what the international community decided to establish in 1947." Here the reader is introduced to intrigues behind the U.N. vote and the way in which it established the legal basis for the existence of Israel.
In recent years, it has become common for mainstream commentators and professors to accuse Israel of being a "colonialist European" state whose origins are in the "bad old days" of colonialism and which must thus be destroyed the way other colonial "settler" regimes were destroyed, such as in Algeria. Yakobson and Rubinstein note that "to label something 'colonialist' is to imply that it lacks all legitimacy." Here the authors correctly note that the Zionist movement as a national movement was unique and that its relationship with the British government, rather than being an arm of that government, distinguishes it from other European colonial attempts. Unlike other colonies where Europeans from the mother country sent settlers to the colony, the Zionist settlers were not from the mother country and represented an independent, national movement sometimes allied with and sometimes at odds with the colonizing power.
The second theme of the book, and probably the most important and original section of it, deals with the question of whether Israel can be both a Jewish and a democratic state. It also deals with the question of the rights of the Arab minority and whether the definition of the country as a Jewish nation-state with a Star of David on the flag and a national anthem that speaks of a "Jewish soul" can truly represent them. Here Yakobson and Rubinstein are at their finest, reaching a crescendo by providing nineteen pages of examples from constitutions throughout the world that not only speak of nation-states with a state religion and ethnicity but also speak of special rights for diasporas. The reader is faced with the weight of facts showing that numerous countries throughout the world, in totality probably the majority, share many things in common with Israel. Whether it is Armenia's relations with its diaspora or the position of the Catholic church in Latin America, one sees clearly that Israel is not unique and that attempts by scholars, activists, and international organizations to label Israel as ipso facto an anachronism, a "racist" state that is based on ethnicity and religion and therefore undemocratic and out of step with history, are simply based on ignorance.
Israel and the Family of Nations is a timely and necessary book. It is scholarly but accessible and should provide a basis for intelligent debate about Israel and for defending its institutions and foundations.
Seth J. Frantzman is a doctoral candidate in historical geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He writes a column for The Jerusalem Post. He blogs at http://journalterraincognita.blogspot.com.