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Straw Men and Wild Fires

Why Ted Honderich is Wrong on All Counts

by PAUL De ROOIJ

Professor Ted Honderich concludes his recent CounterPunch article ["On Being Persona Non Grata to Palestinians, Too", CounterPunch, Feb. 19, 2005] with:

"A summary then: (1) In 1948 Zionism was right. (2) In 2005, given history since 1948, the existence of the state of Israel within its original borders requires our moral defence, as does its secure future. (3) Also from the perspective of 2005, the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong, on account of the reality of the Palestinians as a people, proved thereafter. (4) Neo-Zionism is obviously viciously wrong. The importance of the third proposition, the judgement now on 1948, is that it contributes to the foundation of something else. That is (5) that the Palestinians have had a moral right to their terrorism against the enlarging of Israel. No change in thinking there."

Wrong on all counts

Honderich states that "Zionism was right in 1948". However, any nationalism calling for an exclusive homeland requiring the expulsion of the "natives" was as evil in 1948 as it is today. The foundation of the State of Israel was an historical mistake, and this crime was made possible thanks to the British imposition of the Jewish migration to Palestine. As Tanya Reinhart, an Israeli Jew herself, admitted in her book How to End the War of 1948, Israel was born in original sin. If Honderich insists on referring to moral arguments, then he should note that although the United Nations may have approved the formation of the state, that doesn’t make it morally right, given that it was imposed at the cost of the local population. It is also not surprising that Palestinians will reject this aspect of his stance.

The second "conclusion", about "the existence of the state of Israel within its original borders requir[ing] our moral defense", depends on the validity of the previous conclusion. If, as argued here, the creation of the state of Israel was morally reprehensible, then the current manifestation of that state is, likewise, morally flawed. The fact that most Israeli cities were built on the destroyed Palestinian villages attests to the moral bankruptcy of this enterprise. Honderich throws in that one should defend its "secure future". This language is reminiscent of what the Zionists themselves use: security at the expense of justice. Certainly, Honderich should recognize that there is a moral problem with such an outcome.

Honderich also suggests that Israel is acceptable within its "current" borders. Israel is unique in that it doesn’t have defined or recognized borders, and perhaps he could elucidate which borders he is referring to. Israel has always been a country with creeping borders ­ it has an insatiable urge to expand, and thus further dispossess the native population. On May 14, 1948, the day he proclaimed the new state without specifying its borders, Ben Gurion wrote in his diary: "Take the American Declaration of Independence for instance. It contains no mention of the territorial limits" [1]. A few years later, Ben-Gurion wrote: "To maintain the status quo will not do. We have to set up a dynamic state bent upon expansion" [2]. The current construction of the land-grab wall is merely the latest manifestation of these expansionist proclivities.

The third "conclusion" regarding "from the perspective of 2005, the founding of the state of Israel in Palestine was wrong", doesn’t provide a useful insight. That is, if the founding of the state was wrong in 1948, then it is still wrong now — after all, the refugees still languish in the refugee camps all over the region. Much has been written by Zionists suggesting that time will improve the acceptability of the state and that the original sin will be slowly vanish. However, some of these Zionists recognize the initial criminal act against the Palestinians and now argue that the acceptability of the current state improves over time [3]. Honderich’s argument goes in the opposite direction! That is, he accepts the creation of this state in 1948, but then finds that Israel crossed a line after which this is suddenly wrong. The line that was crossed is itself problematic given that it was imposed by force and conquest, so to suggest that breaching this magical line suddenly makes something wrong is problematic.

Honderich makes an odd distinction about two types of Zionism when he states:

"The first consists in the rightful founding of the state of Israel in 1948 after the Holocaust and also its continued and peaceful existence now within the borders it had in 1967. The second thing is the expansion of Israel since 1967, the further violation of Palestine and the Palestinian people. The first thing is Zionism. The second is neo-Zionism." (Honderich, ibid.)

If Honderich were to differentiate among the strands of Zionism that are generally recognized, then one could possibly engage in a meaningful discussion. The actual political manifestations of Zionism in 1948 through 2005, of the varieties that currently are labeled as Likud or Labor, all agree on the appropriation of all of Palestine, they all agree with the expulsions of 1948 and thereafter; they differ merely on the relative merits of being forthright or devious in conducting them. The "left" Zionists oversaw a major expansion of the settlement blocs ­ even in the middle of Hebron, a major Palestinian city. Zionism didn’t stop at the Green Line just as it didn’t stop at the line marked by UN Resolution 181. Many Zionists thought that Ben Gurion committed a mistake by not appropriating all of Palestine in 1948 and expelling all the population. This was discussed then as it is now, and Sharon and his ilk think they are finishing the 1948 war, and Tanya Reinhart chose this as the title of her book to highlight this fact.

Honderich suggests that the Green Line somehow forms the basis between legitimate and illegitimate Zionism/Israel, but the choice of this border is troublesome too. UNGA 181 defined the borders of the proposed Jewish state but, on all fronts, the Israelis overran this border. In early May 1948, after the Israelis had already expelled over 380,000 Palestinians but before the Arab states sent their troops into Palestine, Ben-Gurion wrote: "[T]he Arabs did not accept [UNGA 181]. They are preparing to make war on us. If we defeat them and capture western Galilee or territory on both sides of the road to Jerusalem, these areas will become part of the state. Why should we obligate ourselves to accept boundaries that in any case the Arabs don’t accept?" [4] The Green Line is not a legitimate border; it is merely where the conquest temporarily halted. The only thing that would render this border legitimate is a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians in a way that it will provide a modicum of justice. Similarly, Honderich ignores the conditions and rights of the Palestinians living in what now is considered Israel. Is it in his view legitimate that they are third class citizens living in a de facto apartheid state, and facing the risk of further ethnic cleansing?

If Honderich acknowledges that "neo"-Zionism is "viciously wrong", then the same argument must be leveled at the Zionism of 1948, the Zionism of Menachem Begin, Ben Gurion, et al. The wave of ethnic cleansing and the destruction of hundreds of villages in 1948 can only be deemed as vicious; maybe the thoughtful philosopher can address why this event doesn’t tarnish Zionism or Israel in 1948.

Straw men should not venture close to the fire

Honderich must consider that for his contribution to have contemporary relevance it should be grounded in history and an understanding of political discourse. It is of limited use to define one’s own terminology and then apply it to a contested ideological scene where those terms have a different meaning, or the terms don’t exist at all. Honderich’s distinction between old/neo Zionisms isn’t legitimate, and the arguments he raises about this distinction is of negligible use. Similarly, Honderich defines the meaning of "terrorism" and then proceeds to build an edifice justifying Palestinian "terrorism". The word "terrorism" is perhaps the most ideologically contested word in contemporary discourse. It is difficult to pin down its meaning or the implications of defining it in a certain way. And here comes Honderich defining terrorism and then building the moral arguments to justify it. This is not useful. The Palestinians have a right to resist their dispossession and expulsion; the legitimacy of this resistance is generally accorded to a population subject to colonial oppression. If the violence required to resist is legitimate, then there is very little need to "justify" the right to use terrorism as a separate category.

The justification for the use of "terrorism" is also counterproductive in contemporary discourse. Bush/Sharon don’t waste an opportunity to malign any violence as "terrorism" and to demonize the "terrorists". It is therefore not surprising that Honderich receives a cool reception when presenting his papers on this topic. The Zionists and most media will attack suggestions that "terrorism" is ever justified, and the Palestinians don’t want to have the entirety of the violence of their resistance labeled as "terrorism". One thing is to build constructs that prove debating points in an academic environment, but it is another if such edifice is relevant in a hotly contested ideological arena. Straw men should not venture too close to the fire.

Is Honderich a Zionist?

Honderich acknowledges that his background of the history of Palestine/Israel and Zionism is limited. The consequence of this is evident by the statements that he has made in his latest article. He goes so far as to state that he is a "Zionist" (hopefully of the vegetarian variety, emasculated to remain within the Green Line). Unfortunately, one suspects that Honderich isn’t aware of the sordid history of this movement or he might not be so quick to label himself thus. Furthermore, post-World War II, it was clear that any nationalist ideology requiring the dispossession of others has been discredited and roundly rejected. After this war, the world attempted to adopt a more humanist approach to the conception of the nation state where the constitution of the state would be determined by all of its citizens, and to limit the state’s recourse to violence; the state would itself almost become an anachronism. On this basis, Zionism should have been rejected in 1948 — the year Honderich uses for many of his arguments. Similarly, we should reject Zionism today because it is an anachronism and one can no longer tolerate its imperative to create an "exclusive" state on the land stolen from others with genocidal implications. Given the renewed expansionist predisposition of Israel and the United States, there is again a need to emphasize the rejection of states based on bankrupt and exclusivist ideologies, and Zionism should be no exception.

There is a simple explanation for why Zionists and Palestinians will reject or take issue with Honderich’s arguments or his portrayal of the issues. It has to do with the limited use of a moral philosophical edifice that is not firmly grounded in an understanding of history or an understanding of a hotly contested political discourse. One can also understand why others reject Honderich if he just happens to be simply wrong.

PAUL de ROOIJ is a writer living in London. He can be reached at proox@hotmail.com (NB: all emails with attachments will be automatically deleted.)

PAUL de ROOIJ © 2004

Endnotes

[1] Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion: The Armed Prophet, 1967, p. 157.

[2] David Ben-Gurion, Rebirth and Destiny of Israel, New York: Philosophical Library in New York, 1954.

[3] See for example the writings on this topic by Elias Baumgarten, a philosophy professor at Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn.

[4] Elli Wohlgelertner, "One day that shook the world", Jerusalem Post, May 2002.