Ben White writes: There was outrage last week when the University of Southampton cancelled a forthcoming conference on Israel and international law, ostensibly on the grounds of “health and safety”.
The university had been under pressure from pro-Israel advocacy groups, and organisers have begun legal efforts against what they see as a concession to outside interference and bullying. The story of the campaign to shut down the conference should not, however, distract from why Israel’s supporters found the topics scheduled for discussion so objectionable.
One theme dominated criticism of the conference, summed up by this headline in the Daily Express: “Outrage as BRITISH university questions Israel’s right to exist.” This is therefore a useful opportunity to examine what has become a cliché in discussion about the Middle East by politicians and pundits.
So, does Israel have a “right to exist”? The answer, or at least an important part of the answer, is that no states have a “right to exist”, without exceptions. States come and go, are formed, and broken up. South Sudan was created in 2011. The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Czechoslovakia became Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993.
There is popular discussion and scholarly work about the legitimacy of numerous states. This debate is generated by factors such as the legacy of decolonisation, or the dozens of active independence and separatist movements across the world.
But what about whether Israel has a “right to exist” as a “Jewish state” specifically? The UN Partition Plan and General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947 did indeed call for the establishment of an “Arab state” and a “Jewish state” within the boundaries of British Mandate Palestine.
However, it did so based on population distribution at the time – it did not define a “Jewish” (or Arab) state so as to encompass Jews not already living there. It avoided, in other words, “invoking an abstract right to self-determination of Jews as an extra-territorial group”. [Continue reading…]