On the legitimacy of the founding of the state of Israel

Par David Olivier Whittier

Originally published in French on October 21, 2021.

17 min.

Abstract: The founding of Israel was legitimate for the same reason that the demand of refugees in general is legitimate: the right to live somewhere rather than die takes precedence over the right to live somewhere rather than somewhere else. Progressives should be first to recognise this legitimacy.

The question of the legitimacy of the founding of the state of Israel has no necessary connection with the judgements that we can make about the policy pursued by this state today, particularly with regard to the Palestinian populations with which it interacts; any more than we feel obliged, in judging French policy today, to question the legitimacy of the birth of this country. Yet, more than 70 years after the founding of Israel in 1948, the legitimacy of this event remains at the centre of debate. For many, Israel is by nature – i.e. by birth – an evil entity, and any act of criticism by its government is to be interpreted in this light. This is why supporters of Palestinian rights almost automatically tend to declare themselves anti-Zionists, which literally means that they oppose the founding of the state of Israel and consider its lack of legitimacy to be relevant to their actions today; in other words, they place their pro-Palestinian activism in the perspective of the disappearance of the “Zionist entity”. It is not obvious that it should be so; but it is in fact so, in the case of Israel.

One of the consequences of this state of affairs is, paradoxically, that it reduces the pressure on the Israeli government to behave properly towards the Palestinians: if criticism is directed not at my actions but at my existence, what is the point of taking it into account? Worse: this existential criticism places a heavy burden of insecurity on the Israeli population, on its future in that country and even on its physical survival, and thus can only justify in its mind the violent reactions towards the Palestinians and a lack of compassion for their fate – of compassion that is, on the contrary, sorely needed. In short, the refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the birth of Israel remains a potent poison in relations between Israel and the Arab world, and an obstacle to the objectives of anyone who sincerely wishes to improve the situation, in particular, of the Palestinians.

The moral legitimacy of the Jewish refugees

Paradoxically, many of the most militant anti-Israel activists define themselves as left-wing, and generally support the rights of immigrants and refugees fleeing persecution, war and/or poverty. These rights include first and foremost the right to be welcomed, even when this implies a cost for the existing populations, who must accept to share their towns, neighbourhoods, social benefits and jobs. We can contest the rhetoric of the Right, which systematically presents immigrants as a source of hardship and impoverishment, but we must also accept that the duty of hospitality is not limited to cases where it agrees with our interests. Now, the moral and political rightness of the founding of Israel follows directly from the right of refugees to have a place to live in security.

The Jews who fled Europe in the immediate post-war period, quickly followed by those in many Arabic countries, with the project of founding Israel, were fleeing a danger that had showed itself to be mortal. The relationship between the Holocaust and the founding of Israel is often seen as one of compensation, or even of revenge; in reality, Israel was above all an instrument of survival, and it was not the Holocaust in itself that caused the Jews to flee, but what the Holocaust revealed, proved and exhibited: the intensity and effectiveness of the anti-Semitic drive to exterminate that prevailed in Europe and elsewhere. Once the death camps opened and the Einsatzgruppen dismantled, the reasons for the Jews' flight had not miraculously vanished.

In the immediate post-war period, the Jews of Europe could reasonably perceive themselves to be in mortal danger. I will return to this question later. The mortal threat they faced gave them the right to settle wherever they could, in order to survive and live. The right to live is not an absolute, but is strong; it cannot be set aside simply because “it's not convenient to recognize it”. In fact, this right is currently denied by the peoples of Europe, who, for reasons of convenience, accept no more than a trickle of refugees who are the victims of war, persecution and/or poverty, for whom being properly welcomed would often make the difference between life and death. The criminal nature of the current behaviour of the European peoples is a reality; it does not make less real the refugees' right to live, and in particular their right to obtain the conditions for their survival, by force if necessary.

If a population of refugees fleeing mortal danger demanded to settle in France today and, faced with the refusal of the French authorities, chose to appropriate by force, for example, the department where I live, forcing me to leave and perhaps lose my house, I would not be happy. I might not leave willingly. Nevertheless, whatever our understandable difficulties in accepting our obligations, I don't see how we can refuse to recognise that the right of people to live at all must take precedence over the right of people to live where they are at a given moment.

Most usually, refugees are in a position of weakness, and their rights to life are violated. The case of Jewish refugees was in this sense exceptional: they succeeded in imposing respect for their right. It would seem that this fact would justify, in the eyes of many, changing them from victims worthy of compassion to a “people, sure of itself and domineering”1. Thus the right to life would exist only for those who are powerless to exercise it!

The founding of Israel was an act of force; its result was the displacement of a large part of the population that had previously lived in Palestine to neighbouring areas. This displacement was contrary to the rights of these populations themselves; the situation was one of a conflict of rights. There is no denying or minimising what the Palestinians lost at that time; the fact remains, however, that in this conflict of rights, those of the Jews were vital, those of the Palestinians were not.

It is worth noting, however, that although for centuries many Jews have mentioned at every Passover “next year in Jerusalem”, very few took the trouble to move there; the “wandering Jews”, despite their cosmopolitan reputation, were just as attached as anyone to their homes, their neighbours, their local customs and their landscapes, and generally wandered only when violence forced them to do so. If many Palestinians lost much after the war, so did the Jews who replaced them; the Palestinians had to move dozens of kilometres away, the Jews thousands, to a climate that was often alien to them, had to learn a new language and start afresh, often alone – their friends and family swallowed by the Holocaust. They did not leave their homes to found Israel lightly; they left to save their lives.

The Zionist movement, founded towards the end of the nineteenth century, was primarily motivated by a search for security for the Jews, not by the notion of a historical link between the Jews and what had been the “Promised Land”. This is reflected in the movement's consideration of other options, such as a Jewish state in Africa. Nevertheless, other motivations converged, in particular that of such a “return”, and led to a crystallization of the choice for Palestine. European Jews, too, were Europeans; they shared the vision, strongly marked by colonialism and racism, of their contemporaries. The expression “A land without a people for a people without a land” reflects this: the fact is that Palestine was well and truly populated.

Things could have gone better. First of all, the Palestinians could have accepted the Jews. They did not. This refusal was at least partly motivated by Muslim anti-Semitism; this fact does not make the refusal any more illegitimate; on the other hand, it largely explains why the Jewish side envisaged the displacement of the Palestinians rather than coexistence with them. In any case, there was no justification for the war crimes committed against the Palestinians, of which Deir Yassin is but the best known2. The displaced Palestinians could, in their turn, have been better received by the neighbouring Arab countries; here again, it was anti-Semitism and the consequent principled rejection of the unsubordinate presence of Jews on “Muslim land” that explained the fixation of these Palestinians in camps and much of their subsequent suffering.

Neither these complexities, nor the ongoing right-wing drift of Israeli opinion and policies since the start of this century, nor Israeli anti-Arab racism, nor the policy of colonisation of the West Bank and the brutal treatment of the Palestinians change the fundamental nature of the foundation of Israel, which is that of a struggle of refugees for their physical survival, the legitimacy of which cannot be disputed.

It will certainly be said that I am exaggerating when I speak of physical survival for the Jews; for after the Second World War, Hitler had been defeated! This, I believe, is a central misconception that explains much of the hostility towards Israel.

Anti-Semitism in Europe since the War

In France, for several decades now3, anti-Semitism has officially been banned, both by law in its public expression, and de facto in the minds of most of our fellow citizens. This situation may suggest that the Holocaust was a one-time historical event, born of Hitler's barbarism and totalitarianism, and that the flight of the Jews after the War was therefore unjustified. We would have been essentially cured of anti-Semitism; anything (too) explicitly anti-Semitic is immediately condemned, because we know what it leads to – to Hitler's crimes and so on.

The Holocaust argument against anti-Semitism is intended to be powerful, because of the horror it evokes; however, paradoxically, by basing itself on what anti-Semitism leads to, it avoids analysing and condemning what anti-Semitism is. Vilified as dangerous, anti-Semitic speech is never opposed as false. It thus remains possible to perceive anti-Semitism as true, or as perhaps somewhat true, but inappropriate and forbidden. Thus any serious criticism of anti-Semitism is never elaborated. The Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, in the aftermath of the war, declared that he did not want to call himself an anti-Semite, because “Hitler has disgraced the term forever” – in a text itself packed with anti-Semitic tropes4. That sums up well the situation we have been in for the past seventy-five years.

In the chronology of anti-Semitism in Europe since the War, there have been two periods: before and after the early 1960s that were marked by the Eichmann trial, the interpretation that Hannah Arendt gave of it and the Second Vatican Council.

In the first period, the Holocaust was a subject that was avoided. Anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was given free rein, especially in Eastern Europe and Russia, but not only. Today we perceive the Second World War as a struggle against Nazi barbarism, racism and anti-Semitism, and genocide; we forget that at the time it was seen primarily as a classic battle between nations. The Allied victory was that over the Axis powers. The exposure of the genocidal practices of the Nazis provoked horror, but did not imply a general condemnation of anti-Semitism. In Poland, the anti-Jewish violence of a people wounded by the Nazi occupation continued, in particular with the pogrom in Kielce where 42 Jews perished under the complacent eye of the police and with the subsequent approval of the Catholic authorities. Similar incidents happened in Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary. The Soviet Union quickly adopted an anti-Zionist stance, which included virulent anti-Semitism5. In France, Pierre Mendès-France faced constant and open anti-Jewish hostility until 1958 and beyond.

The Eichmann trial brought the Holocaust to the headlines. It could have raised awareness on the issue. However, this was immediately neutralised by the interpretation Hannah Arendt gave in Eichmann in Jerusalem: the cause of Eichmann's crimes, and of the Holocaust in general, was totalitarianism, if not modernity. The “banality of evil”, viewed as an abstract and general phenomenon, allows us to avoid naming the concrete and precise phenomenon that is anti-Semitism.

In short, anti-Semitism has never really been confronted. For to do so would necessarily entail calling into question its source, that is, Christian ideology. Anti-Semitism is at the heart of the Christian system of thought; the Jews are those who rejected Christ, causing His death on the cross. And they continue to reject Him. It is only with their conversion, and therefore their disappearance as Jews, that the conditions will be met for Jesus' long-awaited return. In the meanwhile, they are therefore responsible for all the world's misfortunes.

Can Christianity be cured of anti-Semitism? There is no shortage of genuinely good Christian hearts striving to do so. Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council purged some of the worst expressions from the liturgy and called for an end of anti-Jewish hatred. But the problem is structural. The only Christian I know of who has really faced up to the problem is Pastor William Nicholls, author of Christian Antisemitism: A History of Hate (1995); reading his book, one can only wonder whether he was able to remain a Christian, not so much because of the accounts of horrors, as because of his detailed analysis of the necessary, lasting presence of anti-Jewish hate at the heart of the Christian system of thought. Equally essential is his demonstration of the structural similarity between Marxism and Christianity. These systems of thought both promise a revolution: a “Grand Soir” (Great Evening) in which evil will be uprooted and good will naturally take its place. Both suffer from a prolonged waiting for this miraculous event, a waiting that is repeatedly frustrated, and from a tendency to find a scapegoat for this delay, who will be the concrete representative of Evil. For Christianity, the scapegoat is the Jew, identified with money; for Marxism, the scapegoat is the Capitalist, again identified with money. The identification that has so often been noted of Capitalism with the Jew among “radical left” movements, and the recuperation of the corresponding tropes, is not an accident; the massive investment of this “left” in the Palestinian cause, and in anti-Zionism and thinly disguised anti-Semitism, logically follow.


Europe is still a long way from being cured of anti-Semitism; perhaps it can only happen when Christianity, and a certain idea of progressivism as an expectation of the Grand Soir, have lost their grip on our minds.

However, it will be objected that there was no great massacre of Jews after the War comparable to those carried out by Nazi Germany. More Jews died in Israel itself, in the fighting and attacks, than as a result of the few sporadic pogroms and anti-Semitic acts committed in Europe during the same period. However:

— We do not know what would have happened if the Jews had remained in Europe. If there have been no more pogroms in Poland for decades, for example, it may simply be because there are hardly any Jews left there to slaughter.

— This is a retrospective judgement. The legitimacy of the founding of Israel must be judged according to what people could sincerely judge at the time. The prospects in 1945 could not have seemed better than those which, at the end of the nineteenth century, had led Herzl to predict that the Jews could not be permanently safe in Europe; and the subsequent events appeared to have entirely confirmed his prediction.

— Nor do we know the future. The swing to the right of public opinion is now affecting Europe and beyond. It is difficult to say, even today, that the Jews are permanently safe in Europe.

My conclusion is that the founding of Israel was a legitimate act, because the right people have to live is one of the strongest of all. It was legitimate in spite of the loss and suffering it entailed for the non-Jewish people who were present before. It was legitimate for reasons that progressives should readily recognise as theirs. This conclusion is independent of the discourses that have developed on both sides about a historical right to a particular land, an attachment often described as sacred and linked to competing religious points of view. I regard such arguments as reactionary and unfounded. Land is a resource like any other, one that is largely fungible and should go to whoever needs it most.

Let me add, with regard to the responsibility of Europeans: when an individual, fleeing from a killer, finds him- or herself obliged to take the property of a third party, it is understandable that this third party may turn against the fugitive. But the cause of the problem, the party responsible for the dispossession, is the killer. If anyone is responsible for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians: it's the Europeans. It doesn't seem like many people grasp this.

The refusal by a large part of the Left to recognise Israel's legitimacy can only be explained, I think, by its reluctance to recognise the deep-rooted persistence of anti-Semitism within our societies, and even within its own thinking. There is a kind of negationism here. “Traditional” Holocaust denial seeks to deny or minimise the Holocaust; but viewing the Holocaust as apart from history, from the history of anti-Semitism, or denying the deep roots of this anti-Semitism, is also a form of Holocaust denial, perhaps more harmful than the other because it permeates the minds of a large majority of our fellow citizens. This negationism does not tolerate the existence of Israel, precisely because this existence amounts to an accusation: that we Europeans, who see ourselves as civilised or even progressive, are in fact barbarians. Our anti-Zionists are like the violent man who cannot bear that his girlfriend wants to leave him because he is violent, who cannot bear this accusation, denies that he is violent and furiously reconfirms precisely what he denies.

It's high time we stopped delegitimising the founding of Israel. There is enough to say about Israeli policy, both domestic and foreign, and about the policies and attitudes of the Palestinians and of the Arab and Muslim world in general. Discourses concerning Israel's origins add nothing to the debate. But they will continue to be made, with insistence. This is in itself an anti-Semitic trope. The real or imaginary accusations made against the Jews have always been linked to their alleged essence, to their collective origin as a “deicidal people”. Let's put an end to this nonsense! Not only do the vast majority of Israelis alive today live in the country where they were born, but the “original sin” of the founding of their country simply was not one.

1. Expression of Charles de Gaulle, press conference of November 27, 1967 (“un peuple (...) sûr de lui-même et dominateur”).

2. Such crimes were committed by both sides; a list can easily be found on Wikipedia. The crimes of neither side justify those of the other.

3. In principle, since the Marchandeau decree-law (1939). This was repealed by Vichy and reinstated after the war, but was little applied for a long time.

4. Opinion column in Libération (2 September 2008).

5. Robert S. Wistrich, “Anti-Semitism in Europe Since the Holocaust”, The American Jewish Year Book, vol. 93 (1993).