Transfer: A Moral Discourse - Part I

Everything comes down to the idea that it is immoral to force people to move from their place of habitation without their consent. The opponents of transfer always ask, ?Would you want to be kicked out of your home?? Without any doubt, this concern is very legitimate. And if the supporters of transfer cannot find a convincing response to it based on moral grounds, it becomes very difficult, and pe

Boris Shusteff,

Boris Shusteff
Boris Shusteff
The issue of transfer - that is, relocating Arabs out of western Eretz Yisrael - remains very controversial to the present day. The main reason for this is obvious. The vast majority of Jews consider it to be immoral. The stigma of immorality attached to this subject is especially troublesome, because, according to many surveys, more than half of Israeli Jews support transfer. Moreover, since the idea of transfer is considered taboo in Israeli society, it is quite probable that the actual number of its supporters is much higher, and people simply do not want to reveal their true opinions, afraid of being stigmatized.

While Israel prides herself on being a democracy, the transfer idea, though supported by the majority of the people, is almost completely suppressed within the Israeli political conscience. In spite of the fact that its supporters can be found in many Israeli political parties, their voices are mute at best. The champions of the idea, Moledet leaders Benny Elon and Aryeh Eldad, discuss it mainly on the pages of internal party publications. No real discussion takes place within the mainstream Israeli media. It appears that the label ?immoral? has been attached to the term ?transfer? by default, without substantiation, simply based on the negative connotation of the word.

Everything comes down to the idea that it is immoral to force people to move from their place of habitation without their consent. The opponents of transfer always ask, ?Would you want to be kicked out of your home?? Without any doubt, this concern is very legitimate. And if the supporters of transfer cannot find a convincing response to it based on moral grounds, it becomes very difficult, and perhaps impossible, to defend the idea of transfer.

The inspiration to write this article came from a thorough reading and re-reading of an absolutely fascinating essay penned by Ruth Gavison, and published in the summer 5763/2003 issue of the magazine Azure. Gavison holds the Chaim Cohen chair in human rights at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and is a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. The essay is entitled, ?The Jews? Right to Statehood: A Defense.? Gavison presents her arguments, framed mainly within the discourse of human rights, explaining that it is crucial to base the ?justification of a Jewish state on arguments that appeal to people who do not share the beliefs of those Jews to whom the Jewish right to a state and to the land of Israel is axiomatic.?

We are going to take a similar approach. It is self-evident that Jews who unwaveringly believe in the Torah do not need any additional arguments to support the idea of transferring Arabs from Eretz Yisrael. At the same time, a great majority of Jews, though they heed the Torah to a certain extent, still require justification for the transfer idea based on ?universal moral grounds?. Leaving aside the fact that these universal moral grounds are deeply rooted in Judaic values, which makes the Torah the main authority on the issue, we will give these Jews the benefit of the doubt. We will make an argument for the morality of transfer by making use of many of Gavison?s points, which are ?framed mainly within the discourse of human rights?.

To begin with, we take as an axiom the statement that the Jewish people has the right to statehood and that the ?existence of such a state is an important condition for the security of its Jewish citizens and the continuation of Jewish civilization.? It seems fair to expect that this statement should not be questioned even by the most pro-Arab among Jews, for if they support the Arabs? right to statehood, they must likewise support this right for the Jews, based on the equality of fundamental human rights.

Ruth Gavison defines these rights as follows: ?as human beings, we all have a right to life, security, and dignity as well as to national self-determination.? However, while stressing that the rights to life, security and dignity are not dependent on anything, Gavison argues that the right to statehood is not constant. ?It instead varies over time and according to changing circumstances.? She states that the claim of self-determination ?is not a matter of abstract rights talk. Rather, such claims must be addressed according to demographic, societal and political realities that prevail both in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.?

The same approach must be taken with the issue of transfer. We must not look at it as ?a matter of abstract rights talk.? On the contrary, it is vitally important to take into account changing circumstances, demographic, societal and political realities.

One of the complicating aspects of the issue is the subject of a separate Palestinian people. It is easy to prove that the ?Palestinian people? did not exist as any sort of distinct or cohesive group before the First World War. Even UN resolution 181, used today by a majority of liberal Jews to support the establishment of a Palestinian state, speaks only about Jews and Arabs and not about Jews and ?Palestinians?. Nevertheless, we will assume that there is indeed a separate people that calls itself ?Palestinians?, and claims rights to self-determination in Eretz Yisrael, which it calls ?Palestine?.

As Gavison explains, it is very important to understand that exercising a people?s right to self-determination ?does not necessarily depend on establishing a sovereign state.? In her essay, Gavison employs the two distinct terms ?rights? and ?liberties?, introduced by the American jurist Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld. ?According to Hohfeld, we may speak of liberty when there is no obligation to act or refrain from acting in a certain manner. A right, on the other hand, means that others have an obligation not to interfere with, or to grant the possibility of, my acting in a certain manner.? Gavison explains that from the start of modern Jewish settlement in Eretz Yisrael, ?as long as their actions were legal and nonviolent Jewish settlers were at liberty to enlarge their numbers among the local population, even with the declared and specific intent of establishing the infrastructure for a future Jewish state.? At the same time, the Arab population ?certainly had full liberty to take steps to resist this settlement, so long as they did not infringe on any basic human rights or violate the laws of the land.?

It is necessary to re-emphasize the two extremely important conditions for exercising liberties: nonviolence and the legality of action based on the laws of the land. Gavison does not bring up the subject, but, technically speaking, she proves that Palestine at the beginning of modern Jewish settlement was ?a land without a people?. This is because it did not belong to the people living there. It was under the jurisdiction of the Ottoman Empire. The laws of the land were Ottoman laws, which largely curtailed, but did not prevent, Jewish settlement. Even more importantly, with the establishment of the British mandate, the laws of the land under British jurisdiction encouraged Jewish settlement on the land, thus supporting the Jews? liberty to settle Palestine. Since the land did not belong to the locally resident Arabs, and Palestine was not a separate country with unique laws, the Arabs had no right to stop Jewish settlement. To put it differently, from the standpoint of universal morality and equality, Jews and non-Jews in Palestine were on a level playing field: the Jews were at liberty to settle the land and the Arabs were at liberty to oppose this settlement by nonviolent means.

It is worth pointing out that the Arabs were at liberty to settle the land, as well. Significantly, in contrast to the Arabs? opposition toJewish settlement, the Jews did not object to Arab settlement. Thus, as is well documented in various sources, Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Bosnia, and many other countries established their residence in Palestine in numbers comparable to and even greater than the numbers of Jews who settled there.

Gavison writes that ?changing conditions affect the balance of legitimacy, and therefore no claim to self-determination can be absolute.? Since the Arabs in Palestine did not see themselves as a coherent national group and did not have a separate national identity (at least during the British Mandate), they made no effort to exercise their right to self-determination. They had allegiance to their clans or villages, but never progressed beyond this level. Meanwhile, without even trying to create a state of their own, they objected to the establishment of a Jewish one. By negating through violence the liberties of the Jews to settle in the land, they violated fundamental Jewish rights to life and security.

Gavison writes:
?Violence clearly was a violation of the rights of the Jews... The violent resistance of the Arabs ultimately lent significant weight to the Jewish claim to a sovereign state, and not merely to self-determination within a non-state framework. From 1920s until today, one of the strongest arguments for Jewish statehood has been the fact that the security of Jews as individuals and as a collective cannot be secured without it.?

It is precisely Jewish statehood that always was and still remains the bone of contention in relations between Arabs and Jews. All wars fought by the Arabs against the Jews were directed first against the creation of the Jewish state and then towards its destruction. Gavison points out that, ?The results of war [1948] brought an end to the symmetry between Arabs and Jews. Palestinian Arabs did not achieve statehood, and their communities suffered a major setback, while Zionism made a critical transition from having the moral liberty to establish a Jewish state to having a moral right to maintain it and to preserve its Jewish character.?

While pinpointing the extremely important moment for Jews of transition from liberty to create a state to the right to have and maintain it, Gavison allows for two very significant inaccuracies. First, the very phrase ?did not achieve statehood? is rather misleading with respect to the situation of the Palestinian Arabs. It implies that they were seeking statehood, and were somehow unable to attain it. However, it is not because anyone prevented them from doing so that the Palestinians Arabs did not ?achieve? statehood in western Palestine in 1948, but simply because they did not seek it. This reinforces the fact that the Arabs in Palestine did not consider themselves a distinct people with a national history, traditions and goals. The only common ground that united them, or, to be more precise, united their leaders, was the desire to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state.

Furthermore, it is not even correct to say that the Palestinian Arabs did not attain statehood. They attained it in Jordan (77% of the territory of British Mandate). An overwhelming majority of Jordan?s population consists of Palestinian Arabs, so Gavison is apparently referring only to Palestinian Arabs living in western Palestine (23% of the territory of the British Mandate) as having failed to achieve statehood. Regardless, in the end, it would be more appropriate to say that, as a result of the 1948 War of Independence, the Jews finally achieved parity with other nations by reestablishing their state.

[Part 1 of 3]
Boris Shusteff is an engineer. He is also a research associate with the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies.