Why Israel Can’t Represent World Jewry

With the 'Jewish state’ demand, is Israel setting itself to follow Putin’s example - to intervene in states where Jews, its ethnic compatriots, are deemed to be in danger?

Ilan Asayag

A country that arrogates to itself the right to intervene on behalf of its ethnic landsmanne, wherever they may be, is nothing new. History bears witness to the consequences of such presumption.

Hitler’s occupation of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938 to ostensibly rescue the ethnic Germans in the territory from their distress – one of the key events leading up to World War II – is one of the more egregious examples and probably the best known.

Closer to home, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded – and subsequently annexed – the Crimean peninsula just last month on the pretext of saving ethnic Russians from what he said were the depredations of a neo-fascist government in Kiev.

Putin’s justification of his move is interesting, based as it is on two concepts that are not unknown in this part of the world: The claim of an historical right to a territory, despite its current sovereign status, and the assumed right to intervene on behalf of ethnic compatriots living in another country.

Israel, not a shrinking violet on the world stage normally, has remained uncharacteristically silent over Russia’s occupation of Crimea. That’s clearly a smart diplomatic position; Israel has nothing to gain from alienating either side and we don’t, as a rule, take moral positions.

But there is also something uncomfortable, embarrassed even, about Israel’s silence. Replace “Russia” with “Israel” and “Crimea” with “Palestine” and Putin’s address to the Duma could have been written by a Netanyahu speechwriter. Obama’s grandiloquent condemnation of Russian aggression and the stark contrast between western censure of Russia and its pussyfooting when it comes to Israel, can’t bode well for Israel in the longer-term.

Now, Russia is apparently insisting that it won’t lift its implicit threat to attack eastern Ukraine until Ukraine adopts a federal system of government, giving broad autonomy to provinces with large concentrations of ethnic Russians. In other words, the existence of ethnic Russians gives the motherland the right to determine the structure and functioning of a sovereign government.

Imagine if China were to insist on the same meddling rights. Leaving Taiwan aside, there are seven million ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, some three million in Indonesia and large communities in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines, not to mention North America and Europe. And they’ve faced vicious discrimination in many of the countries over the years. An estimated half-million are said to have died in the Indonesian killings of 1965-66.

According to the Putin doctrine – and the Netanyahu doctrine, as well, though his refers only to Jews – any threat, real or perceived, to ethnic Chinese in any one of dozens of countries around the world would justify intervention by Beijing, ranging from the invasion of a neighbor to whatever other coercive tools China has in its arsenal.

Some 5,000 years of human civilization have created an intricate ethnic and geographical jigsaw puzzle. Many of today’s national borders are the result of compromise or convenience and millennia of conquest, immigration and expulsion have scattered ethnicities across the globe.

There is not – and there cannot be – a watertight correspondence between a modern nation-state and an ethnic group. Any attempt by a nation-state to extend its jurisdiction to ethnic compatriots beyond its borders is a direct challenge to the delicate fabric of peaceful international relations.

That’s the background to not only the current crisis between Russia and the Ukraine, but also – and more to the point – to Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland. By refusing to do so, Abbas is not only exercising his sovereign prerogative; he is also saving the entire international community from having to deal with an irrational and dangerous precedent.

The United Nations, represents states, not ethnic groups – and the two are far from being synonymous. No member of the UN – not one – has ever demanded that it be recognized not only as a national entity but an ethnic one as well. That’s not how the UN works and that’s not how it can work. Netanyahu’s demand could conceivably be the straw that breaks the back of an international system that has been painstakingly built up since World War II.

Israel, of course, is not going to invade Canada, should the local Jewish community find itself under threat – though it’s not at all inconceivable that military force would be used for the benefit of Jewish communities closer to home, such as in Iran, say.

But recognition as the Jewish state would give Israel de facto authority to intervene in the affairs of any state in which it deems the local Jewish community to be beleaguered. Not in the context of an international consensus, but simply because Israel represents all Jews everywhere. That’s not a recipe for peace and harmony.