As chair of the board or directors of the Center for Inquiry (CFI), I must first say that grappling with the question of whether Israel has a right to exist in its current form is not central to the core mission of CFI. Atheists and scientific skeptics can disagree on this subject and be equally welcome within the organization. The fact that Tom Flynn and I disagree on this topic, even though we are in agreement on countless other issues—the most important of which is the need to promote atheism as the best alternative to religious beliefs based on supernatural claims—shows that our community is as diverse and as independent-minded as one would expect to find in a setting where people are committed to thinking for themselves.
I am not arguing that secular humanists have no basis for criticizing religious influence in Israel’s government. However, such criticisms apply with even greater force to Israel’s enemies. In addition to a historical/legal argument for Israel’s right to exist, if any religious preferentialism constitutes a basis for delegitimizing Israel’s status as a sovereign nation, such preferentialism even more strongly delegitimizes the right to exist claimed by those Arab nations who refuse to recognize Israel’s sovereignty.
There are at least twenty-two Arab nations and only one Israel. There is no reason to question the legality of the takeover by the League of Nations, after World War I, of the area in dispute, which was, for about four hundred years, part of the former Ottoman Empire. The League of Nations then transferred responsibility for most of the geographic area to the British government in what was known as the British Mandate. The charge to England was to establish Israel and a bordering Arab state, which substantially turned out to be Jordan. In 1917, England declared its intention to bring about an ultimate nation of Israel by the issuance of a formal decree, known as the Balfour Declaration. Yet, in the early 1920s, Britain severed 80 percent of what was to become Israel and designated it instead for the impending new Arab state. In 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition the territory of the Mandate into two nations, the partition resolution provided that an additional 10 percent be shaved from the total territory that the League of Nations had charged Britain with securing for Israel. Those who would constitute the government of the new state of Israel accepted this UN partition plan, even though it was less than ideal. The enemies of the soon-to-be Israel rejected the plan.
So when Israel declared its independence in 1948, it was only a fraction of what it had originally been designed to be by the League of Nations and the original British Mandate. When Israel declared its independence, the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan (Jordan) immediately attacked. This caused the displacement of many Arabs living within what was now Israel. Had these Arab armies not attacked but rather accepted the new, small state of Israel in their midst, the violent conflicts that have raged in the area since 1948 would not have occurred.
Arabs have historically considered themselves to be simply Arabs, with no subdivision of themselves into a special subgroup known as Palestinian Arabs. In fact, when Arab delegates met in order to choose representatives to the post–World War I Paris Peace Conference, they adopted a resolution to the effect that Palestine was part of Syria. The carving up of Arab borders and the creation of new Arab nations between the two world wars were arbitrary acts, not based upon longstanding historical precedents. For instance, Iraq as a nation with its current borders did not exist prior to World War I. What is known as Iraq today came into being when, upon the urging of King Faisal, Britain granted it independence in 1932. There was no greater precedent for taking amorphous lands and giving them the borders that now differentiate a number of Arab countries than there was for what is currently the nation of Israel.
There is an unbroken historical nexus between the land that is currently Israel and the Jewish people—irrespective of any religious nuttiness—that is sufficient to justify Israel’s existence today, particularly when factored in with the validity of the takeover of this territory by the League of Nations after World War I. The Ottoman Turks gained control over the area by military conquest in the sixteenth century and lost control after entering World War I on the side of the eventual losers. The Hebrews arrived in what is present-day Israel at some point in the second millennium BCE. Subsequently, there were independent Hebrew kingdoms. Even after conquests by the Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks, an independent Jewish kingdom was reestablished in 168 BCE. For at least 1,600 years before the Roman conquest, Jews constituted the main population of this territory. Jews remained in different parts of the area after the Roman conquest. Even the United States began with colonists whose ancestors had never even seen the land, as opposed to Jews who have a history with current Israeli geography that is thousands of years old.
Arabs did not assert any control over the area that is present-day Israel until 636 CE. Preceding the Arab conquest, there were 241 years of rule by the Byzantine Empire. This Arab hegemony over the area lasted for only 436 years before the Arabs were replaced by the Seljuks in 1072. The Seljuks were replaced by the Crusaders in 1099. The Mamluks took over in 1291. The Ottoman Empire controlled the territory from 1517 until the end of World War I. There was thus no distinct Arab rulership, throughout history, that would provide a claim for a historically rooted right of governance that stands out from those of other conquerors.
It is untrue that the process of the first European Jews moving to the area, starting in the 1880s until about 1903, displaced indigenous Arab populations. At the time, the land was vastly underpopulated and quite desolate. The Jewish immigrants bought land from absentee landlords and real estate speculators and did not displace anyone. These immigrants began to revitalize the land and to create an infrastructure. Tel Aviv was founded by Jews as a city as early as 1909. There was also no Arab government in power at the time of this first wave of immigration, as it was still under Ottoman rule. Further, between 1880 and 1948, three-quarters of the plots purchased by Jews were from mega-landowners rather than from those who worked the soil.1 This was not a massive juggernaut of Europeans coming in and pushing indigenous Arabs off their lands.
The surrounding Arab nations could have easily absorbed the Arabs who were displaced by the Arab invasion of Israel in 1948. Yet they chose to keep them in miserable refugee camps, just so that they could have a propaganda tool against Israel. Moreover, even if the establishment of two separate states, without the invasion of Israel by surrounding armies, had itself been the source of displacing some indigenous populations, this is not unusual when territory is carved up in order to create new nations as part of a partition plan. For instance, millions were displaced when India and Pakistan divided into two nations in 1947. Yet, the desirability of a two-nation solution, based on religious antagonism, made such a relocation necessary. This was also the fate of many ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia after World War II. Relocations spawned by the establishment of new nations or by the redrawing of existing national boundaries are not uncommon, even when religious conflict is the reason for such relocation.
Because of the hostility toward Israel, it is estimated that some 856,000 Jews have had to flee their homes in Arab countries since 1948, leaving behind more than $300 billion worth of assets.
We have never refused to recognize the legitimacy of a nation’s right to exist just because that country does not separate religion from government as secularists like us would want it to. We never withdrew our support for England’s right to exist when it had an enforceable blasphemy law that protected Christian dogma from offensive commentary, in addition to still having an official government-recognized church. We also would not withdraw our support of Argentina’s right to exist just because its constitution declares Catholicism to be the state religion. A nation still has a legal right to exist even if it fuses government and religion in a way that we secular humanists find unacceptable. Also, if the founding of a nation on an official religion is a sufficiently severe flaw to justify dismantling that country, Arab nations that are far more officially fundamentalist than Israel would deserve to lose their status as countries. Is Pakistan’s nationhood illegitimate because it was founded as a separate country to provide a home for a majority population of Muslims as opposed to Hindus? Why is Israel singled out as the only nation that cannot claim legitimate existence because of a built-in preference for one religion over others?
In October of 2010, an Arab atheist named Waleed Al Husseini, living under the Palestinian Authority, was arrested and spent ten months in a Palestinian prison, where he was subjected to frequent beatings only because he criticized Islam online.2 Even with the undue influence of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, the Israelis have never perpetrated religious oppression even remotely as severe as what has been inflicted by governments that dispute Israel’s legitimacy.
There is nothing in history, international law, or secular humanism that requires withholding sovereign nationhood from Israel, while allowing it for those countries and would-be countries that oppose Israel’s existence.
1. Abraham Granott, The Land System in Palestine: History and Structure (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1952), 278.
2. Waleed Al Husseini, “What It’s Like to Be an Atheist in Palestine,” December 8, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/12/08/what-it-s-like-to-be-an-atheist-in-palestine.html.
Edward Tabash is a constitutional lawyer in the Los Angeles area and chair of the board of directors of the Center for Inquiry. He is recognized for his legal expertise pertaining to the separation of church and state. He is also one the more well-known atheist debater in the United States.