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In Reply to Walter Block: Relocation Must Be Off the Table

It is not particularly interesting that I disagree with Block’s argument. I am a bleeding-heart left-winger who thinks every human being has a right to healthcare, housing, education, and much more…The interesting part is that [his arguments] fly in the face of the values he cares about.”

I debated Walter Block four years ago on my podcast, and I have watched some of his debates with others over the years. He is someone with a worldview I find deeply alien in many ways. We will get to that. But, for now, I want to note that—in the past—I have always understood the pattern of his beliefs. Given the basic premises of that deeply alien worldview, I have always understood how and why he arrives at his conclusions.

This is no longer true. In a recent article for Merion West, Block argues that Palestinians who live in the territories Israel has occupied since 1967 should be permanently stateless and rightless non-citizen subjects of the occupying power—or at least that is the most charitable interpretation of his point. Several of his formulations more than hint at support for outright ethnic cleansing of this population.

That these are morally indefensible conclusions should, I hope, be clear even to much of the “Stand With Israel” crowd. When I was first invited to respond in Merion West, I was tempted to reply by saying the article responds to itself. But the more I think about what Block’s written, the more I think there is something interesting to be said here.

It is not particularly interesting that I disagree with Block’s argument. I am a bleeding-heart left-winger who thinks every human being has a right to healthcare, housing, education, and much more. Block is, as I understand him, such an extreme libertarian he does not think there should be such a thing as public sidewalks. It goes without saying that Block’s conclusions about the Palestinians are odious if one starts from the values I care about. The interesting part is that they fly in the face of the values he cares about. 

Anti-Zionisms and Anti-Palestinian-Nationalisms

It might be helpful to start by thinking about the opposite end of the spectrum of opinion on Israel/Palestine: anti-Zionism. 

As with any “anti-” position, anti-Zionism comes in many flavors. During the Cold War, liberal-democratic dissidents in the Soviet bloc were “anti-Communists.” But so were outright fascists who had fought the Red Army during World War II.

Similarly, one can be an “anti-Zionist” because he opposes ethnonationalism of any variety or because one opposes Jewish ethnonationalism in the name of a particularly militant strain of Palestinian or pan-Arab ethnonationalism. The first is the position of most American anti-Zionists, a great many of whom, in my experience, are themselves Jewish. (As anti-Semites have always observed, the far-left has—for various historical reasons—always been disproportionately Jewish.) The second, which I have criticized elsewhere at great length, exists on the ugliest fringes of the Palestine solidarity movement in this country, and it is far more mainstream elsewhere in the world.

The first “anti-Zionism” leads to support for a single binational state “from the river to the sea” with equal rights for Israeli Jews, Palestinian Christians and Muslims, Thai guest workers, and everyone else. The second seeks to replace a Jewish ethnostate with an Arab ethnostate, and, in its ugliest and least defensible variations, it denies that Israeli Jews even have a right to live in Israel. Even a third-generation resident of Tel Aviv, in this worldview, is a “settler” or “colonizer.” A notorious video clip I remember seeing circulating on social media a while back features a particularly demented representative of this strain of anti-Zionism standing at the edge of a protest yelling, “Go back to Poland!”

Of course, most Israeli Jews have no family connection to Poland; most of the ones that do are at least a generation or two from anyone who spoke Polish; and Poland has made no such offer. But extreme ethnonationalism does funny things to people’s brains, and so the man in the clip felt no compunction about telling a whole population to go “back” there.

What Block puts forward in his Merion West article is a version of anti-Palestinian-nationalism that looks to me like the precise mirror image of this version of extreme anti-Zionism. But it is arguably far more troubling, given that fantasies of ethnically cleansing Israelis are the daydreams of people with no capacity to make it happen, while several members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet have been sounding quite a bit like Block since October 7th.

Block’s rally cry is, in effect, “go back to Egypt”—a country to which far fewer Palestinians have any connection than Israeli Jews have to Poland. In fact, he ends with a bizarre hint that Israel should go to war in order to force Egypt to allow ethnically-cleansed Palestinians to be relocated en masse into Egyptian territory:

“Egypt has taken the position that not one single solitary Palestinian would be welcome anywhere in that country, let alone in the Sinai, contiguous to Gaza. Are they really willing to risk a war with Israel over this matter? Once before in 1956, the Israel Defense Forces occupied that territory. If serious altercations broke out between these two countries, there is no question as to which one would emerge victorious. Perhaps Egypt might consider its position on this matter.”

As it happens, Block has his facts wrong. Not only does Egypt not have a blanket policy against “a single solitary Palestinian” living in the country, but tens of thousands of them already live there. The hyperlink he provides to back up this assertion does not come within a thousand miles of matching Block’s summary. Instead, it quotes Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi calling the mass deportation of Palestinians to Egypt a “red line.”

So, is this what Block wants?

The Walter Block Plan for Israel/Palestine

I have heard some fringe anti-Zionists say that they would not mind a Jewish state if it were located in, say, Bavaria, but why should Arabs have to pay the price for the Holocaust?

Similarly, Block says that he has no problem with a Palestinian state—just not one “just not west of the Jordan River nor anywhere else very close to Israel.” He lists several candidates for a location where such a state could exist:

“Are there no Palestinian States in Egypt? Put one in there, by all means. Are there no Palestinian States in Lebanon? Rectify that lacuna immediately. What about Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan? Set one up in each, by all means. Why are there no Palestinian States located in any of these other countries? If the Palestinians deserve a state, far be it from me to say to them nay. Just not in or anywhere near Israel.”

I would gently suggest that Block glance at a map of the Middle East, from which he would learn that not only is everywhere on his list “near” Israel but that the majority of the countries he names border it, just as a Palestinian state in the territory Israel has occupied since 1967—the West Bank (which Block , calls “Judea and Samaria”), East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—would border Israel if the latter retreated to its internationally recognized borders.

But what interests me more than this surprising combination of strong opinions about Middle Eastern geopolitics and confusion about Middle Eastern geography are the questions of (a) what would happen to the territories where Palestinians currently live if the Walter Block Plan were implemented, (b) what would happen to anyone who lived there who refused to leave, and (c) what would happen to the current inhabitants of the territories in these neighboring countries that Block wants to allocate to create “Palestinians states”? He never quite answers any of the questions, but it is difficult to imagine any answer to any of them that would not be remembered for centuries alongside the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Slobodan Milošević. 

From Extreme Libertarianism to Extreme Ethnonationalism

Democratic socialists like me and ultra-libertarians like Block are at the opposite end of the spectrum of 21st century debates about the distribution of resources, but we share common ideological ancestry. So, in a way, do Zionists, Palestinian nationalists, pan-Arab nationalists, and the rest.

The French Revolution was a crucial event in the birth pangs of both of the ideologies that, between them, have been central to so much of the story of the modern world: liberalism and nationalism. In particular situations, they have gone hand in hand, as they did in France in 1789, though nationalism very often trended in illiberal directions and any sufficiently consistent form of liberalism tends toward some form of cosmopolitan universalism.

Sticking with the liberal side of the ledger, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted by the National Constituent Assembly, indicated that “men are born free and equal in rights,” and inequalities had to be justified—not by references to God or nature but, rather, by appeals to “the general good.”

This was, like the similar sentiments in the American Declaration of Independence in the previous decade, a radical repudiation of the forms of society that had dominated the world for thousands of years—since the end of what used to be called the “primitive communism” of earlier hunter-gatherer bands. No one, according to liberal principles, was born with a different set of basic rights and obligations than anyone else.

Of course, the devil is in the details, and, by the early 19th century, socialists were arguing that the emerging liberal-capitalist order involved new forms of inequality that were objectionable for some of the same reasons as the old inequalities of feudalism and slavery. Two centuries later, that disagreement shows no sign of going anywhere. But socialists and libertarians—and for that matter centrist liberals and even mainstream 20th-century conservatives—agree with the basic premises of the late 18th-century Declarations. We would all find systems like slavery and feudalism abhorrent because we think all human beings are born with the same package of basic rights. We just disagree about the contents of that package.

I think that, as well as the sort of “negative rights” historically defended by organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, everyone has “positive rights” such as the right to healthcare, and that it is a serious moral blight on our country that there are cases of cash-strapped diabetics who have died because they were trying to ration out their insulin.

Block, as I understand him, only believes in the negative right to non-interference in one’s person and property. I find that moral premise deeply implausible and the conclusions it generates horrifying. A world where one can only march down the street in a protest when he has approval from the private owner of the sidewalk does not sound very “free” in the ways that matter to me—and that is not to speak of the ocean of human suffering likely to be caused by removing all legal limits to the length of the working day, for example. This is an experiment we have run—it was called “the 19th century”—and it was a horror story.

But let us put that all to one side for now because my disagreements with Block on economic matters do not touch what I had always thought was our core agreement on at least the universalist structure of basic rights. Surely, any right an Israeli Jew should have, a Palestinian Christian or Muslim should also have.

Block, apparently aware of this massive contradiction between his usual worldview and the Walter Block Plan for Israel/Palestine, writes:

“[Palestinians] have long ago worn out any welcome they might ever have had in Israel. And this is not at all due to the fact that they are not Jewish. The Druze, the Christians, and numerous Arab denominations are all quite welcome in the only true democracy in the Middle East. Together these non-Jews comprise over 20% of the entire population of that country.”

Block’s understanding of the demographics of this population—sometimes called “Israeli Arabs”—is about as good as his understanding of Middle Eastern geography. He heavily implies here that West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are not “welcome” because they are Muslims, and all Muslims are dangerous unlike “the Druze,” “the Christians,” and whatever unnamed “numerous Arab denominations” he takes himself to be talking about, all of whom are “welcome in” Israel.

As it happens, the “Israeli Arabs” are just Palestinians who ended up on the Israeli side of the “green line” after the war in 1948, and like Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the vast majority of them are Muslims. There are also Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and Gaza, and, indeed, their churches have not been spared in Israel’s indiscriminate carpet-bombing of Gaza. Several relatives of former United States Congressman Justin Amash were killed when the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) bombed a Greek Orthodox Church where they were sheltering in Gaza, for example. I do not entirely blame Block for not seeming to be aware of these ugly facts. If several Christian family members of an American Congressman were murdered by Hamas at a church in Israel, I imagine that it would have blanketed American news coverage for weeks. 

The selective use of the Israeli Arabs to prove that Israel is a “true democracy” is a standard trope of pro-Israel propaganda, though it is a narrative that can only be sustained by shutting both eyes to any number of relevant facts. During the first couple of decades of the state of Israel, the entire Palestinian population was kept under martial law, collectively considered presumptive enemies. For most of the time since then, until legal battles in Israel’s Supreme Court led to the end of the practice, the identification cards all Israelis are legally forced to carry contained a line specifying whether the holder was a Jew or an Arab. (Take a moment to imagine that the United States forced everyone to carry an identification card specifying whether the holder was black or white to make sure no light-skinned black people could effectively pass, and tell me what that would say about our status as a “true democracy.”) It is true, as defenders of Israel often point out, that plenty of Israeli Arabs have middle-class jobs in fields like medicine and the law, and that some even serve in the Knesset.

But, as Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem explains, focusing only on these data points yields a severely incomplete picture. This population faces de jure discrimination in areas like housing and land use that would be illegal in a normal democracy, and even their vaunted political participation is both informally delegitimized and legally limited in practice. This has been most dramatically true since October 7th, when we have seen many cases of Palestinian citizens of Israel being arrested for merely posting on social media their horror at the atrocities against their relatives in Gaza. But the situation for this population has been far worse than Block suggests since the foundation of the state of Israel.

B’Tselem’s explanation of this frequently misunderstood point is worth quoting at length:

“Efforts to de-legitimize Palestinian political participation…[show] that some of Israel’s leaders and the public at large see such participation as undesirable. This sentiment was perfectly captured in various slogans used during election campaigns, such as ‘Netanyahu is good for the Jews’ (1996), ‘No loyalty, no citizenship’ by right-wing party Yisrael Beitenu (2009), or a clip released on election day (2015) in which then-Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that ‘the right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.’

The underlying message is clear: the political participation of Palestinian citizens is not, and must not be, equal to that of Jewish citizens…That is also why Knesset resolutions that rely on votes by Palestinian members, without obtaining a Jewish majority, are widely considered illegitimate.

This is more than longstanding practice and rhetoric. The political participation of Palestinian citizens is also limited by Basic Law: The Knesset. Section 7a, legislated in 2002, stipulates that a candidate or a list of candidates can be barred from running for Knesset if their actions or goals explicitly or implicitly include ‘negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.’ The Central Elections Committee—a body comprised of representatives of various political parties—has repeatedly relied on this clause to disqualify Palestinian candidates and lists, arguing that their civil struggle for full equality violates the clause as it denies Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

As B’Tselem goes on to explain, Israel’s supreme court—which, notably, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government keeps trying to disempower—has restricted the scope of this law to only “extreme” cases.

But it still functions as a potent restriction for political participation by Palestinian citizens:

“In June 2018, the Balad party submitted a bill titled Basic Law: A Country of All Its Citizens while the Knesset was debating a bill titled Basic Law: Israel—the Nation State of the Jewish People. Balad’s bill was intended to enshrine ‘the principle of equal citizenship for all citizens, while recognizing the existence and rights of both national groups—Jewish and Arab.’ In a rare move, the Knesset Presidium refused to admit the bill, thereby blocking debate on the matter in the plenum.

Though the bill was never even debated in the Knesset, submitting it clarified the breadth and scope of equality sought. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut ruled that merely proposing the bill crossed a red line and was ‘a significant act by Balad MKs sitting in the 20th Knesset, attempting to effect, through a bill, a political program and worldview that negate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.'”

Most importantly, though, even if the sunny picture Block paints of Jewish-Arab equality within “Israel proper” (i.e., excluding the territories occupied in 1967) were a fully accurate one, it would hardly be sufficient to establish that Israel in its current form is a “true democracy.” In 1950, black Americans had the right to vote in New York and Massachusetts, but it hardly followed from this that no one in the United States denied voting rights because of their race. Similarly, since 1967, Israel has incorporated the West Bank in particular into Israel for every possible legal purpose except one—granting equal rights to the Palestinians there. At least 5% of Israeli Jews live in West Bank settlements, and they are legally considered to live in Israel rather than abroad. They vote in Israeli elections. When they are accused of crimes, they are tried in real civilian courts. Their Palestinian neighbors are denied all of these rights—and, indeed, while the western media does not refer to them as “hostages,” Israeli prisons are full of West Bank Palestinians in a limbo of “administrative detention.”

Block wants us to believe that this is somehow downstream of Palestinian terrorism rather than the other way around, with armed resistance (some of it does, indeed, take forms that can be fairly called “terrorism”) being downstream first of ethnic cleansing at Israel’s birth and then decade upon decade upon decade of systematic denial of human rights to the captive Palestinian population in the territories. But a glance at the timeline shows otherwise. Block wants us to focus on Hamas, which was not even founded until the First Intifada, which happened after the realities I just described had been in place for 20 years. The reason the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were never made citizens of Israel—even as Israel built cities of its own citizens in these territories and integrated them more and more tightly into the rest of the country—is a simple one, and most Zionists, in my experience, are refreshingly honest about it. In their view, it is bad enough that those two million “Israeli Arabs” ended up as citizens of Israel by virtue of geography, but adding millions more Arabs to the population of Israeli citizens would destroy the current ethnic character of the state.

There has, in other words, been a single state “from the river to the sea” for the last 57 years—but an apartheid state where millions of human beings are quite openly denied citizenship because they have the “wrong” ethnicity and religion. If “apartheid” sounds like an exaggeration, consult a dictionary, and please tell me how it does not fit the situation I just described.

There are two solutions that someone who believed in a package of individual rights that included self-government could support—turning Israel into an actual “true democracy” by granting citizenship to everyone in the existing state, or a two-state partition of the existing state so the millions of currently rightless Palestinian non-citizen subjects of Israel would become citizens of something.

Block rejects both, instead suggesting that Palestinians who want the rights of citizenship should seek them in some other territory where they do not currently live. How does this fit with his libertarian belief in property rights? His proposal clearly would affect the property rights of the millions of Palestinians whom he hints should be relocated against their will (as, indeed, many already have been), as well as the millions of Egyptians, Lebanese people, and so on who would presumably have to be relocated by force to make room for a Palestinian state (or states). The closest he comes to resolving this contradiction is in this passage:

“Palestinians overwhelmingly voted for Hamas. Many of them exulted the barbaric events of October 7, 2023, exhibiting behaviors such as dancing in the streets, waving flags, and giving candy to children in celebration.”

He also mentions the Palestinian Authority (PA) paying a stipend to the families of “martyrs” of the struggle with Israel, though here Block is simply losing the thread, talking about the policies of the PA rather than staying focused on his thesis of the collective guilt of the entire Palestinian population. If Palestinians have lost the package of rights against interference in their persons and property Block believes all other human beings have because Hamas won a single election 18 years ago (i.e., before the majority of Palestinians alive today were old enough to vote, and before nearly half of them were even born) and because “many of them” celebrated the actions of Hamas, the painfully obvious response is that Israelis must have lost the same rights many times over, since both considerations would apply much more strongly to the Israeli population. Prime Minister Netanyahu is a war criminal who may soon be unable to visit most countries in the world for fear of the arrest warrant sought by the International Criminal Court, and he has won many elections, including far more recently than in 2006. And as the IDF has displaced millions of Gazans from their homes at gunpoint and killed far more Gazan civilians than the total civilian death toll—in absolute terms—in conflicts such as the Russia/Ukraine war involving vastly larger populations, it is sadly undeniable that a great many Israelis have cheered.

Indeed, like Block, I am old enough to remember President George W. Bush having a 90% approval rating after the September 11th attacks. And while his approval rating declined considerably from that high point, President Bush won re-election in 2004 after starting wars Block and I both opposed. As Americans, does Block think he and I have forfeited our human rights? Or is there no vote anyone could cast, no “celebration” of the actions of others anyone could engage in, that would mean that even they lost their basic rights—never mind that everyone in their national demographic does? 

Indeed, while I may be an economic “collectivist” rather than an economic libertarian, I nod along when libertarians more consistent than Block—such as, for example, Dave Smith, who has been a strong voice in defense of Palestinian human rights—denounce “collectivism” to insist that Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, and everyone else are individuals, not ethnic hiveminds.

As inconsistent as Block’s position may be, though, his frank advocacy of it is useful. This is because I suspect that even many apologists for Israel’s post-October 7th atrocities will find the frank dehumanization of this population in Block’s screed distasteful, but why? Is it because they believe that Palestinians do indeed have the same rights as everyone else? If so, how can Prime Minister Netanyahu’s crimes possibly be justified?

It is time to choose.

Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He is the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

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