Manny Thompson ‘15 recently published an article entitled “Israel Has No Right To Exist – and Neither Does the U.S.”. The article had the potential to upset numerous constituencies on campus, ranging from military veterans to Jewish students to patriotic American citizens. Mr. Thompson, like the Stanford Review, believes in the importance of confronting uncomfortable issues on college campuses. America’s founding generation agreed with Mr. Thompson as well, which is why this country’s constitution protects free speech. We wish to engage with Mr. Thompson in dialogue and address his central argument that America and Israel have no right to exist due to their discriminatory legacies. We contend that, even if states should lose legitimacy due to their oppressive nature, neither America nor Israel meet any reasonable threshold of oppression for this radical step.
Mr. Thompson argues that the dissolution of the United States of America and Israel will be a necessary condition for complete black and Palestinian freedom. He writes:
“Both the U.S. and Israel are diametrically opposed to liberation, for a free and equal Black and Palestinian population within their borders would require the complete transformation of their governing principles and institutions. Just as a United States with liberated Black people is no longer the same country, equality for all people under the control of Israel would mean its dissolution.”
Here, Mr. Thompson contends that a necessary component of freedom is the end of America and Israel. However, countries can and do undergo significant episodes of liberalization while retaining their national identities. America still exists after blacks, women, and other minorities were given the right to vote, Germany still exists after the fall of the Third Reich, and Britain still exists despite the loss of its empire. In fact, America’s constitution contains an amendment process to enact “complete transformation” of its institutions. History teaches us that large nations that undergo transformations of their governing institutions usually do survive.
Mr. Thompson adopts an absolutist, all-or-nothing position and writes: “when the U.S. sticks a knife in our back nine inches and then pulls it out six inches, it might look like progress, but it’s still murder.”¹ This metaphor falsely casts progress in the binary terms of dead or alive, a comparison that is invalid because compromise is an essential ingredient to liberation. If LGBT activists had pushed for gay marriage during the 1950s and 60s, then the movement would not have garnered necessary support from moderates. If President Lincoln had called for full racial equality instead of just an end to slavery, then it is unlikely the Thirteenth Amendment would have been enacted into law. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson had to water down the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to overcome a Southern filibuster yet he passed the first civil rights legislation in a hundred years and set the stage for further reform during his Presidency. Social traditions evolve over decades and those looking to change them must compromise with the status quo or risk total failure. This tension over compromise is also reflected in Mr. Thompson’s next point.
It is impossible to deny that America’s black citizens face serious problems that stem in part from historical discrimination. Mass incarceration tears apart black families, failing schools impede minority children from overcoming poverty, and police treatment of minority communities needs to be reformed immediately. However, Mr. Thompson’s assertion that “we are no closer to our freedom” neglects generations of meaningful progress. It neglects millions of Union soldiers — including thousands of black troops — who fought in the Civil War to abolish slavery. It neglects countless abolitionists, Civil Rights activists, and other individuals, including students, who fought or are fighting for change. It neglects legislators and other leaders that waged hard-fought battles to enact multiple constitutional amendments and Civil Rights laws. Claiming that “real progress” is “impossible” in light of these successes is degrading and hubristic. America has not yet conquered racism, but to deny this country’s progress is to falsely revise the historical record.
Mr. Thompson also singles out Israel for considerable criticism. Israel should not be immune from reproach and some of Mr. Thompson’s comments have merit, but it is hard to take Mr. Thompson and his supporters seriously when Israel — one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East — is singled out for criticism. Israel is the only country in the Middle East whose medics are required to treat both enemies and allies with urgency. Israel respects same-sex marriages from other countries while countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, the Gaza Strip (controlled by Hamas), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates, have anti-homosexuality laws. Many of these countries receive American support yet Mr. Thompson singles out Israel. He also cites Israeli violence against Palestinians yet many of these other nations systematically torture and oppress their own citizens. Mr. Thompson feels black citizens are unfairly targeted yet he and other campus critics of Israel have a penchant for unfairly targeting countries for condemnation.
The “singling out Israel” argument typically prompts many counterclaims. For example, some contend Israel should receive extra scrutiny for allegedly discriminatory practices because it claims to be a Westernized democracy that respects human rights. However, this counterargument suggests that hypocrisy, not discriminatory behavior, should be the standard by which we judge nations’ conduct. Countries that do not profess to respect human rights should be exempt from criticism under this standard. If we accept that the severity of underlying practices should dictate how we allocate our “time to critique”, then surely Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad deserves at least as much criticism as Israel. The Syrian Civil War that his policies largely instigated has claimed over 210,000 lives, including as many as 2,663 dead Palestinians. It is unclear why Mr. Thompson has not called on Stanford to divest from China, a nation that actively supports North Korea — the epitome of an oppressive state. Mr. Thompson’s article does not cite many other offending countries, suggesting that he is not using the severity of discrimination as his main metric to judge countries.
Mr. Thompson concludes his article by claiming that state-sponsored historical or current oppressive practices de-legitimize a nation’s existence. It is true as Mr. Thompson suggests that America’s Declaration of Independence supports this idea. However, almost every nation and institution has at least some connection with discrimination and oppression. Mr. Thompson demands freedom yet the very nature of a government involves the collectivization of some individual rights; certain freedoms are suppressed to solidify others. America has a history of suppressing these freedoms unequally for different citizens, but the country has also taken significant steps to remedy these historical injustices.
It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze how states obtain legitimacy. However, we can outline a set of reasonable conditions that must all be satisfied to claim that a nation has lost its right to exist. We do not seek to reduce countless tomes of political philosophy to a couple of paragraphs, but we think it is important nonetheless to outline some general principles that ought to guide consideration of Mr. Thompson’s claims. First, there must be a fundamental disrespect for human rights that greatly exceeds the global norm. Neither America nor Israel satisfy this condition because it is impossible to find multiple patterns of human rights practices in either country that are dramatically worse than global norms. The rationale for this condition is clear — countries that respect human rights at or above the global norm are likely to be legitimate. The contextual element is important because it grounds the condition in practicality and recognizes that human rights advances stem from compromise.
Second, the offending country cannot be making a sincere and effective effort to improve its human rights practices. Opinions are split on whether Israel satisfies this condition, but there is no doubt that America strives to improve its human rights. For example, Congress is now seriously considering policing reform legislation and the Obama Administration has curtailed the sale of military weaponry to local law enforcement agencies. This condition is important because it recognizes that political entities are critical elements of national societies; to wrest away political existence when there is a meaningful effort to enact internal reform is to cause unwarranted disruption within society. Global opinions on what constitutes a human right differ considerably, but we believe Western notions of equality under a set of laws that embrace individual liberties and due process should animate this discussion because they recognize human dignity at the individual level.
Finally, there must not be a realistic political process that can foster liberalization. If there are institutions in place that can advance human rights within a nation, then external pressure on these institutions to begin a process of liberalization is a better approach than rejecting a nation’s existence for the same reason that justifies the second condition: it is best to work within political entities whenever possible because these institutions are essential components of a nation’s social fabric that should not be disturbed without cause. Both America and Israel have robust political institutions that can and have implemented dramatic human rights reforms. For these reasons, we must reject Mr. Thompson’s claim that both America and Israel do not have a right to exist.
Mr. Thompson’s article serves as a sort of denouement to our year at Stanford, where many activist movements have dominated and sometimes suffocated discussion on contentious issues. Activists often employ a dualistic approach similar to Mr. Thompson’s and use slogans such as “No Justice, No Peace” or hyperboles such as “Stanford is Racist” that promote rhetoric that severely simplifies and misrepresents complex situations. This approach leaves no room for compromise, for nuance, for moderation — tools that history has shown are necessary to enact meaningful and sustainable change. Along with Mr. Thompson, many activists condemn institutions such as Stanford for passively and actively impeding change. However, there is a failure to acknowledge that these very civil institutions give us the ability to freely inquire about the world, connect with others to create a platform to protest, and perhaps most importantly, they allow us to engage with and learn from different perspectives. And on a larger scale, the U.S. government is fundamentally an institution that allows individuals such as Mr. Thompson to criticize its policies — a right held to be so sacred that it is protected by America’s highest law.
America is not a perfect country. It has made grave historical mistakes and one cannot deny its legacy of racial discrimination. However, on this Memorial Day, we stand as proud citizens of the United States of America, knowing that our troops lay down their lives every day to protect a nation that continues to strive toward its fundamental ideals: liberty and justice for all.
1. Although the knife metaphor is powerful, after further thought, one realizes it masks the complexity of situations and could be misleading as well. For example, if we were to continue the metaphor, we could say that ‘when you get a deep knife wound, you can’t simply pull it out. That increases blood loss, so you must take time to assess the wound and probably have intense complicated surgical procedures in order to fully have it recovered.” Speaking in analogies is misleading and inaccurate. Claims like the US has “dangled the bait of progress …[in order to] keep [you] in an endless chase game” are poetic, but the substance behind it simply doesn’t add up when further scrutinized: What is this chase game? How is progress bait? Who is dangling it?