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On Self-Determination

One in a series of publications by the "Thomas Jefferson" of Israel.
First posted 23 June, 2006. Read more: The Myth of Israeli Democracy.
More articles are available via http://www.foundation1.org.

National Self-Determination

Prof. Paul Eidelberg 


ational self-determination involves the question of whether a people has the right to establish any form of government it pleases, be it a Communist, Fascist, or Islamic dictatorship. To answer this question, let us first recall these words of the American Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Underlying these words of the Declaration of Independence is the Torah’s conception of man’s creation in the image of God.[1] This remarkable document portrays man as a rational being who possesses free will and is capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Without such a conception of human nature, the fifty-six signatories of the Declaration would have had no rational or just grounds for rebelling against Great Britain whose laws and colonial governments violated, in the words of those signatories, the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

This “Higher Law” doctrine of the Declaration provides a set of norms or standards by which to determine whether the granting of national self-determination to this or that people or ethnic group can be justified. It certainly cannot be justified among people steeped in ignorance or habituated to violence and servitude. Such a people, as Thomas Jefferson understood, may justly be governed without their consent. John Stuart Mill held the same view. In his classic, On Liberty, Mill writes: “Despotism is a legitimate form of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.”[2]

In Representative Government, Mill explains that a people may lack the moderation which representative government requires of them.

A rude people, though in some degree alive to the benefits of civilized society, may not be able to practice the forbearance which it demands: their passions may be too violent, or their personal pride too exacting, to forego private conflict, and leave to the laws the avenging of their real or supposed wrongs. In such a case, a civilized government, to be really advantageous to them, will require to be in a considerable degree despotic: one over which they do not themselves exercise control, and which imposes a great degree of forcible restraint upon their actions. A people must be considered unfit for more than a limited and qualified freedom… who will not co-operate actively with the law and the public authorities in the repression of evil-doers.[3]

Prudence dictates that we should not be too confident about which populations can learn to govern themselves. For example, in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, there were many commentators who assumed that the Japanese and/or the Germans could never govern themselves; it was said they needed “strong leaders.” In Iraq, the Kurds seem to be quite capable, but the Sunni and Shi’a are more dubious. These things can be estimated prudentially in advance, but experience is the best guide, as witness the so-called Palestinians.

They have not merely bungled their every chance of self-government by boosting the likes of Yasser Arafat and now Hamas thugs as their leaders. Having educated a generation of their children to emulate suicide bombers, the goal of these Arabs is not statehood but Israel’s annihilation.[4] Moreover, they are incited by the hatred of Jews and of Israel that permeates the Islamic world, so evident not only in the genocidal pronouncements of Iranian despots, but also in the media and mosques of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two Arab states which spawned the kamikazes that destroyed the U.S. World Trade Center.

That barbarism prompted eminent historian Paul Johnson to say this of Arab states that harbor terrorists: “Countries that cannot live in peace with their neighbors and wage covert war against the international community cannot expect total independence.” He recommends a “new form of United Nations mandate system”![5]

It follows that a people’s right to national self-deter­mination is not an absolute: it is limited by rational and moral considerations. It would be irrational and unjust to permit a people, in the name of self-determination, to establish a form of government that denied its neighbor’s right to self-deter­mination. This would be the inevitable consequence of establishing an Arab Palestinian state on Israel’s doorstep—the policy of moral egalitarians for whom democracy bears no relation to people’s character or worthiness.

In view of the fact that the militant beliefs and authoritarian way of life of these Arabs render them hostile to democracy—they use Arab children as suicide bombers—they may be governed without their consent until a humane alternative is forthcoming.

Contrary to almost universal opinion, the principle of government by the consent of the governed does not mean that democracy is the only just form of government. In fact, the word “democracy” does not appear in the American Declaration of Independence (or in its Israeli counterpart). What the Declaration regards as most important is not the form but the ends of government, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In its own words: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” This clearly implies that there are just forms of government other than democracy, an implication relevant to Israeli rule over the self-styled Palestinians.

(“Self-styled” because these Arabs, as even non-Jewish scholars have shown, do not constitute a people, neither linguistically, historically, or culturally.[6] They are from the Sunni- Muslim-majority of the Islamic world. Moreover, any objective examination of international law will show that the land inhabited by these Arabs—Judea, Samaria, and Gaza—belongs exclusively to the Jewish people.[7] The so-called right of the “Palestinian people” to self-determination is nothing but a hoax intended to deprive the Jewish people of their God-given birthright.)

 In any event, given the paramount importance of the ends of government, no people have a right to establish a form of government whose very nature is destructive of these ends. When the American Declaration of Independence states that men’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “unalienable,” this means that these rights may neither be taken away nor voted away. If self-determination is to be continuously effective, the people must be offered, in periodic elections, alternative public policies, and not the cynical charades played by despots.

From these considerations it follows that even if a people were to vote unanimously in favor of establishing a Fascist or Communist or Islamic dictatorship, such an act would not only be irrational—for men cannot rationally divest themselves of the power to determine who shall be their rulers—but it would also be unjust. It would or could deprive future generations and perhaps other nations of their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As Abraham Lincoln has written, “[One] cannot say any people have a right to do what is wrong.”[8] The principle of self-determination is not self-justifying. Its justice depends on consequences, namely, whether its application will result in the establishment of a just form of government.

This understanding was still alive at the end of World War II. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese were permitted to establish any form of government they desired. To the contrary, American and British statesmen in those days deemed it both reasonable and just to impose on Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan a parliamentary form of democracy in which the principle of self-determination is meaningful and continually operative. The people of those two countries can now determine who shall exercise the powers of government and thereby influence the policies and goals of their respective countries.

On the other hand, the principle of self-determination can be used to stifle democracy. Notice that the “democratic” criterion of national self-determination was advanced by the tyrant Hitler, for the undemocratic geopolitical purpose of conquering the Czechs. More precisely, Hitler called for the self-determination of the Germans in the Sudetenland. England complied at Munich, which doomed democratic Czechoslovakia.

The Sudeten Germans are obviously analogous to the “West Bank” Arabs (those living in Judea and Samaria). In the name of self-determination, the United States and Europe favor an Arab Palestinian state in the historic heartland of the Jewish people, a state which, in alliance with Egypt and Syria, could doom Israel.

If the truth were told, the Arabs of Judea and Samaria exercised far more self-determination under Israel than they now do under the Palestinian Authority. Under Israel’s benevolent rule they elected their own mayors and enjoyed rights and opportunities non-existent in the entire Arab-Islamic world. Israel’s Government established a system of primary and secondary schools which greatly multiplied the number of girls and boys attending classes (where, they were also taught, unfortunately, to hate Jews).

Thanks to Israel, Arab colleges and universities appeared for the first time in the “West Bank” (only to become centers for Arab insurrection). The Government also established new hospitals, health centers, and nursing schools. Infant mortality was greatly reduced and the standard of health improved beyond recognition. Also, roads as well as water and electric power facilities were constructed. Modern methods of agriculture were introduced. Eventually, tens of thousands of “West Bank” Arabs were employed in Israel. The Arabs’ standard of living doubled and quadrupled. (Tourists were amazed to see so many large and luxurious mansions in Arab towns.)

One Arab commentator acknowledged in 1971 that “The Arabs feel, not only that they live better than before [the Six-Day War of] 1967, but say also that they will not choose to live again under a [Jordanian] dictatorship after having experienced the liberal Israeli regime.”[9] In that same year the following remark appeared in a Lebanese newspaper: “We have lived a long period under the ‘humiliation’ of Arab nationalism, and it pains us to say that we had to wait for the Israel ‘conquest’ in order to become aware of human relationships…”[10]

If this candid attitude were widespread among Arabs west of the Jordan River, it did not run very deep: most Arabs cheered and danced on their roof tops in 1991 when Iraqi Scud missiles fell on Israel. They are paying the price of such perversity. Having cursed the seed of Abraham, they are themselves cursed by their own elected leaders. Thanks to the Oslo Agreement they now live impoverished and intimidated by a democratically elected despotism—Hamas—an ugly consequence of the mis­placed principle of self-determination. For this we may thank the proponents of ethically neutral majoritarian democracy.

[1]Although Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration, was not a religious man, the document, in his words, “was intended to be an expression of the American mind,” which, as is well-known, was very much influenced by the Bible of Israel. See Paul Eidelberg, On the Silence of the Declaration of Independence (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), p. 1.

[2]John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government (E. P. Dutton, 1951), p. 96.

[3]Ibid., pp. 239-240.

[4]Mussa Abu Marzuk (No.2 in Hamas leadership) declared on April 24, 2006: “One of Hamas’s founding principles is that it does not recognize Israel. We [participated in] the elections and the people voted for us based on this platform. Therefore, the question of recognizing Israel is definitely not on the table unless it withdraws from ALL the Palestinian lands, not only to the 1967 borders.” See http://www.wadinet.de/news/iraq/newsarticle.php?id=2097.

[5]The Wall Street Journal (Jerusalem Post, Oct. 10, 2001), p. 15.

[6]See G2 Bulletin by Joseph Farah (http://www.g2bulletin.com), a Christian Arab. See also Paul Eidelberg, Demophrenia: Israel and the Malaise of Democracy (Prescott Press, 1994), p. 65; Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (Harper & Row, 1985).

[7]See Howard Grief, “Legal Rights and Title of Sovereignty of the Jewish People to the land of Israel and Palestine Under International Law,” Ariel Center for Policy Research (ACPR Policy Paper No. 147, April 2003).

[8]The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols.; Rutgers University Press, 1953), III, 315.

[9]Cited in Mordechai Nisan, Israel and the Territories (Ramat-Gan, Israel: Turtledove Publishing, 1978), p. 119, referring statements made in 1971.


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