The Absurdity of a State’s “Right to Exist”

Tha Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) followed the corporate media newswire framing for its headline on May 11, 2021: Israelis are “killed” with the active voice; Palestinians “die” with the passive voice. Even the headlines are colonial.

And we hear the usual mantra about “rights to exist” and “rights to defend” stripped of all meaning.

States don’t have “rights” to exist, any more than a corporation like Raytheon, or a car, or a nuclear reactor, or a reusable water bottle has a “right to exist.”

People have rights, or at least ought to have certain rights. But even here, in reference to actual living (or future) people, there are no clear cut, inalienable rights. Context matters. That’s why even one’s right to life is considered contingent, both in law and in popular culture: because others have a right to defend themselves against aggressors, both individual and collective. The equal rights of others to the things we claim for ourselves inevitably limit our own rights, at least in any world in which fairness and justice and equity and ethics actually matters. We all may have a “right to freely associate and assemble”, but that right is clearly limited in the context of a pandemic (at least, to anyone who is not a complete selfish idiot, conspiratorial wing-nut, or outright socio-path). In other words, rights –– like all positive values –– conflict with one another, and context changes everything.

We often hear about Israel’s alleged ‘right to exist.’ But the entire notion is a smoke-screen that serves to mask power dynamics, settler-colonial relationships, apartheid, and the relations between oppressor and oppressed.

But lest anyone regurgitate the usual impoverished and disingenuous talking point about ostensibly “singling out” Israel, let’s switch focus for one second and talk about Canada’s alleged “right to exist”. I’m a Canadian citizen, from a privileged WASP settler background. And I don’t think Canada as a State institution has a ‘right’ to exist, any more than Israel as a State institution has any right to exist. Framing the question in these terms is a red herring. Canada is a colonial institution that claims a particular territorial border, and arrogates for itself certain legal and political powers, based on a particular nationalist mythology that goes back to the earliest French and English imperial pretensions in the 16th century. Does it have a “right” to exist at all, let alone in the actual form it takes? Does Canada have a right to exist as an essentially apartheid state with a two-tiered legal apparatus (as the various iterations of the “Indian Act” surely are)? Does it have a right to exist in the borders it has claimed for itself, even when those borders have unilaterally enveloped the lands of distinct peoples with their own rights of self-determination (from the Mi’kmaw of the Maritimes, to the Haudenosaunee, to the Anishinaabe and Cree, to the Salish of the west coast, and many others) who have never ceded their lands and sovereignty except in the colonial imagination of those who usurped it by hook and by crook?

The whole notion of Canada as a particular form of settler state having some kind of primordial and universal and perpetual “right to exist” is absurd. It side-steps the historical process of dispossession, exploitation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide at the heart of this country. It side-steps the question of justice today. It side-steps thinking about visionary horizons of justice tomorrow. And frankly, it homogenizes diverse peoples’ rights and agendas and reduces them to a mere reflection of a colonial and class-based political institution.

Likewise, Israel as a particular form of polity has no right to exist –– just as Canada has no right to exist, and certainly not in the form it actually assumes. Those who adopt this silly nonsensical mantra are, like Canadian nationalists here, eliding the rights of deliberately-unspecified peoples with the powers and prerogatives of an historical institution that represents a particular domestic (class and colonial) power structure.

The real questions have always been different:

1) Why on Earth would we defend an apartheid regime, at home or in Palestine?;

2) Why would we privilege the “rights” to wield violence by a settler-state and its non-state supporters (whether we are talking about Canada from the pogroms against Mi’kmaw fishers to the barricades of Wet’suwet’en, or we are talking about anti-Palestinian pogroms from Jerusalem to Hebron), and NOT first and foremost affirm that colonized people have a right to defend themselves and their land –– in fact, they have the ONLY right to do so in the context that matters?;

3) What kind of polity and society *ought* to exist, such that the historic, democratic, cultural, and religious, rights of Palestinians and Jews can both be upheld (categories of identity that are not actually mutually-exclusive, despite the tendency to portray them that way)?

States do not have rights. Insofar as we afford them “rights” under international law, it is only as a proxy to accomplish a goal for real people and real interests. People have a right to self-determination, which means they may have a right to adopt forms of political organization (including forms we don’t have to like or agree with) –– but inevitably, this comes into conflict with competing claims. Not all claims are equally valid. Does a State that oppresses its own people, let alone those it classifies as “other” or “less-than”, translate into some inherent right to those at the top of that institutional power structure to maintain their self-appointed class or colonial rule? Even “self-determination” elided as a “collective or national right” can mask class and colonial divisions. Class and colonial divisions also imply a multitude of rights of self-determination of different kinds within a given State, and these can be, and often are silenced, denied, and violently-crushed in the name of self-determination or “national unity.” So the question is always self-determination for whom? Self-determination along what axes of social, political, and economic relations?

In other words, it’s messy. History matters, context matters, aspirations matter, popular support matters, but they are not everything. They are always checked by the rights of others. And there is a difference between colonizer and colonized, oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim –– even if those binaries are themselves more complicated than we sometimes wish to acknowledge. Anyone telling you –– while the State of Israel rains fire from above with relative impunity and slaughters civilians in Gaza –– that Israel has a “right” to exist and “defend” itself, who does not also (or ever) say the same thing about Palestinians, is first of all playing a very old nationalist and colonial shell game. Second, they have no sense of proportionality. They’re also avoiding the question of what kind of polity ought to exist between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And most of all, they’re side-stepping history and context.

Imagine saying that apartheid South Africa had a “right to exist” in the context of the massacre at Soweto in 1976. Imagine pretending that the theft of land, colonialism, and apartheid itself were not the central issues. That sort of framing was nothing but an evasion, and an apology for apartheid and state terrorism. It certainly was not an argument, let alone a principle worth entertaining. And it still isn’t.


Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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