Individual, Not National, Self-Determination Should Be the Goal

by | Mar 5, 2021

Individual, Not National, Self-Determination Should Be the Goal

by | Mar 5, 2021


Jeff Halper, the American-born, Israel-based veteran human-rights activist is heroic. He has dedicated his life to working for justice for the Palestinian victims of Israeli settler colonialism, much of that as the director of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. His new book, Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State is the subject of a recent YouTube video, which I recommend to all who are interested in the struggle for freedom.

As much as I admire Halper, I still must take issue with him and many others in his camp on a basic issue: national self-determination. The issue is important because it is a key part of the collectivist-left outlook and therefore in conflict with libertarian individualism, which otherwise shares many of the same concerns.

Halper, like a growing number of people who have worked to bring attention to the Palestinians’ plight, favors “one democratic state” in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. This position has emerged from the realization that the two-state solution is impossible in light of Israeli policy and actions in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. These areas are still called “occupied territories,” but in fact, after the more than half-century since Israel conquered them, they are more aptly called de facto annexed territories, with varying degrees of repression of the stateless non-Jewish residents. In January the most prominent human rights organization in Israel, B’Tselem, issued a report supporting its declaration that the entirety of the land between the sea and river, and not just the territories acquired in 1967, constitutes “a regime of Jewish supremacy.” “This is apartheid,” B’Tselem said.

I agree with these positions. For me they flow naturally from my commitment to individual rights, including the right to peacefully acquire and exchange things, even things like parcels of land. When individual rights are respected, we may reasonably speak of the right to self-determination. But regrettably, Halper and his colleagues don’t talk so much about individual self-determination. They prefer to talk about national self-determination; they seem to see the oppression of individuals as merely a manifestation of the oppression of a national group. I find this odd. I would have thought that self-avowed left universalists would find the idea of national self-determination unappealing. It’s true that the slogan has been used by groups striving to break free from an empire. But nationalism and national rivalries have cost many lives and caused much misery over the centuries. So why does the left emphasize national self-determination rather than individual self-determination? Nations after all don’t have selves. People do.

I wonder if it’s because the collectivist left senses that individualism clashes with their basic beliefs. It suggests a framework that is pro-market, pro-trade, and — horror! — pro-private property–things they do not generally like.

What I want to say to such leftists is that, with respect to Palestinian justice, they can’t get where they want to go by confining their analysis to national self-determination.

This is clear from Halper’s interview. He says he supports both Palestinian and Jewish national self-determination and insists that an exclusive nation-state is not required for it to be realized. (This may strike one as odd since Palestinian refers to geography and Jew refers to religion.) All that’s required for national self-determination, Halper says, is for a group to control its culture (whatever that means), resources, and land. But if he’s right, how can a program of national self-determination for both groups get him where he wants to go, namely, to a non-supremacist state in which both groups can coexist?

The very heart of the controversy as it is generally understood is a dispute over who the land belongs to and who should control it: the group that has lived there continuously for the last millennium-plus — mostly, Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and secularists, along with other, including Jewish, communities — or the Europeans (of the Zionist movement) who arrived only a bit more than a century ago for the explicit purpose of changing the land into a Jewish State by dispossessing most if not all of the Palestinians. (Many of the Europeans in this group were complete secularists, even atheists, who nevertheless called themselves members of the Jewish People. They thereby invoked the same discredited racial theory that was rejected by liberal-minded people when it was espoused Europe in the 1930s by those who wanted to murder Jews.)

Halper’s embrace of national self-determination for both “national peoples” in Israel/Palestine, then, can’t be the path to peace and justice because it resolves nothing.

But we need not despair. We can still hope for peace and justice. How? By jettisoning national self-determination in favor of individual self-determination. After all, the rights that the Zionist project violated, and continues to violate, are not national rights. They’re individual rights. Identifiable Palestinians were expelled by European Zionists from homes and real estate that they demonstrably owned. (Pre-Zionist Jews also legitimately owned property in Palestine, and their rights should be respected in any new arrangement.) Those property-owning Palestinian individuals lived in the hundreds of villages that the Zionist militias destroyed in their quest to establish a Jewish state in 1947-48. Some of those Palestinian individuals still possess the keys to their old houses and the deeds to their old real estate.

In other words, this isn’t about nations or peoples. It’s about individual human beings with natural rights, including property rights. The Palestinian People were not killed, dispossessed, and plundered by the Jewish People. Rather, particular Palestinian individuals were victimized by particular European Jewish individuals (though again, most were secular and even anti-religious) who claimed to be acting in the name of an ethnic or racial entity. (In fact, Jews are of many races and ethnicities.)

I don’t deny that in process of establishing a Jewish state, Palestinian culture was assaulted and even erased. What I’m saying is that culture is carried by individuals. You can oppress a culture only by systematically violating the rights, including the property rights, of many individuals. The individual is the unit of moral analysis.

The path to peace and justice, then, lies in a single classically liberal state in which the rights of all individuals, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity, are respected. This entails the right to engage in commerce and to move about peacefully.

I discuss these and many issues, including the claim that Zionist organizations and individuals purchased all of the land from Palestinians legitimately, in Coming to Palestine.

About Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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