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There is no practical solution, and that is why I talk about rights


A couple of weeks ago, Jerry Slater posed some questions about a comment I had made on a previous thread. I regret that I was unable to answer immediately, as I had intended, but better late than never.

First of all, thank you for addressing my comment and giving me the opportunity to clarify my position.

You asked:

First, you do not appear to reject my argument that in principle there is no inherently irreconcilable conflict  between a formal recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and the treatment of its Palestinian citizens as full equals. Rather, you say that this was the   way it was supposed to be, but it hasn’t worked. Does that imply that it can never work?

The “original sin” of Zionism, as pointed out by Ahad Ha’am as early as the 1880s, was the belief that the wishes of the native population of Palestine were irrelevant to the Zionist project. Zionist leaders truly believed that the establishment of a Jewish homeland would benefit the local non-Jewish population (whether they liked it or not), and socialist, liberal – and even revisionist – currents in the Zionist movement envisaged a society in which all would enjoy political and civil rights. Since these beliefs and visions were entirely self-referential however, bad actions repeatedly belied good intentions, yet the Zionist self-image remained untainted. Arab resistance to the Zionist project was thus perceived as inherently unfair and irrational– offering further justification for hostile actions, without having to shoulder any of the responsibility.

It thus seemed perfectly logical by 1948 to profess a commitment to full equality in the Declaration of Independence, while engaging in ethnic cleansing of the non-Jewish population of Palestine. The gap between “Jewish and democratic” has only widened over the years, certainly with regard to the territories under (semi-) permanent Israeli occupation, but also within the “green line”. To answer your question, it may technically be possible for Israel to be a Jewish state while affording full equality to its (minority) Palestinian citizens, but as long as the parameters of the state’s “Jewishness” and “democracy” remain entirely self-referential – i.e. based on and controlled by the sensibilities of the (majority) Jewish population, the balance will inevitably tip toward “Jewish” at the expense of “democratic”. To attempt the creation of such a state (or rather modification of the existing state) as part of a pragmatic art-of-the-possible approach to the conflict – i.e. giving preference to the concerns and wishes of the stronger side – would necessarily lack recognition of the principle of equality, and would therefore necessarily fail to provide actual equality.

Second, if so, what is the alternative?  If I understand your argument correctly, the implication of “the un-nuanced one man/one-vote approach” that you favor would require a single binational state.  If so, why would you consider that a more realistic alternative than relatively small privileging of Jews in a Jewish state? That a binational state would be morally preferable in an ideal world is not the issue–we don’t live in that world.   If the Israelis won’t grant full equality to a minority currently constituting 20% of a de facto Jewish state, what possibility is there that they would do so if they became a minority in a binational state?

I think we are all operating under a fallacy here, and that is that there is a realistic solution to the situation in I/P. There is no realistic solution, and a viable two-state solution is no more realistic than a viable one-state solution. The fact that the words “two states” are tossed around a lot, and even “accepted” by a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, has little if any bearing on a an actual solution based on two states. One state may or may not be acceptable to a majority of Palestinians (there are very strong undercurrents favouring such a state among Palestinians, but it is often dismissed because “the Israelis would never agree”), but it is certainly unacceptable to a majority of Israelis. So what is the alternative? Forget about solutions and focus on Palestinian rights and their constant and flagrant violation. The one-state idea is utopian, but it represents a vision of true equality that is useful in describing and promoting Palestinian rights, even in the absence of a solution. Since talk of unrealistic solutions does come up from time to time however, I see no reason not to espouse the better vision.

Third, I agree that the need–or alleged need, if you prefer–for a specifically-defined Jewish state would be greatly and maybe completely alleviated if the Jewish “right of return “ to Israel could be maintained. Can you develop this?  Has it become part of the negotiating process, even informally?  Would that work even in a binational state?  And if immigration were unlimited for Jews but not for others, why wouldn’t that be an inequality?  And if you concede that it would be, then wouldn’t that undercut the argument that other inequalities–which you agree  might be nominal–cannot be allowed?

The issue of the Law of [Jewish] Return has never been on the negotiating table, formally or informally, because the agenda has always been set by Israel, which does not consider the LOR negotiable in any way, shape or form. In the context of our utopian musings however, I can envisage some Palestinian accommodation of Jewish/Israeli concerns in this matter. Assuming that the issue of Palestinian ROR has been satisfactorily resolved, I see no reason why an article cannot be included in the Israeli or Isratinian constitution affording preference in immigration (not automatic citizenship) to Jews suffering religious persecution (the main argument in favour of the need for the LOR), and even Jews in general – based on a “point system”, that would also recognise Palestinian, Arab and Muslim identities and concerns.

Here’s my own bottom line.  Given the history of the Jews, it was necessary to establish a Jewish state, somewhere, and in  light of that same history, it cannot be said that the need for a Jewish state—de facto or formal—has definitively ended, for all time. That the creation of that state in Israel in a land already inhabited by another people created an injustice is undeniable, but the dilemma of Zionism—there was an imperative need for a Jewish state, but no place to put it—could and of course should  have been mitigated in many ways by the Israelis, none of which they did.

My approach is somewhat different. I don’t believe there was ever a need for a Jewish state, and the establishment of such a state created more problems than it resolved. I believe that democratisation, international humanitarian law, and greater acceptance of diversity in our societies, have done far more to combat antisemitism (and all forms of racism) than Zionism ever has or ever will. I believe that it is the de facto existence of a Jewish state that has in fact created the “need” for such a state, in the minds of its supporters and beyond. That is my opinion, but there is little point in arguing alternate histories.

It’s not too late to mitigate the inevitable injustice to the Palestinians, but given Israeli attitudes,  not to mention the inevitable consequences of more than 80 years of binational conflict, the most that can be expected is an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state, along the lines accepted by practically everyone, including, it now appears, the West Bank leadership.

As have I explained above, I don’t believe that a two-state solution is any more pragmatic than a one-state solution, both because there is little agreement as to what such a solution would actually look like (despite the mantra “we all know what the final agreement will look like”), and because an agreement that perpetuates inequality would bear the seeds of its own potentially-disastrous disintegration.

To conclude: we live in an imperfect world, full of injustices, tragic dilemmas, and circumstances we can’t control.  There is no perfectly just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even in principle, let alone in practice.   If those who rightly abhor Israeli policies give up on a two-state settlement in favor of a binational state that under all present and foreseeable circumstances is pure fantasy, they will get nowhere at all.

On a practical level, I agree that there is “no perfectly just solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict”. In fact, I don’t believe there is any solution at all, which is why I support a rights- rather than solution-based approach. On a theoretical level however, I believe that there is an idea – one secular democratic state – that offers the possibility of maximum justice for all parties. It also offers a consciousness-challenging vision, regardless of the specific solutions we may choose to strive for. A two-state solution might indeed be a better idea, but not if it simply duplicates the problems that lie at the heart of the conflict.

About Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel

Shmuel Sermoneta-Gertel is a teacher, translator and independent researcher based in Rome. He is a member of Rete ECO - Ebrei contro l'occupazione.

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