A binational state is actually a compromise — ask Derrida

Israel/Palestine
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Last summer Jeff Halper made the observation that the Israel/Palestine situation was moving from a South Africa model to an Algeria model. That is to say, the situation was now so extreme that some Palestinians imagined ultimately evicting Israeli neocolonials from the land. A bloody outcome indeed.

Halper himself envisions a South Africa outcome: one in which Israeli Jews and Palestinians share the land.

His view is of course in contrast to the Zionist paradigm, which is essentially colonial: Jews get the great majority of the land, Palestinians are consigned to enclaves.

I relate these paradigms as a preamble to an excerpt of a review by Adam Shatz of a new biography of philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), in the LRB that contains some vital wisdom about Israel Palestine, echoing Halper’s point.

Derrida was born in Algeria and throughout the independence struggles of the 50s and 60s, he always held out for a third way, in which French colonials would have their place in Algeria. That didn’t happen. They got evicted.

As you read this excerpt, consider that in the shadow of the Algerian experience, Derrida, a leftwing visionary who was active against apartheid, favored a third way in Israel/Palestine: a binational state. This represents a compromise of both national aspirations, and thus could actually be the most just outcome of a terribly polarized situation. Shatz/LRB:

Derrida returned home in 1957, at the height of the war of independence, to do his military service, teaching at a school southwest of Algiers. Derrida’s postcolonialist admirers will be disappointed, and his conservative critics surprised, to learn that he opposed both the FLN [national liberation front] and the partisans of Algérie française, holding out for a third way that might allow natives and settlers to share the country, perhaps in a federation with France. (In 1952, Derrida wrote a paper for a history class on ‘our African empire’: the idea of Algeria as an independent, majority-ruled republic was at that time as inconceivable to him as it was to Camus.) When a close friend serving in Brazza wrote to him about the torture of an Arab teenager, Derrida was horrified but refused to take a position: ‘Any attempt to justify or condemn either group is not just obscene, just a way of quietening one’s conscience, but also abstract, “empty”.’

In 1959 Derrida and Marguerite [Aucouturier, his wife, a psychoanalyst] returned to France. After a miserable stint teaching philosophy at a lycée in the provinces which ended in a nervous collapse, he landed a job as a lecturer at the Sorbonne. But his psychological state was precarious, his thoughts never far from his family in Algeria. In 1961, a year before independence, the historian Pierre Nora, a lycée classmate, published a scathing little book, Les Français d’Algérie, pillorying the colons as genocidal in their hatred of Arabs. Derrida sent Nora a 19-page single-spaced letter. He agreed that independence was now inevitable, but recoiled from Nora’s ‘harshly aggressive’ tone, his ‘desire to humiliate’. One couldn’t blame the pieds noirs while letting the true ‘masters’, the French government, off the hook. He was particularly angered by Nora’s scathing depiction of liberals like Derrida as de facto supporters of colonial rule.

Impressed by the letter, Nora suggested that they publish their debate, but Derrida preferred not to. ‘I realise that I love [Algeria] more and more, love it madly,’ he wrote to Nora after spending a final summer there in 1961, ‘which does not contradict the aversion I have long stated for it.’ After independence came in July 1962, his family – 15 of them – camped out at the Derridas’ flat outside Paris, before moving to Nice. Derrida, who would return to Algeria only twice, often spoke of his ‘nostalgeria’; he continued to insist that ‘a different type of settlement’ might have led to less suffering. Peeters suggests that Derrida had Algeria in mind when he expressed the hope that Israelis and Palestinians might find a way to live in a single, binational state. His experience of the Algerian war accounts for the moral sensitivity – the attention to nuance, the refusal to choose sides, as well as the occasional utopianism – of his political thinking.

One other note: As Mark Braverman said on our site, “The problem is not that we are not engaged, the problem is that we are VERY engaged, and it is the nature of that engagement that must change.” Just as Derrida faulted the masters of the disastrous Algeria situation, the French government. 

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