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Liberal Zionism and self-determination are on a collision course

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Anyone who believes in a just solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must address the principle of national self-determination. First endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson, this principle more than any other has animated the history of the twentieth century. National self-determination flows from nationalism, defined by Ernest Gellner as being “primarily a political principle, which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.” Israel today, in many ways, embodies this principle for Jewish nationalists. To many Jewish nationalists, or Zionists, Israel’s existence is the just correction of Jewish statelessness. Some Jewish nationalists may express regret over the way their movement played out in Palestine. They may also claim to adhere to human rights principles and struggle alongside Palestinians in the West Bank; these are the ‘liberal Zionists.’ Yet, I would argue that the Jewish nationalist movement, in attempting to secure Jewish national rights at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian community, has shown itself to be doctrinally racist. The incongruence between liberalism and racism is obvious to many, but liberal Zionists deserve the benefit of the doubt. It is my contention that Zionism is antithetical to principles of self-determination despite the superficial agreement I outlined above. Furthermore, anyone who hews to liberal principles faces a contradiction between those beliefs and those of Zionism. For many this is leading to a break from Zionism, and I believe more ‘liberal Zionists’ are coming to this conclusion every day.
Why is Jewish nationalism racism? Evaluated in a vacuum, it isn’t – at least not more than other nationalisms. If Zionists chose to colonize a hypothetical island in the Pacific Ocean, devoid of human inhabitants, I would say it isn’t very different at all. Theoretically then, Zionism is no different from French nationalism. But the decision by early Zionists to colonize Palestine caused theory and reality to diverge. Palestine was inhabited by indigenous people. Jewish nationalists had to ethnically cleanse the territory in order to occupy it.
But that doesn’t completely explain why Zionism is racist. For that, I’ll fast-forward to the present day. Jewish nationalists have mostly achieved their goal of creating an ethnically pure state in Palestine. But not totally; roughly 20% of Israelis are non-Jews. Now suppose over the next fifty years the Palestinian minority in Israel grows to 40% of the population – where does that leave Jewish nationalism? Suppose the Palestinian minority in Israel today, who already enjoy Israeli citizenship, reach 55% of the population in 75 years. What then? What remedies are available to the Jewish Israeli liberal in the event of an Arab baby tidal wave? I encourage ‘liberal Zionists’ to begin thinking about these questions today. It will be difficult to correct a surfeit of wrong-raced infants within the confines of liberalism. I do not envy ‘liberal Zionists’ their task. These questions are why liberalism and Zionism are incongruent. Anyone who describes himself as a ‘liberal Zionist’ has to come to terms with the racially exclusive nature of Jewish nationalism in Palestine/Israel. In short, Jewish national self-determination is only possible in Palestine/Israel at the expense of Palestinian national self-determination, and I believe, Jewish humanity.
I said above that Zionism is antithetical to principles of self-determination. The Zionist government of Israel frustrates and undermines the hopes of millions of Palestinians and their legitimate expression. The Zionist government of Israel really has no choice. Zionist logic compels it to behave the way it does. Someone who believes that the Jewish people have a right to lands inhabited by indigenous peoples in 1948 must also believe that Jewish people have a right to lands inhabited by indigenous people in 2009. There is no difference between the ethnic cleansing carried out in Israel proper sixty years ago and the ethnic cleansing being carried out in the West Bank today. This is the logic of Zionism. Jewish self-determination means Jewish self-determination in Palestine, which means native dispossession, and the maintenance of Jewish supremacy in places where that dispossession has yet to be completely fulfilled. That’s why there is no such thing as ‘liberal Zionism.’
I believe the solution to the Problem of Zionism is the one-state solution. But, how can a multiethnic state give full expression to the principle of self-determination? And what about the very reasonable desire, expressed by both Palestinians and Jews, to live in a state that embraces their cultural traditions, ethno-religious narratives and normative values?
In liberal thought, the individual is the fundamental unit from whence all political legitimacy is derived. National self-determination, which is basically a liberal tenet, also takes an irreducibly individual form. In America, the basic unit of ‘national self-determination’ is ‘individual self-determination.’ More specifically, freedoms of speech, association, movement, etc., which are an individual’s prerogatives, coalesce to comprise ‘individual self-determination.’ The sum of the expression of these freedoms makes up ‘national self-determination.’ Put differently, the choices of individual Americans combine to decide where America should go as a nation – or ‘national self-determination.’ Indeed, in truly free societies the notion of national self-determination takes on a kind of redundancy. Why should I care if you celebrate Eid with other Muslims, Christmas with other Christians, Hanukkah with other Jews, or Divali with other Hindus so long as I can celebrate anything I choose with whomever I choose? America manages, more or less, to accommodate the cultural traditions, ethno-religious narratives and normative values of different communities by permitting the multitudinous expressions of individuals’ self-determination through individual choice. This may seem like an idealistic vision of the future for Palestine/Israel, but relentless Zionist territorial maximization has guaranteed that the partition plan will never happen. The two peoples will have to live in one state, and the American model of ethno-religious accommodation seems like a good one to aspire to.
The question of what Palestinians and Israelis want is an important one. What if no one in Palestine/Israel wants a one-state solution? My answer is that their choice is already being made for them. Palestine/Israel is already a de facto single state, with an entrenched system of apartheid. From a realpolitik perspective, Israel can never relinquish control over vital water resources in the West Bank and Gaza, the Mountain aquifer and Coastal aquifer, respectively. Also, 500,000 Jewish colonists are not going anywhere. And the putative Jewish state – it isn’t really Jewish if one in five people isn’t Jewish – will never permit a Palestinian entity to exercise military independence. Fellow Palestinians must understand that Israeli people are not going anywhere – and that Zionists in Israel will never allow them to really self-govern.

Besides, on the Palestinian side, the question may be a semantic one. Let a pollster ask Palestinians ‘Would you like to redeem all of historic Palestine?’. I think many would answer in the affirmative.
In any case, this is the reality of the situation. I extend my sympathies to everyone on both sides who wants to live in an ethnically-pure state; it can’t happen. The question now is how to make the present reality livable for everyone.
I hope ‘liberal Zionists’ will some day come to the conclusions I outlined above. I believe in the one-state solution as the only possible solution for Palestine/Israel, but it will have to come about by the free choice of individuals to determine their future collectively. But there are limits to individual choice. I cannot choose to oppress another individual as an expression of my individual or national self-determination.

Zionists must come to understand that the status-quo that has served them so well until now will not come at the expense of Palestinian human rights and dignity. Let ‘liberal Zionists’ understand that the racial privilege they enjoy in Palestine/Israel is coming to an end. Zionism is a spent force, I suspect, and it has no place in the Holy Land.

Ahmed Moor

Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a PD Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism and co-founder and CEO of Twitter: @ahmedmoor

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