I have heard many positive reports from the Open Hillel conference in Cambridge last month. The discussions were unfettered, the organizers were eager to hear arguments against Zionism as well as for it. These are young people who are inside the Jewish community but believe in action – If Not Now When? as they quote the sage Hillel.
Yes, this is a conversation inside the Jewish community, although it is informed by non-Jews such as Sa’ed Adel Atshan and Rashid Khalidi. But if you believe as I do that the American Jewish community has American policy on the conflict in a hammerlock, then it’s a vital conversation: it has to happen for our politics to shift. (And this rightwing publication agrees with me; Open Hillel is “a Much Bigger Problem Than You Think” because it allows, unh, free speech.)
Only one session has been put online, a plenary from October 12 on How to Solve the Conflict in a just manner. The excitement in this session was the direct disagreement between liberal Zionist Peter Beinart and Jewish Voice for Peace head Rebecca Vilkomerson over one state or two. I have not seen such a vigorous debate between a liberal Zionist and a non-Zionist in a public forum in some time. (This is what Jewish discussion was supposed to be about!)
Below are excerpts of that debate. I apologize for not including statements by Sarah Turbow of J Street and Mark LeVine, professor of Middle East history, but transcription is very timeconsuming. And though LeVine made the great point (at minute 50) that if Israelis actually supported a two-state solution, we would have seen real opposition to hundreds of thousands of settlers moving to the West Bank and far greater rates of refusal in the Israeli army, these four statements by Beinart and Vilkomerson frame an important debate.
Peter Beinart [at about Minute 20]:
Where would I like us to be? My answer is really conventional: I would like us to be in a two state solution along the lines of the Clinton Parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative. I don’t say that because I believe those answers represent perfect justice. They don’t represent perfect justice. They don’t represent full justice for the Palestinians, for the massive number of Palestinians who were dislocated all over the world during Israel’s war of creation. They don’t even represent perfect justice for the Jewish settlers on the West Bank who I believe as a matter of principle have every right to live as equal citizens in the West Bank, but in a two state solution would amost certainly be withdrawn by the Israeli government itself because it would not take responsibility for their safety.
I believe that even with a two state solution, Israel will have to evolve in some very fundamental ways… I myself am prepared to envision quite dramatic transformations in what Israel would have to be even after it ended its occupation of Palestinians in the West Bank.
But I believe the two state solution is like democracy [per Churchill]. It’s the worst solution except for all the other potential solutions. I believe that for two reasons. First of all you can call me anachronistic. You can call me pessimistic, you can call me whatever you want. I believe that in a post holocaust world, I want one country on the planet that has the protection of Jewish life as part of its mission statement. I believe that it is hubristic and arrogant for us to believe because at this moment in this time and place that we cannot imagine a Jewish state of refuge, that no one else will need it in the future. If you talk to Jews who grew up in other communities around the world, like the former Soviet Union, or from the Arab world, or from Latin America, or my own parents from South Africa, they are less quick to to dismiss that than sometimes are American Jews who have lived here for 400 years.
And while my definition of a Jewish state is substantially more minimal than most people, for me what it should have is a preferential immigration policy especially for Jews in distress. Germany has a preferential immigration policy for ethnic Germans. Poland has a preferential immigration policy for ethnic Poles. A Kurdish state, I hope we get one, will have a preferential immigration policy for Kurds. A Palestinian state will have a preferential immigration policy for Palestinians. I believe that you can support a democracy that also has a preferential immigration policy for Jews.
I also believe in the idea of a two station solution because I believe binationalism has a very, very poor record of success. It barely works in Belgium. Czechs and the Slovaks couldn’t make it work. To support a biantional state you have to tell me what the army of Israstine is going to look like, you have to explain to me in a situation of massive land claims. Because after all the land difficulties of a one state solution are significantly greater than a two state solution– you have to tell me that the joint Jewish and Palestinian brigade of Israstine is going to go and evict a jewish Moroccan family that’s been living in its house since 1953 to replace it with a Palestinian family because they have the right deed, and when the violence breaks out as it surely will, you have to believe that army will hold together because it’s more loyal to Israstine than its members are to being Jews and Palestinians.
The left historically has had a tendency to underestimate the power of nationalism. Nationalism is not going anywhere, certainly not in that part of the world. And that’s why I think at this stage, I believe it is better to build a political solution around the reality of fierce and abiding nationalismon on both sides.
It’s not only me that takes that point of view. Quote: “If the two-state solution fails, the substitute will not be a binational one-state solution, but a persistent conflict that extends based on an existential crisis — one that does not know any middle ground.” That’s Marwan Barghouti, he’s the most powerful and important – the most popular Palestinian politician alive. The fact that he sees no good alternative to the two state solution gives me hope and I have to think he’s right.
Rebeccca Vilkomerson [Minute 41, then Minute 46]
This is the question I had written down for Sarah [Turbow] and Peter: Why would we get to say? I see on twitter, that Sa’ed Atshan said at one of the other sessions, “How can your feelings trump my human rights?” Ultimately I come back to Rashid Kahlidi, who said that Israelis and Palestinians need to decide, and our job as American Jews is to make sure that they can have that conversation on a relatively equal playing field. And I’m good there….
You know the question of whether people can live together peacefully in Israel and Palestine– the point is they are living together on unequal terms and they will be living together. So I think we need to make sure we’re grounded in that reality from the beginning.
I will say that I think some of the most harrowing conversations I had this summer were with friends of mine in Israel who just could not believe the level of racism, and I say this with awareness of the strength of this word, fascism, that had been unleashed in Israeli society. Absolutely terrifying. Like, literally mobs of people running the streets not only yelling Death to the Arabs but yelling Death to leftists. Mass arrests of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. That’s a genie that is hard to put back in the bottle once it’s out. It’s extremely, extremely disturbing.
That being said, I also think we need to think about the fact that one of the arguments against the civil rights struggle was like, oh, Will white people in Alabama accept black policemen coming to arrest them? So therefore that was an argument against full civil rights for black people in the south. In South Africa the period of time right before the end of apartheid was the time when white South Africans were their most xenophobic and their most racist. And that’s not to say that a utopia has been created since, but that political understanding has changed.
So I don’t think we can say based on the extreme racism that we see right now, that people can’t live together. People are going to have to find a way to live together. They’re there. So we need to have the political imagination, and we can have it because we have seen the way other struggles have played out– to believe that we can make that happen.
The left has… gotten itself in a tremendous amount of trouble, I think been responsible for failures and in fact even terrible abuses when it failed to recognize, and again this is something someone like Reinhold Niebuhr emphasized…that a political solution might look very powerful on a blackboard has to respond to the particular political culture and political reality of a certain time and place.
The Lebanese constitution was also a a beautiful thing heralded by many, many people as a beautiful design for dealing with members of different ethnic groups. It didn’t really work very well. Partition is under any circumstances, I think, a tragic and painful solution, but it was the right solution for Yugoslavia in the 90s even though there was a tremendous amount of injustice. It was arguably the right solution even for India and Pakistan in the late 1940s.
I do believe that yes, Jews and Palestinians have to live together, of course partly because Israel is 20 percent Palestinian, but also because it’s a small territory. You’re going to need various movements of capital and people back and forth…
I think at this moment in time its important too recognize the deep desire for a state of one’s own that exists amongst both peoples…. The very, very real fear and the genuine concerns about security that exist among both peoples and that things that may seem anachronistic, like a flag, like an army of your own for self protection, are extremely important in situations like that– that kind of vulnerability.
Blacks and white southerners, whatever their vicious hatred and disagreements, both saw themselves as Americans. They were both responding and speaking about about our documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even in South Africa there was a common nationality and identity– my own family comes from South Africa– of South Africanism that even crossed the massive gulf between white and black, partly actually forged in a common Christianity that both whites and blacks shared.
You don’t have that common identity among Israeli Jews and Palestinians. That’s why I think at this stage, the idea of a two state solution perhaps as a model toward greater and greater integration between those two states, is still the best option we have.
To me, the whole paradigm’s off. I think the whole idea that two states are good and one state is bad or the opposite, is not at all recognizing what the conversation is at this point. Because at this point there is a one-state solution. Israel has dominion from the river to the sea, and that’s a one state solution that I’m pretty sure that all of us here on this panel and in this room agree is not OK.
There is also a version of one state that is secular and binational. There’s a settlers’ sort of full annexation vision. So there’s all different kinds of one states, and similarly there are all different kinds of two states.
Theoretically I can imagine– it’s hard for me to imagine, I have to admit but– there could be some kind of some theoretical two state solution or some kind of confederation of two states that would be fair to everybody. But there’s also a lot of two state solutions– the ones that have been under discussion, that are actually, what we’re talking about would be Bantustans, things are going to be demilitarized, and no free movement of people, and all sorts of things that would not be fair. I think one of the problems when we have this conversation where we say, I endorse two states– is that when we discuss two states, two states has become a code word for saying I support the status quo, or I support doing nothing, and the continuation of the occupation…
From the president on down, people say– Bibi Netanyahu says, I support two states. What they really mean is, we want to keep things going the way they are. So how we distinguish between an actual conversation between what’s going to happen and what that means, and this sort of way that two states has become a litmus test that cuts off conversation is really very important.
Just one comment from me. I’m struck by Peter Beinart’s statement that his parents in South Africa understood the need for a Jewish state of refuge, so: they moved to the U.S. To a place where church and state are separated, and where Jews have more power than we have ever had in history, as Beinart has acknowledged. I wonder how that experience is integrated into Beinart’s politics. Alan Wolfe of Boston College has just published a book: At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.