One Democratic State: an ongoing debate

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“A gem cannot be polished without friction” – Confucius

As anger and despair grow exponentially among Palestinians and the world wavers between stupefaction, exasperation and outright complicity in the rapidly accelerating violent extremism of Israeli Zionists, the return to center stage of a simple concept, the ‘One Democratic State’ (ODS) in historic Palestine, is an encouraging development.

Today more than ever, people realize that the current regime of blatant ethnic discrimination will never end as long as the “Two States Solution” continues to be blindly repeated as the official, totally dishonest and irrelevant, mantra to ‘peace’. The violence, racism and ethnic cleansing, part and parcel of the Zionist State of Israel since its inception, can only be addressed by a political structure characterized by equal rights and full civil liberties for all the country’s long-suffering inhabitants, including those Palestinian refugees who should have been among its inhabitants throughout these last seventy years.

A recent piece in Mondoweiss by Jeff Halper, addresses this subject, albeit with an unnecessarily diluted and to our eyes, potentially dangerous vision, of the ODS program, that along with many others, we’ve been promoting for years. Before commenting however, a word about ourselves, the authors.

Both of us, an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian refugee, are active in “The Popular Movement for One Secular Democratic State ( One lives in the Ajami quarter of Jaffa and the other in the Palestinian diaspora, far ‎from Manshieh, another neighborhood of Jaffa where his family lived until the Nakba. We both ‎ aspire to live under a single secular and democratic state for all its citizens inside historic Palestine, alongside the ‎returning refugees, under a rule of law that permits no discrimination based on religion, language, ‎ethnicity or gender.

A ‘bi-national state’ by any other name…

Whatever he chooses to call it, Halper’s ‘multicultural’ ODS is in fact a cleverly disguised package of bi-nationalism. His article focuses on “multiculturalism”, “constitutional democracy”, “bi-national state” and “collective rights” – all themes meaningful and pertinent to the ‘communities’ he sees as composing the social corpus of this future state’s civil society, but of no value or relevance to individuals. He proposes “to protect the “collective rights” of groups to maintain any type of community they wish within the framework of a multi-cultural democracy” – without defining what this would entail precisely and pragmatically.

Muddying the picture even further, he proposes a “de facto secular state”, but refuses to name it as such in the ODS program. Secularism clearly unnerves Halper who sees it as “a red flag” provoking the resistance of communities whom he describes as permanently and statically religious, nationalistic and immovable.

Aside from the orientalist mindset implicit to this attitude, we also find it puzzling from someone who grew up in a country that proclaimed the ‘separation of church and state’ loud and clear from its beginning, alongside a religious sector that’s thrived throughout the last two centuries. Secularism is not the negation of religious beliefs, nor is it ‘against’ religion. Secularism is the neutrality of the state vis-à-vis those religious matters that are strictly and only relevant to the citizen’s personal ‎freedom of beliefs, religious and/or philosophical.

Moreover, this view is shortsighted. If Halper ‎perceives the future electorate majority as so inevitably anti-secular, where does he expect to find the votes needed to put secular measures into place in a supposedly ‎’democratic’ state? A constitutional democracy accords any constituent minority the legal authority to block legislative measures perceived as ‎contrary to its opinion and/or interests. If his objective really is a secular state, then this approach is clearly flawed and self-destructive.

In our view, true democracy can only be achieved, or even aspired to, through the complete separation between religious institutions (mosque, synagogue, ‎church) and the state. This is the single best regulation of relations between central government and civil society. It is precisely the so-called ‘Jewishness’ of the State of Israel that has never allowed it to become a true democracy. Replacing it with potentially Muslim, Christian or Jewish ‘communities’ would be equally disastrous.

Moreover, the bi-national/multicultural system is replete with other potential pitfalls. A few examples:

*  A bi-national constitutional state allows a ‘national community’ to secede from the state if parliament is perceived as having failed to protect it from another.

* The state’s undivided sovereignty is not possible once the heterogeneous mixture of multiple ‘sovereignties’ within the state and civil society is recognized. Each community would have its own sovereignty, functioning with its own cultural, religious and social institutions along the lines of national cantons, semi-independent, federated in a supra-structure of a formal state.

* What of the potential for bitter internal friction within these very communities? If communities with a strong religious component are accorded any type of legal authority, which Judaism, which Islam will actually prevail?

In such a context, it is all too easy to imagine a simple spark lighting the re-emergence of an ethno-religious state, to say nothing of the potentially crippling impact on everyday functions of the state. At best we would likely end up with yet another perpetually handicapped, confessional state along the lines of the government of the Lebanon.

Individual liberties at risk

From an anthropological point of view, the individual, regardless of political power, is attached by “organic” links to a given community. This attachment is cultural, not legal. A secular state does not attribute a legal status to ancestral cultural practices. For example, the law of the state should neither prevent nor encourage marriage either within or outside the ‘community’ nor should it forbid communitarian expressions, but it is duty-bound to take away the monopoly of confessional institutions over areas such as marriage and family law (divorce, custody, child and spousal support and inheritance). These inherited institutions would no longer have the exclusive right to celebrate and register marriage contracts.

While celebrating cultural expression of all kinds, including communitarian, we see decreeing community affiliation as part and parcel of one’s status vis-à-vis the state, as incompatible with true democracy. Using ‘community’ as a defining sociological basis for citizenship, rather than only the individual person, directly contradicts the concept of ‘citizenship of person’ defined as ‘a legal member of a sovereign state or belonging to a nation.’ ‎Citizenship is an entirely different concept than that of belonging to a community and the two must be distinguished legally in the clearest possible terms. How is this to be accomplished in a state organized around national, ethnic and religious ‘communities’?

Moreover, if we do not clearly establish the legal dominance of the secular, civil state from the start, how are we to avoid seeing religious laws maintain their authority within religious communities? According to Halper, “what is left unsaid is that religious law (halakhah, sharia, ecclesiastical law) may continue to pertain within its religious communities, …. but will accompany, not displace, civil law where people choose to observe it.” But where will the lines be drawn? This becomes doubly problematic for a state which refuses to identify itself as secular and doubly dangerous because we know that religious ‎communities and their political parties are infected by the germ of totalitarianism (see the recent extension of ‎the competences of the rabbinic courts)?

Our fear is to see communitarian and religious institutions dominating the daily life of their individual members in the name of ‘community rights’. This would be purely and simply liberticidal for the individual citizen who does not want to be held “prisoner” by his or her community ‎and would be especially dangerous for women, the first victims of misogynist and patriarchal laws. Endowing local communities with “state powers” means potentially sanctioning discriminatory regulations and attitudes towards women. Is this a risk we want to take?

This is just one reason why a fully democratic state must be clearly and unashamedly secular and why we believe that any state that is not defined as such, is quite simply not a democracy. Only a secular state provides lasting protection and guarantees fundamental freedoms for the individual. On the one hand, it provides balance between the civil rights of each and every citizen, without particular attributes and equal to every other, all the while belonging (or not) to a particular community and living according to his or her personal convictions on the other.

Secularism as a means of dismantling Zionism’s hold over Judaism

In parallel with the project of “expropriating” the land of Palestine, Zionist ideologues transformed Judaism ‎into a national myth so as to provide the Zionist-colonialist project with a ready-made pretext for establishing a “Jewish nation-‎state” on the “heavenly promised land”. By assigning an imaginary “national” geography to Judaic religious symbols, the Zionists ‘cloning’ of the European national model (with its colonial and racial discourse) became complete.

We see the politicization of religion and its spiritual dimensions, the transformation of a spiritual faith (whether of Judaism or any other religion) into a “nationality” as a perversion ‎of religion. The reversal of this process is also what we expect from the OSDS movement. A secular state of ‎non-nationalist citizenship would restore to the Jewish religion its basic inclinations and ‎vocations by “depoliticizing” it and simultaneously allow civil society of that country to unify around a coherent and single identity, thus breaking with the last seventy years of perpetual conflict along contrived, communitarian lines.

By proposing to formalize ‘Israeli Jews’ as a community based on this ‘religious nationality’, Halper falls, however inadvertently, right into that same old Zionist trap. A “bi-national state” for two “nations” (even when dressed up with the more ‘politically correct’ title of ‘multicultural’) amounts to little better than a re-branded version of the moribund ‘Two States’ of Oslo infamy. Enshrining these divisive definitions anew into the institutions of the ODS amounts to the same. The political programs implicit to the concept of ‎a bi-national state are simply one more, refashioned variant of the previous Nation-state recipe, but this ‎time with a double nationalism, bound to only aggravate tensions rather than alleviate them.

We see a future secular and democratic State in historical Palestine ‎for all its citizens as the achievement of a double-edged process of decolonization: ‎decolonizing Palestinians from the apartheid bi-national State of Israel and decolonizing Israeli Jews from the Zionist mindset of nationalistic ideology and domination. We see it as essential that the ODS take a new path, towards the creation of an entity that unifies its citizens under one cohesive identity. This alone gives us a chance of lasting future resolution.

This ‘One Secular State’ of non-nationalistic citizenship will be a Palestinian ‘state’ but not a Palestinian ‘nation-state’ according to the imported western state’ concept.‎ We see this as way of ‘re-inventing’ politics by adopting new ‎types of paradigms that render obsolete the colonial, nationalist and racist concepts characterizing Europe ‎at the end of the 19th century. The bi-national state, the ‘State-of-Two-Nations’, is the opposite of the post-national and ‎non-nationalist ‘One Secular Democratic State’ that we envisage and would have only one secular legal system for all citizens. Religious affiliation and practice would remain a purely private matter, rather than a public and collective ‎issue.

So how do we get there?

Halper’s claim that his peculiar version of democracy is the best way “to sell” the ODS proposition to Israeli Jews is particularly disturbing. It implies that the question will be resolved simply through “bargaining”, as if our goal as activists is only to convince through discussion, rather than to target the balance of power by every means possible through the hard work of political activism.

It’s clear to us that a real lasting “political settlement” will necessarily reflect an evolution of the balance of power in the field. This alone will be the conflict’s final resolution and mark the end of the wars, the repression and the suffering. ‎We agree with Halper that “we need a plan, a vision of the future, and an effective strategy for getting there”, but the One Democratic State also demands clarity, ‎factuality and determination – not ambiguity or equivocation.

Rather than bargaining or maneuvering so as to ‘sell’ the most easily palatable offer, we must create both conditions that call into question the ‘evidence’ used to validate the ‎dominant Zionist-national narrative and ideology and the means to provoke the beginning of awareness of ‎facts on the ground: The land of Palestine has now been completely annexed by the Zionist state, but Israel has yet to figure out what to do with ‎Palestine’s people. So far, mass deportations, population transfer, ethnic cleansing, massacres, forms of genocide and an apartheid ‎system of domination have all been tried and have yet to resolve this dilemma… What next?

Linking the Palestinian struggle for rights and justice, with a secular ODS political program could make the difference. Palestinians and non-Zionist Israeli Jews are invited to join in a ‎common struggle against Zionist domination of the land and of the “mindset” prevalent among its ‎Jewish population. ‎ What’s needed is to redefine the parameters and dynamics that have proved so destructive in the past, rather than simply repackaging them into an updated version of the same. Pragmatically speaking, Halper’s vision effectively resembles nothing so much as prophesy. It has no need for political struggle, it simply skips this step and jumps right to the desired result: ‎settlement. But what kind of settlement?

As a final note, we think it’s worth mentioning that the One Democratic State Campaign‎ is still in the process of consultation and opinions are as diverse as its members. Halper’s implication that his version has reached consensus could be mistaken as an attempt to impose his vision of a Bi-national State under the cover of One Democratic State. Please be aware that the debate is ongoing and open!

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“Today more than ever, people realize that the current regime of blatant ethnic discrimination will never end as long as the “Two States Solution” continues to be blindly repeated as the official, totally dishonest and irrelevant, mantra to ‘peace’. ” Repeated not least by Abbas and Co and their legion of jobworths. We still await the long threatened Erekat “handing back of the keys” and abandonment of the now blatantly absurd 2SS = only real… Read more »

Q: What will be the name of the state?
A(ODS Answer): Democracy above all so lets vote. Majority wants the name “Israel”. So be it.
A(Bi-National Answer): We need to consider the desires of both nations so we’ll call it Israel-Palestine

That is just 1 example why the ODS will not work.

“That is just 1 example why the ODS will not work.” The colonists and the natives of South Africa managed to move on from an Apartheid state without a name change. They have also managed to establish a single democratic state which has survived and largely prospered warts and all. The faux hand wringing over the name issue is symptomatic of Zionists refusal to give up on the Apartheid Status Quo which they have established… Read more »

Admirable. I’d sign with both hands, except that this admirable vision has nothing to impose it to the US., and the invader riffraff are suicidal cannon fodder, manufactured by a huge social engineering operation. Also, as admirable as this proposal is, it remains, to use the authors’ words, a form of “bargaining or maneuvering so as to ‘sell’ the most easily palatable offer”. Because full justice means full restitution to its owners, the pre-1897 Palestinian… Read more »

Let’s also note that Halper’s idea is one form of recreating the Ottoman Empire. The ideal of the current Imperial US identity politicians.