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BDS and the Nature of the Future Israeli State

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Does BDS mean Israel's destruction?

There are two groups who see the goal of the BDS movement as the destruction of Israel: anti-Zionists and right-wing Israelis.  That ideological dichotomy is remarkable and indicates that while one group opposes and another supports BDS, they both agree it will have the same outcome.

What is the BDS movement to those who support it, partially or in full?  For anti-Zionists and Israeli nationalists it is a means to hasten Israel’s destruction.  For everyone else (including progressive Zionists like myself) it is a way to end the Occupation and hasten Israel’s transformation into a “state for all its citizens.”  In other words, for the far left BDS is an end, while for others it is a means to an end.  The difference between these two approaches is wide and the arguments between both camps rage.  I’m going to try to put forward my own understanding of BDS.

Reviewing the BDS website, it lists three main points in its political platform:

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.

Frankly, I don’t see any way that these demands threaten the existence of Israel.  Yes, they would threaten the existence of the type of state Israel is now; that is, an ethnocracy in which Jews have superior rights.  But in the Israel that I envision, in which there is full protection of ethnic majority and minority citizens, their religion and culture, and all have equal rights, BDS does not threaten such a nation.

A side note: after a profile of me appeared in The Forward this week, CAMERA, one of the more mendacious of the pro-Israel propaganda outfits around, claimed I viewed the solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “one state for all its citizens.”  By which they were claiming I support a one state solution.  In the profile, I explicitly said that I supported a two state solution, but preferred for the parties to decide amongst themselves what solution they preferred over the long run and that if both parties agreed to a one-state solution, there was no reason for an outsider like myself to disagree.

Returning to the BDS issue and the anti-Zionist view of it…I have difficulty with this sort of statement tweeted to me recently:

‘Israel’:…That detested name will be tossed along with everything it has always stood for.

Anti-Zionists like this appear to believe that BDS will mean consigning Israel to the trash heap of history.  I don’t think so.  I don’t find the name Israel to be detestable and I don’t wish it or what it stands for to be “tossed.”  That doesn’t mean I don’t foresee a radical transformation of Israel into a state which embraces the linguistic, cultural and religious heritages of all its citizens.  So while Jews will no longer be king of the roost, they won’t become the sort of second-class citizens Israeli Palestinians are now.

There needs to be in Israel more of a sense of Israeliness, and less of a sense of Jewishness as a substitute for Israeliness.  Israeli Jews should have a religious identity, but that identity should not substitute for a national identity.  The same should hold true for Israeli Palestinians who are Muslim or Christian.

The problem I have is with anti-Zionists who seek to uproot everything that Israel has stood for.  Yes, Israel has stood for much that is evil including the Nakba and the Occupation.  Yes, Israel was conceived in the sin of expulsion and exile of nearly 1-million of its Palestinian residents.  But that doesn’t mean I conceive of a future state that eradicates everything from its past that relates to Israel as a Jewish homeland.

Israel, as I’ve written before, must be a homeland for Jews just as it is a homeland for Palestinians.  There should be no conflict there.  That is why I feel comfortable continuing to call myself a (progressive) Zionist, just as I believe Israeli Palestinians should feel comfortable calling themselves Palestinian nationalists.  The problem for both these nationalisms is when they seek to cancel out the other.  That cannot happen if Israel is to survive.

In the future Israel, history should be studied truthfully, warts and all.  But the notion that Jews must live in this state with their tail between their legs, always quivering, beating their breasts, and declaring their guilt for past sins, means essentially that there would be no Jews in such a state except perhaps anti-Zionist haredi groups like Neturei Karta.

There is another problem I have with any serious observer of this conflict who believes their solution is the only possible one and that all others are not just wrong, but morally offensive.  Studying this subject tends to make one humble and realize that while you may have a preference, or even a strong preference, things may turn out differently than what you conceive.  When we scorn the options that don’t meet with our moral approval we show hubris.  Future events may just take us down a notch or two.  That’s why I state my inclination that at the present juncture a two state solution is most advisable.  But who knows what the future may bring?  If 27 European countries can create a strong Union over decades, why isn’t possible something similar might happen in Israel-Palestine?  I leave myself open to these possibilities and wish those on my left (and right) would as well.

From debating the meaning of BDS, our Twitter dispute moved on to the topic of Israeli Palestinian identity within the contemporary Israeli state.  Reading polls over the years, I was frankly surprised that Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens identified as strongly with the concept of Israeliness as they do.  I would’ve thought the level of hostility and alienation would be much higher than it is.

Andrew Kadi, among others, in his Twitter feed scoffed at these claims saying no poll result of Israeli Palestinians could be trusted with someone’s foot on their neck.  Rejecting this notion, I decided to examine some of the polls taken over the years chronicling Israeli Palestinian attitudes toward the Israeli state.  But before delving into that, let me be clear about what I’m not trying to do.  I’m not trying to prove how good Israel is to “its Arabs.”  Or how much Israeli Palestinian citizens adore the Jewish state, as pro-Israel hasbarists often do.  Unlike Daniel Pipes and his ilk, I do not believe the fact that Israeli Palestinians would choose to live in Israel rather than in a Palestinian state, means an endorsement of Israel or rejection of Palestine.  I recognize that there is deep ambivalence on the part of these citizens toward their country, which does, after all, discriminate against them in almost every aspect of life.

Now, to the surveys: Professor Sammy Smooha (and to a lesser extent, the Israel Democracy Institute) have extensively polled the Israeli Palestinian community on these issues over an extended period of time.  So it’s worth examining their findings.  In Smooha’s compilation of his survey results from 2003-2009, he found that Israeli Palestinians have grown progressively more radical and more hostile toward Israel and their role within the State.  They have done so because they view Israeli Jews as increasingly racist and belligerent towards them.  But it would be a mistake to claim, as anti-Zionists do, that Israeli Palestinians because of their suffering are anti-Zionists who seek the end of Israel.  The real picture is much more complicated and ambivalent.

Smooha, in fact posits a dual theory about Jewish-Palestinian relations.  The first is the mutual alienation theory which says that the two ethnic groups are on a collision course that will likely end in violence.  According to this perspective, Palestinians are an unassimilable minority and that as they become increasingly Islamized and nationalist and Jews become increasingly nationalist and Judaized, the only thing that remains is a lit match to ignite the coming inferno.

But Smooha also offers a more hopeful (perhaps more hopeful than might otherwise be justified) thesis which he calls the mutual rapprochement theory.  He describes it this way:

…The mutual rapprochement thesis, posits that Arabs and Jews are in the process of adjusting to each other and that strong forces moderate and counterpoise the forces that drive the two sides apart. Violence and instability are therefore avoidable. The attitudes and behaviors of the Arabs, the Palestinian people, the Jews, and the state are more balanced and less counterproductive to coexistence than the mutual alienation thesis assumes and predicts. Mutual rapprochement also postulates that Israeli Arabs are undergoing Israelization as well as Palestinization and Islamization, and that the first affects the second two. Israelization makes Arabs bilingual and bicultural and adds the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture to their repertoire.

Israeli Arabs, the thesis holds, are increasingly binding their fate and future with Israel and conceiving of Israel as their home country. They take Jews as their reference group and wish to achieve the same standards, services, and treatment. They abide by democratic rules for effecting change in Israeli society and avoid violence. Israelization renders Arabs impatient with discrimination and exclusion and drives them to lead a serious fight for change.

Another pivotal facet of Israelization is the sharpening line Israeli Arabs draw between themselves and the Palestinians across the Green Line and in the Diaspora. They view themselves as Israeli citizens entitled to all citizenship rights and as part of the Israeli economy, welfare state, politics, and public discourse, and in this capacity are only partly affected by what is happening to their Palestinian brethren. They endure Palestinization and Islamization differently because of their Israelization. For instance, Arabs in Nazareth who adopt a Palestinian identity would define themselves as Palestinian Arabs in Israel, whereas Arabs in the West Bank city of Nablus would categorize themselves just as Palestinian Arabs or as Palestinian Arabs in Palestine. The affinity and common fate with Israel make considerable difference and drive a wedge between Palestinians on the two sides of the pre-1967 border.

On the spectrum between the hopeful and hopeless regarding Israeli Palestinian-Jewish relations, I come down in the middle. While I believe that there is a very real capacity for violence between the two ethnic groups and that Israel will have to be radically transformed (but not destroyed) in order to fully realize the democratic rights of this minority, I do not believe either that Israel must end or that a civil war is inevitable before Palestinians become equal. Smooha’s survey results show that Palestinians have increasingly boycotted Israeli elections (voting declined from 73% in 2003 to 53% in 2009).  Jewish participation has also declined over the same period but by a smaller rate.  Voting for Arab parties increased from 69% to 82%. Smooha notes one of the most critical aspects of the dynamic at work governing inter-ethnic behavior involves what he calls a “fear balance:”

The most important development to follow the October 2000 unrest is, nonetheless, the emergence of a fear balance between the state and the Arab population. Both  sides are keenly aware of the heavy cost in the event of confrontation—use of violence, uprising, and repression. Each side does its utmost to keep quiet. The police do not intervene in Arab demonstrations, rallies, processions, general strikes, and other protest actions as long as there is no large-scale breach of law and order. They refrain from using firearms and coordinate their actions with Arab public figures. The Arab public also abstains from statewide mass disorder. The fear balance explains why the disturbances in Peqi’in and Acre did not deteriorate to the degree that the October 2000 uprising did.

While this isn’t a terribly hopeful portrayal of the equilibrium between Jews and Palestinians, it’s important to note that it exists. Here are some salient results from the survey.  In 2009, 64% believed Israel had a right to exist.  78% believed Jewish-Palestinian relations should only be changed by peaceful means.  53% believed Palestinians would have “national minority status and equal rights in a Jewish and democratic state, and would eventually come to terms with it.”  66% have positive attitudes toward Jews.

The following results show the increasing alienation over the period from 2003 to 2009: in 2003 only 16% were not ready to have a Jewish friend.  By 2009, that number had risen to 29%.  27% were dissatisfied with life as an Israeli citizen in 2003 and 43% in 2009.  14% were ready to move to a Palestinian state (not Israel) in 2003 and 24% in 2009.  In 2003, 75% believed Jews have a right to a state as opposed to 61% in 2009.  89% believed in a two state solution in 2003, and 65% in 2009.  72% believed in 2003 the Right of Return should be confined to a Palestinian state;  50% believed this in 2009.  In 2003, 29% believed the most important aspect of their identity was being Israeli, while that declined to 20% in 2009.  19% believed their Palestinian identity was paramount in 2003, while 32% believed this in 2009.  Those who saw Arabness as being most important to their identity numbered 53% in 2003 and 40% in 2009. In 2003, 63% believed Israel was a democratic state for both Arab and Jewish citizens.  By 2009, that number declined to 50%.  81% believed Palestinians could improve their status through peaceful activism, and only 62% in 2003.  The number who supported a national election boycott rose from 33% to 40%.  Only 5% supported violent protest in 2003, and 13% in 2009.  The numbers of those who rejected Israel’s right to exist rose from 11% in 2003 to 24% in 2009.  In 2009, 55% of Israeli Palestinians endorsed the concept of Arab-Jewish coexistence.

Smooha suggests that the best way to improve Jewish-Palestinian relations is by policy changes rather than paradigm shifts.  While I disagree strongly with a number of the provisions below (and others I haven’t quoted), I think they represent a decent, albeit distinctly Jewish starting point for discussion:

Israel can accommodate the Arab minority without losing its character as a Jewish and democratic state, and the Arabs can fulfill most of their demands without  transforming Israel into a full binational state. Moderating Israel’s Jewish and Zionist character, consolidating its democracy, and forming a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza are compatible with the visions of both sides. Israel would continue to be a Jewish state with a Law of Return, Hebrew as a dominant language, Jewish symbols, and a Jewish calendar. At the same time, it would give up Jewish exclusivity and preferential treatment of Jews.

For example, some of Israel’s symbols would be Arab, the special status of the Jewish National Fund and Jewish Agency would be abolished, and discriminatory state policies would be terminated. …Arab citizens would be granted national collective rights in addition to their current ethnic collective rights. Recognition of Arabs as a national Palestinian minority (not coequal nation) would legitimize their ties with the Palestinian people and bestow on them cultural autonomy, proper representation in the national power structure (but not power-sharing by law), proportional share of the state budget and the civil service, and allocation of lands according to needs. Arabs would be denied veto power, but their political parties would be allowed into coalition governments and required to be consulted in matters essential to their community.

…Equality would be the cornerstone of Israel’s new constitution. Affirmative action in certain areas and for a limited time would replace institutional discrimination against Arabs. The Emergency Situation would end and an Israeli internal security law and regulations would replace the existing illiberal British legislation. Civil marriage and divorce law would allow interfaith mixing. A campaign to promote democratic culture among Jews and Arabs would be executed. Most important, the state would launch a large-scale program to raise Arabs’ standards in community services and socioeconomic achievements to that of Jews.

The Israel Democracy Institute also polls Israeli Jews and Palestinians for their respective political and social attitudes.  In 2007, its survey found (translation from Hebrew version of article) that 75% of:

“Israeli Arabs would support a constitution that maintained Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state while guaranteeing equal rights for minorities.”

As I’ve written before, I believe that both Israeli Jewish and Palestinians citizens could live together in a state that guaranteed equal rights to all, offered a constitution that enshrined protections for both majority and minority groups, and adopted a modified version of both the Law of Return and Right of Return.  There is no reason the State can’t be bilingual, and religious freedoms be guaranteed to all.  No reason budgets can’t be allocated equally to Jewish and Palestinian communities, and health care, job, and educational opportunities as well.  There is also no reason why Jewish and Palestinian children can’t learn Israeli history, warts and all, and learn to acknowledge both the virtues of their nation and its sins as well.

Though the Israeli Palestinian attitudes above don’t guarantee this vision can be realized, they go a good deal of the way in that direction.  To be perfectly frank, current Israeli Jewish attitudes preclude the type of transformation I envision above.  That will be an enormous hurdle to overcome.  I’m not sure it can be done.  But the alternative is precisely the sort of dissolution of the Israeli state which anti-Zionists anticipate.  Then we will have a one-state solution.

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{ 6 comments… add one }

  • pabelmont September 18, 2011, 7:42 AM

    This is a huge essay and a huge problem. You write “a radical transformation of Israel into a state which embraces the linguistic, cultural and religious heritages of all its citizens.”

    OK, but who are the citizens? Certainly the Jews who’ve been brought in from everywhere, many of them newcomers. Certainly the old-timer Arabs who remained after 1948. But the refugees from 1948 (including most Gazans and many West Bankers) would and should have been citizens, and should still be able to return to their homeland.

    While the term “citizen” is thus flexible, the term “homeland” may also be flexible both because a new Palestine might be acceptable as a homeland to refugees but also because the boundaries of Israel might shift (in my imagination if in no-one else’s) to create a smaller Israel and a larger Palestine, and the term “homeland” used with reference to UNGA-194 means a return to the land the refugee once lived on (or his ancestors did), and many refugees from 1948 came from land set forth in UNGA-181 FOR an Arab state in Palestine, so that some “return” to the refugees’ homeland could — in principle — not be a return to (a smaller) Israel.

  • Assaf Oron September 18, 2011, 8:42 AM

    Richard hi,

    Thanks for a very brave post.

    I have encountered the same problem. The considerable successes of BDS have awakened an “end-of-days” Messianism in the extreme fringes of a large and diverse anti-Occupation coalition.

    Unfortunately, these fringes are extremely vocal and verbally aggressive. They see BDS almost as a religion, rather than (as its charter *very* clearly indicates) a legitimate and pragmatic tool to fight an oppressive system.

    I’ve confronted such voices numerous times, and will continue to do so in the future. But some of them are so dogmatic, and have become so irrationally exuberant due to the successes (which, although considerable, are still far from decisive) – that you just cannot get through to them.

    Of course, one immediate damage they do is make it so easy for mainstream Israel to demonize BDS. All the latter need to do, is point out to things people actually wrote. The fact that this BDS pop-religion is contradictory to the BDS stated mandate and mission, is very hard to argue against such evidence.

    Thanks again for raising this on your blog.

  • Mary Hughes-Thompson September 18, 2011, 11:02 PM

    It seems incomprehensible to me that anyone could think a two state solution is still possible. People who believe this must to be in some kind of time warp. There was a time, many years ago, when this could have worked, but unless Israel agrees to give up every single illegal settlement in the West Bank there is literally nothing there from which the Palestinians could form a state. Land swaps as suggested by Israel is the kind of vague rhetoric we’ve heard for years, but unless Israel is willing to give up Tel Aviv or something similar it’s a non starter. During the settlement freeze Israel continued expanding some settlement areas (claiming they was exempt from the freeze because permits had already been issued) on the basis that this was “natural growth.” With all these settlements experiencing “natural growth” how long will it take before all the Palestinian areas between settlements will be swallowed up by the expanding settlements? Just like any city which begins with a central community, plus smaller communities spread out some distance away, natural growth eventually turns it into one large community. Where are all the Palestinians who now live between and around the settlements supposed to disappear to? What about their natural growth. In my opinion it is disingenuous to suggest anything other than a single state. Israel already controls all of Palestine and it’s time for Israel to take responsibility for all its people too, by annexing the West Bank and ultimately Gaza. Anything else will never bring peace for either side.

    • Richard Silverstein September 19, 2011, 12:30 AM

      You know if Israel annexes all that territory it will not offer the Palestinian residents full citizenship. Therefore a true one state solution as you envision won’t happen unless there is a gradual dissolution of Jewish control of the state over time or all at once in an Arab Spring situation. The prospect of Israel becoming even more like apartheid South Africa than it already is frightens & nauseates me.

      • Mary Hughes-Thompson September 19, 2011, 2:35 AM

        Richard, I completely agree with you, but I feel it’s still the best option now that there is virtually nothing left of Palestine for the creation of a Palestinian state. It’s inevitable there will be bloodshed, mostly Palestinian blood. And of course the Israelis will be overwhelming resistant to a single state, in great part because Israel has ruled its citizens by making them deathly afraid of Palestinians, or Arabs as most people think of them. And of course if it should come to a single state it will be an apartheid state, more so than Israel is now. My hope is that in the end Israel won’t be able to maintain control its non-Jewish population through apartheid. Surely the world will not allow that kind of oppression in a single state, supposedly for all the people. I think the world has evolved to the point it will not tolerate Israel’s behavior much longer, especially if it annexes Palestine. It won’t be easy because when the world was punishing South Africa there weren’t any White South Africa lobbies operating in the U.S. and other parts of the world. South Africa’s white leaders also weren’t able to portray themselves as victims, something that has worked so well for Israel whenever anyone has challenged its criminal behavior. But call me Pollyanna (you won’t be the first) if I say I think Israel’s victimhood is wearing a bit thin in many areas, and after Lebanon, Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara it’s become more difficult for Israel to continue claiming it’s a tiny defenseless peace-loving state surrounded by enemies who want to drive all the Jews into the sea.

        Something has to happen, and soon. Even with a Palestinian state, its people will continue to be controlled by Israel if it continues to block all the borders. Unless the settlements are removed there will always be settler roads and IDF supposedly to protect the settlers. What kind of a state could that be?

        I just believe it’s past the time for talk. The U.S. and Israel will never give the Palestinian people a state. So my impression is that Palestinians don’t really see how things could be worse for them, as their hopes have been raised and dashed again and again. The very fact that Israel is so frightened of either two states or one state tells me Israel is feeling itself backed into a corner.

  • Daniel Millstone September 19, 2011, 12:29 PM

    For those of us, like me, not totally into this, BDS needs to be explained. Boycott Divest, Sanction, I discovered. You know more, consider explaining more. (only an extra sentence and hot link required).

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