Israel and the Occupied Territories
Whenever I read an article with a title like Tony Judt’s, Israel: The Alternative, I cringe. That’s because whenever someone comes up with an ‘alternative’ to Israel, it’s usually something that subverts, negates or extinguishes the Israel that I, and so many other Jews, know and value. And so it is with Judt’s opus in the New York Review of Books, which blithely sounds the death knell of Israel and ushers in a new and idyllic age of peace and brotherhood between Israelis and Palestinians living together harmoniously in a bi-national state.
It’s best to preface my critique of Judt’s piece with a word about bi-nationalism. In the 1920s, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes, Gershom Scholem, Ernst Simon and a group of likeminded Palestinian Jewish intellectuals created Brit Shalom. These were individuals who deeply mistrusted the triumphalist nationalism represented by Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionists. They believed that the creation of a Jewish state would irreparably harm the future relationship between Arabs and Jews because it would drive a stake (in the form of a nation state) right through the heart of the two peoples.
The bi-nationalists posited the two communities living together in a single state structured much like the catons of Switzerland. The two peoples would separately govern themselves internally, while they would share the state apparatus of foreign relations, economic affairs and other issues best administered by federal power.
I have always held a soft spot in my heart for the bi-nationalists for devising such a thoughtful, even beautiful plan. I even wrote my first academic paper at the age of 17 about them. But the onrush of events left the bi-nationalist plan in the dust. Arabs murdered Jews in Hebron in 1929, Jews struck back. And the professorial luftmenschen who were the bi-nationalists were a lot better in creating ideas than they were in devising practical political means to implement them. For all these reasons, bi-nationalism was discarded.
Yet, Mr. Judt tries to resurrect this old ghost with the fashion theory that if you hold on to an idea long enough it will come back into fashion. Before I launch my critique of Judt’s essay, let me say that I agree with much of Judt’s analysis of the state of contemporary Zionism and Israeli politics. While in places he overstates his argument for dramatic effect, I would definitely agree with him that Israel is in one of the most precarious predicaments it’s ever faced in its history. And the fate of Israel and the concept of a Jewish homeland has never been in more peril. So in a sense these times do call for radical proposals and solutions. Just not Judt’s.
Judt begins with a vivid summary of the current Israeli-Palestinian predicament:
On the corpse-strewn landscape of the Fertile Crescent, Ariel Sharon, Yasser Arafat, and a handful of terrorists can all claim victory, and they do. Have we reached the end of the road? What is to be done?
Then he proceeds to argue that Israel as a Jewish state is no longer relevant in today’s world:
The problem with Israel, in short, is not–as is sometimes suggested–that it is a European “enclave” in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law. The very idea of a “Jewish state”–a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded–is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.
Here Judt lays bear his argument and reveals its deep weakness. Israel’s creation becomes, in his words, a “separatist project,” a rather odious term. What of the many other nations in the world whose populations are largely of a single religion (Indonesia, Philipines, Malaysia, etc.). Why do these states have a right to live, while Israel must die to Judt’s way of thinking?
Judt clearly believes that the Zionist concept of Israel as a place for the Ingathering of Exiles has lost its purpose. He would probably argue that Diaspora Jews no longer need to have a Jewish homeland to turn to in the case of anti-Semitic outbursts and violence. How wrong he would be! Can any of us say definitively after the history of this century that we will never again face the race hatred of the Hitlers and Stalins of this world?? I think not.
Judt cogently presents three ‘alternatives’ Israel faces at this critical juncture in its existence:
Israel is quite different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: it is a democracy. Hence its present dilemma. Thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices. It can dismantle the Jewish settlements in the territories, return to the 1967 state borders within which Jews constitute a clear majority, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy, albeit one with a constitutionally anomalous community of second-class Arab citizens.
Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy “Samaria,” “Judea,” and Gaza, whose Arab population—added to that of present-day Israel—will become the demographic majority within five to eight years: in which case Israel will be either a Jewish state (with an ever-larger majority of unenfranchised non-Jews) or it will be a democracy. But logically it cannot be both.
Or else Israel can keep control of the Occupied Territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population: either by forcible expulsion or else by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. In this way Israel could indeed remain both Jewish and at least formally democratic: but at the cost of becoming the first modern democracy to conduct full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project, something which would condemn Israel forever to the status of an outlaw state, an international pariah.
He continues by adding a new ‘wrinkle’ to the reasons for the U.S. going to war against Sadaam Hussein:
It is now tacitly conceded by those in a position to know that America’s reasons for going to war in Iraq were not necessarily those advertised at the time. For many in the current US administration, a major strategic consideration was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle East in a manner thought favorable to Israel.
I don’t know what was in the minds of U.S. war planners like Paul Wolfowitz or Richard Perle. It is entirely conceivable that they believed the Iraq War would enable Israel to find a lasting, secure peace. If so, they were sadly mistaken. But it’s more likely that they did NOT feel that such a War would directly lead to the solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I don’t believe that the U.S. went to war with Iraq in order to make the world safe for Israel. Rather, the war planners believed that a safer Mideast (minus Sadaam) would make for a safer Israel.
Again, Judt correctly notes the corrosive, stifling affect that Israel has on U.S. politics:
This reluctance to speak or act does no one any favors. It has also corroded American domestic debate. Rather than think straight about the Middle East, American politicians and pundits slander our European allies when they dissent, speak glibly and irresponsibly of resurgent anti-Semitism when Israel is criticized, and censoriously rebuke any public figure at home who tries to break from the consensus.
Anyone who reads the ridiculous Congressional resolutions which, in urging the President to move our embassy to Jerusalem are a shallow attempt to ‘out-Zionist the Zionists.’
He notes the pathetic lack of leadership shown by Presidents like George Bush who basically acquiesce in Israeli bad behavior. The current building of the Apartheid ‘security barrier’ is a perfect example. We say we’re against it. But do we do anything to show Sharon we mean it? No.
Sooner or later an American statesman is going to have to tell the truth to an Israeli prime minister and find a way to make him listen. Israeli liberals and moderate Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting that the only hope was for Israel to dismantle nearly all the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, in exchange for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable, terrorist-free Palestinian state underwritten (and constrained) by Western and international agencies. This is still the conventional consensus, and it was once a just and possible solution.
But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many Jewish settlers, and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and pass laws. Whatever the “road map” says, the real map is the one on the ground, and that, as Israelis say, reflects facts. It may be that over a quarter of a million heavily armed and subsidized Jewish settlers would leave Arab Palestine voluntarily; but no one I know believes it will happen. Many of those settlers will die—and kill— rather than move. The last Israeli politician to shoot Jews in pursuit of state policy was David Ben-Gurion, who forcibly disarmed Begin’s illegal Irgun militia in 1948 and integrated it into the new Israel Defense Forces. Ariel Sharon is not Ben-Gurion.
This is where I part ways with Judt. “Many of those settlers will die–and kill–rather than move.” Here, I think Judt betrays a rather superficial understanding of Israeli politics and society. Is there a chance for violence if Israel attempts to dismantle settlements in a peace agreement with Palestinians? Absolutely. Might people die? Possibly. But will the settler movement organize the kind of all-out violent campaign that Judt suggests? I think not.
After Israel negotiates a peace agreement, it will in all likelihood be put before the Israeli electorate in a referendum. If such a referendum wins the approval of a strong majority of Israelis, then the wind will be knocked out of the sails of the settler movement. While there might be strong resistance to forced settler removal, it will not be massively violent. I think the settlers would at the end of the day bow to the will of the people. They did this in the Sinai after Begin negotiated its return to Egypt (curious how Judt ommitted this fact in his article?). While it’s true that there were 3,000 settlers in Sinai as oppposed to 250,000 in the Territories, I think the same principal would apply in both cases.
The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution— the core of the Oslo process and the present “road map”—is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have so far acknowledged, each for its own reasons. The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. That is indeed how the hard-liners in Sharon’s cabinet see the choice; and that is why they anticipate the removal of the Arabs as the ineluctable condition for the survival of a Jewish state.
But what if there were no place in the world today for a “Jewish state”? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely, but actually a desirable outcome? It is not such a very odd thought. Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. “Christian Europe,” pace M. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is a dead letter; Western civilization today is a patchwork of colors and religions and languages, of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Arabs, Indians, and many others—as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know.
Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethnoreligious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not—as its more paranoid supporters assert—because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews —is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.
Don’t you just love Judt’s enthusiastic proposal that Israel become the guinea pig in his experiment proving the day of the nation state has passed. The theory goes something like this: we westerners no longer identify with our ethnicity or religions as we used to. Even the idea of being British, French, German or American loses relevance in an age of the internet, international travel and worldwide free trade. The world is now a United Colors of Bennetton. All of this is well and good. But I’m afraid Judt’s blithe willingness to experiment with the lives and well being of the Israeli populace is quite callous. Judt isn’t quite ready to give up his own ethnic, religious or national identity. But he would have Israelis do that very thing in the heart of one of the most dangerous and incendiary regions in the world. I’m sorry but that’s not an experiment that I, or most Israelis would want to make.
History is riddled with visionary experiments in democracy bludgeoned to death by authoritarian power. Does anyone remember the liberals of the Weimar Republic crushed beneath the boot of Nazi terror? Why wouldn’t or couldn’t this happen in Judt’s bi-national state? Ah yes, there would be ‘international forces’ (what a vague term) guaranteeing the peace. I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit squeamish having my very life and limb guaranteed by an amorphous “international force.”
Here Judt summarizes the Zionist project which I above called the ‘Ingathering of the Exiles’ in order to show that Israel is now the cause of Jew hatred, rather than the port of refuge it was meant to be:
For many years, Israel had a special meaning for the Jewish people. After 1948, it took in hundreds of thousands of helpless survivors who had nowhere else to go; without Israel their condition would have been desperate in the extreme. Israel needed Jews, and Jews needed Israel. The circumstances of its birth have thus bound Israel’s identity inextricably to the Shoah, the German project to exterminate the Jews of Europe. As a result, all criticism of Israel is drawn ineluctably back to the memory of that project, something that Israel’s American apologists are shamefully quick to exploit. To find fault with the Jewish state is to think ill of Jews; even to imagine an alternative configuration in the Middle East is to indulge the moral equivalent of genocide.
In the years after World War II, those many millions of Jews who did not live in Israel were often reassured by its very existence—whether they thought of it as an insurance policy against renascent anti-Semitism or simply a reminder to the world that Jews could and would fight back. Before there was a Jewish state, Jewish minorities in Christian societies would peer anxiously over their shoulders and keep a low profile; since 1948, they could walk tall. But in recent years, the situation has tragically reversed.
Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do. But this time it is a Jewish state, not a Christian one, which is holding them hostage for its own actions. Diaspora Jews cannot influence Israeli policies, but they are implicitly identified with them, not least by Israel’s own insistent claims upon their allegiance. The behavior of a self-described Jewish state affects the way everyone else looks at Jews. The increased incidence of attacks on Jews in Europe and elsewhere is primarily attributable to misdirected efforts, often by young Muslims, to get back at Israel. The depressing truth is that Israel’s current behavior is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.
I am always uncomfortable with the idea advanced here that Jews throughout the world would be better off without Israel since it provokes Jew hatred much more than the mere existence of Diaspora Jews in their individual countries. Generally, the theory goes: “Do away with Israel as a Jewish state and you will do away with anti-Semitism outside Israel; because Israel is the chief cause of anti-Semitism today.” To me, this argument is somewhat akin to telling a patient with a brain tumor that he can cure himself by cutting off his head. Sure, you remove the cancer, but what do you have left?
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism but a dysfunctional one. In today’s “clash of cultures” between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.
People have been predicting the end of the nation state about as long as they’ve existed. People have derided religion as the root cause of hatred and division in human society for as long as there have been religions. The universalists positing these theories maintain that if you remove nations and religions then all of a sudden “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” I fear that once Israel gives up its current form and becomes subsumed into a bi-national state, then the lion, in the form of a Palestinian majority surrounded by a sea of Arab countries would gobble up the lamb. I fear that even with an Israeli-Jewish population that might dominate in economic terms, political dominance would fall to the Palestinians. Then the former would play a precarious minority role in their society much like Maronites in Lebanon or ethnic Chinese in Indonesia or Malaysia. Have the Palestinians shown us they would be any more tolerant of minority rights in such a bi-national state than Israel has been of the rights of its Arab minority? I’m not arguing that Israel has been tolerant to its minorities. It has not. My argument is rather that lacking strong political leadership and a longstanding tradition of civic tolerance, no majority in the Middle East, whether it be an Arab or Jewish majority, should be expected to behave like model western-style democrats.
To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim. In any case, no one I know of has a better idea: anyone who genuinely supposes that the controversial electronic fence now being built will resolve matters has missed the last fifty years of history. The “fence”—actually an armored zone of ditches, fences, sensors, dirt roads (for tracking footprints), and a wall up to twenty-eight feet tall in places—occupies, divides, and steals Arab farmland; it will destroy villages, livelihoods, and whatever remains of Arab-Jewish community. It costs approximately $1 million per mile and will bring nothing but humiliation and discomfort to both sides. Like the Berlin Wall, it confirms the moral and institutional bankruptcy of the regime it is intended to protect.
One of Judt’s greatest weaknesses here is to omit any reference to what this bi-national state would look like. How would it govern itself? How would it guarantee religious freedom? How would it define majority-minority political roles and guarantee civil, political and human rights to both the majority and the minority? How would central (federal) authority be wielded? These questions are but the tip of the iceberg. As far as I’m concerned Judt’s ideas are sandcastles floating in air with little or no substance. The rhetoric sounds compelling and seductive, but how would it really work? Of this, Judt tells us precious little. Below, one finds what might be called “Judt’s Dream” of a bi-national state. It’s heavy on vision and terribly light on a practical mechanism to realize his dream:
A binational state in the Middle East would require a brave and relentlessly engaged American leadership. The security of Jews and Arabs alike would need to be guaranteed by international force—though a legitimately constituted binational state would find it much easier policing militants of all kinds inside its borders than when they are free to infiltrate them from outside and can appeal to an angry, excluded constituency on both sides of the border. A binational state in the Middle East would require the emergence, among Jews and Arabs alike, of a new political class. The very idea is an unpromising mix of realism and utopia, hardly an auspicious place to begin. But the alternatives are far, far worse.