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Is Beinart's Ambivalence a Smart Stratagem?

July 30, 2020

Peter Beinart’s newly declared advocacy of “one state” for Israelis and Palestinians makes so many historically accurate, morally important, and politically relevant points, that one hesitates to do anything but applaud his article. There is far more danger that Beinart will not be heeded by the American Jewish community than there is that his views will be too influential. Still, on the most straightforward interpretation of Beinart’s position, there is an implication that many Jews will understandably reject, and that rejection may give them permission to ignore the powerful essence of Beinart’s case. But before qualifying agreement with Beinart, it is vital to acknowledge all of the things he gets precisely right—truths that organized Jewry has shamefully and imprudently resisted.


Beinart argues that Jews have disastrously seen Palestinians as aspiring genocidal Nazis, and as culturally incapable of democracy. The former is a delusion born of trauma, the latter a racist prejudice belied by the actions of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Whatever Palestinian historical violence has been directed against Jews has overwhelmingly been the typical resistance of a people to colonization, not an irrational murderous racial or religious animosity.


Beinart is also correct that for decades the quest for two states has served as a diversion from confronting the reality of a single Jewish supremacist state which daily denies the rights of millions of Palestinians. The charade of supporting two states in theory while tolerating the deepening of a single undemocratic state discredits the two-state vision, especially when powerful players define “two states” as an Israeli State and Palestinian Bantustans, and the theoretically nascent Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority, degenerates almost wholly into an Israeli agent.


In discussions of his piece Beinart has noted that the intentional conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has made the organized American Jewish community the spearhead of those who would suppress open-minded political discussions and try to intimidate, rather than democratically oppose, the political activism of adversaries. This undermining of liberal democratic norms to oppose pro-Palestinian politics is both unprincipled and dangerous to Jews-- American Jews, are about 2% of the U.S. population. As Beinart insists, American Jews must start considering the perspectives of Palestinians and their supporters rather than fatuously labeling and dismissing their anti-Zionism as illegitimate Jew hatred.

Finally, Beinart is right about the urgency to effectively change the reality and trajectory of the status quo. After over half a century of massive violation of Palestinians human rights and total denial of millions of Palestinians’ political rights, any tolerance and patience with the way things are is itself an injustice. And things threaten to get worse. Beinart documents that outright, renewed (and this time, unlike 1948, without the chaos of war to obscure the reality) ethnic cleansing is a real possibility.


In sum, the time to demand full equality is long overdue, and nothing short of a demand for full equality answers the moral and political imperatives we face.

However, Beinart also argues, at times explicitly but mostly implicitly, that the demand for equality can now only be achieved in one state, or it at least is more likely in one-state than two states, and here is where his case for rapidly changing the unjust status quo may prove counter-productive.


There are two possible reasons equality between Jews and Palestinians living between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River could not be achieved in two states: first, regardless of their nature, two states must be unequal. Second, although equality in two states is imaginable, at this point there is no way to get there.


Beinart does not put much weight on the first point. Indeed, he seems to think that perhaps 25 years ago a two-state agreement, especially one which seriously addressed the Palestinian refugee problem, might have been possible. In pushing for “one” equal state Beinart considers approvingly confederate ideas which are more nearly two states. Moreover, to claim that two states would inherently embody inequalities, flies in the face of existing models. People of Spanish ethnic descent live as full citizens in France, and people of French ethnic descent live as full citizens in Spain. Conceptually, Palestine and Israel need be no more unjust, or treat its citizens no more unequally, than do the nation states France and Spain. All nation states have a strong whiff of inequality about them, but the overwhelming majority of states are nation states, and in theory Israel and Palestine can be as egalitarian as any two of them that contain national minorities.


But that is “conceptually,” and “in theory,” and Beinart’s main claim is that this theoretical possibility is a practical near impossibility. Beinart believes that the settlement project is so advanced, the power differential between the Israeli state and Palestinian national movement is so great, and the ideas of two states entertained by Israelis and Palestinians are so divergent, that two states, at least in a version that achieves equality, is politically unachievable.


To fully sustain his position, Beinart needs to make it plausible that the hurdles to an egalitarian single binational state are less daunting than to two genuinely equal states. And there is the rub. To believe that, one has to believe that Israeli Jews, whose power has been the main obstacle to achieving a just two-state agreement, would not wield that same power with equal vigor and effect to prevent an egalitarian bi-national state. I think Israeli Jewish power would be wielded with even greater intensity to prevent egalitarian one-state binationalism.


Beinart rightly describes Zionism as having, broadly speaking, two motives: it sought to create a critical mass of territorially concentrated Jews who’d be able to preserve and develop Jewish culture. This is Ahad Ha’am’s Zionism, and I view it as an essentially anti-assimilationist strategy, not much affected by political sovereignty. The second motive, and the motive that ultimately won near unanimous support for Zionism among Jews after World War II, was as a haven for and independently acting protector of Jews. Actual tortures and unbounded genocidal murders formed the core of Holocaust trauma, but the failure of the rest of the world to provide a refuge, and the nations’ general indifference as the murderous onslaught continued for years, were also important elements. Crucially, Jews’ sense of helplessness, their inability to be agents in their own defense,* agents who required no one’s permission or aid to defend themselves, became a central component of the trauma, and of post-Holocaust Zionist ideology. It is the heart and soul of Israeli Jews’ national identity. A binational state that compromised that independence would hollow out, for better or worse, what Israeli national identity is largely about.


Unfortunately, Israelis now have the unjust status quo as an option; I hypothesize that if continuing the unjust status quo was removed as an option, and Israeli Jews were offered a choice between a binational egalitarian state where Jewish independent control of the armed forces and security services would be lost, and a two state dispensation that involved some sort of shared Jerusalem and Israeli sovereignty only within the 1967 lines, the latter would be chosen in a New York minute.


And those are the only just options. While there are many versions of two national states and a single binational state, ultimately there is a single sovereign or there are two. If sovereignty means anything, it means legal control of the army. In a functioning democracy, that means a majority of citizens have the final say on the use of the military. A genuinely binational Jewish/Palestinian state would very quickly, and legitimately, reduce Israeli Jews to minority status. The Palestinian diaspora, far more than the Jewish diaspora, would come to the new state. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Jordan alone might in short order choose to move a few miles into a freer, more prosperous Israel/Palestine. Palestinians from Lebanon, Syria, and the gulf states would also be quick to immigrate. A just two states cannot and should not guarantee an enduring Jewish democratic majority even in Israel, but it can make it highly likely there will be a Jewish majority for generations.


Beinart may be right that a single binational state, regardless of which nationality constituted the majority, would devotedly and effectively protect Jewish and Palestinian safety. But that is not the political issue for those who seek justice now. That issue is which, of two morally acceptably options, can we get both parties to accept as soon as possible, and that depends on what Israeli and diaspora Jews, and Palestinians there and abroad, believe. I am convinced that Jews, at least, believe their safety, indeed their dignity, requires autonomous military agency. They may be wrong about that, but given Jewish history, Beinart’s speculations about how a binational state would develop will not convince them. My fear is that if we tell Israeli and world Jewry that the only alternative to being ongoing rights violators, is to have their security depend on the decency of non-Jews, they will choose to remain rights violators. One can hope that Holocaust induced cynicism will fade away, but I suspect that Jews, once among the most enthusiastic of universalists, will be among the last nationalities voluntarily to give up access to autonomous self-defense. Beinart may see Israeli Jews as potential Walloons in Belgium—most see themselves as potential Kurds in Turkey. If tomorrow we could form one multi-national world government, with a constitution promising strong individual rights and national cultural autonomy, were that world government to require forgoing armies loyal to their own people—Israelis would be the last to join, behind even Ukrainians, Poles, and the Vietnamese.


If I am correct about that, it is a mistake, probably most harmful to Palestinians, to make Israelis think their only options are either maintaining the occupation (whether baldly or under the guise of a phony two-state Bantustan set-up) or accept minority status in a binational state (however democratic that state was). Two genuine states remain the most likely, however unlikely, way to realize equal rights for Jews and Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. In defense of the possibility of one state Beinart quotes John Hume, “What was the inconceivable is now the common place.” But that applies equally well to the inconceivability of moving to a just two state arrangement.


While this conclusion appears at odds with Beinart’s thesis, it may be in line with his article’s strategic goal. There is an ambiguity, quite possibly intentional, in Beinart’s piece. Beinart appears less interested in the goal he promotes--one state—than in promoting a goal that genuinely undermines the status quo. He says both one state and two states are “unrealistic” and he has little concern with their relative plausibility: “the right question” Beinart tells us “is not which vision is more fanciful at this moment, but which can generate a movement powerful enough to bring fundamental change.” The crux of his argument is that only a vision of one state can create a powerful movement for change.


And here Beinart might be right, in a paradoxical sort of way. An empowered demand for a binational state might be the only thing that would push Israeli Jews toward serious, urgent negotiations toward a mutually acceptable two-state arrangement. Israeli Jews must be made to understand that the only way to maintain a sovereign polity where Jews de facto form a democratic majority and exercise the full measure of self-determination, is to ensure that Palestinians have the same right in the same measure. The status quo must be removed as an option.


There is now one, undemocratic, Jewish supremacist, binational state. Nothing gives Israelis the right to maintain that arrangement a day longer. All who cherish equality and democratic values should organize to make that existing state a real democracy. But we should allow that two sovereign genuine democracies, agreed to by both peoples, would also be acceptable.


Achieving justice in two states would not be simple, but nor would it be in a single binational state. In either case there would need to be strong guarantees of minority rights, a way of reckoning with the legacies of historical injustices, most prominently the plight and rights of Palestinian refugees. The challenges will be different, but fair-minded, amiable divorces, even ones that require continued living together in close quarters, are not always more complex than building stable, egalitarian marriages after a shotgun weddings. And whether in two-states or one, the entire land can be considered the historical and cultural homeland of both peoples, as it had been for centuries before either people had a sovereign state in the land. So, by all means let’s rally around a movement for Full Equality Now, but let’s give Israelis and Palestinians the choice of political form in which to achieve it. Denying them that choice will only delay justice. Let’s not force waiting for Mashiach on the Palestinians too.

*This in no way is meant to denigrate the heroism of Jewish partisans, and indeed the courageous fortitude of all survivors.

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