One versus Two States: Jewish Progressive Voices

One of the distinctive differences between virtually all Jewish voices and various Palestinian perspectives is the contrast in the narratives of the two groups. The Zionist one is generally very positive, a development from the time of the Mandate and promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine when there were only 83,000 Jews in the land as opposed to 673,000 Arabs. Jews constituted only 12% of the population in 1922. At the time, Palestinians already claimed a right of self-determination and opposed Jewish immigration to Palestine or selling land to Jews. Palestinian discrimination was very explicit because Arabs in Palestine feared the Zionist enterprise and the prospect that unfolded over the subsequent century.

Although what happened was not inevitable – Arabs in Palestine could have welcomed Jewish return just as Canada after 1967 welcomed Third World immigration. They did not. Without rehearsing that history, the development of Zionism proved disastrous from the Arab perspective, culminating initially in the Nakba of 1948 (though some Palestinian intellectuals now date the Nakba back to 1922) and the flight/expulsion of 720,000 Palestinians from what became the new state of Israel. Whereas there had been 686,000 Jews and 1,300,000 Arabs in Palestine in 1947, in 1948 there were a million Jews in Israel and only 160,000 Arabs. [Jews and Arabs were all called Palestinian at the time.) 35,000 Jews had been expelled from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel. The story became worse for the Palestinians in 1967 when Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza, but that was a second moment of glorious victory for Jewish Israelis.

Since then, the effort to liberate parts or all of Palestine by the Palestinians failed. Jerusalem had long before been annexed by Israel. The effort to recover parts for a Palestinian state by peaceful means seemed “successful” with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, but that only turned out to be a cover for the huge growth of settlements and creeping annexation in the West Bank. At the same time, Palestinians returned to the use of widespread terror in 2000, driving many Israelis to the right and de facto support for the settlers. Increasing numbers of Palestinians and most Palestinian public intellectuals began to read the post-Oslo period as the third strike following the 1947-8 and 1967 disasters that befell the Palestinian people.

Ironically, many Jews on the liberal, progressive and radical left began to read the post-Oslo period also as a disaster for the Zionist enterprise, for Jews became occupiers of another people and their land. Instead of two states living side by side in peace and mutual recognition, the Palestinian entity in Gaza became a source of military threat as the West Bank undercut the liberal values of Israel. While liberals clung to the hope of Oslo, radicals rejected Oslo and Zionism altogether. The latter became a minor fringe group in the Jewish community. Progressive voices, though still a minority, more recently became split between those who remained loyal to the Oslo vision versus a much smaller cluster, currently led by the voice of Peter Beinart, who gave up on the Oslo vision of two democratic states living side by side in peace and harmony. They opted for a unitary state.

In Jewish Currents of 7 July, Peter Beinart penned an essay called, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” that picked up a theme articulated by some Jewish intellectuals, like Ian Lustick, since the 1990s, advocacy of a unitary state for both Jews and Palestinians with equal rights. The position was echoed in Peter’s op-ed in The New York Times on 8 July 2020 entitled, “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State.” He proposed a Jewish home rather than a state in an equal state for members of both communities.

Beinart opened his essay with the following observation: “In the broad center of Jewish life—where power and respectability lie—being a Jew means, above all, supporting the existence of a Jewish state. In most Jewish communities on earth, rejecting Israel is a greater heresy than rejecting God” presumably because the loss of Israel would place Jews in existential danger. “(F)ear of annihilation has come to define what it means to be an authentic Jew.” The consequence: “the more deeply Israeli Jews have internalized a narrative of historic Jewish persecution, the less sympathy they have for Palestinians.”

That put Jews who questioned Israel’s existence and not just its policies and actions beyond the pale. And Peter was propelled to such questioning because Israeli statehood has come to mean “permanent Israeli control of the West Bank” as the Israeli government subsidized Jewish settlements on territory that Palestinians viewed as the land of their future state and where, in the interim, Palestinians under Israeli occupation or administration lacked “citizenship, due process, free movement, and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives.”  The criticism came to a breaking point when Netanyahu unilaterally announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Undercutting of democratic principles in a state that favoured Jews over Palestinians became too costly. Beinart announced that, “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish-Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish-Palestinian equality.” Israel-Palestine is already binational. “The more equal it becomes, the more peaceful and democratic it is likely to be.” As Beinart described his own personal ideological development in the NYT op-ed, “I knew Israel was wrong to deny Palestinians in the West Bank citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote in the country in which they lived. But the dream of a two-state solution that would give Palestinians a country of their own let me hope that I could remain a liberal and a supporter of Jewish statehood at the same time. Events have now extinguished that hope.”

The quest for a two-state solution had failed. Further, persevering with that goal has become just a camouflage to enable annexation to take place. Beinart claimed that he was not turning his back on Zionism but going back to first principles, first and foremost a goal of having a home in Palestine, not necessarily a state, and back even further, to the roots of rabbinic Judaism where a religion centred on the Temple was displaced by new rituals and priorities. Supporting a Jewish state would not be central to a Jewish identity. That new identity would equate Jewish liberation with Palestinian liberation.

Like progressive Palestinian voices, Beinart viewed the quest for a mini-state with full Palestinian sovereignty on 22% of the land of the 1922 Palestine Mandate had been a chimera. Israeli actions have made such a state impossible because it left less and less territory available for that state with each passing year and, nevertheless, insisted that Palestinians have less than full sovereignty. Israel would retain full control over security. The population of Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank grew from 365,000 in 2000 to 650,000 in 2020.  At the same time, the number of Palestinians living in Area C of the West Bank administered by Israel declined from 500,000 to just over 100,000. Land swaps were never sufficient and the land on offer was mostly desert. Further, the issue of refugee return remained a scab over all the other issues.

Over the period, Palestinian support for a single state shifted from one-third of the population in 2011 to almost half in 2020. For Beinart, the issue is not how fanciful the goal is, but which vision – two-states or one state – can generate a powerful movement to bring about fundamental change. A fragmented even further reduced Palestinian state with limited sovereignty cannot harness that energy. That prospect will induce Palestinians to resume a program of violence with the prospect of mass expulsion as a response, a prospect fostered by a current policy of encouraging Palestinian emigration. Oppression will degenerate into ethnic cleansing.

Beinart offers the flag of equality as a substitute for independence and self-determination. However, this is not what young Palestinian intellectuals have in mind when they lift the flag of equality. They call for Palestinian self-determination as a substitute for current policies and practices. They are political fundamentalists. They call for decolonization entailing Palestinian refugee return and the explicit denial of any Zionist project. Instead, Peter cites the vision of Palestinian Israelis (Ayman Odeh of the Joint List) who demand equality in the same way Nelson Mandela did – equality for all citizens. But Beinart joins those young Palestinian progressive voices in characterizing the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor for Israeli occupation.

Peter Beinart envisions, not a unitary state like South Africa with only one national identity, but a binational state wherein communitarian as well as individual rights are protected and given voice. Peter advocates a form of democratic bi-nationalism. Yet other Jewish progressives, like Jeremey Ben-Ami leader of JSpace in the USA (cf. “Don’t Give Up: Why liberal Jews must not abandon the fight for Israel’s future,” The New Republic, 8 September 2018) and Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of Truah, remain unconvinced

In his essay, Ben-Ami focused on the drifting apart of the Israeli Jewish and American Jewish communities as American Jews largely remained liberal while Israeli Jews have gradually shifted to the right impelled by new immigrants, the hostility of neighbours and the intense right-wing nationalist religious campaign that systematically chips away at Israel’s fundamental democratic foundations. Hence, The Great Divide. Ben-Ami called on American Jews to sustain their involvement and counter right-wing illiberalism for a commitment to Israel is now the soul of the Jewish people. Rather than leave the ideological battlefield to right wingers with their own institutions, educational foundations, think tanks and politicians, he called for a renewed progressive movement uniting liberal Jews in the diaspora and Israel.

This means redressing a situation in which Israel’s pro-peace and pro-democracy camp does not receive the proportional support to counter the disproportional support American right-wing Jews offer Israel in funding, infrastructure, strategy and messaging aid. Ben-Ami called on American Jews to increase their support for the diminishing number of liberal Jews in Israel in the battle against ethno-nationalism.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote an essay entitled, “How to tell when criticism of Israel is actually anti-Semitism,” that was published in The Washington Post on 18 May 2018. Advocating a boycott of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. It is merely pressure on Israel to change its policies. Antisemitism is marked by the following:

  • Viewing Jews as insidious influencers, whether globalists or Zionists, behind world events
  • Using the word “Zionist” as a code for “Jew” or “Israeli” implying a global power structure while denying the existence of the state as an expression of Jewish identity
  • Denying a Jewish national history in Israel going back three millennia and characterizing Israelis as Nazis
  • Dismissing the humanity of Israelis by not caring about the dignity, well-being, concerns and self-determination of all people, including Jews
  • Assuming that the Israeli government speaks for all Jews.

Opposing these antisemitic tropes does not mean that one cannot insist that Israel live up to its human rights commitments.

The New York Jewish Agenda brought all three public intellectuals and activists together in a webinar on 26 July 2020 entitled, “Divided We Stand: Allies Debate the Two-State Solution.”  Rabbi Rachel Timoner, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope and a founder of the New York Policy Agenda, chaired the webinar. Peter reiterated the thesis he has been developing over the last few years that the two-state solution on offer is a misnomer and a cover for a unitary state dominated by Jewish Israelis. Further, the two-state solution is no longer viable. Third, working for a unitary state in which both Jews and Palestinians enjoy equal rights is not a utopian fantasy.

Jill Jacobs reiterated her emphasis on rights, including rights to citizenship, and the unravelling of the Occupation. She insisted, contrary to Beinart, that Palestinians are increasingly calling for a one-state solution. Jeremy Ben-Ami, contrary to Peter Beinart, insisted that the two-state solution was very much alive and needed people to push that agenda and not despair nor give in to the propensity to seek definitive answers. He challenged the view that despair over the impossibility and unworkability of a two-state solution would propel a one-state solution as a successor. He argued that it was faulty logic to characterize a two-state solution now as necessarily anti-democratic whereas a one-state solution would be democratic. He could not imagine a Knesset vote supporting the dissolution of Israel in favour of a unitary state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians. Further, he stressed that a crucial factor in the direction of Israel is which direction American Jews support for the future of Israel.   

In Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the state’s founders insisted that the new country “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture …” That vision has not yet succeeded. Some progressives want to press forward with greater effort. Others, such as Peter Beinart, now regard that vision as a chimera.

Are these the only two progressive visions on offer?

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