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One Democratic Secular State for all its citizens in Israel and Palestine

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Posted May 10, 2011 at 4:48 pm

A Very Jewish State

Many Israeli Jews who are otherwise quite sane seem to believe that unless they have something like an 80% majority then the country would become just another Arab state. This is a central delusion, often expressed in apocalyptic “end of days” language. Others ask: how can a single state come about, and what would it look and feel like.

Dissent Magazine recently hosted a discussion around these themes. You can read the three contributions here, and we reproduce below the major one-state defence by Rachel Lever which takes up both these points.

A Very Jewish State

ALEXANDER YAKOBSON has concocted a fantastic conspiracy theory: the PLO doesn’t just want to run their own separate state, they want the whole of original Palestine. All to themselves. They’ve kept everyone talking, saying “no” to generous deals, biding their time while Israel’s settlements expand to prevent a viable Palestinian state. Then the PLO will turn around and demand the whole country, so as to have an “Arab-Muslim” single state.

Yakobson thinks two states are still possible: simply withdraw the IDF and leave the settlers to make their own way home or to stay put under Palestinian jurisdiction.

As an idea for ushering in long term peace, this is also pretty fanciful. In a matter of hours, a settler-related “security incident” (real or contrived) would provoke a violent incursion by the IDF and vengeful mob attacks against Palestinians all over Israel. We’d be back where we started.

Israel has already insisted on its right to invade a Palestinian state; to control its borders and air space; to siphon off the water; to oversee even its tourism and run its industrial estates; to keep, run, and service electronic spying devices; to give chase “in hot pursuit”; and, as with Gaza, to impose collective punishment on a population that votes the wrong way. It also has an established habit of changing, adjusting, and redrawing agreed boundaries, or simply making up border positions as it goes along; and, as Tzipi Livni made crystal clear to Palestinian negotiators, it has every intention of continuing to do so.

This unstable ceasefire is marketed as a permanent peace. But a unified single state as a way to peace is said to be totally impossible. Why?

Yakobson, and others of his ilk, say it’s because “the Arabs” won’t share: it’s simply an ethnic thing. Just as the lack of democracy in the Middle East (before Tunisia and Egypt…and Libya…and Yemen…and…?) is an ethnic thing. Imagine saying that Iron Curtain regimes were a Slav or Russian thing.

Yes, a joint Jewish and Arab democracy would be the first in modern times, though there was a similar mix in medieval Córdoba and Al-Andalus. The old Jewish communities in Arab countries did not share power, as all the power was held by feudal monarchs and Ottoman or European empires.

Within Palestine, the centuries-old, settled, and respected Jewish community had lived at peace with Muslims and Christians of every stripe and sect.

All this is known, yet Yakobson still peddles the myth of the wily, inherently violent, anti-Jewish Arabs. Though his particular conspiracy theory is up there with the more bizarre, the twisted vision of Palestinians calculating their birthrate and planning to out-breed and out-vote the Jews from a single state is quite commonly repeated in all seriousness.

Two States or One?
The difference between one united state and two separate states is one of ethics and philosophy. Two states is about territory, insecurity, and separation. One state removes both the physical and the mental borders. The parameters of one state are framed around rights, not land. Universality of rights (the same rights applying to every individual) means that the state and the law do not make distinctions on the grounds of ethnicity. Each individual is seen, judged, and respected as a human being, not as a stereotype. This may seem elementary, but it really can’t be repeated often enough: everything that’s wrong with racism and anti-Semitism stems from the absence of this universal human value.

To achieve such a change, a majority on both sides has to want it. But what about the rest of the people? New laws achieved by the struggle for rights and justice in turn create further changes, which have their own effects. In the struggles for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and racial equality, the resulting laws isolated and marginalized intolerance that had previously been commonplace. Hence a well-managed one-state transition would be a process for growing and expanding tolerance, whereas two states would fix the old hostilities and let them fester and worsen.

What’s the Demographic?
Would a single state see Jewish or Muslim ascendancy? How do the numbers stack up? What’s the demographic? These are all false questions. Safeguards, checks, and balances would ring-fence agreed upon universal rights and arrangements, so that they can only be amended by an overwhelming vote that would need support across the whole population. Propositions or decisions that contradicted these rights would be invalid and could not become law, and therefore would not be enforced by the police, the courts, or the army.

Armed force could in theory tear all this up, but it is unimaginable that the country’s armed forces (and their civilian reserves) would not remain heavily dominated for many years by Israel’s Jews. The Palestinians would have far more to fear from an army takeover.

Nor would a social and cultural takeover be likely. Israel has by now a solidly established character, way of life, language, customs, and civil society. Even if Jews ultimately became a minority in a merged country, this character would remain pretty dominant. Rather than a takeover, there would be organic changes in response to new circumstances and influences.

If a unified country got off to a good start, such changes might remove some of the cynicism and self-righteousness in Israel’s character, and on the other side lessen the anger and hurt felt by Palestinians. The biggest change will probably come not from multiculturalism, but in moving from a permanent war footing to being at peace internally and at peace with one’s neighbors. If the refugees were welcomed home, that would start to heal the 1948 wounds, too, and have a transformational effect on Israel’s place in the Middle East. Whereas two states would be a grudging compromise.

Yakobson says a Muslim state would be inevitable, because after return of refugees the Palestinians would have an electoral majority. But it would take far more than that to create a Muslim state. And why would they want to risk upheaval and maybe a new Nakba by trying to overturn a shared constitution that guarantees their religious freedom and does not discriminate against or in favor of any faith? If they felt that the result fell short of the promise, they would surely be fighting to enforce the law, not to overturn it.

What if this “Arab-Muslim” state that Yakobson fears is indeed their hidden agenda? Would they be able to muster the near–100 percent Muslim vote that they’d need? In a recent poll in Gaza, just 1.5 percent of respondents wanted an Islamic state. Palestinians are not even all Muslim, and among Muslims there are myriad shadings in belief and observance.

Maybe Yakobson isn’t really worried about the constitution being overthrown but just doesn’t want to see so many Arabs on the streets, much as Israel reacted when all the Mizrahi Jews turned up on the doorstep. People fear change. But change happens all the time. Israel itself has changed beyond recognition from the Israel I remember, where school friends thought my family was fearfully religious because we ate kosher food.

A Very Jewish State
Once a single country is on the agenda (and we’re pretty close to that already), its benefits, instead of these fables, could be considered: free access to all the country, no one forced to move, and a massive economic bonus as part of a new Middle East.

So who will want it? Palestinians would dearly love to see their exiled relatives coming home but are not sure they can trust those who expelled them, and are desperate to get the oppressors off their backs. On the Israeli side, the biggest obstacle is “the end of the Jewish state.”

But this is an argument that turns against itself: it’s pretty clear that the “Jewish state” has been deeply damaging to Jewish values, especially to Judaism’s foundational value of justice. A “Jewish democracy” is no less of an oxymoron than a “white democracy.” And as American-born Jeff Halper wrote of his “conversion,” “my Israeliness had completely supplanted the ethnic Jewish identity I had grown up with.” For many Israeli Jews, and the million or so living abroad, the very fact that a single state would be multiethnic could be a bonus: and incidentally, have those obsessed with demography counted these ex-pats into their reckonings?

Israel would go from being “a Jewish state” (or “the Jewish state”) to being a “very Jewish state,” where nearly half the population were Jewish. This is also a unique proposition, and maybe, in ethical terms, more Jewish than Israel is.

All over the world in pluralist societies, Jewish minorities (as also Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and other minorities) are comfortable celebrating their festivals and holy days and doing their rituals without wishing these were official state-sponsored occasions. The Jewish tribe didn’t need a homeland or an army to produce Freud, Karl and Groucho Marx, Disraeli, Einstein, Mahler, Spinoza, Woody Allen, or Steven Spielberg. The only thing Israel has added to that cannon is smart weapons technology, the longest highest concrete wall in the world, and a frantic international lobby.

Being a “haven for persecuted Jews” is of little interest to most Israelis, and only a tiny minority of its immigrants ever fit that scenario. Israel is a long way down the wish list of anyone seeking safety. The first request of a united state to the world could be that all other countries also open their doors to those fleeing persecution: Jews should not again have to pass through Israel on their way to safety.

A Shift in the Middle Ground
How would Israeli Jews come to want a single state? They won’t be convinced by mere arguments. Between the outer extremes are some 60 percent of pragmatic, non-ideological Israelis, moveable according to perceived personal interests. Topping their list would be an end to “life by the sword,” an end to fear and watchfulness, and the desire to live an ordinary life. Here, parents and grandparents take a longer view than politicians with an eye on the next election. What might change this middle ground mindset?

“Known unknowns” could be: recoil from Israel’s current orgy of racism; antipathy to the growing power of politico-religious orthodoxy; pressure of the boycott campaigns; inspiration from the Palestinian popular resistance and its solidarity campaigns; pressure from friends and relatives abroad, and a weakening of diaspora support; a film, song, or image; weariness with military service; an impressive or charismatic public personality; more revelations and scandals; changes in political alignments so that the hundreds of NGOs, human rights campaigns, and coexistence groups turn to the political process; or maybe a human rights candidate running in Jerusalem’s next municipal election, backed by both Jews and Palestinians.

And then there are the “unknown unknowns.” We just got two of them in a single week: the Palestine Papers smashed through a slew of two-state myths; and then came the Egyptian revolution.

Two weeks later, 2,000 J-Street members (a virtual focus group closely matching the Israeli center ground) heard Mona Eltahawy tell them that after “our beautiful, non-violent revolution it’s now time for the revolution for freedom and dignity of Palestinians.” And she challenged J-Street: “Make that call. This isn’t something that should scare you, this is something you must reach out and embrace and say, we too will march with you for the freedom and dignity of Palestinians, and I guarantee, you will be met with Arabs from every single country in the region.” The tumultuous applause that greeted this vision of commonality flung open the doors of the stifling two-state citadel, though it will take some more time to walk through them.

The two-state peace road has been through every conceivable twist and hairpin bend, and can have no surprises left. The project for a single unified state, on the other hand, is sensitive to different things that can completely rewrite the scenario and change the game, much as the Arab revolutions are doing.

But when it comes to making the choice, it will not be between two states and one. It will be posed as a natural, organic choice between a naked, full-frontal, in-your-face, international pariah apartheid single state with its “Oslo” fig leaf removed—and the selfsame single country but with full and equal civil rights, democracy, and normality.

A Possible One-State Road Map
So how would it come about? Eventually, after lesser or greater struggles, shifts, changes, and upheavals, a government could be elected on a promise to explore this option, to discuss it, in full transparency, with Palestinian counterparts, and to report back with concrete proposals and a draft constitution.

This phase would encourage, enable, and organize practical coexistence projects; a structured dialogue at all levels; meeting points in culture, education, science, and sports; learning each other’s language; and acts of reconciliation.

If this worked out, it could lead to a problem-solving transition toward merger, involving professions, institutions, service providers, and communities arriving at a wide variety of solutions ranging from total separateness to total communality. These are not mutually exclusive, and in varying measure both are necessary, so some hybrid of binationalism and one-person-one-vote may emerge. Only when major issues have been resolved and many questions have been answered would a final commitment be made.

Does that really sound so threatening?

The intellectually powerful Jewish Ichud group in the 1940s, which had lived as part of the Jewish minority in Arab Palestine, believed that the two populations could combine democratically in one country, with “Government in Palestine based on equal political rights for the two peoples.” Today, a decision from a position of strength to follow the guidance of the founders of two of Israel’s most venerable institutions, Hadassah and the Hebrew University, for the sake of lasting peace and universal human values, could hardly be characterized as damaging to Judaism.

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