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One-State Illusion

On Israel’s left and right, calls for binationalism are gaining ground. But the idea is a betrayal of Zionism, and of Judaism.

Liel Leibovitz
August 24, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: iStockphoto)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: iStockphoto)

Last summer, addressing a seminar attended by Israel’s political elite, one of the country’s most celebrated ideologues shared his vision for the future of the Jewish state. “The worst solution is probably the right one,” he said. “A bi-national state, full annexation, full citizenship.”

The idea itself—a heterogeneous and democratic nation of Israelis and Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River—was far from new. With Israel’s left-wing parties reduced to electoral rubble, the center of gravity among many committed progressives has shifted in recent years toward support for the so-called one-state solution. But the speaker wasn’t a radicalized leftist; he was Uri Elitzur, formerly the head of the settlement movement, Benjamin Netanyahu’s onetime chief of staff, and one of the most stringent thinkers of Israel’s religious right.

Anyone baffled by Elitzur’s speech didn’t have to wait long for clarifications. A few months later, writing in Nekuda, the official magazine of the settlement movement, Elitzur used an inflammatory term to describe the reality Israel would likely face if it prolongs its occupation of the West Bank: apartheid. If Israel wants to absolve itself of its sins and solve its problems, Elitzur argued, the only feasible option is absorbing the West Bank and making the 2.5 million people who live there full-fledged citizens of the state of Israel.

Among the right’s intellectuals, Elitzur is hardly alone in his beliefs. Earlier this year, Moshe Arens, Netanyahu’s political mentor and one of the Likud’s most hawkish elders, published an article in Haaretz supporting a similar position. Israel, he wrote, “should apply its laws on Judea and Samaria,” as the right calls the Occupied Territories. Reuven Rivlin, the current speaker of the Knesset, sounded a similar note when he told a reporter earlier this year that he “would rather have Palestinians as citizens of this country over dividing the land up.” Others—including Emily Amrousi, the settler movement’s former spokesperson—have expressed similar views.

Ironically, these same views were, until recently, considered as falling outside the realm of polite political conversation. When historian Tony Judt made a case for a binational state in a 2003 New York Review of Books essay, the outcry was considerable. Calling the essay “haughty and ugly,” Leon Wieseltier, writing in The New Republic, argued that “a bi-national state is not the alternative for Israel. It is the alternative to Israel.”

Yet the epithets that were readily hurled at Judt—anti-Semite, anti-Israeli, self-hating Jew—could not so easily be lobbed at Arens and Amrousi, at Rivlin and Elitzur. These new advocates of binationalism are enjoying an attentive audience. The idea they champion—the long-reviled one-state solution—now deserves serious examination.


From the narrow perspective of political science, bereft of ethnic and theological complications, the one-state solution is hard to beat. Having rejected, for the most part, the array of encompassing ideologies that roiled the 20th century—Communism, Totalitarianism, Imperialism—most of the world, with a few notable exceptions, now invests its political energies in the idea of the state as the stage on which we all play out our ambitions and aspirations and the entity to which we all turn for security, comfort, and, often, meaning. The citizens of a modern democratic state, say binationalism’s supporters, needn’t look for meaning anywhere outside the state itself; rather than see themselves as Jews or Muslims or Christians, they argue, Israelis of all ethnicities and religious beliefs need to learn to identify simply as Israeli. If they do so, say the idea’s proponents, they could slowly overcome ancient hatreds, learn to keep the peace and share the power, and build a brave new state that treats all of its citizens equally.

But if the state were to shed its Jewish skin, argue some of binationalism’s critics, wouldn’t bloodshed ensue? Not necessarily, argues Avrum Burg, formerly the chairman of the Jewish Agency and the speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003. Announcing his return to politics last week after a six-year absence, Burg endorsed the one-state solution and advised skeptical Israelis to look to the European Union for inspiration. True, the Italians might still begrudge the French, the French might still suspect the Germans, and the Germans might still contemplate abandoning the union altogether, but these nations tolerate each other nonetheless and sustain their shared enterprise, a kind of collaboration that would have been unthinkable in the trenches of World War I. Just as the old continent learned to put aside animosities and mistrust and enter into a comity of nations, Burg argued, so could Israel eradicate its borders and let its barriers down.

Mention the European example to most Israelis, however, and they would likely scoff at the analogy: If Israel became a unified state—the Hebrew idiom is medinat kol ezracheya, or the state of all its citizens, in stark contrast to the Jewish state—wouldn’t swarms of Palestinians relocate from Lebanon, Gaza, and elsewhere and condemn the Jews to life as a negligible minority? It’s a terrifying scenario, but not an inevitable one: Were the one-state solution to come up for serious discussion, it would not be inconceivable to place strict limitations on immigration, as is the case with most western nations. Rather than allow an endless stream of newcomers, the binational state’s founding fathers could insist on quotas, as Palestine’s British overseers did throughout most of their mandatory rule. They could furthermore demand that anyone proven to partake in violent actions or advocate unrest would not be allowed to enter the state. If this were the case, the new nation could maintain a healthy balance between Arabs and Jews, each group separately administering its own municipalities and religious institutions, and both groups coming together to govern the nation at large.

Such an arrangement most likely would inspire a great deal of good will worldwide, which, in turn, might translate into unprecedented investment. Israel’s already strong industrial base could benefit from a cascade of regional markets opening up to its products. And security expenditure—currently standing at more than $14 billion, which represents 7 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, a grim ratio surpassed only by Oman, Eritrea, Georgia, and Saudi Arabia—would be greatly reduced, freeing up even more resources and flooding the economy with a soaring surplus. Seen through the narrow prism of finance, a binational state is a far more promising prospect than a Jewish one.

The bounties binationalism promises, then, are at least as numerous as the disasters it threatens to evoke. In every rational respect, it is, if not a ready solution, at least an alternative worthy of one’s careful consideration.

That is, unless one happens to be Jewish.


There are, of course, scores of interpretations of Judaism, but here is the one to which I subscribe: Judaism is a religion founded upon the notion that God commanded the ancestors of one particular man, Abraham, to inhabit one particular land, Canaan, and there, adhering to the Almighty’s divine laws, establish an independent nation-state that would serve as a shining light to a benighted world.

This may sound like a theological rant, but it makes perfect sense. Divine laws are ephemeral things, and they have little relevance to human existence unless they are somehow tried and proven here on earth. To that end, Judaism, from Abraham onward, promoted the centrality of the Jewish state, a holy kingdom that would be run in accordance with God’s decrees, an intricate series of regulations and prohibitions that govern every facet of life and that, in spirit if not always in practice, is an astonishing agenda of justice and compassion. The Jewish kingdom, at least ideally, would end indentured servitude and ban high-interest loans, protect the poor and care for the beasts, enshrine reason and pursue peace. In short, it would set an example that every other nation would wish to emulate. Take the independent state away from the Jews, and they become nothing but itinerant prophets, full of spirit but devoid of power, the kind of folks one admires but doesn’t necessarily wish to emulate.

A Jewish state, then, isn’t a byproduct of the religion but rather the other way around: the religion was set in place to serve the idea of the Jewish state. When exile brought Jewish sovereignty to an end, Jewish scholarship still concerned itself primarily with questions of statehood. Striking an eschatological note, the Talmud, for example, argued that “there is no difference between this world and the days of the Messiah except [that in the latter there will be no] bondage of foreign powers.” In other words, the only thing the Messiah would do for God’s chosen children is reinstate their political independence. Throughout more than a millennium of exile, the homeland beckoned, giving us hope, keeping us alive.

The Emancipation, backlit by the radiance of the Enlightenment, threatened to extinguish the yearning for political independence for good—Moses Mendelssohn captured this spirit when he claimed that “the messiah, for whom we prayed these thousands of years, has appeared and our fatherland has been given to us. The messiah is freedom, our fatherland is Germany.” Zionism emerged as an inevitable response, recapturing all the spiritual energies that the Emancipation set loose. At its core, Zionism was nothing but the old dream stated anew: to establish once again the Jewish kingdom in the Promised Land. This is why Zionism was able to attract so many divergent thinkers, from the radically Marxist A.D. Gordon to the messianic Abraham Isaac Kook; however different their visions for the nature of the yearned-for Jewish state, they nonetheless all understood a Jewish state to be an instrument of salvation.


The proponents of binationalism, of course, would likely disagree with this interpretation. To them, Zionism’s very diversity is proof that one may advocate all sorts of solutions to the problems plaguing Israel and still remain firmly within its fold. Reuven Rivlin argues that Zionism is first and foremost interested in territory, while former Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg maintains that it is, at heart, a liberal movement that should give up its powers rather than compromise its progressive values. They are both wrong. If—as those who preach the one-state solution from the right argue—the unity of the land and access to its holiest places is key, there is no real reason to insist that the land’s governors be Jewish. One could imagine a wholly Palestinian state in which Jews have the right to settle wherever they pleased. And if—as binationalism’s leftist advocates claim—Zionism’s goal is to promote democracy, they needn’t insist on remaining in the ancient homeland; a vast stretch of Montana, one imagines, or some swath of the Andes, would provide just as good of a backdrop for Jews wishing to be free and just. Both of these solutions are acceptable, yet neither corresponds with the core principle on which Jewish history pivots: that of the Jewish state.

Anyone for whom Israel represents not an abstract political entity but a historical necessity and a spiritual foundation would do well to unequivocally reject the one-state solution. The alternative, granted, isn’t as exhilarating. The Jewish state, even given the possibility of successful peace talks in the near future, groans under the weight of unbearable burdens, not the least of which is the struggle to balance Judaism’s traditions and democracy’s dictates. But it’s this same struggle that has defined us for millennia. It’s the struggle that made us who we are. Abandoning it for whatever reason might sound temporarily tempting, but we can’t afford the cost.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.