Last Sunday, the New York Times gave more space than it ever had before to the idea that Zionism is over. Ian Lustick, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, makes the case in the cover story for the Times’ Week in Review, called “Two-State Illusion.” Because a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine is now nearly impossible to achieve, Lustick argues, we must accept the much more plausible idea of “the disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project.”
The Times gave Lustick a precedent-breaking platform for his ideas. The most memorable previous time the Times gave a prime-time spot to a proponent of the one-state idea was in 2009, when the late Muammar Qaddafi proposed that Israel and the Palestinian territories be replaced by a country called Isratine, where Jews and Palestinians would live in harmony, and all Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be eagerly welcomed home. But that seemed like an obvious editorial lark. Moreover, even Qaddafi struck a mellower note than many anti-Zionists, writing approvingly that, in 1948, “it is important to note that Jews did not expel Palestinians.” But Qaddafi’s editorial failed to mention the possibility that dissolving the Jewish state and flooding it with millions of new Palestinians just might lead to a slight case of violence between what he called the “cousins descended from Abraham”—Jews and Muslims.
In contrast to Qaddafi, Lustick seems almost eager to envision the chaos and bloodshed that would accompany the demise of the Jewish state. When considering the benefits of Israel’s dissolution, Lustick writes:
Secular Palestinians … could ally with Tel Aviv’s post-Zionists, non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants, foreign workers and global-village Israeli entrepreneurs. Anti-nationalist ultra-Orthodox Jews might find common cause with Muslim traditionalists. Untethered to statist Zionism in a rapidly changing Middle East, Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as “Eastern,” but as Arab.
In Lustick’s telling, the post-Israel Levant will be a vibrant tapestry, full of jostling new identities. The Hasid will dance with the Islamic Jihadnik, and all manner of thing shall be well. Lustick claims that he’s the realist striking out against the “fantasy” of a two-state solution. Yet the breathless cadenza I’ve just quoted exposes him as a far more ridiculous dreamer than those he criticizes. The idea that Mizrahi Jews, dispossessed and expelled from Arab countries, will suddenly start calling themselves Arabs rather than Jews, something they’ve fervently resisted for well over 2,000 years, could only be born from the deepest academic naiveté or from plain old ignorance. It’s far more likely that African-Americans will begin describing themselves as white. If Israel does come to ruin as Lustick hopes, the consequences will likely resemble Lebanon or Iraq rather than the peaceful multiethnic mosaic that he imagines. There is a reason that the destruction of Israel is a nightmare that the U.S. government is willing to go to war to prevent, and it has nothing to do with AIPAC.
Lustick notes in his article that “many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable.” He evidently wants to help these Israelis see the promising future that beckons when they are once again deprived of statehood and surrounded by their enemies. After all, Lustick reminds us, French Algeria collapsed, and so did the Soviet Union, and so did apartheid South Africa. Why can’t Israel collapse too? Peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians have led nowhere, he remarks. Lustick explains that he worked as an analyst for the State Department on the Palestinian issue in 1980. “Now, as then,” he writes, “negotiations are phony.” So much for the offers made by Barak and Olmert; so much for Mahmoud Abbas’ concessions: It’s all a farce. And this is how Lustick’s op-ed differs from Qaddafi’s. What the Times did this week was give a prestigious academic enough rope to hang himself. And, bizarrely, he did it by revisiting an argument that’s been going on longer than most readers would ever realize.
Setting up a single binational state in Palestine is not a new idea. Its heyday was in the 1920s, when the group Brit Shalom was established by a collection of Jewish intellectuals, most of whom had immigrated to Palestine from German-speaking Europe: Arthur Ruppin, Gershom Scholem, Ernst Simon, Hugo Bergmann. Judah Magnes, the chancellor of the Hebrew University, was a supporter of the movement. Brit Shalom fervently believed that the only way to allow Jewish settlement in Palestine to flourish was to pursue a peaceful agreement with Palestinian Arabs. As Anita Shapira remarks in Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, Brit Shalom “wanted to create a unique and special state of affairs in Palestine, hitherto unknown: colonizing without the use of force.” Bergmann and others argued that Jews needed to sit down with Arabs, to talk directly to the people already living on the land to which Jews wanted to immigrate. A future legislative council would let Arabs play a major political role, and because they would be secure in their political status, Arabs, the theory went, would then allow Jews to immigrate freely to Palestine.
But there were two problems with Brit Shalom’s advocacy of a binational state. The first was that Zionism was supposed to free Jews from the real and psychic oppression that existed when they lived among a foreign people. By asking Jews to share political power with Arabs, Brit Shalom was telling them to give up the essence of the Zionist dream—to settle for a new galut, not a place of their own.
The second problem was Arab reluctance to allow any Jewish immigration at all to Palestine. In response to Arab anxiety about the increasing number of Jewish newcomers, some of Brit Shalom’s members began speaking of a new goal: Jews would be not a majority in Palestine but rather a multitude (rabim rather than rov). In any case, Brit Shalom thought, a binational state would neutralize the question of majority—that was the hope. What would it matter that there might be more Jews in Palestine than Arabs, since the state itself wouldn’t be Jewish? But the real question remained: Would Jews ever be willing to put limits on Jewish immigration? The answer had to be no, since Zionism was meant to provide a haven for oppressed Jews everywhere. Meanwhile, Arabs demanded not just a limit on aliyah, but a complete ban on Jewish immigration. And then came the devastating Arab riots of 1929, which changed everything for the worse. The door to Jewish-Arab dialogue closed.
The violence of the 1929 revolt underscored the fact that Jewish and Arab interests in Palestine were fundamentally opposed, and that no reconciliation was possible, as Ruppin himself admitted at the time. Zionists buying land necessarily meant displacement of Arab tenant farmers; in a time when today’s economic growth seemed impossible to imagine, more Jews seeking work meant fewer jobs for Arabs. The two sides couldn’t work together because what was good for the one was bad for the other.
The one-state solution remains as futile as it ever was as a policy goal. Judging from Lustick’s piece, the one-staters are far greater fantasists than those who hold on to the two-state idea despite decades of false starts. Anti-Zionists nearly always shy away from talking about what would happen if the Jewish state evaporates, but Lustick’s willingness to lay out his imaginary future only makes clear the one-staters’ complete divorce from the reality of the Middle East. In Lustick’s version of the Middle East, though brutality and civil war will shake things up, the postnational state will then emerge to salve all wounds. To think that new political arrangements can trump longstanding cultural enmities is a liberal weakness, and Lustick is weak in just this way.
In a 2010 Forbes article titled “Israel Could Benefit from Hamas,” Lustick applauded Hamas’ offer of “competitive coexistence” with Israel. If Israel did not accept Hamas’ offer “in effect” of a hudna, or long-term truce, Lustick wrote, the “Jews will definitely lose, not because their ethics are stronger, but because more Jews than Arabs have foreign passports.” Mass emigration was Lustick’s idea of how the Jewish state would end if it spurned Hamas’ olive branch. Less than a year later, Hamas, tired of merely terrorizing the schoolchildren of Sderot every morning, and without being provoked by any Israeli action, started firing long-range Grad rockets at Ashdod and Beersheva. Some truce offer.
The almost century-old revelation that Jewish and Palestinian interests are diametrically and irrevocably opposed is at the center of the other new essay on Israel that everyone is talking about: Peter Beinart’s “The Jewish American Cocoon,” in the current New York Review of Books. Unlike Lustick, Beinart is a liberal who understands that cultures are stubborn entities: Jews are Jews, Palestinians are Palestinians, and when they look at each other, they look from a distance, separated by glass. Nevertheless, Beinart’s point is that Jews and Palestinians can and must talk to each other, even though this dialogue is just not ever going to be enough to breach the political gap between the two sides.
Beinart’s major theme is the reluctance of American Jewish organizations to welcome dialogue with Palestinians. He probably underestimates the eagerness of American Jews to engage with Arabs and Palestinians. But he does acknowledge and lament the fact that many Palestinians don’t want to address Jewish audiences. And he captures something disturbing about many mainstream Jewish organizations: their unwillingness to hear the Palestinian perspective on what Zionism means. Part of the reason lies in the fact that the Palestinian perspective is one that’s hard for liberal American Jews to hear: Beinart writes that “virtually every Palestinian I’ve ever met considers Zionism to be colonialist, imperialist, and racist.” Unlike American Jews, they are unwilling to give Jewish nationalism the same legitimacy they give to their own. What’s most significant about Beinart’s essay is that he thinks it’s crucial for Jews to listen to Palestinians in order to have empathy for them, rather than to come to some shared view about the conflict, and perhaps from there to a common settlement. It’s simply a matter of being more humane, not of meeting the other side’s demands. He acknowledges that one core Palestinian desire—the end of Jewish sovereignty—is simply unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Jews, both in Israel and elsewhere. “No, never” is their only answer to the Palestinian insistence that Israel should lose its Jewish character to expiate the original sin of Zionism—which is synonymous, in Palestinian eyes, with racism and colonialism.
Beinart movingly evokes the idea that Jews can see an image of their own history in the tragedy of another stateless people, the Palestinians. He ends powerfully with the memory of the late Tommy Lapid—fiery secularist, hard-line politician and father of Yair Lapid—who when he saw the picture of an old Palestinian woman scratching in the rubble of Gaza said she reminded him of his Hungarian grandmother. It’s exactly this sort of feeling, this sort of historical echo, that can change lives. The Palestinians are among the most tragic of peoples; and no, they have not brought their suffering on themselves, nor do they deserve it. It’s every Jew’s responsibility to hear this, over and over. But it’s not an argument for turning anti-Zionist, as Beinart, unlike Lustick, knows well.
Beinart knows that because the idea of a Jewish state remains anathema to nearly all Palestinians, any peace agreement would have to dance carefully around this issue. There are possible formulas: For example, Palestine could recognize the right of self-determination exercised by the Jewish citizens of Israel, but add that Israel’s Palestinians have the right to national self-expression. But Israel’s Jewish majority will always insist that it retain the right to sustain an immigration policy that favors Jews—which, as they point out, is in line with the practices of other countries that offer citizenship to far-flung Landsleit. Of course, Palestinians will always say that Israel is “really” Palestine, just as many Germans think that East Prussia is “really” Germany, not Poland, and that the Oder-Neisse line is best referred to as die sogenannte Grenze—“the so-called border.” And what Greek would tell you that Smyrna is truly, in its soul, a Turkish place called Izmir? But the German and the Greek speak of the past, not the present; and Palestinians will learn that lesson too, because they have no choice.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.