Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

The Harvard Conference on the One-State Solution in Israel/Palestine

with 7 comments

by David

This weekend, my alma mater, Harvard University, is hosting the “One State Conference,” subtitled: “Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution.” Lots of people are up in arms about this, it’s become something of a controversy. I don’t need to rehash the arguments here. We’ve been through them before, especially with the late Tony Judt’s controversial 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative.” I’m a big critic of the current Israeli government, I support a just two-state solution, and equal rights for all people in both states, while maintaining a Jewish character in Israel and an Arab character in Palestine.

Very briefly, a one-state solution would be a logistical nightmare that the vast majority on both sides don’t want. When Palestinians say they want a one-state solution, it means one in which they ultimately become the majority and the Jewish voice is denied. This would mean the destruction of any real Jewish autonomy in the region as we know it.

Still, I won’t sign a petition against the conference at Harvard: they have every right to debate this in an university setting. The Crimson, my old paper, basically came to the same conclusion. Apparently Harvard Students for Israel, a student group that I used to participate in, also came to this position. So did active Zionist and free speech supporter Alan Dershowitz. That’s all good. I support the principle of open inquiry and academic freedom. Actually, an academic setting is perfectly appropriate, as the one-state solution is purely academic – nobody on the ground actually wants it and it will not happen in our lifetime.

 But I think something needs to be said about even the academic support of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it’s morally consistent to support the one-state solution, but only if you really support a “no-state” solution, that is, if you believe in a universal, one-world government, maybe divided into loose geographic units. And some, on the far left, claim that is their position. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, their position is best summarized this way:

Ethnic nationalism is bad, and all ethnic nation-states should cease to exist…um… (awkward pause)… starting with Israel.

This “Israel-first” position (as in, the first to get axed), under the pretense of leftist internationalism, is frankly antisemitic, in effect if not in intent, as Larry Summers would have it, and should be described as such. It is a position that I think many of my colleagues on the left take, though they probably don’t think of it in these terms. But they should. And that’s all that really needs to be said about the matter.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 2, 2012 at 14:35

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Dear David,
    funny we contact first on the present issue than on the Budzanow thread my husband and I want to follow up [Heinz is still looking for friends on Facebook to get to your stuff there]. We will find a way to see it, and look very forward to that.

    Now to Harvard and the conference (me being part of an SPME group in Vienna): I see your point perfectly, but I would sign against it. Quite the same happened some days ago in Paris, ony that the rector of university Paris 8 banned a conference “Israel-an apartheit state ?” although they put a question mark on the subject. His reasoning: the question mark serves as an excuse to hold a ‘political’ manifestation, not a debate. He is a law professor, insisting strongly on the neutrality and equal openness state institutions should maintain.
    i feel rather ‘leftist’ myself, but I also feel that, things evolving in the near east, Israel is in dire need to be protected [yes, I agree with all you now would say ..].

    Have a nice weekend, we’ll contact you happily after having seen your facebook material on Budzanow.
    Victoria Lunzer-Talos

    Just now I see I’ve got an SPME newsletter* on the Harvard Discussion. So I’ve read a lot more.
    And to make myself known: I hate the actual issraeli government, I’m afraid they destroy Israels future opportunities more than anybody else (and those others try it relentlessly).


    So thanks for bearing with my bad english, and nice weekend again!

    Victoria Lunzer-Talos

    March 2, 2012 at 18:36

  2. I’m not sure I buy this. I think you’re setting up a strawman. The basic left position, (or classically liberal position, really), is that rights should not be premised on accidents of birth, like ethnicity, religious, nationality, etc… Everyone should have the right to equal and democratic say over the state that has control over them.

    Israel, then, would hardly be the first “ethnic nation-state” that people are asking to “cease to exist,” if you define “cease to exist” as shedding its ethnic/religious nature and taking on a secular/universalistic nature. I would strongly oppose any state that gave a particular ethnic/national/religious group any special benefits or bases policy on maintaining the position of that ethnicity

    I would say, in general, this idea that the state should represent the character of some mythically homogeneous “ethnic nation” is a 19th century fiction. It never really existed anywhere, and it certainly isn’t the way that most European, Latin American, or American states define themselves today. Certainly not legally or, in many cases, culturally.

    America, legally at least, does not exist for any particular ethnic group. Anyone who lives within its borders (in theory at least) can get citizenship. And a powerful strand of American nationalism defines itself exactly as something open to everyone, a “nation of immigrants.” And, since the 14th Amendment, citizenship has been defined as location of birth (or naturalization) and not ethnicity. Someday soon, America will cease to be a majority white nation, and it already is the case that the nationality that “founded” the country (wasps) have ceased to be a majority of the nation. I see these as good things. But no one (other than pat buchanan) would accuse America of ceasing to exist, or accuse someone of being racist towards white people by advocating that everyone who lives within the borders of the state have the right to vote. In other words, you could only say that America is an “ethnic nation-state” by stretching the definition of “ethnic” so broad as to be meaningless. It may be in certain right-wing cultural fantasies, but not in legal status.

    And there are plenty of other states that include people who consider themselves different nationalities. Canada has the Quebecois, Spain has the Basque and the Catalans, etc… What most of us on the left figure is: as long as the catalans have all the same basic rights as everyone else in spain, it doesn’t matter too much to us whether they are in the Spanish state or what. Its up to them, just as its up to the Scots or the Puerto Ricans to decide what they want to do. Spain, for example, is a state containing many nationalities (castelleno, catalan, basque, etc…), but the state itself is not one defined by any ethnic particularity. There are no castellano-only roads, no checkpoints to keep basque people out of cities, no blockades keeping medical supplies out of Barcelona, etc…

    Anyways, this is all a way of saying that most states contain diversity– ethnic, religious, national, linguistic, etc..– but still give everyone formal equality. So I think it is unfair to say that the left is singling out israel, or expecting them to go “first,” just because they say that the son of a Palestinian born in the territories should have the same rights as the son of a Israeli settler born in the same territory.

    It seems to me that Israel has a basic choice: A. give up the land they conquered in 1967; or B. Give everyone who lives within that land equal rights. I don’t see feel strongly one way or the other, as long as everyone ends up with equal and dignified rights. But if Israel is unwilling to do A (and the constant proliferation of settlements, segregated highways, as well as stated policy regarding East Jerusalem suggests that they are unwilling), than its only natural that people will start agitating for B.

    If someone living within the occupied territories (the organizer of the conference was born in gaza) prefers to have the right to vote in the current state that (effectively) controls it, rather than have an independent state, I don’t see that as anti-semetic, anymore than it is “anti-American,” for a puerto rican or a Native American to want to vote in the US federal elections.

    The only difference, I suppose, is that the Palestinians might be the majority population, and be able to outvote israelis. But this is not unique. In South Africa, in Bolivia, in Algiers, in Ireland, etc… the formerly disenfranchised majority now have equal rights and status as the old elite. Those aren’t perfect countries today, but it was a good thing that the majority got those rights. Moreover, the fact that the current borders of Israel contain more arabs than jews, is a product of Israeli decisions: to keep control over, and then settle on, land conquered in 1967.

    If you want to really maintain a majority jewish state, then your first priority, it seems to me, is to find a just two- state solution. But the state cannot, on one hand make it clear that settlement is encouraged in the occupied territories, and on the other, say that the people who grew up in those territories can never have citizenship.

    I guess the over all point is that the “ethnic nationalism” that you are referring to is a whole lot more problematic than you are admitting, has caused trouble in lots of places beside Israel, and is not the model by which all of the rest of the world does or should operate. Which is why I have no interest whatsoever in living in a state that defines itself as an ethnic-nationalistic state, and I think I share that with many people. But I don’t think Israel would be the first to lose that nature: I think America already has (and to the degree it hasn’t, I will fight to make it do so), as well as many, if not most, European and Latin American countries.

    And this is much longer than I planned…. blerg…

    Peter Wirzbicki

    March 2, 2012 at 19:05

    • Peter, thanks for the excellent comment. Let’s start with where we agree. First, I think you’re right to imply that a universalistic aversion to ethnic nationalism need not come from “the left,” and that classical liberals, capitalists, etc. can have the same objections to Israel as nation-state.

      More important, I agree with you broadly that the Israeli government has been doing awful things, that it needs to give up the land it conquered in 1967 (or make fair land swaps), compensate refugees, share water and other resources with the nascent Palestinian state, have a fair division of Jerusalem, and improve the status and rights of non-Jews in Israel proper. I think the Palestinians have some obligations too, but again I think we’re basically on the same page here.

      Where we start to disagree, I think, is when you say things like it doesn’t matter to you one way or the other whether Israel seeks a just two-state solution, or simply becomes one state with Palestine where everyone has equal rights. For me, the former is the only moral and practical solution.

      Pragmatically, I just don’t know how a one-state solution could come about. Israel is a nuclear power with a strong military and it won’t just dissolve even in the face of intense international pressure. I think the comparison with South Africa is not really apt, because the demographics are so different, and because white South Africans did and do not have an ancient historical/religious connection with land. Still, I don’t think Israel just going away as a Jewish state is a likely scenario. The military isn’t just going to keel over. And even if it did, I think the outcomes of such a scenario would be very, quote/unquote, “bad for the Jews.”

      And that is I think the crux of our disagreement. You see this as the dissolution of an ethnic nation-state, whereas I see it as the dissolution of a people, the Jewish people. Israel is not like those other countries you mentioned. It was created for a specific purpose, to preserve and protect the Jewish people. This was true of Zionist goals before the Holocaust, but became paramount after. Remember, in 1939, there were 18 million Jews in the world. Now there are 13 million, and the population is decreasing. Israel is the only place that sees Jewish population growth, everywhere in the Diaspora, due to low birthrates and intermarriage, the Jewish population is shrinking.

      Thus, if you have any investment in preserving the Jewish people, as I do, I think you need to be invested in the Israeli project. I think you need to work hard to make Israel a prosperous, just, democratic place, that treats its minorities well, but it also needs to be a Jewish state.

      Let’s think for a minute what would happen if, somehow, Israel and Palestine became one state, with one government, one military. What would this mean? Obviously we can only speculate, but I have some theories, and they are not good:

      1) Fratricidal, genocidal warfare between Jews and Arabs (worst case scenario)

      2) Arabs eventually outnumber Jews, and ultimately give Jews lower, unequal dhimmi status under Islamic law, Jews suffer or leave for places where they are more likely to assimilate

      3) Arabs outnumber Jews, and Jews eventually realize they’d rather speak Arabic than Hebrew, abandon Judaism more and more, intermarry and assimilate as everywhere else

      All of these are bad outcomes, in my view. Could the new one country be Switzerland? Maybe, but I find it unlikely. And I really think all of the above outcomes are somewhat unfair. I think a two state solution makes more sense, both Jewish and Palestinian cultural and political autonomy and self-determination are respected.

      The other important factor is this. Again, there are 13 million Jews. There are 250 million Arabs who are either Christian or Muslim. Christianity and Islam are not going away. The Arabic language is not going away. But the Jewish religion, languages, and culture are actually in some kind of existential jeopardy. This is not to say that all Arabs, or Muslims and Christians are alike, or to denigrate the uniquely Palestinian Arab culture, which is real and should be cultivated in an independent Palestine. But it is simply to say that the historical and demographic equation for Jews and Israel is significantly different, and needs to be taken into account.

      That’s why for leftists, or rights, or anyone to oppose Israeli Jewish ethnic nationalism in the Middle East seems to me unfair or hypocritical, as I think there are good reasons to allow for some measure of this nationalism within the framework of a two-state solution, and it seems absurd to ask Israel to do first what is not being asked of so many other ethnic nation-states on Earth.

      David Weinfeld

      March 3, 2012 at 14:20

  3. […] light of the discussion generated my last post on the Harvard conference on a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (on this […]

  4. Precisely how do the supporters of a one-state actually envisage the transitional process in terms of practicalities. The interim stages from where we are now through to the ultimate achievement need to be delineated in detail as part of a comprehensive policy of overcoming the road blocks en route. Otherwise we are saying that the solution to a problem is its solution.


    April 8, 2012 at 11:13

  5. […] is the crucial point. Calls for a one-state solution are de facto calls for the destruction of Israel. Even Norman Finkelstein (Norman Finkelstein!), a critic of Israel so vociferous he makes Noam […]

  6. […] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: