(Yavne) Imagining One State in Israel-Palestine (Peter Beinart)


It has been a long time coming and not much here is new. But at least three things are new about the recent set of two pieces by Peter Beinart, here at Jewish Currents and here at the New York Times, now in support of the one state, bi-national state idea for Israel and Palestine from the distance of these American shores. His critics on the Jewish right will be unable to see it this way. But in his own way Beinart remains committed to Zionism and to a Jewish future in Israel. Thinking about the future and without quite saying so, Beinart actually goes back to the drawing board, effectively back to the Balfour Declaration. He’s promoting not a “Jewish State,” but rather a “Jewish home” in Palestine. But to whom?

One new thing about the new Beinart thinking is the messenger and political positining. A fixture in the liberal media and a longtime advocate of a two state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, Beinart has thrown in the towel. He is doing so for many right reasons. His example highlights a segment of the Jewish left, former so-called Liberal Zionists finally giving up on the idea of two states for two people. West Bank settlements can remain in place in Beinart’s scheme. Leaving the middle ground, Beinart positions the Jewish left in close proximity to the Jewish settlement right. One democratic and the other anti-democratic, they would represent opposite sides of the one-state coin.

The second new thing about Beinart’s current volt face is of the moment. In the 50 years or so since 1967, the occupation of the West Bank by Israel has become a permanent feature of, not a temporary bug in the operating system of Zionism. And now what seems to be the failed gambit by Netanyahu to annex West Bank territories under the Trump Annexation/Apartheid Plan. And the evisceration of the Zionist left in Israel as an effective political force in the wake of Palestinian terror during the 2nd Intifadah. In terms of timing, Trump, it seems, has finally broken the back of the Zionist left. Beinart’s about turn reflects deep pessimism, so much of it warranted, and a trying moment of defeat and exhaustion.

The third and most new and unsatisfying aspect of the Beinart, the one that most interests me, is how his one-state project effectively highlights the fraught relationship between the imagination and reality in relation to arguments about Israel and Palestine. His is one of the first articulated attempts by a leading American Jewish thought leader to imagine what a bi-national state and what a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian identity might look like. Beinart’s “Jewish home” is supposed to stand for nothing less than a new “Yavne.”

Realism and the imagination are the two key terms driving this project. Words relating to what is real and realistic appear nine times in the Jewish Currents piece. Who is a “real Jew” in American Jewish society today, according to whom, and particularly in relation to Israel? What is the realistic path forward in Israel and Palestine? Words relating to imagining appear ten times in the same piece. With R. Yohanan ben Zakkai, Peter Beinart “imagines” alternatives, a new Jewish identity, in this case a new Jewish-Palestinian national identity (as if Jewish identity on its own is not itself a point of complete confusion). About what Yavne might mean for Palestinians goes unaddressed by Beinart. True to Zionist form, they remain foils in what is an internal Jewish discourse.

It is not clear even to Beinart himself that he is talking about anything real. At Jewish Currents, he himself admits, “In Israel-Palestine, there is Jewish national identity and Palestinian national identity, but no Jewish-Palestinian national identity, at least not yet. When the editors of the progressive journal +972 Magazine searched for a single, inclusive name to describe the one state between the river and the sea, all they came up with was an area code.”

In other words is the claim the two state and the one state solution are both unrealistic, a claim that captures precisely the conundrum today for those of us who care about democracy.

What then is the way forward and past this impasse?

This is Beinart’s gambit. Again, and his own confession is that, “Today, two states and one equal state are both unrealistic.” And since both plans are unrealistic, then “The right question is not which vision is more fanciful at this moment, but which can generate a movement powerful enough to bring fundamental change.”   

So on one hand, Beinart admits that the one state idea is “fanciful.” That is what he says at Jewish Currents, meaning that he protests too much when at the New York Times he says the exact opposite about the one state schema, thatit’s not fanciful.”

What for Beinart makes the two state project more realistic is another fancy. Identified in the quotation cited above is the fancy of a mass  “movement” creating “fundamental change” by getting behind the one state idea. In this estimation, only the bi-national idea, the one-state fancy can generate this kind of a movement.

In the same vein about realism and political momentum, according to Beinart at the NYT, “The goal of equality is now more realistic than the goal of separation. The reason is that changing the status quo requires a vision powerful enough to create a mass movement. A fragmented Palestinian state under Israeli control does not offer that vision. Equality can. Increasingly, one equal state is not only the preference of young Palestinians. It is the preference of young Americans, too.” That “vision” is a phenomenon that belongs to fancy and subsists in tension with what is “real” goes without note.

More complex than Beinart imagines is that tension between vision and realism. How his particular vision of a bi-national one state creates a realistic path moving forward to make fundamental change without the input of Israeli Jews or even Israeli Palestinians or West Bank Palestinians is beyond this critic’s ken. As he makes clear in the NYT op-ed, Beinart is not writing to them. His ideal readers are progressive young Americans and their young Palestinian allies. But who really wants a bi-national state? Who ever did?

For Jews, “Yavne” is a key part of the vision at play in the essay at Jewish Currents. Not an unimportant rhetorical flourish, Yavne is a historical root figure, the utopian figure that structures Beinart’s understanding of the bi-national idea in its Jewish articulation. It does so from the opening title at Jewish Currents. Yavne is its organizing conceit and concluding reverie. As a figure of thought for a post-sovereign “form” of Jewishness that maintains the “essence” of Zionism as home, Yavne locates the bi-national idea outside the so-called real world by placing that idea in a special make-believe land of the Jewish imaginary.

About Yavne, the ancient historical site where the rabbis are said to have assembled after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, next to nothing is known. It may have just been a myth, not a “real place.” Legend refers to a leader of the colonized remnants of a beaten Israel at the end of the Great Revolt, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai petitioning the Roman authorities to create an academy of scholars there, at Yavne. The rabbinic project marks the turn to a new form of Jewish religion based on study, prayer and good deeds. For Beinart, the Jewish State idea is not “essential.” It is compared to the “form” of animal sacrifice. Yavne is a symbol of the recognition that “a phase of Jewish history had run its course. It was time for Jews to imagine a different path.

And now Beinart declares, “That time has come again.

The different path is imagined without addressing in a direct way complex things. Very little to nothing is said about the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, the Law of Return for Jews, religious extremism in both communities, and the likely and almost complete lack of interest on the part of mainstream Israelis and Palestinians in this latest iteration of a Zionist idea.

I’ll leave it to the foreign policy hands to tell you why the one state solution is a bad, unworkable idea and how Beinart misreads the literature on inter-ethnic conflict, as per here. I would only add my voice to those who would argue that massive political disruptions come only in the wake of catastrophe, that sovereign national movements do not abandon the struggle for independence, that international powers are uninterested in overturning international order except under extreme duress. For their part, Palestinian political leadership and activists and ordinary people will determine for themselves if they actually want [1] the bi-national state + a Jewish national home in all of Historic Palestine modeled for them by Beinart or whether what they want is [2] an independent Palestinian state in parts or all of Historic Palestine. It is safe to assume that for them there is probably little interest in the former.

Beinart makes a quick survey of multi-cultural countries like Belgium, North Ireland, and South Africa. He reviews public opinion surveys relating to democratic norms in Palestinian society. Every assurance is given that Jews would prosper in the single state of Israel and Palestine, that both national communities would be protected by a bill of rights, constitutional protections and frameworks at the federal or confederal level. There is also confidence that the recognition and institution of equality in multi-ethnic society reduce the threat of inter-ethnic violence. About these claims I would defer to experts who might read the literature in a more caustic light. Potentially destabilizing differences ignored by Beinart are the near equal demographic parity in Israel and Palestine, as opposed to the very clear demographic majorities and minorities in South Africa. Also ignored by him are major fault lines based on racial, religious, and class difference that would undermine the one state vision in Israel and Palestine.

The primary point of difference is nationality. Beinart does, in fact, note that Black South Africans and white South Africans shared and share the same national identity. “When South Africa became a democracy for all its people, it didn’t have to add a hyphen to its name.” This is because South Africa is not a bi-national state (and neither are Belgium and Northern Ireland and Canada). Indeed, Beinart understands very well that Jews and Palestinians would have to imagine a new hyphenated nation and national identity. But on what basis?

Apparently an Israeli-Palestinian identity would be “built” on the basis of suffering and spiritual sympathy. This is the key part of the Yavne vision.

Imagine Yavne.

Imagine a country in which, at sundown on the 27th of Nian, the beginning of Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day—Jewish and Palestinian co-presidents lower a flag in Warsaw Ghetto Square at Yad Vashem as an imam delivers the Islamic du‘a’ for the dead. Imagine those same leaders, on the 15th of May, gathering at a restored cemetery in the village of Deir Yassin, the site of a future Museum of the Nakba, which commemorates the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were expelled during Israel’s founding, as a rabbi recites El Malei Rachamim, our prayer for the dead.

That’s what Yavne can mean in our time. It’s time to build it.

The vision of bi-national Yavne is not in the image of a vibrant society, not of a secular people, not a coherent nation. It reflects no real social conflict. The image is of an ecumenical congregation, a community of prayer, a pretend common culture. In this kitschy, doleful post-trauma performance piece, victims of genocide and dispossession have finally overcome competing national claims to the land. Built on types, this concluding scene and the last words of the essay at Jewish Currents read to me like something lifted out of Herzl’s utopian novel Old New Land. Or perhaps the scene at Jewish Currents is rehearsing the final sequence in the movie Exodus when after the people come together at a graveside service, Ari Ben Canaan, handsome Haganah rebel played by Paul Newman, goes off to join the fight for Palestine.

Cited earlier in the essay at Jewish Currents is the famous line of the legendary R. Yochanan ben Zakkai as he leaves the burning wreckage of Jerusalem under Roman siege. “Give me Yavne and its sages.” Meant as a stirring call to action from the world of Jewish tradition, the phrase raises overriding questions about this current project. Who is “me” in this out-of-time fantasy? Who are the sages? What kinds of Jew or Jews are they supposed to represent here at Jewish Currents? And to whom does Beinart even address this appeal? Who is going to “give me” Yavne? Which gentile authority? Is Beinart’s an appeal from the Jewish left to the ghost of Edward Said and to Yousef Munayyer to include Jews into their own political vision; and to two-staters like Ayman Odeh and Ahmed Tibi (who are encouraged by Beinart to look past and “expand” their own struggle for democracy in Israel by way of embracing the one-state idea)?

The problem with the one state idea for two peoples is that the collective parts do not fit together into a coherent whole, into a common society and culture, and nobody really seems to want it. The old Zionist left embraced two foundational principles: self-determination and mutual recognition. In a one state or bi-national state, one or the other principle is forced to give. Advocates on the Jewish right of an unequal one-state in Greater Israel ignore the lived reality of a Palestinian people suffering under occupation, losing homes and access to land and water and with no civil and human rights, without a right to a state of their own and without the right to vote in Israel. For many/most on the anti-Zionist left, Israeli Jews constitute a “religious” community (at best) or “settler colonialists” (most usually), they do not constitute a people with a right to a state or with national rights in any part of Historic Palestine.

Against the strong force of Jewish supremacy and the weak force of anti-Zionism, Beinart can only imagine a mass movement struggling to create fundamental change. That it is the Jewish right and especially the Jewish religious right creating real conditions on the ground, driving the settlement project, and forcing the country deep into the abyss of de facto/de jure annexation and of the creation of a single state is the best reason to try to avoid this political trap in the first place.

Looking for a way out of the traps set by state sovereignty, Beinart and other Jewish readers on the left, the ones who say with complete and utter confidence that the two state solution is “dead,” point to Dmitry Shumsky’s Beyond the Nation State. The central argument of this book is that Jewish statehood was never the sine qua non of Zionism as a historical movement, that there were non-statist notions promoted not just by the usual suspects like Buber and Magnes, but by the likes of Herzl, Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky. Jewish statehood gathered momentum in 1930s and ratified at the Biltmore Conference in 1942 in the middle of World War II. Before and after the Holocaust, Jewish immigration was the crux impasse between Jewish Palestinians and Arab Palestinians (as they were then commonly called). What goes unsaid, however, in the contemporary arguments is that events pursued their own logic. Without any effective political power backing it, the one state idea died its own violent death between 1929 and 1948, which is why partition was recognized as the most realistic outcome to this intractable conflict.

It is one thing to warn against de jure annexation and to call out de facto annexation and on the ground apartheid in the West Bank today. It might very well be that it is too late for re-partition, that there is no way out of the one state trap and that the Jewish left needs to double down on democracy and point towards a realistic way forward. But a little epistemic humility about the future would be in order. As Beinart himself notes, nothing at the moment, not one state or two, is strictly “realistic.” It won’t be the likes of us who determine the fate of Israel and Palestine, although nobody should listen too much to people who say they can see through this miasma and into the future. .

A Diaspora Jew, Beinart might have dropped the Yavne conceit, even if it does useful work illuminating the position of the vision somewhere at a distance from “the real world,” such as it is. If he and others with him wanted to be more honest, they would maybe drop the clunky “Israel-Palestine.” It’s popular among leftists and academics, primarily Jewish and in America. What Yavne “really is” is a “Jewish national home in Palestine.” See who wants it. What liberal and leftist Jews in America will support or reject remains our choice. But that we are having this argument about Israel and abrogating “the Jewish State” over here in the United States is part of a problem that rightwing Jews in Israel (primarily Anglo) and America have already said about the Beinart, but for which they themselves take no responsibility. Caught between strong currents and strong voices on the Jewish right and radical left, Peter Beinart wants without an iota of fear to throw the Jews of Israel into the tread of the polarizing vortex that the Jews of Israel, as the dominant power, have themselves created. Whatever confusion underlies Beinart’s vision is of Israel’s own making.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to (Yavne) Imagining One State in Israel-Palestine (Peter Beinart)

  1. Berel Dov Lerner says:

    Here’s my plan: Have Chabad bombard the Arabs of the West Bank with radio broadcasts of Tanya in Arabic. They will all convert to Judaism and then we can have a one-state solution which will not end in mutual slaughter. What’s that you say? Not realistic? Oh, I didn’t know that we were talking realistically.

  2. Why not understand what it means to be Jewish, love God, and love one another. Did God forget about the Gentiles who also love? Is it about a cultural choice or a spiritual one?

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