“We stand and fall by the principle that whoever has given two years’ service to the New Society as prescribed by our rules, and has conducted himself properly, are eligible to membership no matter what his race or creed. I say to you, therefore, that you must hold fast to the things that have made us great: to liberalism, tolerance, and love of mankind. Only then is Zion truly Zion.”
- Excerpt from Theodor Herzl’s novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land), 92.
“We consider it a duty of honour and justice to demand for the Arab minority of the future Jewish state no less than what we demand for the Jewish minorities in the Diaspora. The law of the Land of Israel must guarantee the equality of citizens, languages, religions and a very large degree of ‘personal autonomy’ for every group of citizens who wish for it.”
- Zeev Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism
Ari Shavit: Knowing the region and given the history of the conflict, do you think such a Jewish minority [in a binational state] would be treated fairly?
Edward Said: “I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don’t know. It worries me.”
- Interview with Edward Said in Haaretz, August 25, 2000
Al-Saadi’s response to my article in many ways demonstrates the inherent difficulties of having a rational discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My intent was to argue logically why the One-State Solution is an entirely unworkable and disastrous plan, while at the same time making the case for the continued preservation of the world’s only Jewish state. I intentionally avoided bringing any ideologically driven-arguments into my piece.
All the same, I am subjected to all sorts of ad hominem attacks including the charge that I am an apologist for ethnic cleansing and military occupation, while also a believer in the inherent superiority of white culture, which by extension makes me a bigot as well. This, of course, willfully ignores the parts of my article where I explicitly condemned the Israeli occupation, and voiced support for Palestinian self-determination.
Al-Saadi avoids addressing the actual implications of the points I raised in my argument while simply falling back on the timeworn narrative about the evils of the Israeli state. So, at the risk of being accused of racism for a second time, I will once again attempt to emphatically justify the reasoning of my earlier article, while pointing out the falsehoods in Al-Saadi’s response.
It is probably best to first discuss both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, ideologies that Al-Saadi implies would have to be abandoned for the success of the One-State Solution. Al-Saadi is right that European anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish violence were primary components in the formation of Zionism, particularly for Zionist leaders Leon Pinsker, Theodor Herzl, and Max Nordau. What I regrettably did not mention in my previous article was that the Zionist movement centers on the belief that the Jews are a people, not just a religious community, and thus have a right to self-determination.
Referring to Israel as having a “manufactured” identity ignores the national character that has been present in Judaism and Jewish society since the destruction of Judea by the Roman Empire two thousand years before. The age-old Hebrew prayer, “L’shana haba Yerushalayim” (Next Year in Jerusalem), is indicative of the presence of this national identity within the Jewish Diaspora. Furthermore, the recognition of the Jews as a people has international legitimacy: United Nations Resolution 181, which implemented the UN partition plan for historic Palestine, implicitly recognizes the existence of a Jewish people. Ironically, the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence relies in part on Resolution 181 and the Palestine Mandate (the legal document recognizing British rule over Palestine, not the actual territory of the Palestine Mandate) to legally justify the Palestinian right to statehood.
Al-Saadi argues that neither the Jews nor the Palestinians have a “concrete unified identity.” This would certainly come as a surprise to Palestinians nationalists who have asserted that a future Palestinian state will have an Arab character, and that Islam and Islamic Sharia will have official status, as reflected in the Palestinian Basic Law of 1997.
As scholars Yakobson and Rubinstein argue, comparing the dismantling of South African Apartheid to establishing a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine is false, as the African National Congress (ANC) promoted a civic nationalism in which whites, blacks, and Asians were considered a part of a single South African nation. This, in part, explains why both whites and blacks served in leadership positions in the ANC. In contrast, Palestinians have never denied that their national movement has an overt ethnic and (especially in the case of Hamas) religious identity. To believe, as Al-Saadi does, that Palestinians would willingly give up this national identity, embrace a civic identity, and unite with Israeli Jews in a single state is naïve, utopian, and a complete rejection of the aspirations of Palestinian nationalism. Thus, as I stated in my earlier article, creating two states is the only way to ensure that both national groups, Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, can pursue their own national rights without interference.
Israeli Democracy and the Apartheid Analogy
In his response to my article, Al-Saadi is at his weakest when attempting to delegitimize Israeli domestic politics and society. His purpose in doing so is clear: if Israel is in fact a racist, apartheid regime, then the only moral option is to dismantle it. Al-Saadi’s view of the country’s domestic situation could not be further from the truth. Israel is a democracy that respects the legal rights of its Arab minorities according to international legal norms.
As demonstrated by the quotations at the beginning of this article, far from ignoring the existence of Palestinian Arabs, the dominant factions of the Zionist movement in the pre-state period considered it imperative for the future Jewish state to respect the rights of its Arabs citizens. This perspective was held by Theodor Herzl’s liberal wing, the revisionist right wing founded by Zeev Jabotinsky, and the socialist left wing, which came to dominate the Zionist movement in Palestine under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion. Indeed, Ben-Gurion believed that the Jewish state’s treatment of its Arab minority was critical to the overall success of Zionism.
This attitude continues in Israel today. The fact that Israel defines itself as a Jewish state and has a dominant Jewish culture does not by definition violate the rights of its non-Jewish minorities. Other democratic nation-states have developed similarly strong cultural and religious identities, while protecting the rights of minority populations. The fact that Italy is an Italian state does not thereby make members of its German minority in the north second-class citizens, nor does the provision in the Greek constitution declaring the supremacy of the Greek Orthodox Church violate the rights of Greece’s Turkish Muslim minority, to name but a few examples. Just like Israel, Germany, Russia, Greece, and Ireland all have laws of return based on ethnicity, something that a future Palestinian state is also likely to adopt.
While much has been made of Israel’s identity as a “Jewish” state, there has been little to no complaint about the majority of Arab states that declare the supremacy of Islam and Arabism in their constitutions, notwithstanding the presence of, at times, large non-Muslim and non-Arab minorities.
Israeli Arabs have full civil rights as citizens of the State of Israel as guaranteed by the Israeli Declaration of Independence. All citizens, Jewish and Arab, have the right to vote and to form political parties. Arab politicians have served in the Israeli Knesset. While most represent non-Zionist Arab parties, there are also Arab politicians within the dominant Israeli parties, including Likud and Labor. Israeli Arabs have also served as government ministers and judges on the Israeli Supreme Court.
Israel has not attempted to suppress the ethnic and religious identity of its Arab citizens. Arabic is an official language of the state; Israeli Arabs are allowed their own religious courts, whether Christian, Muslim or Druze, and the government maintains Arabic-speaking public schools, though Arabs are not barred from attending Hebrew-speaking schools and universities if they choose to do so. This policy is, in fact, based on the Ottoman millet system that was adopted by Israel.
In regard to the comparison between South Africa and Israel, journalist Benjamin Pogrund makes a fairly damning case against the Apartheid analogy:
“Nearly three years ago I underwent an operation in a Jerusalem hospital. The surgeon was Jewish, the anesthetist was Arab. The doctors and nurses who looked after me were Jews and Arabs. I lay in bed for a month and watched as they gave the same skilled care to other patients – half of whom were Arabs and half of whom were Jewish – all sharing the same wards, operating theatres and bathrooms. After that experience I have difficulty understanding anyone who equates Israel with apartheid South Africa. What I saw in the Hadassah Mt Scopus hospital was inconceivable in the South Africa where I spent most of my life, growing up and then working as a journalist who specialised in exposing apartheid. It didn’t happen and it couldn’t happen. Blacks and whites were strictly separated and blacks got the least and the worst. And this is only one slice of life. Buses, post offices, park benches, cinemas, everything, were segregated by law. No equation is possible.”
Far from being a “white,” European country, Israel is a country in which forty percent of the population is made up of Jews from Middle Eastern countries, while twenty percent is of Arab descent. There are numerous examples of Israeli diversity and democracy that would have been impossible for apartheid South Africa. In 2007, the deputy speaker of the Knesset, Majalli Wahabi, an Israeli Druze, briefly served as the acting Israeli president, effectively making him, an Israeli Arab, the head of state in Israel. Last year, an Israeli Christian Arab Judge, George Karra, sat on the three-person panel, which found former Israeli president, Moshe Katsav, who is himself a Jew of Iranian descent, guilty of rape.
Salim Joubran, a judge on the Israeli High Court and a Christian Arab, who upheld Katsav’s conviction, was recently condemned by far-right Israeli politicians for not singing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, at an official event. None other than the right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, defended Judge Joubran for not singing an explicitly Jewish anthem. Noah Klieger, a commentator at an Israeli newspaper and a Holocaust survivor, wrote in defense of Joubran: “Justice Salim Joubran, a Christian Maronite, is an Israeli in every way. He is a man who pursued an honest path, using hard work and talent, all the way to his country’s Supreme Court. However, he cannot and should not have to sing our national anthem, Hatikva.”
These are real examples from Israeli society. Israel is undoubtedly a Jewish nation-state, but it is also multi-ethnic democracy, which although far from perfect in its treatment of its Arab citizens, does not, as its critics claim, overtly violate international norms on the treatment of minorities. Israel provides Israeli Arabs with the political, cultural, and socio-economic rights guaranteed to national minorities under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Israel’s policy towards its Arab minorities also conforms with the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.