By Todd May
Professor of Philosophy, Clemson University
Recently, the debate about Israel and Palestine has taken an odd turn. The
idea of a single democratic state in historic Palestine, once thought
dead, has re-emerged as an option worthy of consideration. For some, the
idea of a single state is a matter of realism. Tony Judt, for example,
argues in The New York Review of Books that the integration of the West
Bank may already be irreversible, and suggests that a single binational
state may be the only alternative to ethnic cleansing. More recently, Noah
Cohen has criticized Noam Chomsky's endorsement of a two-state solution.
In Cohen's view, we ought to think of Palestine on the model of South
Africa,and follow its solution of endorsing a democratic state for all who live
Like many, I long favored a two-state solution. It seemed to me the best
of a set of bad solutions to the problem of two peoples living side by
side on a small
parcel of land. I believe now that I was wrong. The two-state solution is
neither moral nor realistic. The only politically and ethically viable
approach to the problem of
Israel and Palestine is to support a single democratic secular state that
provides equal rights for all of its citizens. Furthermore, the failure to
recognize this has, I believe,
helped underwrite some of the most egregious of Israel's policies. The
most important reason for this has not, to my knowledge, yet been
sufficiently addressed. I would
like to do so here.
Many Palestinians have argued that the formation of Israel was a case of
solving European problems on Arab land. Let us look a little more closely
at what that
solution has consisted in. A single people is thought, in the name of its
religion, to have primary dominion over that land.
There are others living
on the land; they are to be
accorded secondary rights. (Although Israel claims its Palestinian
citizens possess equal rights, such a claim is ludicrous. It is well known
that the Palestinians are
unable to form parliamentary coalitions with the Jewish parties that universally reject them, they do not enjoy equal municipal funding in
their towns, they are dispossessed
of their land, they are denied equal access to education, and so on.)
This is not simply a moral matter. Nor is it simply a historical one. It
is both. And that is the problem that we who have endorsed a two-state
To privilege a single people on a land that supports others as well is to
create two intertwined problems. First, it implicitly accords a greater
moral worth to that
people. We who live in the United States should be viscerally aware this,
given our history with native Americans and people of African descent.
Second, according this
greater moral worth erases the moral limits that any person or people
should enjoy relative to others. Once those moral limits are erased, the
door is open to abuses of
the kind that are rife in Israel's history.
Think, for example, of the recent issue of terrorism. How many of us are
ready to ascribe terrorism to suicide bombings but not to the destruction
of homes with
people still in them or the enforced starvation of towns and villages or
the indiscriminate firing on nonviolent protestors? This imbalance is
never far to seek, and even those
of us who support the Palestinians find ourselves on the defensive.
However, we who have supported a two-state solution have negligently
endorsed the framing of the issue
that allows this to happen. We endorse a "right to exist" that seems to
apply to a particular nation but in fact applies only to a particular
people within that nation: Jewish
people. Furthermore, that right is exercised at the expense of others whose rights, as the Bush administration does not cease to remind us, must
be earned by
renouncing their struggle against occupation.
The core of the problem lies here. To privilege politically a single
people is to lay the foundation for all subsequent abuses. This is not to
say that those abuses
follow logically from this privileging. Nor is it to say that they were
historically inevitable. Rather, it is that the struggle against such
abuses concedes at the outset what it
should not: that there is a certain privilege legitimately accorded to
We should deny this privilege, and anything that follows from it. One of
the things that follow from it is a two-state solution in which Jews enjoy
privilege in one of
those states (and, presumably, non-Jews in the other one). We should
endorse what we should always have endorsed: a single state that
privileges nobody, a state
where the primary address from one of its members to another is that of
I am sure that this approach must ring false to the ears of many. There
are a number of objections that one might raise to it. Let me put a few forward, and then
answer them in the hope of giving some plausibility to an idea that cuts against the grain of much of received wisdom.
A first objection might appeal to the motivation for recognizing
(although, historically, not for forming) a Jewish state in the first
place. The Holocaust seemed to
many to prove that Jews were unsafe anywhere, and that they needed a place
where they could erect a barricade against the history of genocide they
faced. A Jewish
state would be a natural way to do so.
This objection is misplaced. Jews were indeed often unsafe in Europe. They
were not nearly as unsafe in the United States, nor were they in Palestine
advent of Zionism. That the Holocaust proves that European Jews deserve
protection against the history of hatred against them is undeniable. It
does not follow from this
that they deserved a state where they would be privileged vis-?- vis
another people. That idea has more to do with nineteenth-century nationalism than with the
internationalism more characteristic of the contemporary world.
history has shown the effects of this privileging.
I should note in passing that in replying to this objection I do not mean
to rule out the possibility of a single binational state, one that, like
South Africa or Canada,
recognizes the collective rights of all of its groups and seeks to protect
them. However, I do not, with Professor Chomsky, see a two-state solution
as a potential path
toward binationalism. For the reasons I have given, I have come to see the
former as resting on assumptions that undermine the possibility both of
binationalism and even
of the two-state solution itself.
The second objection is that it is unrealistic to expect Palestinians and
Jews to live side by side without acrimony. Things have gone too far;
hatred has become
too deep to expect anything but a cycle of violence and counterviolence.
While hatred is certainly palpable between Israeli Jews and Palestinians,
its inevitable longevity
can be reasonably doubted. During the Oslo period, although Israel
continued systematically to dispossess Palestinians of their land and
settle Jews on it, there were
numerous acts particularly of economic cooperation between Palestinians
and Israeli Jews. Much of this cooperation occurred out of the glare of
the media, so it was not
noticed. But occur it did. Indeed, one should not be surprised. The
opportunity for enhancing one's livelihood has proven a powerful motivator
over the course of human
here is no reason to expect economic cooperation, particularly
if it is fostered, to drown in a sea of hatred. In fact, there is reason
to expect the opposite.
The final objection is perhaps the most powerful one, because it is the
most entrenched. All of this talk of a single state, one might say, is
idle dreaming. Israel
will not allow it to happen, because it will mean the end of Israel as a state and Zionism as an idea. In short, the proposal is a non-starter.
In addressing this objection, we should first recognize that what is and
is not realistic to endorse depends on what the options are. Presumably,
the more realistic
alternative is a two-state solution. But is this really more realistic?
The entire sweep of Israeli history argues against it.
There is not a
single moment in the history of
Israel, and in particular of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and
the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, in which Israel was prepared to
recognize a viable, independent
Palestinian state existing along its borders. (The Barak proposal at Camp David is often offered as a counterexample. However, I fail to see how a
demilitarized state that
does not have control of its borders, its airspace, its aquifers, or many
of its central roads is considered a viable state. If there is a
non-starter, that was certainly it.) There
is no reason to believe that Israel is to be enticed into a two-state
solution, so the question then becomes one of the terms in which it is to
Some might say, however, that Israel will more easily succumb to
confrontation if it involves something less than the end of Zionism. I
used to believe this. I no
longer do. It is precisely the privileging of Jews to which Zionism is
committed that fosters the idea that Israelis are justified in their
horrific treatment of Palestinians.
is the tenet that needs to be attacked. We should not seek to welcome
Israel into the community of nations, but rather seek to welcome Jews into
the community of
people. The first endorses a sense of Jewish exceptionalism, the second an
integration that is all anyone is entitled to and something everyone
should be protected in.
The struggle for a single state will certainly be a long one. But the
struggle for two states has been a long one as well, and its results so
far have not been
My suggestion here is that the reason for such meager results
has more than a little to do with the framework within which many of us have thought about the
issue. I do not want to deny that there are, in politics, times in which moral compromise is necessary for the sake of preventing a far worse fate.
It has become
increasingly evident that this is not one of those times. The politics of
Palestine require that we remove our moral blinders, not in order to
attain a greater moral purity in
approaching a just solution to the "problem of Palestine," but in order to
see our way to a solution at all.