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The Emerging Case for a Single State in Palestine

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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 in it. 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 solution have neglected.

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 Israeli Jews. 

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 "citizen."  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 before the 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.

Moreover, 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 history.

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 be confronted.

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.

That 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 (including Palestinians) 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 promising.

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.


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