Okay – before I get into this, let me put a mute into the blaring megaphone of antisemitism accusations….I am a British Jew. I love and celebrate my ethnic background. I acknowledge the depth and breadth of what it made of me: my passion for humanism and education, sense of family and community – and foodism! I even warily appreciate the sense of cultural difference it gave me. I am an atheist, I see the biblical aspects of Judaism as a fascinating historical narrative describing social and moral change and advance. But I see the claims of racial/genetic exceptionalism, and the hagiography of Zionism, as inventions, as conveniences – and provocative ones, at that. My ethnicity – ie. my cultural swaddling – is Jewish. I am persuaded by contemporary scholars (Shlomo Sand, Thomas Suárez and Seth Schwartz, for example**) that there is no historical evidence of an ‘expulsion’ of Jews from the Middle East, and so there is no (historical) basis for Zionism, or for the ‘right of return’. I acknowledge Jews as Semites (definition: those who belong to a Semitic language group) along with Palestinians, other Arabs and descendants of Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, probably Phoenicians and some Ethiopians. Throughout history there has been well-documented intermarriage and mutual conversion between these groups (and others like the Berbers and Kazhars), so I see the idea of a ‘pure’ genetic inheritance as specious. I am not ‘antisemitic’ in any sense, though I am anti- myth-making and historical assertion that claim privilege at the expense of the systematic disadvantage of others. (In any event, ‘antisemitic’ is a meaningless slur – unless you can genuinely be piqued by a person’s linguistic origins. I am certainly not anti-Jew. And remember, early Zionists and current settlers had to study and learn the Semitic language from scratch.) Since I do not believe in the myth of ‘expulsion’ or of racial integrity, I would have argued against the creation of the State of Israel had I been around at the time. But right now I pragmatically accept its existence and I would argue just as strongly against its dissolution.
** Sand, S. (2020). The invention of the Jewish people. London: Verso Books; Suarez, T. (2017). State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel. United States: Interlink Publishing Group Incorporated; Schwartz, S. (2010) Were the Jews a Mediterranean Society: Reciprocity and Solidarity in Ancient Judaism, Oxford: Princeton University Press
Now then. To the vexed question of two-state or one-state solutions to the Israel/Palestinian tensions.
In 1950, Jews amounted to 84% of Israel’s population. Today it is closer to 70% and falling. Meanwhile, the Muslim population has doubled from 8% to around 17%. The two fastest rising birthrates are among religious Jews (Masorti, Dati and Haredi) and, next, Muslims. It is widely debated how long it may take for the Israeli population to be dominated by orthodox, even fundamentalist Jews – with an ever-rising Muslim minority. It is, of course, this demographic that has seen the recent election of an alarmingly extremist right-wing government.
With political division more entrenched even than in Northern Ireland, with the passing of the Nation State Law in 2018, inter-cultural tension and separation is an intensifying factor. The 2018 law finally realises the exaggerated ambitions of Theodore Hertzl (early architect of Zionism) and Chaim Weizmann (activist and first president of Israel) by giving exclusive citizen and language rights to Jews – along with the pre-existing ‘right of return’ which allows global Jewry the right to settle in Israel – but to no other ethnic group. Continuing expansion and legitimation of West Bank ‘settlements’ (actually, new towns – there are around half-a-million Jews living in West Bank settlements) is the continuation of more than 100 years of the planned displacement of Palestinian villages and farms, envisaged by Hertzl and Weizmann. It is hard to envisage anything other than growing friction and the real potential for civil war – beyond the skirmishes of an intifada. All are at risk – Israelis of all denominations, Arabs and Palestinians. We should remember, while we are at it, that far from the stereotype of ‘the destitute Palestinian refugee’, the Palestinian population is highly educated. Palestine has 10 universities, around 30% of the population are graduates, and secondary school enrolment rates are at more than 60%.
In such a context a two-state solution, creating a separate Palestinian state neighbouring Israel – apart from being an ever-receding political possibility – is pretty much assured to solidify ethnic separation and economic inequity. At its worst, some draw a parallel with the South African apartheid state’s creation of Bantustans – areas where black indigenous tribes would live and have semi-autonomy. These were vassal states, denied by South Africa adequate resources for autonomous social and economic development. Far from the international community exerting on Israel the kind of pressure as was directed at South Africa to dissolve social and political boundaries, today’s international community advocates separation in terms of a two-state solution. A two-state solution would, however, solidify ethnic, economic and religious divisions – especially given Israel’s intolerance of any defensive or autonomous security arrangements for Palestinians. In the West Bank/Gaza/Palestinian Authority we have some kind of prototype for a secondary Palestinian state, and it hardly looks promising for any party. Just as lacking in promise as the separation of East and West Germany, which was finally resolved by Unification in 1990 with all its enduring issues of economic equity (remember, Angela Merkel came from East Germany).
It seems to me that there is only one possible bulwark against intensifying tensions and a high probability of a brutal and geopolitically destabilising civil war. This is a one state solution with power-sharing between Israeli Jews, Palestinians and wider Arab groups and across all religions they represent (much as in Northern Ireland) and with all of its both beneficial and uncomfortable consequences. Reconciliation of pain and difference through the mechanism of state unification is almost an inevitable solution to Republican Ireland and Northern Ireland tensions (again, driven by changing demographics) and it could be through Israel/Palestine unification. The tensions have to be acknowledged and addressed, but within the confines of democratic engagement and within the tent of parliamentary exchange. Given the unimaginable scale of difficulty (surely, dwarfing the German, Northern Ireland and South African cases) and the intensifying intransigence of Israeli politics, it is, admittedly, hard to hold this as a concrete ambition – impossible under present conditions. Certainly more unlikely than a two-state solution. But it is, nonetheless, easy to idealise an Israeli state combining the intellectual, creative and economic resources of Israelis and Palestinians to form a powerful, modern state. And the roots of any democracy are to be found, not in safe havens from consensus and tolerance, but in argument and exchange that leads to consensus. I find it lamentable that there is such a solid international resignation to a two state solution. After all, Israeli Jews, Palestinians and other Arabs are all semites and genetically coinciding. This is an internecine struggle. It needs an internecine solution.