Shlomo Sand: Jewish state or binational state: between ethnocracy and utopia

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Shlomo Sand, author of The Invention of the Jewish People, The Invention of the Land of Israel and most recently How I Stopped Being a Jew, has contributed to Rony Brauman's Pour les Palestiniens: manifeste (Autrement, October 2014) alongside Frank Eskenazi, Caroline Abu-Sa'da, René Backmann, Gilbert Achcar and others. Below is an excerpt of Sand's contribution, translated from french by David Broder:

"… Mahmoud, my friend,
sadness is a white bird that does not come near a battlefield.

Soldiers commit a sin when they feel sad.


I was there like a machine spitting hellfire and death, turning space into a black bird…

Mahmoud Darwich, ‘A soldier dreams of white lilies’, 1967

Time passes and does not pass. Once in a while it seems blocked, and its cogs squeal with pain and scream with frustration. 47 years of occupation and oppression, which the world around observes astonished! Every now and then, it lets out some small protest, every now and then it applauds, but most of the time it remains indifferent. To remain indifferent faced with the catastrophes that come about at a moment of truth, is only human; just as it is only human to cry and mourn for catastrophes the perpetrators of which have already died.

The only ‘democracy’ in the Middle East, which sees itself as the direct and exclusive descendant of the victims of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jewish people, pursues a ceaseless policy implementing its plans for colonisation and domination. For 47 years now, Israel has held captive a population deprived of its fundamental human rights and denied its sovereignty, since not only is it unwilling to give up this territory but it also refuses absolutely to accord citizenship to this population. Clearly it is a special case, even on the great world map of hypocrisy characteristic of nationalisms and international relations. But the bad conscience of the democratic West prevents it from seeing that Israel could serve as the model example of how, in the last analysis, history is an arena in which persecutors and persecuted often change roles.

The real relations of force make a mockery of every attempt to find a just solution simply based on direct dialogue between the two sides, without foreign intervention. On one side stands a state that has the nuclear bomb, the most sophisticated of conventional weapons, and is strengthened by the unconditional backing of pro-Zionist ‘establishments’ very much connected to the centres of power and communication of an all-powerful metropolis. On the other side, a defenceless population that receives nothing from the West apart from the charity donations that indirectly finance the continuation of the occupation. An enfeebled indigenous population, driven by despair, has already engaged in numerous attempted violent uprisings, for which it has paid a great price and from which it has emerged exhausted, traumatised and broken… until the next revolt, that is. Pan-Arab national solidarity, just like Islamic brotherhood, whether conservative or popular, has shown itself to be an immense hypocrisy. Cunning rhetoric has covered up – and continues to cover up – the political egotism of the murderous generals of Egypt and Syria as well as the sheikhs and repressive monarchs of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

A situation where the states of the liberal and democratic world accept Israel as a brother – perhaps sometimes a little out of control, but in principle a partner in the new ‘Judeo-Christian’ civilisation – has the effect of neutralising any progress towards a serious compromise. Another reason for this immobile situation resides in the fact that there is absolutely no sign within Israeli society of any important force in a position to provoke a turn away from its traditional policy. As long as the Israeli Jewish population can continue to live without any significant threat to its current living standards, it will continue to display indifference to the fate of the population over whom it exercises its domination. That is why almost none of the bearers of ‘Jewish morality’, whether in the little country in the Holy Land or in the big, wide world, feel troubled by the fact that during each Jewish festival in Israel the population of the occupied territories is subjected to a total ‘lock-down’; this practice having become a permanent ritual.

The Zionist Left, which has always believed itself to be realising the tradition of the prophets, has since 1967 found itself caught in a trap from which it has proven incapable of extracting itself. On the one hand, participation in a policy that brutally denies elementary human, political and civic rights to the indigenous people makes the Left ill at ease, and a significant section of it is not happy about the continued existence of a flagrant apartheid in the occupied territories; but, on the other hand, the Left’s profound belief that the ‘Land of Israel’ is the homeland of the ‘Jewish people’ has always constituted the ideological bedrock of its very existence. Given that according to Zionist-Biblical mythology the heart of the ‘exiled people’s’ ancient land was situated not in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, nor in Haifa, but in Arab Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho, the hesitating proposal voluntarily to renounce even a little part of the ‘Land of Israel’ could never be perceived as credible or as patriotic by the general public. Moreover, to renounce Al Quds, Hebron and Bethlehem could raise question marks over to what degree the prior appropriation of Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Haifa had any historical legitimacy. You don’t renounce, you don’t sell off the homeland! Since the beginning of the modern era, humans have been killing each other for the soil of their homeland.

The Jewish ethnocracy

The Zionist Left is not only driven to renounce the occupied territories for humanist and pragmatic reasons. It has always advocated a Jewish communitarian state; as such, the prospect that the prolongation of the occupation might result in the creation of a common Israeli-Palestinian state does not appeal to it in the slightest. For many years, it has managed to preserve the integrity of the ‘Jewish ethnos’ in the State of Israel, whether through the banning of marriage between Jews and non-Jews, by making recourse to military government in the first years following Israel’s creation, or, furthermore, through the creation of divided schooling systems. This segregation among Israeli citizens has been implemented and maintained by the secular Left (Arabs were not allowed to be kibbutz members), extending it into an official state policy of Judaising the country. To put it another way: the transfer of Arab territories to Jews and their colonisation did not only begin in 1967.

The inclusion of a vast Palestinian population under the wing of the Jewish state after the Six Days’ War strongly reactivated Israel’s ethnocentric conservationist instinct, or, if you will, the legacy of the ghetto. The end of the 1980s saw an incessant expansion of the laws specifying and emphasising that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. Leading secular intellectuals of the Zionist Left multiplied their verbal acrobatics in order to try to resolve the striking oxymoron: how can democracy be conjugated with the adjective ‘Jewish’ – not, that is, ‘Israeli’ – when the Interior Ministry deems a quarter of the population of Israel non-Jewish and unable to become Jewish except by converting to the Judaism that conforms to the strict rules of the rabbinate? If democracy is, before anything else, the state that belongs to all of its citizens, the state that represents them all and sets as its goal maximising all of its citizens’ well-being, then how can we speak of a democratic state ‘of the Jewish people’ when the majority of Jews do not live there and have no interest in moving there?

The answer to this is to be found by making recourse to Jewish particularism: since there is nowhere in the world a people resembling the so-called ‘Jewish people’, nor is there any democracy like ‘Jewish democracy’ either. The ‘Jewish people’ has always been a very particular people, out of the ordinary. It did not need a territory in order to become a people, nor a common spoken language or a unifying secular culture in order to form a nation. It was enough that the European Christian world always saw it as a rampant foreign people, having made its entry into the world in Palestine where it was directly responsible for the death of the Son of God. Ultimately, the final proof that it really is a people, and not a rich assembly of religious communities with varied origins, was provided by its great executioner: Nazism for its part recognised Jews as a people-race of its own, and according to the Zionist geneticists’ point of view this scientific diagnosis was not a mistaken one, since still today they are desperately trying to find a Jewish DNA.

No one has yet managed to define what a secular Jew is, what secular Jewish culture is or what a Jewish state is (the search for its DNA not yet having given us any results…) Israel thus still needs its rabbis to set the religious criteria to determine one’s belonging to the Jewish people. Benjamin Netanyahu, the most ‘Jewish’ politician in Israeli history, having taken a good look at the public’s sensibilities decided – the rabbis’ help having proven insufficient – that he had to seek the Palestinians’ assistance in defining the State’s contested identity. That is why he suddenly decided to demand that they recognise the exclusively Jewish character of the State of Israel. After all, given that the whole of the ‘enlightened’ word is prepared to characterise the Jewish ethnocracy as a democratic state, it stands to reason that they ought to make the Palestinians do the same!

The popular head of government has taken advantage of the Israeli consensus, stretching from Right to Left, to decide arrogantly to demand that the Palestinian Authority recognise – and place its cross by – Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. Which means: recognising a state that belongs precisely to the ‘Jewish people’ but not to one and a half million of its citizens who had the misfortune to be born to a Palestinian-Israeli mother. It is striking to note that Netanyahu immediately obtained American backing. How could it have been any other way? Martin Indyk, President Obama’s envoy to the ridiculous discussions on the peace process, was for many years a high-ranking researcher for AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Who in the corridors of the Washington pro-Zionist lobby knows better than this ‘neutral’ mediator what a Jewish state means?

It has become clear – with ever more proof, and as might have been expected – that the various different Israeli governments have never really been disposed to any serious recognition of full Palestinian sovereignty, even on 23 percent of Mandate Palestine’s territory. All these governments built, and feverishly continue to build, settlements in the West Bank, notably in the surroundings of Arab Al Quds. It seems that Israel will take every opportunity to establish a new reservation, to add to the one that already exists in the Gaza Strip; all the while counting on the hope that with American and European financial aid this new reservation will prove to be a friendly one, unlike the reservation to the south – hostile, bitter and closed off. The two reservations, it goes without saying, will be lacking in any serious kind of sovereignty or any real, independent relationship with the rest of the world.

The wing of Israeli politics most devoted to colonisation is living a waking dream: it dreams that a great tremor in the Middle East will engender a situation similar to that which took place in 1948, once again obliging many Palestinians to quit their land – which, as we know, is the ‘Land of Israel’. Didn’t God promise it to his chosen people? Certainly, he wasn’t too assiduous about sticking to his other promises – all the more reason for them to be entrusted to the Israeli Defence Force and the obstinacy of the colonists!

The binational utopia

In modern history, dramatic events have periodically served as models imitated in the actions of others. For example, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the first to interrupt the massacre of peoples during the First World War, enflamed hopes in the hearts of many socialists the world over. However, this revolutionary model proved an unhappy one for the workers’ movements of Europe, weakening not only the class struggle between labour and capital but also, in the last analysis, the opposition to the rise of Fascism and Nazism. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s victory in Cuba awakened great enthusiasm among the radical movements of the Latin-American continent, but did not prove to be an apt revolutionary prototype for overthrowing the military oligarchies supported by the United States. Similarly, the defeat of Apartheid in South Africa in 1994 has become a detrimental archetype for the difficult challenge of finding a relatively equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A number of left-wing and pro-Palestinian activists are convinced, after the South-African experience, that the solution in the Middle East will flow from the struggle for a common binational state. At the moral level, there is no doubt that the idea of a joint state represents an appealing alternative, as compared to the ethnocentric character of the Jewish ghetto-state. Given that Israel has devoted all its means to annexing ever more territories, and installed ever more of its citizens in every available part of the ‘Far West’ of the West Bank, it is too late to carry out a surgical division between Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians. 500,000 colonists are an irreversible fact that demands a binational state.

However, first of all, there is a little bit of a difference between South Africa and Israel-Palestine, a malign one, indeed. As well as the difference in terms of demographic relations, in the former case the majority of whites also formed a social class, economically dependent on the black workforce, whereas the Zionist enterprise has in general sought to carry out a purifying colonisation evicting the ‘indigenous other’ from its land, not particularly seeking to exploit its labour; the Israeli economy could continue to exist without it. But above all, to hope that Israeli society – today probably one of the most racist in the Western world – will voluntarily abandon the central ideological principle on which it is established, is rather absurd. To set up a binational state would demand achieving an accord between the two nations destined to constitute themselves into one common entity. Even if it is possible, in principle, forcibly to make an occupying people retreat from a territory where another people lives, then it is not possible to force it to renounce its sovereignty and live in political symbiosis with the occupied people. If there are any people out there who imagine that the Jewish Israelis could voluntarily accept in the relatively near future living in a state where they would constitute a national minority (even if the right of return were not implemented), then they ought to be sent to the asylum for those overwhelmed by deceptively beautiful utopias.

The struggle against the occupation is, above all, a Palestinian struggle that must be supported by all possible means with the exception of terrorism, and by the whole world: states, UN bodies, trade unions, and of course also the citizens of Israel, Europe, the USA and everywhere else. The struggle to change the face of the Jewish ethnocracy and its transformation into an egalitarian Israeli democracy must be a domestic struggle waged by both Israeli Jews and Palestinian-Israelis. There is a clear link between these two struggles, and the second depends a lot on the first struggle’s capacity to succeed, but they should be neither confused nor mixed into one.

All the same, the vision of two completely separate states for two entirely distinct peoples is equally delirious. It must be made clear to the Left Zionists, who dream of ‘divorcing’ the Palestinians in order to be able to continue living among Jews alone, that there will never be any Middle East without Arabs and Muslims. Anyone who doesn’t want to have to live next the Orient ought to emigrate to Paris, London or Berlin. The lives of Israelis and Palestinians are too connected, too imbricated, for it to be possible to conceive them in separation, on two sides of hermetically sealed walls. The withdrawal of Israel’s army from the occupied territories and the creation of a Palestinian state are but the first step towards solving the longest conflict in modern history. The vision on the horizon must be the confederation of two autonomous republics that would define and develop common structures, while respecting each other’s full sovereignty. Each stage of the reconciliation process will condition the following stage, laying its foundations in terms of cooperation and cordial relations.

There will be those who tell me ‘No way, that too is a naïve utopia!’ Yes, clearly! Today’s unbearable situation, with no exit in sight, hardly allows us even to sketch out or lay down rational, workable solutions. But we ought to remember that even if we cannot draw unequivocal, definitive lessons from history, one truth does nonetheless still hold firm: historical time has never frozen in place, but has always continued to progress, whether toward terrible catastrophes or toward victories for humanity, be they large or small."

Pour les Palestiniens can be found on Autrement's website here.

See more from Shlomo Sand, including his latest book How I Stopped Being a Jew, here.