Liberal Zionists, Face the Facts: There's Already Only One State From the River to the Sea

This time, it's Israel's government - not Hamas or the international far left - that's eagerly claiming the annexationist slogan. That means liberal Zionists have only one moral option left

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, center, is escorted by security guards during a visit to the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 2, 2019
Benjamin Netanyahu is escorted by security guards during a visit to the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 2, 2019Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Joshua Shanes
Joshua Shanes

Israel last week advanced plans to build over 2,000 more homes for Jews throughout the West Bank, many well beyond the current settlement blocks. Some of them will be in outposts even Israel considered illegal, which – in a familiar pattern – will now be rendered retroactively "legal."

The government has reaffirmed that every settlement scattered throughout the entire occupied West Bank are part of Israel. "We will deepen our roots in our homeland, in all of its parts," Netanyahu recently stated. "No settlement or settler will be uprooted…That is over…What you’re doing here is forever." 

In short, the West Bank is effectively annexed for Jews, even as there remains a military occupation for Palestinians.

Read the reponse: No, Liberal Zionism Isn't Dead Yet. So Fight for It >> Israel, Key Battleground for the Global Clash of Liberal Democracy and Its Enemies

The government has openly disavowed any two-state solution, declared its ever-growing settlements to be an integrated part of Israel, allowed polling stations throughout the West Bank (for decades), appropriated public and private Palestinian land for access roads that effectively erase the Green Line for Jews, and much more.

In light of this reality, Liberal Zionists need to recalibrate. Liberal Zionism represents a range of views, but at its core it recognizes the claim of Palestinians to equal national and individual rights, which it seeks to achieve through a two-state solution. This would also satisfy the rights of refugees, who could thereby return to an independent Palestine.

It thus opposes the occupation, at least rhetorically, but also opposes offering Palestinians in the West Bank Israeli citizenship or offering refugees any right of return today, both of which it equates with Israel’s "destruction."

There is a lot of slippery language used when discussing alleged "destruction." What does it really mean?

Sometimes the word is used to refer to those who genuinely seek to incite or inflict violence on Israeli Jews. Other times "destruction" refers to the alleged threat posed by the "right of return," the claim of Palestinian refugees – expelled by Israel or those who fled the war – to return to their homes, or the homes of their parents or grandparents. And yet other times the word "destruction" refers to any demand for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, or for equal rights now for Palestinians living in the West Bank.

All of this is conflated into a vague notion of "destroying Israel," with implications of mass slaughter or the full-scale expulsion of Israeli Jews.

Much of this discourse of "destruction" obscures key problematic assumptions, of which the most critical is this: There is today one state from the river to the sea.

The Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the occupied West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem. August 6, 2019 Credit: AFP

That is not a utopian or dystopian future; it is the current reality. It is either democratic or it is not. Support for Palestinian rights – including both full civil equality in the West Bank and some form of the right of return – does not equal Israel’s "destruction" unless one is defending a specifically anti-democratic, ethno-nationalist state that most liberal Zionists insist they reject. Conflating support for these rights with literal calls for Israel’s destruction or violence against Israeli Jews is a way of avoiding confronting that reality, and must be resisted.

If Liberal Zionism considers its own legitimate claims, it cannot avoid accepting the necessity of immediately addressing this contradiction.

First, consider an article of Zionist faith shared by most Jews today, a foundational doctrine of Israeli law and culture. Israel is founded upon the belief that Jews everywhere are descendants (refugees) from those expelled from the land millennia ago and – based on their membership in that exiled community – are thereby entitled to immediate immigration to Israel today with full citizenship. Israel (and most Jews) believes that a nation exiled from its land has a timeless collective "right to return" to a sovereign nation-state.

As a result, to argue that Palestinians personally exiled from Palestine and prevented from returning to their homes have no right to do so is not merely problematic at the individual level, potentially violating Israel’s commitments to international law; it carries broader illiberal assumptions about the equality of national rights.

Accepting the right for actual refugees but not their first- and second-generation descendants is not much better; this argues that younger Palestinians should lose their parents’ rights because Israel has been successful in flouting the law for 70 years.

Above all, the argument that a Jewish right of return is self-evident while the Palestinian right is imagined, or even anti-Semitic, rests upon a notion that Jews alone constitute a nation with collective rights and claims to that land. Palestinians are thereby rendered into a set of individual Arabs who should settle wherever they now live. Such an attitude can only exist within an illiberal, nationalist faith that denies Palestinian connection to the land.

Palestinians run for cover from tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces following a protest against the demolition of buildings in the Palestinian village of Beit Sahur, West Bank. July 20, 2019Credit: AFP

Palestinians who insist that Jews constitute only a religion while Palestinians alone constitute a national collective with collective rights to that land are likewise basing their ideas on illiberal nationalist faith. This view must similarly be rejected by those seeking an approach grounded in equality.

Moreover, the idea that Israel should unilaterally decide the fate of Palestinians in the West Bank based on its own interests likewise rests on denying the existence of a Palestinian nation with collective rights. The oft-cited liberal argument that Israel cannot remain both democratic and Jewish (as opposed to binational) if it keeps the West Bank is certainly true, but it ignores the right of Palestinians to choose their own collective future.

Those who argue that Palestinians in the West Bank must not be enfranchised because Israel would then fail to have a Jewish majority – or that granting the disenfranchised Arabs equality would threaten the currently empowered Jews either politically or physically – are essentially making the argument for apartheid. (In fact, defenders of South African apartheid literally made this case, that they feared violence should the black majority be enfranchised.)

Indeed, when Israel’s Education Minister recently backed "extend[ing] Israeli sovereignty to all of Judea and Samaria," but Palestinians there "won’t have a right to vote," he was asked if that didn't constitute apartheid. Rafi Peretz didn’t rule out the option that yes, it is.

Those comments received minimal pushback by liberal Zionists. That's astonishing. Far from defending Israel, this argument undermines Israel’s very right to exist.

There is a liberal Zionist approach that recognizes the existence of a Palestinian nation, and even the theoretical right of Palestinian refugees to return, but at the same time argues that it’s not practical.

Like the Talmudic case of the man who steals a wooden beam and builds his house around it, it is simply not practical to demand he dismantle the house to return the beam. As Hillel rules, the cost would be so prohibitive that the thief would rather live in sin than make amends. Instead, justice demands the thief acknowledge his sin and make appropriate restitution of the beam’s value.

A newly opened, segregated West Bank highway near Jerusalem. Jan. 10, 2019 Credit: Mahmoud Illean,AP

In other words, Israel must acknowledge its past sins and make restitution, but the best solution does not necessarily require a total right of return.

This approach is quite reasonable. However, in order to avoid the moral, legal and philosophical jeopardy raised above, a true belief in such an approach requires recognition of the wrong that was done, acknowledgement of the basic right of return – i.e. decoupling that right from any accusation of it being code for Israel’s "destruction" – along with active opposition to the status quo under occupation.

To follow the metaphor, declaring that Israel will return the beam someday, when it decides it’s time, while continuing to deepen the beam’s incorporation into their house merely acts as a stalling tactic preventing its return (i.e. restitution to Palestinians), leaving Palestinians to languish without civil rights while facing continuous expropriation.

To be sure, the fault is not one-sided. Israel has legitimate claims and legitimate security concerns that are not negated by its sins. Advocates of economic boycotts, for example, should consistently clarify the specific political goals they hope to accomplish – e.g. either a two-state solution or a democratic state that also includes all of its Jewish citizens – if they wish counter this widespread fear by potential liberal allies. Vague language too easily feeds the "destruction" narrative, sometimes reasonably so.

Nevertheless, a political position founded upon the Jews’ right to self-determination – so strong that denying it is considered by many to constitute anti-Semitism – must recognize the right of other nations to the same or it is an illiberal claim that loses its moral basis. Such a state survives by might alone.

Any conversation grounded in national narratives must begin with mutual recognition of national and individual rights, or else they are simply expressions of ethno-nationalist chauvinism.

Jewish youth wave Israeli flags as they participate in a march marking "Jerusalem Day", near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2019Credit: \ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

All of this poses a significant challenge to liberal Zionists as Israel embarks on an open program of annexation. Liberal Zionists comfort themselves that their signature issue is a righteous opposition to the occupation. They may even recognize the right of refugees to return to Palestine in their dream of a future two-state solution.

That dream has tragically been scuttled. Israel has chosen to annex the West Bank. This could theoretically be undone, of course, though a single democratic state would also be open to division and reorganization. In any event, this single state is today and for the foreseeable future the reality.

Liberal Zionism must accept this and fight for the immediate extension of equal rights to all non-Jews living under Israeli law, civil or military, including refugees, or the liberal Zionist position is merely another defense of the status quo with the rhetorical comfort that "someday" things will improve.

One democratic state may be less likely to succeed than two nation states. However, we must address reality. At this time, there is only one state from the river to the sea, and it's Israel proudly declaring that slogan, not Hamas or the international far left.

It is not a liberal, or moral, position to say, "Although Israel has annexed the West Bank, a single democratic state is unsafe for Jews and unlikely to last, so Palestinians will just have to wait for equality."

It is not a moral position to force Palestinians to continue to languish under the rule of military occupation while Jews around them enjoy the fruits of freedom, cheap (stolen) land, and indefinite ethnic privilege. The consequence of Israel’s decision cannot fall on them, regardless of Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

Humanity has elected to organize itself through nation states. It is certainly reasonable for Jews to defend their rights in this way. A moral, liberal Zionism however must avoid doing so on the foundation of denying another people those same rights.

It must accept the existence of another nation on the same land and come to a moral and legal (under international treaties that Israel itself has signed) arrangement that acknowledges the national and individual rights of both peoples.

Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston. He has published widely on modern Jewish politics, culture and religion and is a frequent public speaker on these issues

Click the alert icon to follow topics: