My False Illusion of an Israeli-Palestinian Federation

In a response to Dmitry Shumsky, Shlomo Sand questions his critic's support for a binational state and the Palestinian right of return.

Shlomo sand
Shlomo Sand
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Shlomo sand
Shlomo Sand

I was very happy to discover that Dmitry Shumsky, director of the Bernard Cherrik Center for the Study of Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, supports replacing the State of Israel with a binational state ("Shlomo Sand's false illusion," Haaretz, June 4) , although I think that in the present historical circumstances such a proposal is absolute folly. I also find amusing the fact that Shunsky, at one and the same time, supports the Jewish Law of Return (that is "aliyah," according to the accepted scientific concepts of his research center) and the Palestinian right of return, and also believes that in so doing so he can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Shumsky apparently wants to remain a good "Zionist" in both directions, but the people who appointment him director of the center for the study of Zionism have no cause for concern - in his eyes Israel will forever remain the state of the worldwide Jewish nation. Realization of the Palestinian right of return will be postponed, with the help of (the Jewish) God, to the messianic age.

The conceptual world that characterizes the Cherrik center is a closed and fuzzy world that is obsolete. From Shumsky's arguments one gets the impression that he believes he is living in the 1920s, between the intellectual appeasers of Brit Shalom and Hashomer Hatzair from back in the day. That is why he returns to their outdated views when he turns to discussing the nationalism of today.

In the last 30 years the majority of the most important scholars involved in the study of nations broke free from the vague and generalizing language that was used until the early 1980s. For years no serious scholar has applied the term "nation" to every cultural-linguistic group, or to every collective identity. There are still hundreds of populations with a unique language and culture - a minority of them may become nations, and the vast majority probably won't.

Had he carefully read my book, with their "dubious" insights, Shumsky would have known that I have never thought that a nation is nothing more than a human group with political sovereignty. I did write that a group of human beings that demands sovereignty or wants to preserve it is unquestionably a national group.

No nation, or nation-state, has ever been created without the political dimension, which aspires to make the borders of culture and identity congruent to their sovereign borders. That is why Zionism or the Palestine Liberation Organization are national movements, which did, or do, represent the demand for independent political sovereignty, and that is why the Jews of the world who do not want to immigrate to Israel cannot be included in that category.

Not every nationality or nationhood has to be identical to the French or American nationality. There is also the British nationality, which has various cultural components, or Spanish nationhood, which is even more varied. If the Scots take their demands to their logical conclusion, they will establish a nation-state for themselves. If the Catalonians do so they will become a nation. But just as the Bretons in France are not a nation, and just as the "Jewish People" in Belarus, or Russian-speaking Ukrainians, are not yet nations, the same is true of Palestinian-Israelis.

Although the military occupation, the intifadas, the sacrifices and the demonstrations of heroism during the uprising, along with the ongoing alienation of the Jewish state, have brought them closer to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, they are already too Israeli to live under the sovereignty of Hamas or even the "secular" Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. They are also far closer to us, linguistically and culturally, than are the Jews of Belarus who do not live here.

Still, I don't believe that they will agree for much longer to live in a "Jewish" state, which by definition cannot be an inclusive civic state. Of course they justly demand, and will continue to demand, cultural autonomy in the State of Israel, but some of them also are aware that every state has a super-character that serves as a basis for communication, identification and joint cultural administration of those contradictory interests.

What Shumsky has trouble understanding is that his "secular" Jewishness, within its borders and by its very definition, is the identity of a closed, exclusive club that you cannot join if you weren't born into it.

By definition, being Israeli - like being American, British, French or having any other national identity that is not ethno-religious - could potentially represent an open political and cultural identity that is not based on a fictitious ethnocentric principle. It can of course be multilayered, varied and bilingual, but it is the concrete everyday reality that we experience jointly. It is also what increasingly connects all of us, we who are so different from one another, but at the same time so similar. Of course, Shumsky has every right to continue to identify himself as a (religious or "ethnic") Jew, but as in liberal Western Europe, and unlike in Eastern Europe - that must remain his own private affair and not an official and public matter.

And yes, Shumsky, you are right. Despite my profound pessimism, I still have illusions. Were you to read my most recent book you would know that I dream of two states with independent sovereignty, sovereignty that the inhabitants of the occupied territories must realize, in my opinion.

At the same time, I hope for an Israeli republic and a Palestinian republic, which after the military withdrawal, and depending on the pace of reconciliation, will establish one federation, because it's impossible to live in the Middle East without Arabs. Maybe it's a false illusion. But how did that dreamer who's responsible for the fact that I'm an Israeli put it? If you will it, it is no dream.

Prof. Sand teaches in the history department of Tel Aviv University. His book "How I Stopped Being a Jew: An Israeli Point of View" was published in Hebrew by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan.

Tel Aviv University historian, Prof. Shlomo Sand, in March 2008.Credit: David Bachar
Dmitry Shumsky.

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