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Groping for Alternatives

Published in the Gazette (Montreal) on November 11, 2003.

Groping for Alternatives

By Yakov M Rabkin

As I was reading in bed in Jerusalem on a September night, I heard an ambulance siren. Then another, then a good dozen of them. It became clear: another terrorist act had just taken place. My daughter told me that a few days earlier she had spent an evening in the café that was now blown up. Death is lurking literally around the corner in the Promised Land. There seems to be no end to the bloodshed that has gone on for over a century.

“A bloody trap” – this is how several Israeli friends described to me their predicament. One was a nationalist resigned to live by the sword for generations. Another  was a liberal applying for a Polish passport (he was taken out of Poland at the age of two) in order to let his children and grandchildren escape the violence. Otherwise poles apart, they are united in their hopeless assessment of the current situation.

During my month in Israel I talked with no Palestinians. But what I read in Israeli newspapers suggested that hope is in short supply of the other side of the fence. In fact, the fence that the Government of Israel is building across the land is the ultimate incarnation and the most recent cause of that hopelessness. It is in decrying the erection of that fence that the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently evoked an old political option that has re-emerged over the last few months: a one-state solution.

A few days earlier, I attended a public debate about this option in Tel-Aviv. The participants were reacting to a recent feature in the Haaretz daily that argued for the establishment of one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. They emphasized that the separation between Jews and Arabs, and consequently a state with a Jewish majority, existed in the area for a relatively short time, from 1948 to 1967. The Six-day war brought massive Arab population under Israeli control. Soon after the war, the former Prime-Minister Ben Gurion and the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (who rarely agreed on anything) warned that the retention of the territories would spell an end of the Jewish state. Indeed, since 1967, the territories have practically become a part of the State of Israel, which controls security, borders, economy, water, transportation and most other aspects of everyday life of the inhabitants, Jews and Arabs alike. But within that common space, about one half of the population have no political rights: they face discrimination and control. This breeds despair and violence.

It is in response to this untenable situation that several prominent Israelis have raised the prospect of a one-state solution. Meron Benvenisti is, perhaps, the most competent proponent of this idea. A former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and an expert on Palestine, he argues that the Jewish and Arab populations have become so intertwined that there is no way back to the pre-1967 borders. When I met him in Jerusalem and invited him to discuss this idea in Montreal, he chuckled that ever since he came to advocate the one-state solution he is no longer welcome in the synagogues where he once used to address Jewish audiences. But in Israel, the talk about the eventual transformation of the Jewish state into a non-denominational one – promise for some, a menace for others – is open and growing. Many liberal Palestinians, particularly those opposed to Arafat and his camp, have also broached this idea.

The idea is simple. It stipulates that individual rights take precedence over national rights, that neighbours get along better than nationalist leaders. The new state (I called it “Abrahamia” in a 2002 article in the Jewish magazine Tikkun) should enable Jews and Arabs to enjoy equal rights and have equal obligations. They should have substantial degrees of cultural, religious and educational autonomy but would be able, if they so desire, to live side by side. Canada with its experience of multiculturalism is often used as an inspiration for the transformation of a de facto multiethnic state into a de jure one. South Africa, whatever its shortcomings, serves as a recent example of such a transformation.

International involvement is often mentioned as stimulus for both sides to abandon their exclusive nationalist dreams. There is a recognition of fear and hatred that ought to be addressed. Quite a few Israeli Jews, however sophisticated otherwise, simply fear that once they forfeit their dominant status they would be slaughtered. Other Israelis believe that a common stake in the success of the new state will marginalize violent extremists. But most admit that Israel is hardly a safe haven that many Jews had hoped for.

Those who advocate a common state for Israelis and Palestinians are considering a major educational campaign that would bypass national authorities that foment divisions and reach directly to the people in order to bridge them. The idea of a one-state solution is gaining momentum since it promises to do away with the enduring cyclical bloodshed. But nobody can tell how much empathy and compassion it may take to do away with nationalist illusions of power.

The author is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal; an international meeting to discuss the one-state option is to begin at 2 pm on November 13 at Concordia University, Room H-767.


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