I was sitting in Philadelphia’s airport recently, awaiting a flight back home, the book I had been reading turned face down in my lap. Intentionally. I didn’t want anyone to see the cover. Didn’t want anyone to associate its cover with my views – these people I didn’t know, people I would never know.
I had just opened to the book’s second chapter – “Does Israel Have a Right to Exist as a Jewish State?” – and had closed it quickly. Shocked by the question. Shocked by my imagined (and false) notions of what a chapter with such a title might contain, by the prospect of a stranger seeing me reading it.
So I shut the book – Ali Abunimah’s The Battle for Justice in Palestine, which argues that only a bi-national state can justly end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and quickly hid it from those milling about.
It was an absurd scene, particularly considering this: I was returning from my book event at one of Philadelphia’s largest synagogues, an event local, right-wing Jews had tried to cancel due to my progressive views on Israel. During the event, a hulking, armed guard watched the crowd as I spoke about the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians. A staff member sheepishly told me just before things commenced, “We’ve never hired police for a book event before; please forgive us.”
The security was present because a handful of community members had, with unusual vehemence, demanded the synagogue not allow me into the building. Why? Because I believe that Palestinians’ nonviolent opposition to Israel, including the use of boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS), is wholly legitimate. These people wanted me out of the building despite the fact that, as a progressive Zionist, I disagree with the BDS movement’s ideal of a single, bi-national state as a viable solution to the conflict, instead holding onto the dwindling hope of two states for two peoples.
However, the recent, unspeakable events of the past two weeks have begun to make me question whether a two-state solution is even remotely possible anymore, particularly as Israeli officials begin embracing various one-state solutions.
Such internal questioning reached a climax on Friday, when Netanyahu explicitly stated that he wanted Israel to control the West Bank indefinitely, marking his first-ever public rejection of the two-state solution and Palestinian statehood.
My jaw dropped.
As I write, Gaza is burning. And that’s not a metaphor.
Israel’s military is preparing for a ground invasion in Gaza, where over 150 people have already been killed by devastating air strikes in the past five days. More casualties are being promised by Israel as the escalation promised by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Friday – and the vengeance he promised two weeks ago for the deaths of three kidnapped Israeli teens – are being realized before our eyes.
The scenes coming out of Gaza are truly horrific, scenes I will not only refrain from showing, but will refrain from describing as well. (You can review the #Gaza hashtag to learn more on what’s happening in real time, as well as the #GazaUnderAttack hashtag, though the latter is image-laden and extremely disturbing.)
This recent madness began two weeks ago, when Netanyahu falsely blamed Hamas for the abduction and tragic killing of three Israeli teens, stating, “Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay.”
I’ve already written more than I can bear about how racist incitement in Israel led to the horrible kidnapping and revenge killing of a Palestinian teen, who was burned alive, and Israel’s violent repression of the protests that resulted.
Hamas, to its significant discredit, began its own incitement by firing crude rockets it cannot guide from Gaza into Israel (which fortunately have killed nobody to date). What has followed since is an unrelenting attack, by one of the world’s most powerful armies, into what essentially is an impoverished, densely-populated, open-air prison. During this time, Netanyahu has rejected any talk of a ceasefire, even telling President Obama, who offered to help broker one, No thanks.
Concurrently, Israel’s leaders have stated that the occupation may last forever, that Palestinian self-determination is a non-starter.
What the hell am I supposed to make of this, as a progressive American? As a Zionist who wants to believe in Israel’s democratic promise?
I feel defeated.
During all of this, I’ve finished reading Abunimah’s book, which is an intellectual treatise on why the creation of a democratic, bi-national state is the only just solution – for both sides – to this enduring conflict. It is not an anti-Semitic work, nor is it a work which advocates for Israel’s destruction. It is a rights-based argument by someone who I consider to be, essentially, a humanist in his approach.
While I can’t offer a comprehensive, chapter-by-chapter review, I do want to focus on the chapter I was so shocked by while sitting in that Philadelphia airport: Abunimah’s exploration of whether or not Israel has a “right” to exist as a Jewish state. Now, this chapter isn’t a hate-filled treatise on why Jews don’t deserve a to live in “historic Palestine.” Rather, it’s a counter to Israel’s argument that Palestinians recognize such a right, and Abunimah simply explores the concept of rights as they apply to nation states and international law. In doing so, he offers an interesting conclusion after exploring why, while Israel would like to exist as a Jewish state, no such legal right actually exists:
States either exist or do not exist and other states either recognize them or do not, but no other state has claimed an abstract “right to exist.” If Israel is indeed a normal state among the nations … then it has no greater right to exist than East Germany, Czechoslovakia, South Vietnam, or the Soviet Union. All of those states dissolved, and there is no one with any standing to bring a case in any forum that they be resurrected based on any abstract “right to exist” separate from their legitimate residents’ right to self-determination.
Now, while Abunimah’s presentation is compelling, and while he focuses on how to justly realize the democratic rights of both Palestinian refugees and Israeli Jews, Abunimah and I diverge on this. See, I view Jewish self-determination within my people’s historical context of intense suffering, and see the Jewish state not so much as a “right,” but as a historical imperative in a world in which peoples have risen up throughout history to want us dead.
However, Abunimah counters by arguing a) my so-called Jewish self-determination comes at the expense of Palestinian self-determination, and b) because of this, Israel as it currently exists can never be the safest haven for Jews, as evidenced by the violence and suppression of human rights it much support in order to be maintained.
And so Abunimah argues for a truly democratic, bi-national state in which the rights of all peoples are respected. A place to which Palestinian refugees can finally return and Israeli Jews can continue to make their home, a place in which legislation is free of discrimination and the rights of all are protected equally. It’s a progressive ideal I respect in theory; however, I just can’t envision it working in practice. Yes, as Abunimah argues, reconciliation happened in South Africa (not without myriad economic and social problems). But I just can’t envision it working in this context.
Not as I watch the news. Not as I watch extremist Israeli mobs chant “Death to Arabs” and extremists Palestinian mobs chant “Death to Jews.” Not as I watch Israel lay waste to Gaza neighborhoods and Hamas launch rockets into civilians areas.
However, I also look at Israel’s record settlement expansions, at its disinterest in making peace, and at its leaders making pronouncements that the occupation and its suppression of human rights may last forever, that a single state may be the best solution.
I look at all this and my head spins, my heart aches. I’m still not ready to give up on the possibility of two states. However, I also say this: if things fall apart, if the dream of two states officially meets its end, I would hope that Abunimah’s liberal, democratic vision is considered.
Just before my I boarded my flight out of Philadelphia, a burly farmer from Iowa sat down next to me. “What are you reading?” he asked, pointing to my lap.
“Oh, this?” I said, lifting the book, “just one side of a two-sided story.”
He inspected the title, looked at me and said, “Every story has two sides, and sometimes they’re both not only right, but need to be melded into one.”
I nodded and shook his hand as my boarding zone was called, not knowing which story will be told in the end, but hoping it will be one which ends in peace.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.