Before we abandon Jerusalem for Yavne: A response to Peter Beinart

Peter Beinart and I agree that Israel’s protracted military rule over Palestinians in the territories it conquered in 1967 should end. We agree that Palestinians should have political rights. We even agree that to achieve these goals, we will likely need to be very creative and be willing to rethink our presumptions about the conflict. However, I found Beinart’s case for a binational one-state solution in his recent article Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine unconvincing and even troubling.

Beinart tells us that the two-state solution is dead because Israeli offers have not met what Palestinians need “in return for this historic compromise.” Beinart recounts that Palestinians rejected partition for most of the 20th century and only came around to officially accepting the notion of partition in 1988. At that point, “however, Palestinians were clear about what they needed” — full sovereignty in the 22 percent of land that they had previously refused to negotiate. Beinart accepts the legitimacy of this claim and presumes that negotiation over the remaining 22% is out of bounds. There is a weakness to this line of thought. Palestinian leadership overwhelmingly refused to even participate in United Nations Special Committee on Palestine that discussed the future of the area in 1947. By and large, they supported with resources, bodies, and spirit a military campaign to prevent the establishment of Israel. The Palestinians did not compromise on the 78% at a negotiating table; they lost it in a war that might have never happened if they accepted partition. It seems that these decisions and actions should diminish their claim that they cannot compromise at all on what remained after a protracted endeavor to deny wholesale any Jewish sovereignty. This is not to say that Israel should not be forthcoming and try to negotiate towards a viable sovereign Palestine. I am all for that, but let us put the discussion of the territories into its context.

Beinart also raises the issue of the large number of Jewish Israeli settlers in the West Bank as an impediment to a two-state solution. Since Israeli prime ministers have tried to include as many Israeli citizens in the Israeli side of a partition, Beinart sees their presence as an impediment to a sufficiently large Palestine. Despairing of that, Beinart retreats to a one-state solution. I am not sure why he precludes a two-state solution where Jews live inside Palestine. True, it is very difficult to imagine, given the situation today, but it seems no less realistic than the alternatives he offers.

Believing that the two-state solution is dead, Beinart argues for a one-state solution. Against the claim that, “states that lack one overarching national identity — can be violent and unstable,” he asserts that “academic evidence, however, suggests otherwise.” Beinart brings Belgium and Northern Ireland as models to demonstrate successful precedents. However, he overlooks the cases of India, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, the former Yugoslavia, and the Balkans in general where multiple nations, ethnicities, and/or religious groups were subsumed under one state with devastatingly bloody results. Why our case would go the way of Belgium and not say, Lebanon is not addressed.

Beinart claims that reluctance to giving up on a Jewish state derives from a false association of Palestinians and their ideology with the Holocaust and Nazism. The view of the Palestinians all too common according to Beinart is “dehumanization masquerading as realism.” I must admit that I too find analogies to Nazism deeply troubling and misguided. However, one does not need to be a Nazi to be a threat.

Certainly, the Palestinian national movement has had and in many quarters still harbors dangerous and repugnant ideas. As alluded to, it was largely founded with the presumption that there is absolutely no right to Jewish sovereignty or even significant immigration for the Jewish people in our ancient homeland. PLO leader Ahmad Shukeiri in the spring of 1967 suggested that there would likely be no Jewish survivors of the impending war. Second in command to Arafat, Abu Iyyad in his memoir, My Home My Land, writes that “revolutionary violence is the only way to liberate the homeland.” Until 1988, the destruction of Israel was the official PLO line. Even after that, Arafat, could equivocate on his acceptance of Israel, depending on the audience he was speaking to. In negotiations, he denied the existence of a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Hamas charter until fairly recently included lines from the Hadith calling on the faithful to kill Jews hiding behind trees and rocks. Besides all this rhetoric, there were countless acts of violence against Israeli civilians over the years that were frequently excused and even glorified in many segments of Palestinian society. Without drawing false comparisons to Nazis, Israelis have good reason to be concerned about what life might be like in a bi-national state, given this history. That is not to say that Israel could not also be criticized for its rhetoric and its actions. It is to say that even without the lens of the Holocaust, Israel has much to be wary of given the Palestinian record on its own terms.

Moreover, I think it is important to note that imagining the enemy as a Nazi is not limited to the Israeli side. In my work as a guide in dual narrative tours, as well as via my experience in coexistence and encounter endeavors, I have heard countless claims by both Palestinians and sympathizers that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians parallels Nazi treatment of Jews. I have heard that Zionism is Nazism. All this should not prevent us from listening to what seems to me to be a growing cadre of Palestinian voices who are willing to admit and even embrace the Jewish connection to the land and to try to work towards coexistence and accommodation, but on the Palestinian side there is much “demonization masquerading as liberation,” and that too must be accounted for before giving up the security that Israel provides to Jews.

To reframe our stance on sovereignty and statehood, Beinart draws upon the precedent of Yavne. “In 70 CE, with the Temple about to fall, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai imagined an alternative. He famously asked the Roman Emperor to ‘Give me Yavne and its Sages.’ From the academies of Yavne came a new form of worship, based on prayer and study. Animal sacrifice, it turned out, was not essential to being a Jew. Neither is supporting a Jewish state. Our task in this moment is to imagine a new Jewish identity.” I would like to follow up on this precedent and expand our view of it in the larger talmudic context. The Talmud includes the voice of the sage Rav Yosef reflecting generations later and declaring that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s request was foolish. He shouldn’t have settled for so little. It seems that Talmud in another passage portrays Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai wracked with angst over his fateful decision. On his deathbed Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai weeps before his students. They ask him why he is crying. After a dramatic response sharing his fear of meeting his maker in the next world, he says “I have two paths before me, one of the Garden of Eden and one of Gehenna (hell), and I do not know on which they are leading me; of course I am crying.

It is striking that the great and pious sage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai is so deeply concerned for the punishment that might await him in the next world. Just as striking is the contrast between the dire punishment of Gehenna with the idyllic reward of the Garden of Eden. Why does he imagine such divergent possibilities awaiting him in the next world. Many have suggested that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai till his last day was unsure about his exchange with the Roman Emperor. Did he save Torah and preserve a Jewish future and therefore merit the greatest of rewards? Or perhaps did he ask for too little; did he compromise too much? Was the price too great?

It seems to me that we have much more to lose than Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai did and we must be very cautious about how we proceed.

About the Author
Ross Singer lives on Kibbutz Maale Gilboa and works as a tour guide and educator.
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