Between Beinart and Gordis; The Popcorn was Great

Last night, a friend of mine sent me an email, asking me if perhaps I would like to weigh in on the “Beinart-Gordis exchange”. My reaction was “what exchange”? I had skimmed through Beinart’s article on Facebook and found it to be a refreshing perspective. However, I was completely unaware of the heated war of words that was being waged across different blog platforms and social media.

My interest was piqued, so I made myself a bowl of popcorn, downloaded the articles, and hunkered down for a long read. First I read Gordis’s rebuttal. Then I realized that I needed to read more thoroughly Beinart’s article. At the end, I knew I had to respond myself.

So, with trepidation, and knowing that I am punching way above my weight, here goes.

Beinart’s article

I found Beinart’s piece to be a revelation. Not because I have not heard about the one-state solution before, but because for someone like Beinart to make such a paradigmatic shift, is significant. I think it was well thought out, but it read more like a person warming to the idea, than one committed to it. Therefore, it is only expected that there will be some inconsistencies. I admire his courage however, to open himself up to the criticism he knew his article would generate. But first, let me tell you where I stand.

I. Want. Peace.

Any format which can achieve that through negotiated agreement and which ends the Conflict by mutual recognition is acceptable to me. Two states, one state, Confederation? As long as it works, I don’t care. What I don’t want is a perpetuation of this state of limbo, which is being exploited by Settler extremists, which is eating away at our sensitivity to human suffering, our sense of justice, our moral character as a society, and is turning us into oppressors. And, it is tearing my country which I love so deeply apart.

In essence, I think Beinart is right. The two-state solution looks increasingly impossible to achieve. Where does that leave us? As a person of conscience – dare I presume to say as a people of conscience – how can we reconcile our moral demand for our national self-determination, while we not only deny recognition of that right to another nation but determine to oppress them, and rule over them against their will, in perpetuation? What will that do to us, morally? How can our consciences tolerate that? I believe that this is what Beinart is addressing and the essence of this article – that a binational state as a way to continue to constitute a Jewish home while not subjugating another people – is strong and compelling. I found none of what Beinart wrote a misrepresentation, but his perspective. I found it to have candor, not dishonesty.

Conceptual map of Trump’s peace plane, courtesy of timesofisrael. No space for a two state solution?

I think Daniel Gordis will find it harder to dismiss me with the same arrogant disdain as he did Beinart’s “readers” when he said “he knows that for his readers to buy his thesis, it is important that they not know very much. Luckily for him, that is a safe bet”. I spent 12 years in a Zionist Youth Movement, Habonim, was a leader and responsible for educational programs. During my years in university in South Africa, I spent uncountable hours reading the Zionist philosophers. I ploughed through The Zionist Idea. I struggled through The Revolt by Menachem Begin and read Jabotinsky and Rav Kook. I devoured The Palestine Triangle by Nicholas Bethel. I read Ben Gurion’s biography – and then his writings. I came on Aliya in 1982 and have lived here ever since, all the while reading as much as I could get my hands on about the Israel-Palestine Conflict. In between, I was fighting in a war and then an intifada, and patrolling the West Bank and the Golan until the age of 45. To add to my experiences of close to 40 years, I am politically aware and an advocate for both Israel and Left-wing Zionism, as well as being opposed to the Settlement enterprise, precisely because it puts us in a situation of a moral predicament without a solution. My opinion cannot be superciliously pooh-poohed by saying I live on the Upper West Side. You can take issue with my beliefs and perspectives, but you cannot dismiss my credentials or my knowledge.

Gordis’s article

I have more to take issue with Gordis. I found his tone unsavory. However, I would like to concentrate on the content.

The first issue is the role the threat of annihilation plays in Israeli life, specifically Israeli politics. Gordis says, “the miracle of Israel is that we no longer worry about annihilation”. He continues with “Yet while we preserve that “instinct for danger,” it is not the fear of annihilation that motivates Israel”. I assume That Daniel has lived through a couple of election campaigns in Israel. If he has, surely he has noticed how the Right in Israel harps on and on not only about Iran and their desire to annihilate us, but also by cynically keeping the trauma of the Second Intifada and the suicide bombings alive and in our consciousness, for political profit. Every single election. Remember Netanyahu’s address to Congress two weeks before the elections in 2015? If that’s not what is called the threat of annihilation motivating Israel, what is? Indeed these motifs are integral in their political discourse and are used as a cudgel to delegitimize the Left and anyone who entertains the possibility of negotiations with the Palestinians for peace. In fact, this discourse is so woven into the political divide, that it does paralyze us concerning possible solutions to the Conflict; the Right constantly invokes the threat of annihilation when it addresses any territorial compromise  – even the Palestinians having a state (rockets on Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion airport?)

Then he contradicts himself; later he writes “We might well not be annihilated. But Jews would quickly become a minority here, just as they were in Europe. They would be surrounded by hostile masses, just as they were in Europe, and that would certainly (and rapidly) destroy the Jewish confidence that has been at the core of the Judaism’s revitalization in Israel”. What image do the words “surrounded by hostile masses” conjure up, if not the fear of annihilation?

His next sentence is particularly egregious. “In other words, Beinart cares more about the future of the Palestinians than he does about the future of Judaism’s richness”. Firstly, does Gordis not see that Beinart’s concern for the future of the Palestinians, is precisely in order to preserve Israel’s spiritual character, that Zionism does not become an empty vessel of overbearance and morally suspect Jewish dominance? Why can we not have Judaism’s richness while also caring about the future of the Palestinians, if it is achieved through a freely negotiated and agreed-upon settlement? I am more worried about the opposite; if we carry on with no solution, what kind of true richness can Judaism have? Especially if it is predicated upon keeping 2.5 million people oppressed while using force and intimidation to control their lives – all the while appropriating their land and forcing them into smaller and smaller enclaves? This richness would be tainted, without any true spiritual content. You cannot rule over another people and at the same talk about Judaism’s richness.

Then there is this: “To read Beinart is to learn that responsibility for today’s mess lies with Israel, not with the people who reside next to us”. No. Both sides bear responsibility for this mess. We are certainly not exempt. As we exert our dominance over them against their will and continue to eat away at their ambitions for self-determination by building new settlements, we certainly cannot deny our part in this mess.

However, the biggest problem is that Gordis offers nothing in its place, just the status quo, which will in all likelihood lead to the annexation of 30% of the West Bank (which for all practical purposes is 100% control and annexation). Does he, who admits to being repulsed by what is being done to the Palestinians, not see that by offering no solution in its place he is in effect legitimizing how we treat them?

Clarifications, and misconceptions
I think there are several misconceptions and popularly accepted beliefs that I believe need to be clarified.

1. Jewish State or Jewish Home?
Modern-day Zionism as it was conceived by Herzl and the early philosophers, by and large, was a political solution to the Jewish condition in the diaspora. It was a realization that being a homeless people, no matter how long we resided in a host country we would never be fully accepted and we were always susceptible to prejudice and discrimination. The only solution that we could see to remedy that, was a national home for Jews. Later, that developed into the thinking that if we were to have a national home it should be at the heart of where our heritage lies, what some call our ancestral home. The Balfour Declaration, the basis for the realization of our ambition to national self-determination spoke about a national home, not a sovereign state. That is what Weizman petitioned for. If he had petitioned Britain for a sovereign state, I doubt we would have got it and there would be no Israel today.

What we wanted to be was a NationState for Jews. However, even according to the Declaration of Independence, it is clear that Israel was not intended to be a state exclusively for Jews. What we wanted was to command our destiny. Can that be achieved only as a state? Maybe. But to achieve that, we need to ensure a Jewish majority. How do you do that when you annex the West Bank and bring within the borders of our state another 2.5 million people? And no, we do not have the moral privilege to cherry-pick what we annex and who will become Israeli citizens and who not, by creating Bantustan enclaves, while we exert total control. What is offered the Palestinians is nothing more than municipal autonomy. You cannot substitute municipal autonomy for national independence at your convenience so as to not grant them the right to vote, and still call yourself a democracy. Furthermore, there is no reason why they should accept it, and therefore there would be no end to the Conflict.

So, either you jeopardize the need to ensure a Jewish majority, or you need to keep these people disenfranchised – and then you jeopardize Israel as a democracy. If you want to remain a democracy, then you need to redefine the definition of the state and entertain the possibility of a national home. If you relinquish the idea that Israel needs to be a democracy, what price Jewish State? Whence its moral character or justification?

The signing of the Oslo Accords, September 1993. Courtesy of timesofisrael, “25 years after Oslo”, Danielle Ziri.

2. The Oslo Accords.
Gordis writes “He does not want his readers to know that Oslo failed because its signing unleashed a massive wave of Palestinian terror and Israeli death”. This seems to be a historical truth. But it is not.

Gordis is relying on our short memories, or perhaps he believes that prior to the Oslo Accords, we were living normal, relatively peaceful lives within the Israeli reality. That is not the case. Israel was entering its sixth year of the First Intifada, which had been raging since December 7. The Hamas was founded in 1987, during the First intifada. Its founder and spiritual leader was also the father of the ideology of shahids and suicide bombings. Throughout the First Intifada, the Hamas was vying with the PLO for dominance in the Palestinian Street. Its style of militarism gained much popularity with young Palestinians as Israel employed more stringent measures to suppress the uprising, causing further anger and resentment among them.

The Oslo Accords didn’t “just happen”. Israel did not initiate and enter into negotiations with Arafat out of an unforced desire to end the conflict. The IDF was exhausted, stretched to its limits trying to contain the violence, and there was a foreboding sense of it taking an even more violent turn. On April 16, 1993, a full five months before the signing of the Oslo accords, the first Hamas suicide bombing occurred, at Mehola junction. This should be seen as a harbinger of the violent turn the first intifada was about to take. It was a statement by the Hamas that it was about to assert its presence in the Palestinian street, typically by targeting Israelis. This is important because it shows that in all likelihood the “massive wave of Palestinian terror” we experienced both during the Oslo process and during the second intifada, would have happened anyway, as a part of the First Intifada. Thus, the causality that Oslo failed because it “unleashed” a massive wave of Palestinian terror is untrue. It would have happened, anyway. The truth of the matter is that The Oslo Accords ended the First Intifada. The violence continued, perpetrated by rejectionist Palestinian movements bent on torpedoing the agreement, but it was no longer a popular uprising. Surely Gordis has the sense of nuance to make that distinction? And, remember that these were the years when Hamas was asserting itself for dominance among the Palestinians. So, maybe that is not why Oslo failed? But rather it was a contributing factor, as Israeli rejectionists – primarily Settlers who opposed any territorial compromise – cynically capitalized on this violence in their own campaign to cause the Accords to fail?

3. The substantive change annexation will have to the nature of the Conflict.
At the moment, the debate regarding the settlements focuses on the territorial issue and the legality of Israel’s right to settle in the West Bank. The fact that there has been no ruling by the international court,  has kept the issue ambiguous, which Israel has exploited. However, once annexation happens, the focus will shift from territorial rights to human and civil rights for the annexed population, the Palestinians. The deprivation of human and civil rights to people under de jure Israeli sovereignty is an issue that I think Israel cannot win. It is something the international community cannot ignore and pressure on Israel will be immense. The threat of sanctions – and maybe even expulsion from the UN will be real. I have lived through this before, in Rhodesia and then South Africa. There is no way Israel, a country with far less natural resources than these two countries and who is more dependent on international trade for its subsistence than they were,  will be able to hold out for a long time. Therefore, I believe that Israel will eventually have to capitulate and then we WILL find ourselves with a binational state.

In that sense, although I am not a committed advocate for a binational state, I think it would be better to embrace the possibility than to be forced to accept it under duress of international pressure.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.