What's New about the "New" Binationalism?

Article excerpt

Israel and the Binational Idea

When nothing seems to work, anything can pass for an acceptable solution. This is one of the fundamental paradoxes behind the recent revival of the binationalist debate around the IsraeliPalestinian conflict. The target of this debate is the two-state solution: the idea that a just solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians involves the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Proponents of binationalism present their position either as a matterof-fact description of an existing reality, or, on the contrary, as a radical ideal. Thus, while the first group suggests that it may no longer make sense to speak of a two-state solution since the tireless efforts of the Israeli settlers have already created a binational reality on the ground, the second, among them most recently Tony Judt (in the New York Review of Books), claims that binationalism provides the kind of radical vision required to overcome the current impasse and move forward. For Judt the idea of binationalism may be "an unpromising mix of realism and utopia," but the alternatives "are far, far worse."

But are they? As Judt's critics, such as The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, have noted, the binational state envisioned by Judt "is not an alternative for Israel. It is an alternative to Israel." Further, as Wieseltier also points out, there is nothing new about the binationalist idea. The fantasy of a binational state "is as old as the conflict itself. It has been thought and thought and thought-by Jews in the late 1920s and early 1930s and by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs during the last decade."

Wieseltier is right to emphasize that the idea of binationalism is, in effect, as old as the conflict itself, but he is wrong to lump together the "new" binationalism of the past decade with the "old" Jewish binationalism of the pre-Israel era. The most obvious difference between these two historical periods is the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. While a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals were indeed in favor of binationalism prior to 1948, they voiced their concerns within the context of an internal Zionist debate about the goals of Zionism and the future of the Jewish community in Palestine. Some later changed their position; others didn't. But once the State of Israel was established, the "old" binationalists nevertheless accepted its legitimacy as a matter beyond dispute. In this sense, it is crucial to understand the historical context of the binationalist debate, lest we grant the new binationalism a moral and historical pedigree that it docs not deserve.

I. Brit Shalom and the Ideal of a Binational Society

Binationalism as a coherent ideological program was put forth for the first time in the mid-1920s through the efforts of a small group of Jewish intellectuals in Jerusalem who called themselves the Brit Shalom, or "Peace Association." Most of Brit Shalom's members were German Zionists who had immigrated to Palestine in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The goal of their association, as formulated in the 1927 Statutes, was "to arrive at an understanding between Jews and Arabs as to the form of their mutual social relations in Palestine on the basis of absolute political equality of two culturally autonomous peoples, and to determine the lines of their co-operation for the development of the country." The list of founding members who came together around this platform included Arthur Ruppin, an eminent economist and professor at Hebrew University; Gershom Scholem, then a young lecturer at the Hebrew University and one of the Brit Shalom's guiding lights; Hugo Bergman, then librarian and lecturer in philosophy at the Hebrew University and later its Rector; I. Lurie, then director of the Education Office of the Zionist Executive; Hans Kohn, then staff member of the Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal) Head Office and later a prominent historian of nationalism; Isaac Epstein, professor of Hebrew; Jacob Thon, manager of the Palestine Land Development Company; Radler Feldman (Rabbi Benjamin), Hebrew writer; and M. …