Karmi was born in Jerusalem. When she was a child, she was among the 800,000 Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from Palestine in 1948.
“For me, as a child, it wasn’t that I really understood any of this, but I understood that my parents were scared. And that scared me,” she explains.
“It was an inchoate fear. And so it went on getting more and more abnormal until April 1948, which is when my parents decided [to] evacuate us to somewhere safe, while ‘things died down.’ And that was it. I never saw my homeland as it had been again.”
After her memoir In Search of Fatima was published, Karmi learned that The New York Times had bought an apartment that was built on top of her childhood home. She describes the surreal experience of visiting her own house that now housed Israeli settlers and the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief.
In her conversation with then-bureau chief Steven Erlanger, she says she asked him, “ ‘How is it possible that it wouldn’t change your view of Israel? You can see, you’re here because I’m not here. Doesn’t that mean anything?’ He was evasive to the end.”
“And I did go and look at my house, which was not our house. I mean, it was dead, really. All the soul in it had gone, and these people were using it,” she adds.
In Karmi’s new book, she writes: “Israel was created and maintained against the logic of history, and the same historical logic will dictate its inevitable ending.”
One possible route to a singular, democratic state, she argues, is through a Palestinian demand for equal rights.
The outcome, she explains, is similar to post-colonial Algeria, when Algeria offered French settlers citizenship with equal rights to indigenous Algerians – but most of the settlers chose to return to France.
“What you have are people who have grown accustomed to enjoying all the advantages of colonialism without the cost, I mean, wonderful, where else are they going to get that? Now when the Arabs, as they call them, come along and say, ‘Okay, let’s live together in equality,’ it’s anathema to many people like this on the Jewish side. Anathema,” she tells The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
“They despise Arabs, they look down on them; the idea that they would live with them in equality is absolutely abhorrent. They would leave. That’s my point. We were not asking for anybody to leave. But that is what would in effect happen, people with dual nationality will try and make their way back to Western countries.”
She also talks about the two-state fantasy and the “menace” of liberal Zionism.
Articles we discussed:
- “At 70, Israel is a bellicose regional giant,” Ghada Karmi
- “NY Times’ Jerusalem property makes it protagonist in Palestine conflict,” Ali Abunimah
- “Book review: Two Palestinian women recall their lives in exile,” Maureen Clare Murphy
- “Resisting the Nakba,” Joseph Massad
Video production by Tamara Nassar
Theme music by Sharif Zakout
Subscribe to The Electronic Intifada Podcast on Apple Podcasts (search for The Electronic Intifada) and on Spotify. Support our podcast by rating us, sharing and leaving a review, and you can also donate to fund our work.
Lightly edited for clarity.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast. Today, we’re delighted to have author, academic and physician Ghada Karmi back on the show to talk about the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Nakba and her new book, One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel.
Karmi was born in Jerusalem, and was among the 800,000 Palestinians who were forcibly expelled from Palestine in 1948. Ghada Karmi’s work includes books that have been instrumental in both my and Asa’s early political education, In Search of Fatima and Married to Another Man, and her new book I’m sure will join those earlier counterparts. Ghada Karmi, welcome back to The Electronic Intifada Podcast.
Ghada Karmi: Hello.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Before we get into your new book, which examines the one-state future in Palestine, I wanted to talk about the timing – we’re up against the 75th year of the beginning of the Nakba, the act committed by Zionists of forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 when Israel declared itself a state, an act that continues to this day. Can you talk about your experience of the Nakba, what happened to you and your family 75 years ago?
Ghada Karmi: Well, you have to understand, first of all that, this, what I’m going to say is, is my view of things as a child, and as a child who also did not understand what was going on. All that I knew was that as from the beginning of 1948, schools were closed, my school was closed, so I couldn’t go to school. I was at primary school at that time, but you know, everything closed down. Increasingly, as the months, the early months of 1948 advanced, more and more what I would call abnormalities crept into my life. So it’s bad enough that I didn’t go to school. But increasingly, we were really restricted from going out at all, because there’s a good reason for that. Jewish snipers had taken up positions inside empty houses, that is houses whose families had already left, you know, thinking that as you do in time of troubles, that to – just to take the children away for safety.
Now, those houses were taken – well, were used by the snipers. And they just, I mean, they, they shot at people walking on the street. So everybody scuttled in and at that – for me, as a child, it wasn’t that I really understood any of this, but I understood that my parents were scared. And that scared me. You know, it was an inchoate fear. And, and, and so it went on getting more and more abnormal until April 1948, which is when my parents decided it was – had to evacuate us to somewhere safe, while quote, things died down, unquote.
And that was it. I never saw my homeland as it had been again. I’ve been back but it’s not the same place. So it’s, yeah, it’s very shocking, very shocking, very traumatic, and I really think that Palestinians should face the fact that this was a massive trauma, and really it’s very difficult to recover from something like that.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, absolutely. Talk a little bit about your house. You discovered almost 20 years ago that the New York Times was in, or rather on top of, your childhood home. You received a call from the Times’ bureau chief, Steven Erlanger, in 2005. He read your memoir In Search of Fatima and invited you to visit your own home. Can you talk about that surreal experience and what it says about how Palestinian property and lives have been either erased, as villages were razed, or up for grabs to foreign settlers and even bureau chiefs of a major news outlet?
Ghada Karmi: That’s right, in our – in fact, our house had been a villa, which is on one floor, there was no other floor. So at some subsequent point, somebody had built an upper, an upper story, and it became The New York Times bureau chief’s residence in Jerusalem. What a coincidence. Now, Erlanger actually had found my email address, don’t know how, but he got in touch. And he said, exactly that. “I think I’m living above your house, etc., and would you like to come and visit?” So I couldn’t possibly have resisted, because I really had to see it.
So I went, and it’s – apart from actually going into the house, the thing that really was sort of striking, was that he, Erlanger, was at pains to be nice to me. And, and to admire, you know, praise my book and, and things like that, and, and then to tell me that the family, Israeli family living in our house, are terribly nice people and they really understand and they’re very happy for you to look around. And I remember saying to him, “Hang on, you now know what you do know, you read my memoir, you’re now living above my old house, which has different people living in it. Does that change your view of Israel at all?”
He looked embarrassed. He tried to change the subject. And in my conversation with him, again, and again, I came back to this point. I said to him, “You know what happened. Why do you not say? Well, how would it – how is it possible that it wouldn’t change your view of Israel? You can see, you’re here because I’m not here. So doesn’t that mean anything?” He was evasive to the end. And I did go and look at my house, which is not our house. I mean, it was – it was dead, really. All the soul in it had gone, and these people were using it. You know, I mean, they were nice enough. I’m not saying anything else. But it was really a very sad, uncomfortable experience for me.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Yeah, it must have been unbearable.
Asa Winstanley: I can only imagine. Yeah. I, yeah, the stories in your book In Search of Fatima are so striking. And, you know, you’re left with this immense sense of loss in your memoir, you know, this sort of stark facing up to the reality of a Palestine that is gone forever, in a sense that, you know, even should Palestine be restored at some point in the future, well, let’s be optimistic and say when Palestine is restored at some point in the future, it won’t be the same Palestine and you, there’s no going back to – there’s no going back in time. And that Palestine will, you know, in the future would be something different.
So, I mean, on that note, let’s get into your book, your new book, this, here it is, One State, The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel. And it’s kind of an extension of an earlier book you wrote, Married to Another Man, on a similar topic. And it’s not the first book on the one-state solution. And our colleague, Ali Abunimah of course, he wrote a book about 20 years ago. And you reference his work and the work of others extensively in your new book.
And you write in the introduction, quote, “A shared state is the only way this impasse will end, not because it is warranted by either side, but because it is inevitable. It is the contention of this book that the logic of the situation before us must lead to the formation of one democratic state in place of the current ethnocentric apartheid state of Israel.” And you add at the end, another quote, “Israel was created and maintained against the logic of history, and the same historical logic will dictate its inevitable ending.” So, this is all from the introduction. So Ghada, tell us a bit more about why you wrote this book. And what the current moment can show us in terms of this inevitability that you talk about in the introduction?
Ghada Karmi: Well, look, my primary motivation was knowing that the 75th anniversary of Israel was coming up. I actually wanted to look ahead, to look forward, rather than mourn the past. Of course, we mourn the past, we always will. But really, it’s high time that we used our energies to inquire, discuss, search for the future. And for me, of course, and I think, for all Palestinians, the future means the return of Palestine. Now, what are the – how that return will happen, what it will amount to, these are things that need to be addressed. And that was the primary motivation for the book. Now, when I said that it was inevitable, I really meant that. It wasn’t wishful thinking.
Because it’s, you know, it’s in the logic of the situation that you have an oppressor who knows no other language except violence and oppression, and you have an oppressed people. And you can get away with this for a long time. And you can see Israel’s done quite well, in so many decades, where it’s been able to commit all kinds of crimes and, and to get away with it. But it cannot go on forever. That situation does not go on forever. It never has historically. So that’s what I meant by inevitable, because the subjected people rise up, again and again, ineffectively at first. But as time goes on, they get more and more effective. And the oppressor, having no tools other than oppression, will increase their oppression.
So that dialectic of even more violence from the oppressor, and resistance by the oppressed will eventually lead to a very different and new situation. Now, of course, I do not suggest that when this happens, and there is a sort of chaos, I don’t think – I’m not suggesting that suddenly, out of this, there will emerge this state quickly, it won’t, it will take – there will be a period of a bloodshed, of extreme chaos and violence. But then out of this will come the shape of a future state, a state which no way can it be a state for one side entirely, certainly not for Jews.
And where, you know, Palestinians have to, as I’ve said in the book, you know, they have to accept, as bitter as it is for them, that to live with what was your oppressor yesterday, and people who have a racist attitude towards them and feel themselves to be superior, it’s very, very difficult to get, to people who have suffered so much to say all right, I will live with you. But there is no alternative. There is a Jewish community living in what was Palestine.
And then what are you going to do with them, you’re not going to kill them, you’re not going to throw them in the sea. So you, of course, you have to live together. And what – I suppose what I’m suggesting, which most reasonable people would suggest, is the way you live together will be in a democracy, where everybody is represented equally, irrespective of their origin, race, gender, etc.
Asa Winstanley: One of the parallels that is often made is, of course, South Africa, but – and there are, you know, there’s certainly similarities. But what do you make of the less commonly made parallel of Algeria? Where the – what do you think are the similarities there? Do you think do you see any similarities with what happened with Algeria, in the sense that the French settler colonists were offered citizenship in the liberated Algeria after they won their national liberation struggle, but hardly any of them chose to accept it?
Nora Barrows-Friedman: They went back to France. Yeah.
Ghada Karmi: Yeah, actually, it’s really interesting that, because you see, I do see a parallel, and I’ll tell you what it is. First of all, don’t forget that the French have a mother country, they do. And so when the Algerians made that very, extremely generous offer, they knew that nobody was going to end up stateless – they would go back to France or wherever. Because this way, they were French, they were still French. So that’s one, one difference, let’s say, between our situation in Israel. But where I see the similarity is that of a large number of these French colonists, who had been – well, the settlers really, decided to go, to leave, to leave and to go and find their lives elsewhere –
Asa Winstanley: Their colonial privilege was more important to them.
Ghada Karmi: Absolutely. But this is exactly the point of similarity with the situation in Israel. Because what you have are people who have grown accustomed to enjoying all the advantages, all the advantages of colonialism without the cost. I mean, wonderful, where else are they gonna get that? Now when the Arabs, as they call them, come along and say, “Okay, let’s live together in equality,” it’s anathema to many people like this on the Jewish side. Anathema.
They couldn’t – they despise Arabs, they look down on them, the idea that they would live with them in equality is absolutely abhorrent. They would leave. That’s my point. We were not asking for anybody to leave. But that is what would in effect happen, people with dual nationality will try and make their way back to Western countries. And that will leave behind, as I’ve explained in the book, a population of poor Jews, religious Jews, and hardy souls who refuse to accept what’s happening, but hang on in the hope that it will change. That’s what I think we’ll have.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: The two-state solution, meanwhile, is still paraded about by Western leaders as a way to kick the can down the road, continue the status quo. How can you assess its popularity by civil society at this point in time? And what will it take for this charade to finally be put to rest?
Ghada Karmi: Yes, thank you for asking that. That’s a very important and interesting question. You see, you have to ask what’s really going on when a political solution was proposed decades ago, and got nowhere on the ground. And but on the contrary, the conditions for its realization have vanished because there’s not enough land left, the land is not contiguous. And so it’s – even on those grounds alone, it’s not doable. However, as you say, people cling to it, particularly Western leaderships, Western politicians. They cling to this for dear life. Now what is that about?
Well, I think it’s about – firstly, it’s, it’s easier, it’s easier for these people, rather than confront what they’ve helped create in the Middle East, a state like Israel, rather than confront that, and understand that that has consequences, you see, if you go on talking about two states, then the the aggrieved party, the Palestinians, get something, and would be induced to keep quiet. And Israel can carry on as usual, although in a smaller geographical space, let’s say. So that – that’s very, very attractive, the idea of that, and that’s what actually made it so popular from the beginning, that you could preserve this Zionist state, and at the same time, do something for the Palestinians, so that they would stop getting together and doing intifadas and all these nasty things.
So I think really, that’s what it was. However, I do know, I do feel there’s something deeper than that. Because you have to ask, alright, well, if that’s fine for the reasons, I’ve just said, you Western politicians, you want it, you support two states, fine. Now I’m demonstrating to you that it cannot physically happen. Just like you know, you might say, “I would like to have a Rolls Royce.” And the answer comes back after a while, you’re dreaming of this, and the answer comes back, no, not available. They don’t make them anymore. And you go on saying, “but I tell you, I want a Rolls Royce.” Now, who said –
Nora Barrows-Friedman: “God promised me a Rolls Royce,” right.
Ghada Karmi: Yes. But you see, I really think there’s something psychological at the bottom of this. And I think Palestinians have to wise up, because something that is that Western, Westerners cling to like this, despite the evidence, against the evidence, despite the injustice, all that stuff, what I think, and of course, it’s a suspicion, I can’t prove it, is that deep inside a lot of Europeans and Americans is an abiding sense of guilt about the Jews. Now, that’s because, of course, the culmination of that was in the Holocaust.
But it was before, in the historic persecution of Jews. That remains deeply inside a lot of people, and they feel badly about Jews. And they feel that the Jews, the least you can do is help them to live in their state, make sure that they are safe. I really cannot think of any other than this explanation. You can see that if something, I mean, they’re not conscious of it. I’m not suggesting for a moment they’re going around thinking this. But that’s what I think animates this very strange phenomenon.
Asa Winstanley: You talk a lot in your book – there’s a really, the longest chapter really is about a kind of history of different plans for Palestine, different plans of what’s often called the one-state solution. And you also talk about the bi-national state and how, you know, I find the section quite interesting where you’re talking about some of the early Zionists were talking, were wanting to have a bi-national state within Palestine as a way really of having a foothold for their colonial project, really. And something called – there’s also something called parallel sovereignty. And you’re not – you write in your book that you’re not trying to make a blueprint. But could you maybe talk a little bit about the evolution of the one-state idea, and its history and where do you think we’ve got to now?
Ghada Karmi: Well, as you say that chapter was, I felt it was very important for people to understand how these ideas have evolved. And they really have. I would say, in the last 20 years, the idea of a democratic state, a one person, one vote state has acquired much more prominence. It’s not – unfortunately, it’s not taken hold of opinion formers, of leaderships in the West, as it should have done. And that against, just I refer to my earlier answer about the two states, because of this deep guilt, that’s an issue, then you have a one democratic state, that’s the end of Israel, actually. That is something that there is a kind of a revulsion against.
Anyway, despite that, despite that, the discussion of the one state, democratic state has increased over the last 20 years, as a number of groups have come into being trying to make it happen, and increasingly so, you know, but so really that’s it, that I think is what is how it’s happening. A bi-national state does not solve this problem. Because, well, first of all, the implication that you’ve got two, the idea is that you’ve got two equivalent nations, as it were, with equivalent rights, and each community or each nation, in quotes, looks after itself, and is sort of autonomous, with a kind of joint parliament for defense or things like that. It won’t work, you see, it’s not desirable. I tell you why, because the other, the national, the Israel national state, the half of this bi-national, bi-nationalism, would be Zionist. I mean, you will hope there’s no escaping from the fact that Zionism has to end.
Asa Winstanley: And a bi-national state would also be sectarian, it would be a sectarian state. And, you know, we see the problems inherent in such an idea in a country like Lebanon especially.
Ghada Karmi: Absolutely. And in fact, when I’ve, you know, been through I’ve, I’ve described various models of countries that have had different communities and been – Belgium is a very good example. The fact is, if you’re lucky, people can tolerate it and get on. But more often than not, the whole thing breaks down. Now, in the case of Palestine, which has no equivalent, in my view, it has no precedent, it has no equivalent, it’s really unique.
We are discovering as we go along, and we’re, you know, searching for a way out of this hideous tragedy. So, there’s a limit, what I’m trying to say is there’s a limit to how much one can apply other models. And you quite rightly raised the question of South Africa. And, of course, one of the most important reasons why the situation in South Africa and in Palestine are fundamentally different is that the South African, the Afrikaners, the the people who practiced apartheid, they wanted to exploit the Blacks, to use them for all kinds of lowly paid laboring, etc., all these jobs. In the case of Palestine, the Zionists wanted to replace the Palestinians, want to expel them. They don’t want them around at all, serving them or not serving them. So there’s a very, very fundamental difference.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Liberal Zionists who decry the current outwardly fascistic government in Israel, you know, mourning the loss of, in quotations, “Israel’s soul,” which of course has always been a deranged fantasy, they say that the BDS movement, the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement is worthless, that international solidarity movements are hopeless, and that the only actors who can bring so-called peace and security, of course, for Israel, are international governments and the courts and the powerful elite. What’s missing from that equation, and how important are solidarity movements and the boycott movement and, you know, people who take direct action to stop Israel’s crimes?
Ghada Karmi: Well, let me answer the last bit of your points. It’s very – the BDS movement, the solidarity movement for Palestine, direct action, whichever way people feel that they can express this, is very valuable. It’s very important for the Palestinians. The problem with the liberal Zionists is that they don’t actually – whatever they say, they don’t care about Palestinians, they like to appear civilized and humane. And you know, we don’t want to oppress anybody. But actually, if they thought about who Palestinians are, and what they’ve been through, they could not adhere to the policies of a state which created all of that, and which perpetuates it. So whether they’re liberal and they appreciate art or something, it is really irrelevant for the Palestinians, it’s quite useless.
And in a way, you know, I have to tell you, liberal Zionists are a menace. They are a menace, because they perpetuate this false presentation of Israel as some kind of civilized place. Which, you know, appeals to Western liberal sensibilities, sensibilities, who think well, these are really nice people, actually, and the state is quite nice. But they’ve got a bad government, for example. And you hear this a lot. So they really are a menace. In a way, I have to say to you that [Bezalel] Smotrich and et al. are a breath of fresh air.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: They’re honest. Absolutely. The mask is off. Exactly.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, they’re saying the quiet part out loud.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: It’s incredible. What do you see as the role of the so-called international community in terms of the single state inevitability?
Ghada Karmi: I’m afraid that the international community, so-called, has been extremely disappointing, where the Palestinians are concerned. Every time Israel commits a crime, and many of these crimes have been massive, against an innocent population, the international community is absent. It does nothing. It doesn’t matter what it says, it just doesn’t do anything. And you see, I came to the conclusion that Palestinians, in order to have a future, have to do away with these illusions.
There is no international community, as far as they’re concerned, there is no Western government, which cares a hang about them, and therefore they’re on their own. And they’ve, you know, they’ve very often relied on international law, on the United Nations, the various sections of the United Nations. But it’s – it’s never, it’s never changed anything, things just go on getting worse. So that’s why I feel very strongly, they have to take matters into their own hands. And if they do, it’ll make a real difference. It’s the only thing that will.
Asa Winstanley: So, finally, what are the obstacles to the one-state solution? And do you think it can happen within our lifetime?
Ghada Karmi: Well, if one looks at the book, I have talked about one possible route to the one state, and that is through a Palestinian demand for equal rights. Now, if you think about that, that’s actually not only important, but could be very effective. Currently, the one territory, the territory between the river and the sea, is one state. Israel rules it. Now about half of these, of the people it rules, are Jews, and the other half are Palestinians. So it is already a population which has a significant split down the middle.
Now, I have argued that if the Palestinian half which is the one without rights, without a state, it’s stateless, without nationality, that half you should demand equal rights with the rest of the citizens that Israel rules. That, to my mind, that is the first step. It’s comprehensible, it’s not difficult to, it’s not difficult to support, there are precedents for equal rights in Western, recent Western history. There is nothing bizarre about a demand like that. And nobody’s, nobody is attacking anybody. This is not violent. It’s asking that if – it’s making the point, that if you, Israel or any other party is ruling a people, you cannot do that without giving them any rights whatsoever, which is what’s happening.
Now, I feel quite strongly that if the Palestinians really set up a big campaign, demanding equal rights, Israel has to react one way or the other, it, you know, it has to ignore it, or it has to get more of a – well, it has to become more repressive, and the whole thing is out in the open. So I really feel that something like that has to happen. Unfortunately, your question is very good, Asa, because unfortunately, I don’t have confidence that Palestinians will want to do this, for the reasons we said before – they don’t want to live with these oppressors. They really don’t, this is a very big problem.
So, what will happen? Well, as I describe in my book, and as I said earlier, there’s a logic to this, whatever you might want, as Israel, and whatever the Palestinians might imagine that they can get, it won’t happen like this. It will only happen when there has been sufficient social unrest amongst Palestinians. This is a very powerful weapon because quite a few of them are living inside Israel. And the rest are living just literally in what was just part of the old Palestine. So they’re not far away. I’m talking about them. I’m not talking about people like me. They, if they all rose up as they did in 2021, if you remember, May 2021, very significant, very significant 11 days, in my opinion, they rose up together, this was really very striking. In 1948, in the West Bank and Gaza, in East Jerusalem, and us outside, this is really something, and that’s going to happen again.
Asa Winstanley: Yeah, it was kind of unprecedented. I mean, it’s not completely unprecedented for the whole of Palestine to rise up together, but it – I mean, I can’t think of a similar moment, really, since 1936 really, when it was the whole of Palestine unified like that in the same way. I mean, yes, during the second intifada, there were some protests within 1948 territory. And they were brutally repressed, you know, there were Palestinians in ‘48, inside present-day Israel who were killed for protesting in solidarity with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. But yeah, your final chapter in the book is on that and the significance of that, sort of what some people called the Unity Intifada, kind of uprising all together, and it broke down, really broke down the barriers imposed by Israel in that way.
Ghada Karmi: Yep. And I think that’s going to happen again, and we’ll gain momentum because that’s the way things work out. Once people have risen, and the cause for their, for their uprising remains the same or actually gets worse. They’re not – all the conditions are there again. And so it will be like that. Now, when you say will it be in our lifetimes, I have to tell you, I really, really want it to happen in our lifetimes.
I mean, here is a personal complaint: I cannot bear the idea of going to my grave with this horrendous injustice thriving and the State of Israel, the apartheid, ethnic cleansing state of Israel, you know, prospering. I can’t, I can’t. Either I’m never going to die, or that the situation will have to change drastically, and – but seriously speaking, I do not think it will be very long. I really don’t, because situations like this are unstable and they will erupt again and again. And each eruption has an effect. So it’s a bit like that, really.
Nora Barrows-Friedman: Ghada Karmi, thank you so much for all of the work that you do. Your new book is brilliant and invaluable. It’s called One State: The Only Democratic Future for Palestine-Israel. We’ll have links to that, to the book and how you can get it, on the podcast post that accompanies this episode. Ghada Karmi, thank you so much. And thanks for being with us again on The Electronic Intifada Podcast.