Ali Abunimah on One State in Israel/Palestine

I caught Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian/American activist and author of a new book calling for a single Arab and Jewish state in Palestine, at Columbia the other night. Abunimah made a few interesting points:

1. Having been to Northern Ireland, Abunimah reports that the two sides hate each other “deeply” but live with each other because they regard their situation as “vastly improved” over the violence of ten years before. The challenge in statecraft is to create mechanisms that allow for equal treatment under the law while giving a lot of space for people to preserve independent ethnic identity and autonomy. So what if they hate each other? At least they’re working together to improve one anothers’ lives. (The late Milton Friedman endorsed a similar view in a posthumous rerun on Charlie Rose: people who hate each other can still trade with one another.)

2. The “Peace process” is an industry that spends billions of dollars on the same idea over and over again with no clear results. “There is a fantasy of separation, that the other side can be made to disappear, either behind a wall or through the existence of a Palestinian state.”

3. Some Zionists in the 20s and 30s were in favor of a state that was Arab and Jewish.

(Judah Magnes of Hebrew U. And Chaim Arlosorov, who got murdered by people loyal to Leon Wieseltier’s father’s hero Vlad. Jabotinsky). (Roosevelt and Truman were also for such a state, at times). Yes, Arabs were against a binational state then, Abunimah said. But at the time, they were facing the in-migration of 80,000 Jews: maybe 10 percent of Palestine, why should they share power with these guys? He says attitudes are different now.

4. FW DeClerk of South Africa said a few years ago, Abunimah says, that the “roadmap” to a two-state solution in Palestine was just what Afrikaaner colonists were trying to achieve in their “grand plan” of the 1950s: partition/apartheid. In the 80s, as that system collapsed, the great challenge to the white South Africans was to accept the idea that they shared the land with the blacks who had preceded them. This was a long process that included “dismounting from the tiger,” coming to believe that if the whites gave up power, the Africans wouldn’t push them into the sea. Jews in Israel are in the same situation. They believe the Arabs want to push them into the sea. Mandela was a great figure because, in the process of burying his own grievances, he was able to show the whites that the blacks didn’t want to devour them, but respected their place. Abunimah says that Arabs need a collective transformative Mandela vision. He called for acts of Ghandian nonviolent assertion: like walking to Jerusalem en masse when they’re not supposed to be there.

5. In challenging the “ideological fortifications” of Israel, Abunimah pointed out that despite its origins as a refuge for world Jewry, fewer than half the world’s Jews live in Israel, and few American Jews desire to move there. Indeed, he said, the birthright program, which gives a free trip to Israel to young Jews, only gets 2-3,000 recruits a year.

A lot of the questions were about support for Israel in the U.S., which Abunimah described as a situation of “ideological hegemony.” Afterward I talked to Abunimah briefly and suggested that attitudes may be changing in the U.S., that the lobby is beginning to be examined, and pluralist Americans aren’t going to be happy with the findings. He said, “Well, one lesson of South Africa is, when things start to change, they change rapidly.”

Myself, I’m sympathetic to Abunimah’s vision, but I don’t know enough to be sure. One thing I am sure about is his presence: he’s idealistic. He may be a naive and deluded dreamer, fine, but his vibe is, he’s a dreamer, and visionary. He’s a slender, balding hip guy, dressed in big brass belt buckle, dark shirt and darker tie. He’s not angry and crazy, he’s an idealist. And as anyone who is trying to imagine the future knows—including Democrats who want to take back the White House in ‘08—idealism is a place you want to be. Abunimah’s vibe was more pronounced if (during the same time slot) you had visited the suit-and-tied Israeli general in the law school room next door, drily explaining the reasons for the Lebanon war and describing Lebanon as a “beautiful piece of land.”

The problem with Zionism for this Jew comes down to that one thing. I’m an idealist; I like to feel idealistic about my politics. Embracing Zionism these days isn’t any fun. It’s about arguing, we didn’t kill that little child on purpose, and they did it first; about rationalizing land grabs from Arabs, 60 years ago and today; about contending that Arabs are alot like the Nazis; about justifying the denial of the right of travel of the Gaza soccer team; about rationalizing the fact that the American Jewish committee spoke to the Polish consulate before Tony Judt’s planned speech to say that Judt “was not the most popular figure in Jewish circles.”

Omigod, what kind of way is this to Be Jewish and feel good about it? There isn’t a hope or a dream involved. Of course it’s true that Zionism was a place of dreams in decades past, but it seems like a lot of the dream has collapsed into a colonialist blind alley. And the idealistic energy now is in other places. Leon Wieseltier has said emotionally, angrily, that in calling for a binational state Tony Judt is calling for the destruction of the state of Israel. A scary word. The question back is how many blighted lives, Jewish and Arab, is the idea of a Jewish state worth?

Related Links

  • “One Country”: a new book from EI cofounder Ali Abunimah
  • Mondoweiss, New York Observer