I am feeling optimistic about Palestine.
I know it sounds crazy. How can I use “optimistic” and “Palestine” in the same sentence when conditions on the ground only seem to get worse? Israeli settlements continue to expand on a daily basis, the checkpoints and segregated road system are becoming more and more institutionalized, more than 10,000 Palestinian political prisoners are being held in Israeli jails, Gaza is under heavy attack and the borders are entirely controlled by Israel, preventing people from getting their most basic human needs met.
We can never forget these things and the daily suffering of the people, and yet I dare to say that I am optimistic. Why? Ehud Olmert. Let me clarify. Better yet, let’s let him clarify:
“The day will come when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.”
That’s right, the Prime Minister of Israel is currently trying to negotiate a “two-state solution” specifically because he realizes that if he doesn’t, Palestinians might begin to demand, en masse, equal rights to Israelis. Furthermore, he worries, the world might begin to see Israel as an apartheid state. In actuality, most of the world already sees Israel this way, but Olmert is worried that even Israel’s most ardent supporters will begin to catch up with the rest of the world.
“The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us,” he told Haaretz, “because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.”
Perhaps Olmert is giving American Jews too much credit here, but he does expose a basic contradiction in the minds of most American people, Jewish and not: most of us — at least in theory — support equal rights for all residents of a country. Most of us do not support rights given on the basis of ethnicity and religion, especially when the ethnicity/religion being prioritized is one that excludes the vast majority of the country’s indigenous population. We cannot, of course, forget the history of ethnic cleansing of indigenous people on the American continent. But we must not use the existence of past atrocities to justify present ones.
I am optimistic not because I think the process of ethnic cleansing and apartheid in Israel/Palestine is going to end tomorrow, but because I can feel the ideology behind these policies beginning to collapse. For years the true meaning of political Zionism has been as ignored as its effects on Palestinian daily life. And suddenly it is beginning to break open. Olmert’s comments last week are reminiscent of those of early Zionist leaders who talked openly of transfer and ethnic cleansing in order to create an artificial Jewish majority in historic Palestine.
We must expel the Arabs and take their places and if we have to use force to guarantee our own right to settle in those places — then we have force at our disposal. - David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s “founding father” and first prime minister, 1937
So this idea of a “two-state solution” a la Olmert — which I would argue provides neither a “state” nor a “solution” for the Palestinian people — is the new transfer. It is no longer popular in the world to openly discuss expulsion (though there are political parties in Israel that advocate this), but Olmert hopes that by creating a Palestinian “state” on a tiny portion of historic Palestine, he can accomplish the same goal: maintaining an ethno-religious state exclusively for the Jewish people in most of historic Palestine. His plan, as all other plans Israeli leaders have tried to “negotiate,” ignores the basic rights of the two-thirds of the Palestinian population who are refugees. They, like all other refugees in the world, have the internationally recognized right to return to their lands and receive compensation for loss and damages. This should not be up for negotiation.
So why am I optimistic? Why do I think Olmert will fail, if not in the short term, at least in the long term? There are many signs.
The first and most important is that Palestinian people are holding on. Sometimes by a thread, but holding on nonetheless. Despite the hope of many in Israel, Palestinians will not disappear. They engage in daily acts of nonviolent resistance, from demonstrations against the wall and land confiscation, to simply remaining in their homes against all odds. Young people are joining organizations designed to preserve their culture and identity. Older Palestinians have said to me, “We lived through the Ottoman Empire, we lived through the British Mandate, we lived through Jordanian rule, and we will live through Israeli occupation.” This too shall pass.
In Israel, it seems that within the traditional “Zionist left,” Jewish Israelis are beginning to have open conversations about the exclusivity of Zionism as a political ideology, and are questioning it more and more.
In the US, I have been traveling around speaking to groups about Palestine, and they get it. Even those whose prior information has come only from US mainstream media, when they hear what is actually happening, they get it. When we explain the difference between being Jewish (a religion or ethnicity), Israeli (a citizenship), and Zionist (an ideology), people understand.
“Does Israel have a right to exist?” people ask. What does that mean? Do countries really have rights, or do people have rights? The Jewish people have a right to exist, the Israeli people have a right to exist, but what does “Israel” mean? Israel defines itself as the state of the Jewish people. It is not a state of its citizens. It is a state of many people who are not its citizens, like myself, and is not the state of many people who are its citizens, like the 20 percent of its population that is Palestinian. So if we ask a Palestinian person, “Do you recognize the right for there to be a country on your historic homeland that explicitly excludes you?” what kind of response should we expect?
So when Olmert warns that we will “face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights” and that “the state of Israel [will be] finished,” I get a little flutter of excitement. I think of the 171 Palestinian organizations who have called on the international community to begin campaigns of boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel until Israel complies with international law. This is already a South African-style struggle, and we outside of Palestine need to do our part. Especially those of us who live in the US, the country that gives Israel more than $10 million every single day, must take responsibility for the atrocities committed in our name and with our money.
Ultimately, this is our role as Americans. It is to begin campaigns in our churches, synagogues, mosques, universities, cities, unions, etc. It is not to broker false negotiations between occupier and occupied, and it is not to muse over solutions the way I have above. But one can dream. And as a Jewish-American, I know that while it might be scary to some, while it will require a lot of imagination, the end of Israel as a Jewish state could mean the beginning of democracy, human rights, and some semblance of justice in a land that has almost forgotten what that means.
Hannah Mermelstein is co-founder and co-director of Birthright Unplugged, which takes mostly Jewish North American people into the West Bank to meet with Palestinian people and to equip them to return to their own communities and work for justice; and takes Palestinian children from refugee camps to Jerusalem, the sea, and the villages their grandparents fled in 1948, and supports them to document their experiences and create photography exhibits to share with their communities and with the world. Anna Baltzer helped contribute to this article.