Binationalism then and now

Submitted by martin on 2 July, 2019 - 8:36 Author: Rhodri Evans

I liked Barry Finger's review of Susie Linfield's excellent book The Lion's Den, but I want to open debate on two issues.

Barry calls for "binationalism" in Israel. I understand that is different from those who call for Israel to be extinguished and all 1948 Palestine to become a single "binational" state - so neither Israeli Jews nor Palestinian Arabs have self-determination - but still it leaves questions unanswered.

We should surely be for the big national minority in Israel - the 20% Palestinian minority - enjoying equal individual rights, language rights, and some autonomy in the areas where they are a majority.

But is that "binationalism"? The Palestinian-Israelis are heavily concentrated in Palestinian-majority villages and towns, and the city of Nazareth. Up to 1966 those centres of their population were under military government, but now they have local self-government. That seems to have some reality, since turnout for local government elections in Palestinian-majorities is about 90%, as against barely 50% in national elections.

Despite the hurtful recent "Nation State law", Arabic has wide official use, which has expanded since 2000.

Things could be improved on both those fronts, but I doubt Barry's argument is about that (or about the many changes that could be made to state symbolism).

Barry has mentioned (not in that review) the right of secession from Israel (to a future Palestinian state) of Palestinian-majority areas. That demand was first raised, as I understand it, by the Israeli Stalinists in the late 1950s. It seems incontrovertible. We in Workers' Liberty have raised it too.

That can hardly be the key to progress, either, since those in Israel arguing for that secession at present are right-wing Israeli chauvinists (who want a more "secure" Jewish majority), and the Palestinian-Israelis strongly reject secession.

When binationalism in Palestine was first raised in the 1920s, by liberal Zionists, it meant that Britain would continue to rule, but Jewish and Arab communities would each have some self-government and an equal right to lobby the British. It relied on British rule "holding the ring".

In the 1940s, very different groups backed "binational" schemes - liberal Zionists, left Zionists, the Palestinian Stalinists, the Heterodox Trotskyists, and, for a while in 1946, the US and British governments (who envisaged a UN protectorate to "hold the ring").

The schemes varied a lot in detail, but they had a common problem, crisply put by Albert Hourani, later a well-known academic, who was then the Arab League's lobbyist in London.

Binational schemes, he said, could work "if a certain spirit of co-operation and trust exists and if there is an underlying sense of unity to neutralise communal differences. But that spirit does not exist in Palestine. If it existed, the whole problem would not have arisen".

By 1947-8 pretty much all the 1946 advocates of binationalism had, from their very different angles, come to concede that partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states was the only workable next step. (Apparently Hourani himself, who in 1946 took it on him to be the "reasonable face" of Arab chauvinism, also later came to that conclusion).

Of course partition then raised the question of the rights of the Arabs in the Jewish state, and would have raised the question of the rights in the Palestinian Arab state if that state had not been snuffed out by Jordan and Egypt (except that all the Jews in the area had been killed or evicted).

Some of the variants of binationalism recently proposed within Israel fall foul of Hourani's objection, because they propose that the Palestinian-Israeli community have an organised veto over at least some major issues in Israel. Few nations concede wide veto rights over general state affairs to their minorities: if relations were easy enough to make that solution workable, then there would already be no serious problem to solve.

The other problem with variants of binationalism - and some reform programs not labelled "binationalism", like that of the liberals Ilan Peleg and Dov Waxman in their book on Israel's Palestinians - is that they would accentuate rather than blur the divisions between communities in Israel. This is the same objection that Lenin and others had to the "national-cultural autonomy" programme of the Austrian Social-Democrats before World War 1.

For example, Peleg and Waxman propose more Palestinian-Israeli control over Arab-language schooling in Israel, and a new "Arab university" there. Would it not be better to expand the dual-language Hebrew-Arabic schools (some have developed in recent years), and to have universities teach courses in Arabic as well as Hebrew (as the University of Barcelona teaches many courses in both Spanish and Catalan)?

A completely different point for discussion is the Khazars, the Turkic people who in the 8th centuries had a powerful state around the Caspian and the Black Sea whose rulers (at least, and maybe the people) were religiously Jewish.

I see Barry's point that Arthur Koestler's book arguing that most East European Jews were descended from the Khazars has been much used by antisemites. Also used for Israel-bashing is the argument that today's Palestinians are mostly descended not from Arabs but from ancient Canaanites. But I don't understand his insistence that Koestler was completely wrong. The records are scanty. How can we know?

The answer to the question of "who is the rightful Canaanite heir to Palestine?" is: no one.

Linfield puts it well: "The Jewish people are, of course, a mixture of races and ethnicities, including African, Arab, Persian, Berber, and European, as a walk down any street in Israel will quickly show". And Khazar? It is irrelevant to current politics.

National territories are not inheritances. We seek to resolve national disputes on the basis of the rights and interests of the living communities of today, not on the impossible basis of reclaiming the rights, and mending the wrongs, of all their ancestors.


Submitted by Barry Finger on Wed, 10/07/2019 - 19:21

Thanks to Rhodri for these thoughtful comments.

One of Rhodri’s two main objections is this. The clash of national rights over contested territories cannot be resolved by discussions of indigeneity. All the better perhaps that we dispense with that entire line of reasoning insofar as Koestler has made a credible case that (Ashkenazic) Jewry’s ties to Israel/Palestine are tenuous, if not indefensible. In light of this, it would be better to ditch this line of attack for being both a distraction and a fruitless detour to the advancement of our politics. What is sufficient as socialists is that we begin with the acceptance of two legitimate nations both with equal rights to self-determination on a common territory and that we seek principled redress based on that recognition. Rhodri here, if I’m permitted an inference, recommends a sort of political “Occam’s Razor” guide to the Israel/Palestine issue, which on many levels I truly appreciate.

It may come as a shock, but I fully agree with Rhodri. “The answer to the question of ‘who is the rightful Canaanite heir to Palestine?’ is: no one.” But unfortunately, Workers’ Liberty does not control the narrative. That Arab chauvinist case runs consistently through various intertwined discourses: historical inversion, colonial-settlerism and indigenous rights that are repeatedly invoked to invalidate the Jewish presence in Israel/Palestine. This is the dominant mode of thought on the Left today.

What I have tried to do is engage these arguments by flipping the narrative: to reveal why Zionism itself, far from being a “national liberation ideology” is a credible claim to indigenous rights; while conceding that Jews could only return as settlers to the land that gave birth to their peoplehood. Palestinian rights, from the Zionist perspective, are therefore the lesser rights that derive from being a long established settler Arab community. And in its extreme chauvinist version, acceptance of these rights are a magnanimous gift from the rightful inhabitants (Jews) to their Arab usurpers.

The Arab claim, on the other hand, is, ironically, Zionism turned inside out. Palestinians, it is argued, were either present from time immemorial as Canaanites (and therefore not Arabs), or Arabs distributed by Islamic conquests to a land long made devoid of its original Jewish inhabitants by previous Roman conquests and dispersions. Arabs therefore replaced the Jews as the indigenous people of Palestine. They entered a land without an aboriginal people. Koestler’s tale serves both narratives. But it is a tale that predates even him. It is the narrative of 19th Century European anti-semitism. The Mufti himself insisted, as did all contemporary European anti-semites, that the Jews residing in Europe had their origins in Mongolia. Later, with the dawn of the New Left’s third Worldism, Jews became, in effect, Araynized as white Europeans, something that would have been inimical to a previous pro-Nazi Palestinian leadership. But whether pro-Nazi or third-worldist, Arab chauvinism is united in its denial of a European Jewry’s Levantine origins and their shared roots and established genome commonality with their Mizrahi and Sephardic communal bretheren.

This is the narrative with which the left is most familiar and around which it builds its indictment of Israel.

My takeaway, however, is the same as Rhodri’s: each national narrative inverts and all too neatly negates the other. Each has elements of truth and each is blind to the truth of the other. It is a zero sum game. For Jews and Arabs are both indigenous, and are both settler-colonialists depending on where you start the clock of history. To take sides on that basis is to endorse one or the other chauvinism, not to resolve it. It is, as he avers, a dead end.

My difference with Rhodri is simply that he starts at the end, leapfrogging over the middle where the meat of the dispute—and all the jingoist excesses-- occurs. If I spend more time in presenting the Jewish narrative, it is not because I endorse it full on, but because it is a discourse rarely heard on the Left. It is my hope that by advancing that perspective I can contribute to a dismantling of the rampant but misguided moral certitude by which the left justifies its Israel eliminationism.

The second, and I think more pressing, question is, what exactly does a program of bi-nationalism or its advocacy mean in Israel (the Israel within the 1967 borders, not Greater Israel of the occupation) today? But here I find Rhodri’s question itself puzzling. Palestinian-Israelis do not seek secession, he argues and, if I understand the argument, any credible program for collective equality, as opposed to individual equality, would most likely (?) result in heightening national animosities and communal divisions. Rhodri references Lenin’s objections to the Austro-marxist approach to cultural autonomy, and suggests “Would it not be better to expand the dual-language Hebrew-Arabic schools (some have developed in recent years), and to have universities teach courses in Arabic as well as Hebrew (as the University of Barcelona teaches many courses in both Spanish and Catalan)?”

Is this an argument, Rhodri, against bi-nationalism, or for a more rational and intelligent bi-nationalism, a bi-nationalism that seeks to knit two communities in a common homeland? The ultimate point of bi-nationalism is reconciliation based on national equality in the presence of and despite numerical inequality. Bi-nationalism is not about exacerbating national grievances but alleviating and surmounting them. It is the call for recognition on the part of the dominant Hebrew public to accept the just claim of the Arab community that resides in its midst to exercise national equality and realize its collective dignity by right and not by sufferance in the same state. And it extends as proof of its good will an endorsement of the Arab right to secession. It is a condition of Jewish-Arab working class unity.

Why not take our cue from Trotsky? “In so far as the various nationalities, voluntarily or through force of necessity, coexist within the borders of one state, their cultural interests must find the highest possible satisfaction within the framework of the broadest regional (and consequently, territorial) autonomy, including statutory guarantees of the rights of each minority. At the same time, Lenin deemed it the incontrovertible duty of all the workers of a given state, irrespective of nationality, to unite in one and the same class organizations.”

Arabs within pre-67 Israel face Jewish chauvinism on two levels: as individual citizens and as a national minority. The Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws of Israel however preclude the construction of apartheid, a condition characterized by institutional restrictions imposed on individuals due to their racial or national origin. Palestinian-Arabs, in contrast, have the right to be citizens; to obtain an education; to participate freely in the political life of Israel; to practice their religions; to retain the right to immigrate and emigrate; and the right to chose where to live and one’s job and place of work. That these rights are often poorly enforced or enforced in bad faith does not change the fact. The legal system of Israel stipulates its non-apartheid character, which is why Palestinian-Israeli political life is not primarily oriented around the struggle for civil rights.

Palestinian-Israeli oppression is primarily and systemically grounded in the national question, at the level of the collectivity not the individual. All Palestinian-Israeli parties reject the Zionist character of the Israeli state. The Communists seek a non-national state, a state of its citizens as exists in the US. The other parties exist to advance an assertion of Palestinian nationalism in one form or another. That is why the ruling Zionist parties have always refused formal electoral coalitions with these groups. It is understood that a Zionist coalition with a Palestinian party would be tantamount to conceding operational legitimation to the bi-national reality of Israel. That is not to deny that Zionist parties, even settler parties, have Arab lists. But these slots cement loyalties based on patronage. Israel functions as a Jewish chauvinist state, not as an apartheid state, precisely because its dominant Jewish circles are unwilling to adopt the conditionality of any Palestinian-Israeli party’s platform as basis for an electoral alliance. That unwillingness effectively locks out the Arab community from full participation in the governance of society.

As long as Israel remains in a cold war with its Arab minority, it will be unable to reach real peace with the Arab world. Not even if it negotiates formal accords from on high with the neighboring Arab ruling classes. The bi-national tendencies within Zionism that Rhodri references were defeated in Israel’s foundational experience, when the Hebrew community fought alone to defend its sovereign rights in 1948. Thereafter, the remnant Arab community has been eyed with varying suspicions, not as a legitimate aspirant to national equality as a minority, but as a latent fifth column.

There is however a realistic hope for the revival of the binational spirit rooted in joint Jewish-Arab Israeli resistance to the occupation. If this force becomes a principal factor in the creation of a Palestinian state along side Israel, it’s dynamic will not be contained. Its victory, the common victory of Jews and Arabs, will unsettle and redefine the power relations within Israel itself.

Submitted by martin on Mon, 29/07/2019 - 09:25

Yes, Israel has been in a sort of cold war with its Arab (or, as apparently it now mostly prefers to call itself, Palestinian) minority since 1948.

Fundamentally, that is because Israel's majority (Jewish) community has been at warm or hot war, on and off, for 90 or 100 years with the nation of which that Arab/ Palestinian minority is part.

We want to win peace in that "external" war by a democratic "two states" settlement. That peace will not, however, undo the effects of the decades of war.

It may even in the short term worsen them. A democratic "two states" settlement will bring hundreds of thousands of West Bank settlers back into Israel, resentful, angry, maybe revenge-seeking.

On the Palestinian side, too, there are likely to be large numbers dissatisfied. No border between the two states can be anchored in history ancient enough to seem "natural", or in big natural dividing lines (mountain ranges, big rivers, or such).

Groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad - which may have lost some of their current clout by then, but are unlikely to have disappeared - are likely to redouble symbolic attacks on Israeli civilians designed to register a claim to more territory.

And the new independent Palestinian state, even with a "good" "two states" settlement, even with external aid, will be weak and, for many, disappointing.

None of that can be conjured away. All of that mandates urgency about measures to minimise the "cold war" within Israel now, to minimise a possible revival of it after an "external" settlement, and to help it die down quickly after that.

I think Barry and I have agreement on that. My query is that I don't think the term "binationalism" helps as a description of the solution.

"Two states" means recognising that the two nations, Israeli-Jewish and Palestinian-Arab, both have the right to self-determination. Each has the right to a nation-state.

In the first place, "binationalism", without definition, suggests not a "two states", but a "one-and-a-half states/ half-a-state" settlement. Even if that were desirable, it is not going to happen. If the nationalist feelings on all sides had abated enough to make it possible, they would already have abated enough to make some much broader federal solution possible.

But surely each nation-state - there as elsewhere - should also do as Barry indicates (quoting Trotsky) and safeguard the rights of minorities in it.

Ever since the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into multiple states, all with large minorities, and the rise of nationalism all across Europe, there has been a large industry in Europe of codifying the rights of minorities. It is a bourgeois-democratic industry, but national minority rights, like national rights to self-determination, are bourgeois-democratic rights: socialists aim to consolidate the best of bourgeois democracy in that field, and the socialist supersession is not some new set of national rights, but a going-over into broader, multinational, units, and an eventual melding of national identities into a diverse whole.

The industry went somewhat into recession after 1945, when Stalin brutally "tidied up" the national questions in Eastern Europe by mass deportations - not only of German minorities from many countries, but also, for example, of 1.5 million Poles then still living in what is now Ukraine - but it continues.

Socialists should surely advocate that those codified national minority rights are implemented fully in Israel. None of their more-or-less successful implementations have been called "binational".

Logically, and in the complicated history of "binationalist" proposals in Palestine, there are two distinct "modes" of binational state. Neither seems to me helpful now.

One is a state constituted as a territorial federation of two nations, each with its own territory. Belgium is a rough approximation, if you take the Dutch-speaking and French-speaking populations to be "nations", and if you ignore a myriad of other complications.

Even in prosperous Belgium, with a common Belgian identity forged over nearly 200 years, that does not work well. And in Israel? As far as I know, no-one has ever proposed it, and I can't imagine how it could work even passably.

The Palestinian-Arab territory would be a tiny patch north and east of Nazareth, too tiny to give much real substance to its autonomy beyond what can be got from strengthened autonomy for local government in cities, villages, etc. Many of the people living in that territory would work in the "other", much stronger, federal unit, and many (maybe most) Palestinians in Israel would live in the "other" unit.

The other "mode" of a binational state is the one known to Marxists as the "Austro-Marxist" scheme, which is non-territorial.

Instead, every citizen (wherever in the state they live) is tagged with a "national" sub-identity in addition to their citizenship, and there are institutions, parliaments, voting procedures, etc. for each separate nationality within the state structure.

Lenin - and indeed the majority in the Second International - criticised that as a scheme likely to consolidate and congeal national divisions, rather than contribute to workers' unity.

Israel, as it happens, does tag each citizen with a "national" sub-identity. But, I'm glad to say, since 2005 that tag no longer appears on citizens' identity cards. There are no voting procedures "by nationality".

My argument is that to boost the official "national" sub-identity stamp, let alone construct a series of institutions on the basis of it, would be a step backwards, for the reasons cited by Lenin.

And well-intentioned measures tending that way - like for example the creation of an "Arab University" alongside Israel's other universities - would be a step back. Better to get the existing universities to offer teaching in Arabic (as the University of Barcelona teaches many courses in duplicate, in Catalan and in Spanish) and to get more universities up to the level of Haifa University, where over 40% of the students are Arab.

Better to remove the tagging by "national" sub-identity altogether. Better a strong drive to equalise Arab employment in public services. Better to create more than the current pioneering few dual-language Hebrew-Arabic schools. And so on.

And better, of course, to abolish Israel's archaic marriage laws, inherited from the British Mandate, which make it impossible to marry across defined religious-community boundaries without going abroad and getting a foreign marriage which will then be recognised in Israel.

An approach by way of equality and integration would also have the advantage of helping the considerable minority of Israel's population who are currently classified as neither "Jewish" nor "Arab" - about 5%, or more than the Muslim minority in Britain, or the total of the Asian-minority populations in the USA.

Yes, you could call that "a more rational and intelligent [attempt] to knit two communities in a common homeland", but to call it binationalism is at best confusing.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.