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.