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Commentary

'Jewish State' Has Become an Anachronism

October 10, 2003|Tony Judt | Tony Judt is a professor of history and director of the Remarque Institute at New York University. A longer version of this essay appears in the current New York Review of Books.

At the dawn of the 20th century, in the twilight of the continental empires, Europe's subject peoples dreamed of forming "nation-states," territorial homelands where Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Armenians and others might live free, masters of their own fate. When the Hapsburg and Romanov empires collapsed after World War I, a flurry of new states did emerge. The first thing they did was privilege their national "ethnic" majority -- defined by language or religion or antiquity or all three -- at the expense of inconvenient local minorities, who were consigned to second-class status.

But one nationalist movement -- Zionism -- was frustrated in its ambitions. It was only in 1948 that a Jewish nation-state was belatedly established in formerly Ottoman Palestine. But the founders of the Jewish state had been influenced by the same concepts and categories as their fin de siecle contemporaries back in Warsaw, Odessa and Bucharest. Not surprisingly, Israel's ethno-religious self-definition and its discrimination against internal "foreigners" have always had more in common with, say, the practices of post-Hapsburg Romania than either party might care to acknowledge.

The problem with Israel, in short, is not, as is sometimes suggested, that it is a European enclave in the Arab world but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-19th-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers and international law. The very idea of a "Jewish state" -- a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded -- is rooted in another time and place. Israel, in short, is an anachronism.

In one vital attribute, however, Israel is different from previous insecure, defensive microstates born of imperial collapse: It is a democracy. But thanks to its occupation of the lands conquered in 1967, Israel today faces three unattractive choices.

It can dismantle the settlements and return to the 1967 borders, and thus remain both a Jewish state and a democracy.

Alternatively, Israel can continue to occupy the West Bank and Gaza, whose Arab population will become the demographic majority within five to eight years, in which case it will be either a Jewish state with a growing majority of disenfranchised non-Jews or it will be a democracy. But it cannot be both.

Or else Israel can keep control of the occupied territories but get rid of the overwhelming majority of the Arab population, either by forcible expulsion or by starving them of land and livelihood, leaving them no option but to go into exile. This would leave Israel as a Jewish and, at least formally, democratic state, but at the cost of conducting a full-scale ethnic cleansing as a state project. Anyone who supposes this cannot happen has not been watching the steady accretion of settlements and land seizures or listening to the generals and politicians on the Israeli right.

Israeli liberals and moderate Palestinians have for two decades been thanklessly insisting that the only hope is for Israel to dismantle nearly all the settlements and return to the 1967 borders in return for real Arab recognition of those frontiers and a stable, terrorist-free state. This is still the conventional consensus. But I suspect that we are already too late for that. There are too many settlements, too many settlers and too many Palestinians, and they all live together, albeit separated by barbed wire and "pass" laws.

Whatever the "road map" says, the real map is the one on the ground. Maybe all the settlers will leave voluntarily, but no one believes it. Some will die and kill rather than move.

The time has come to think the unthinkable. The two-state solution -- the core of the Oslo process and the road map -- is probably already doomed. With every passing year we are postponing an inevitable, harder choice that only the far right and far left have acknowledged. Today, the Middle East peace process is finished. It did not die: It was killed. And the true alternative facing the region is between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.

What if there were no place in the world today for a Jewish state? What if the binational solution were not just increasingly likely but actually desirable? It is not such a very odd thought.

Most of the readers of this essay live in pluralist states that have long since become multiethnic and multicultural. Israel itself is a multicultural society in all but name; yet it remains distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens. It is an oddity among modern nations not because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state, but because it is a Jewish state in which one community -- Jews -- is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.

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