False Dichotomies


“State for all its Citizens” = Palestinian-Arab State Instead of Jewish One (2)

A response to Joseph Finlay’s critique of my critique of Ben White. 

1) You say that ‘his prognosis is to replace the Jewish state with a Palestinian-Arab one’. But of course that is the very opposite to what he is proposing – his piece is calling for a state for all its citizens – ‘a state where all have equal rights’. You are a making an a priori assumption that the nature of a state is dependent on which group is in the majority – when Jews are in the majority it is a Jewish state, when Arabs are in the majority it is an Arab state. But this is not necessarily so. In Britain, white Anglo-Saxons are in the majority, but it is not a white Anglo-Saxon state.  A clearer example is Northern Ireland – since its foundation it has had a Protestant majority, and for years was run as a Protestant state, where Protestants held all the power and ran the state for Protestant benefit. Since the Good Friday agreement and power sharing, Northern Ireland has become a state of all its citizens, where both communities share power, where the police force is mixed etc, despite there still being a Protestant majority. The nature of a state is defined by its constitutional setup and legal practices, not purely by the ethnic balance of his citizenship. So I reject the claim that White is calling for a Palestinian-Arab state.”

First of all, this is not just a theoretical exercise. Clearly you are right in saying that ‘a state where all have equal rights’ could mean just that. To understand whether this is what the author is advocating, we have to examine his writings a bit more deeply in order to see what his motivations are. That’s why I wrote, “Why can’t the second part of White’s vague vision not be fulfilled in a two-state, or a federal model? Why the insistence on one state in which Palestinians are guaranteed to outnumber Jews? More importantly, given Jewish history (which White never acknowledges), and the justifiable fear of surrendering the sovereignty that was regained 2000 years after it was lost, why does he not offer some comfort,  some qualification beyond the usual slogans? Why is he not interested in gaining the trust of those who – if he is to believed – will be at the heart of this wonderful new state?”

That being said, I have met one or two (but only one or two) people who are sincere in their commitment to some kind of equitable bi-national model. Perhaps you’re the third. But all the good will in the world doesn’t stop this from being more than just a theoretical exercise. You are right that the constitutional setup and legal practices of a state play a role in determining its nature, as does its ethnic balance, but you err in implying that all that matters is the constitutional setup. Given this, one cannot avoid making comparisons to other states and conflict zones, with the aim of assessing whether attempting to implement such changes (including implementation of the Right of Return, a point you ignore) will likely lead to a more positive future, as in Northern Ireland (which remains firmly under British sovereignty, incidentally), or war as in the Balkans. Judith Butler, from the comfort of her California home, has written in favour of a “federated authority for Palestine-Israel that was actually governed by a strong constitution that guaranteed rights regardless of cultural background, religion, ethnicity, race and the rest”, to which a friend who spent nearly two years living in the (Palestinian) West Bank wrote: “[This] is just an expression of blind faith in the possibility of cosmopolitan relations; I could be much more harsh. I don’t see how anyone who has spent any time in either country [sic] could be so sanguine.”

It is absurd to suggest that you simply create a ‘state for all its citizens’ constitution and then everything will be OK. It is particularly absurd coming from someone, like Ben White, who, given the vitriol which characterizes his writing about Israeli-Jews, clearly lacks the blind faith in cosmopolitan relations that we could generously accredit to Butler. It is one of the strangest aspects of one-state discourse, and perhaps its most deadly give away. BDS activists both transparently despise Israeli-Jewish society and claim that all they want is to create a state where it will be equal with that of the Palestinians. And of course they do this without offering any sort of the comfort I have mentioned above.

Most of all, though, both Israelis and Palestinians have consistently rejected the ‘state for all its citizens’ model in favour of two-states, a point that is of little concern to someone like Ben White who is neither Israeli or Palestinian, and in even the most utopian of scenarios for the region would not be allowed to take up citizenship here. This shows an impressive commitment to democratic values.

2) You use the term ‘Israel-proper’. But Israel proper doesn’t exist. There is only Israel, which at present governs the entire land (except Gaza) with a very limited form of devolution in small islands of territory in the west bank. This is an important issue, you can’t talk as if there is a two state solution when the reality on the ground is a one state one in which a large number of people are denied the vote.

If the reality on the ground is one state today then it was one state in 1967; the fact that the occupation has gone on for so long does not necessarily make it into something it is not. And I reject the notion that there is one state today. One state is sovereign, yes, but this does not mean that there is one state. As you said, there are areas of the West Bank with what we might call the trappings of devolution, but not sovereignty. And I am not arguing that there is a two-state reality either; the reality is one of occupation, with the occupying people having more rights than the occupied people. Needless to say, one doesn’t have to be in favour of one state in either the Utopian or the replacing-Israel-with-a-Palestinian-Arab-state model to find this state of affairs intolerable.

3) In your section ‘What if Israel had been called Jewland? Would that solve the problem?’ you have missed the point. If Israel were called Jew-land (or more probably, Judea) then all its citizens would be called Jews. Which mainstream Zionism is not willing to tolerate as it would redefine Jew as meaning anyone who was governed by the Jewish state, and thus would be a state for all its citizens. Or you keep the name Israel, and be clear that everyone in the state is Israeli, that the term Jew will have no legal status/privilege within the state. Either option represents the reasonable norm of citizenship policy. But at present the two terms (Israel, Jewish state) mean that the state only really belongs to some of its inhabitants and not others and to a group of other people who may have never been to that state). It would be a bit like saying Britain must remain an Anglo-Saxon state, other groups can be tolerated as national minorities, but cannot expect equality, because that would damage the Anglo-Saxon nation nature of the state. But of course Britain doesn’t do that – it makes everyone who resides within its borders British (and everyone in England is English) regardless of background. That’s the crux of that matter, if you have to use two different words to describe the name of the state and it’s ‘nature’ it’s a sure sign that there’s a problem.

First of all, my preference is for a model whereby the state is Israel and that Jews will have no legal status/privilege within the state. I agree with Jabotinsky that the societal culture (which is what I’m concerned about, not ethnic discrimination) will be determined largely by the majority group. Second, you don’t deal with my core point: “The anomaly emerges because the Diaspora preceded the modern nation-state; it certainly makes Israel rather unique. But being rather unique is not a crime; nor does Israel’s exceptionalism justify its elimination.” I’m aware that Israel is substantively different to other liberal democracies; at this stage it would be impossible for it to be otherwise without it losing its raison d’etre. Hopefully, at some point in the future, it will be able to evolve more in the direction I would prefer. It is still relatively young and it is still surrounded by countries and entities devoted to its destruction. The fact that it doesn’t meet these western norms does not justify throwing out the baby with the bathwater and replacing it with a Palestinian-Arab state. I would also argue that Britain’s culture remains largely English, and this is of course connected to its Anglo-Saxon origins. In short, though, we would agree that there is a problem with how Israel is currently constituted: my solution is to fight the manifestations of discrimination (which are primarily de facto); Ben White’s is to replace Israel with a Palestinian-Arab state. Your goals may be more noble, but you are a committed Diasporist, and so I’m not sure we will see you coming here to implement them in the near future (although it would be awesome if you made aliyah).


10 Comments so far

  1. C. Bendavid October 5th, 2013 8:32 pm

    Good article Alex, but I’d like to add a few points.

    Everything Joseph Finlay says is false. Obviously he doesn’t know anything about Otto Bauer’s program of ”cultural-national autonomy”, which is still in effect in Eastern Europe. According to this model, which is the one imported to Palestine by the Zionist movement (since the founding fathers of Israel came from this part of the world), a nation is not a territorial community (united by a common citizenship) but rather a cultural community. Thus, the territory is disconnected from the nationality (and the citizenship from the nationality as well).
    As a result, in countries like Estonia, Slovakia, Croatia or Israel, there is no such thing as a territorial (civic) nation, encompassing all their citizens. Instead, you have different cultural nations. This is why Hungarians living in Slovakia are not part of the Slovak nation and why Russians living in Estonia are not part of the Estonian nation. The same goes for Israel where you have no Israeli territorial nation.
    Thus, the nation of Israel ”Am Israel”, which is a synonym in the bible for the Jewish people, encompasses Israeli Jews only.

    Nonetheless, cultural minorities, which in Eastern Europe are excluded from the nationalities of the countries in which they live, have access to citizenship which grants them full political rights. And this is why Israeli Arabs are citizens of israel without being members of the Israeli (Jewish) nation.

    I know this model of ”national-cultural autonomy’ is rejected by many in Western countries for being ”ethnic” rather than ”civic”. Well, this false dichotomy (!) between civic and ethnic nationalism brought forth by Hans Kohn in 1944, which is still defended by people like Sami Smooha with his concept ”ethnic democracy”, has been criticized extensively by prominent scholars of nationalism such as Rogers Brubaker, Anthony Smith and Alex Yakobson.
    First, because there is no such thing as ”civic nationalism”. In fact, most Western countries are just inasmuch ”ethnic” in their national identities than Eastern European countries. The only difference is that during the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, they forcefully assimilated their minorities (Eugene Weber describes this process perfectly in his magnum opus ”Peasants into Frenchmen”.
    This is why many Catalans are more comfortable in Spanish than in Catalan and this also why the Irish and the Scotts have replaced Gaelic by English.

    Even today, although Western countries are now trying to rehabilitate miority languages, the truth of the matter, aside from the fact that it’s too late (the Irish won’t replace English by Gaelic anytime soon and French will continue to be the main language used in Corsica), is that in countries that define the boundaries of their national identities on territorial (civic) basis, national minorities cannot be recognized since all citizens are required to be part of the same nation. No wonder why the Spanish and the French constitutional courts have refused to recognize Catalans and Corsicans as nations. Even the Canadian constitution, this great multicultural/ post-national country refuses to recognize Quebec as a nation (although the Federal parliament recognized symbolically the ”Quebecois” as a nation, but it has no value in the eyes of the Federal Supreme Court).

    Thus, if Israel were to import the Western model, Israeli Arabs would be recognized as a cultural minority only, within the ”Israeli nation”, but they will no longer be recognized as members of the Arab nation.
    I know quite well Israel and frankly, I haven’t met a lot of Arabs who defines themselves merely as ”Israelis who speak Arabic at home”. My great-grandparents had certainly no problem defining themselves thit way, but they were Jewish! Thus, they claimed to be part of ”Am Israel” (the Jewish people), not the Palestinian or the Arab nation!

    By the way, the Israeli government never had any objection to allow all its citizens defining themselves as members of the Jewish people even if they were not Jews Halachically Jewish. In fact, it was possible, up until the late 1950’s, for non-Jews to register as Jews to the interior ministry. It’s only with the rise of the Haredim that Israel’s Jewishness was redenifed in a narrower way. This is a problem, indeed. Especially for half-Jewish Russians who discriminated against in USSR for being Jewish, but once in Israel they were told that their mother was not Jewish… But there is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    Anyway, the reign of the Haredim is approaching its end, anyone who knows anything about Israel knows it (just look at the last elections).

    Of course, it is meaningless to explain that to the likes of Ben White and his stupid friends of the fascist radical-left, which speaks the ridiculous language of post-modernism (Finlay however is more analytical in his arguments).
    For these crazy people (Butler and Massad are the best example of their madness), unless Israel becomes the only culturally neutral state in the world (with Canada, South Africa and India), in their eyes, Israel will remain an ”ethnocracy”!

    It seems more and more that people take for granted that Israeli Jews have more rights than Israeli Arabs. But everytime I ask them to name me what are these so-called ”privileges”, they answer by waving the Adalah pamphlet which is not only full of lies, but absolutely ridiculous (the fact that only Jewish holidays are official holidays doesn’t mean that Israel is an ”apartheid state”; Jews in the West don’t complain about the fact that the civil service is shut down on Christmas but not on Hannukah!)

    The truth of the matter is that Israeli Arabs are equal in terms of political rights and they enjoy a very high level of cultural autonomy, which very few minorities in the West benefit from. Furthermore, they also benefit from affirmative action in the civil service (30% of new hires have to be Arabs)
    Moreover, during the last few years, Arab municipalities were allocated more funds than Jewish ones. Efraim Karsh wrote on that topic as well.

    Nonetheless, it is true however, that there is still anti-Arab racism in the Israeli society caused largely by the Arab-Israeli conflict (not by ”Orientalism”, since most Israeli Jews are not even Europeans). Nevertheless, for a country at war, Israel is doing quite well. During WWII Italian Americans and Japanese Americans did not benefit from affirmative action!

  2. Alex October 6th, 2013 7:33 am

    Many thanks for your comment!

  3. Joseph Finlay November 5th, 2013 2:02 pm

    Thanks for your comment C.BenDavid. I am well well aware or the Austrian Marxist notion of cultural national autonomy – particularly through the writings of Karl Renner. I find it fascinating, but I don’t think its’s really practised anyway today, having been superseded by territorial nationalism, in which, as Renner predicted, cultural majorities tend to oppress cultural minorities. Situations where minorities have autonomy only arises today when there is devolution to a territorial unit (eg. Quebec) almost never to a scattered group. In Jewish political thought cultural national autonomy was the philosophy of the Bund, they were arguably its greatest exponents. It’s certainly true that some within the pre-state Zionist movement believed in some version of this but this was no longer mainstream within Zionism after the Baltimore Platform of 1941 and certainly not after the foundation of the state when Zionism accepted a territorial statist paradigm. Bauer and Renner’s approach is also known as non-territorial nationalism and this is crucial- you cannot describe the situation in Israel/Palestine as being non-territorial nationalism when one side has all the territory and the other none – that’s just a classic majoritarian nationalism with a majority oppressing a minority. For Israel/Palestine to be transformed in a state of national cultural autonomy you would need a neutral, binational government that dealt with most economic, legal, foreign and administrative affairs and then two non territorial national governments, one for Jews and one Palestinians, in in charge of culture, language etc. The individual can choose which national group he/she wishes to be a part of. Its a possible, and very interesting way forward, but’s lets not pretend its a description of the status quo.

    PS. This is interesting – can you provide a source? By the way, the Israeli government never had any objection to allow all its citizens defining themselves as members of the Jewish people even if they were not Jews Halachically Jewish. In fact, it was possible, up until the late 1950′s, for non-Jews to register as Jews to the interior ministry

  4. C. Bendavid November 9th, 2013 6:38 pm

    Hi Joseph Finlay,

    First of all, I want you to know that you were not targeted by my attacks against White, Barghouti, Butler, Massad… The reason why I attack these people so harshly, is because these left-wing fascists (this expression was coined by Theodore Adorno to refer to the New Left of the late 60’s)are not only disrespectful, but also very agressive against all those who describe themselves as ”Zionists” (even Daniel Barenboim, one of Edward Said’s best friend!)

    As for your arguments now, I think you are wrong. Bauer, Renner… did not call for the replacement of European multinational Empires by post-national unitary states in which national affiliations would be privatized and in which every citizen would simply choose the language in which he would get his services from the government. What they called for, was the establishment of federations of nation-states. It is true that they expected the federal governments of these federations to be neutral. However, they did not expect the nation-states which would form these federations to be culturally neutral as well.
    Furthermore, cultural autonomists recognized the self-determination right of these autonomous nation-states, and once these states became independent, they were not required to become culturally neutral. For example, the federal government of Czechoslovakia was required to be neutral. However, once this federation was disbanded, Slovakia and the Czech Republic remained non-neutral nation-states, despite of the fact that both countries have cultural minorities. It’s not because there happens to be an important Hungarian minority in Slovakia that this country has to become culturally neutral or binational.

    In other words, only when two nation-states decide to get together in order to form a federation, the federal government is required to be neutral. However, nation-states are not required no be neutral, even when they have cultural minorities.

    Nonetheless, the nation states of Eastern Europe are different from those of Western countries because they keep this distinction between nationality and citizenship. In other words, they disconnect the nationality from the territory. This is why Russians of Estonia are not part of the Estonian nation, and this is also the reason why Hungarians of Slovakia are not part of the Slovak nation. I could also talk about the Serbians of Slovenia, the Hungarians of Romania…

    As for Israel, I would understand those who call for this state to become a neutral federation only if the Palestinian Authority and Israel were to unite in order to form one binational federal state. In this case, the federal government would have to be neutral, although Israel and the Palestinian Authority would retain their respective national characters (Israel would remain a Jewish nation-state and Palestine an Arab nation-state).

    In fact, this is what Hashomer Hatzair had in mind when it talk about a binational state; a neutral federal government with limited powers and two national states, a Jewish and an Arab one, enjoying a large degree of autonomy. By the way, the idea of national-cultural autonomy wasn’t rejected after Billtmore. As I said earlier, wanting a nation-state is not incompatible with defining a national identity on cultural basis only (most Eastern European countries do this)

    Nonetheless, post-Zionists pretend that by the time two nationalities coexist within the same state, it should necessarily become a post-national state that would be totally neutral. That’s just not true. Even in Western countries, you don’t see that. Belgium for example, which is often cited as an example by post-Zionists in Israel, is a binational federation. However, if the Flanders and Wallonia separate from each other, Flanders will become a non-neutral nation state, in spite of the fact that a French-speaking minority will continue to live there.

    Having said that, there is definitely a problem with Israel, the fact that it has become impossible for minorities to join the national majority is certainly not acceptable. However, it has not always been the case. In fact, early Zionists such as Borochov, Ben Gurion or Ben Tzvi, wanted the Palestinian Arabs who are likely to be, at least partly, the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, to join the Jewish people without having to sacrifice their creed or their Arab culture. Nonetheless, Arab opposition to Zionism and the first anti-Jewish riots of the early 20’s killed this fantasy. Nonetheless, it was possible up until the 1950’s for non-Jewish citizens of Israel to declare themselves members of the Jewish people. But unfortunately, the religious lobby managed to blackmail the government and to restrict the way Israel defines membership in the Jewish people. Nonetheless, most Israelis are fed up by the manipulations and the arrogance of the obscurantist religious parties. It used to be more or less funny a couple of years ago, but tolerance has its limits. No wonder why Shinui in 2003, and Yesh Atid in 2013 became so popular despite the fact that they both had no real political program besides secularism!

    Here are some sources you asked for, although it cannot replace a real book:


    I hope you will excuse my poor English!

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