JERUSALEM (JTA) — For millennia, Jews longed for a return to their ancient homeland, Zion. But for much of modern history, a considerable number of Jews dreamed instead of a vibrant life as a minority in cosmopolitan nation-states.
In 1770s Berlin, a movement was formed around the hope and the ideal that emancipated Jews could live as free and equal members of modern society.
This was the challenge posed by members of the Haskalah, as the movement was called, borrowing the Hebrew word for enlightenment, who paved the way for today’s robust secular Jewish communities and, arguably, contemporary Modern Orthodoxy.
Yet the Haskalah faded in the late 1880s when confronted with a more compelling idea: Jewish statehood.
Instead of a path of integration into surrounding majority cultures, Zionism proposed a smaller, harder thing: independent political agency.
For Jews, the path from European emancipation to Zionist statehood was treacherous when it wasn’t lethal.
Today’s Jewish state remains a work in progress, and it is far from perfect. Its political leaders all too often disappoint.
Yet statehood remains the most convincing and, if we are to be honest, the only possible outcome — both for Israelis and for their conjoined twins, the Palestinians.
In his Jewish Currents essay “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine” and shorter New York Times op-ed “I No Longer Believe in a Jewish State,” commentator Peter Beinart argues for a single binational state, abandoning his previous belief in the necessity of both Jews and Palestinians each having a state of their own.
Beinart decries what he calls the “Holocaust lens [that] leads many Jews to assume that anything short of Jewish statehood would mean Jewish suicide.”
“Before the Holocaust,” he continues, “many leading Zionists did not believe that.”
I’d argue that is not the case, but regardless, any proposition asking us to be so mentally agile as to skip over the Holocaust to retrieve thoughts expressed in what passed for brainstorming sessions among the fathers of Zionism requires some scrutiny.
The reason a one-state solution is championed mostly in activist circles of the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas is that when tested against local reality, it doesn’t pass a basic stress test.
In June, as annexation slipped from Netanyahu’s hands and only 3.5% of Israelis ranked Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank as a government priority, a swelling chorus of international observers decreed, as Beinart does, that “in practice, Israel annexed the West Bank long ago,” with many demanding international recognition of a one-state reality.
But to insist that a de facto single state already exists is to shortchange both Israelis and Palestinians. It represents a cavalier dismissal of the real Palestinian demand for full statehood, and similarly elides the current and historic reality of a Jewish imperative for self-determination.
Achieving two states may be prolonged and excruciating, but at least it holds out the hope of something real.
Local leaders and influencers, even those with radically clashing points of view, do not advance the one-state solution as a serious plan for the region’s future.
For years, the prospect of a binational state was wielded against Israelis as a looming demographic threat, the message being that “there are more of us than you.” During the norm-breaking era of the Donald Trump-Benjamin Netanyahu alliance, “one state” has been brandished as a cudgel against Palestinians, the message being that “if you don’t return to negotiations on our terms, we’ll annex you on our terms.”
“The one-state solution is ivory tower nonsense,” Shlomo Ben Ami, Israel’s former foreign minister, said at a mid-July forum hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A binational state creates “a South African situation without a South African solution.”
In fact, there is little difference between one-staters and unilateralist annexationists: Each threatens a justifiably apprehensive people with erasure. Even Netanyahu, Israel’s emphatically nationalist prime minister, knows one state is no state, which is the reason he has yet to propose an alternative to two states.
Despite turning annexation into a litmus test for his own political viability, Netanyahu’s failure, thus far, to so much as propose a road map toward annexation must be understood as a counterpoint to the Palestinian Authority’s remarkable success in maneuvering around the hurdles imposed by the Trump administration.
In reality, while the commentariat class resigns itself to one state — maybe — the Palestinians have been building a state.
It is imperfect, and the path to Palestinian statehood remains fraught. It is very much a work in progress. And yes, its leaders often disappoint.
And yet, on June 22, I saw it almost coming to fruition. The Palestinian Authority’s Jericho rally against annexation bore all the markings of a classic Middle East summit — brusque security agents, rows upon rows of plastic chairs, blistering heat, lofty words and clusters of tall, besuited diplomats.
About 50 diplomats, in fact, including the Russian and Chinese ambassadors, who addressed the crowds in fluent Arabic, and the Canadian ambassador, who arrived in a Beast-like vehicle flying a gold-trimmed maple leaf flag.
One thing was missing: There was not an American or an Israeli emissary as far as the eye could see.
I asked a couple of European ambassadors what they were doing at a political event, and they replied that a rally in favor of the two-state solution was policy, not politics.
Veteran peace negotiator Saeb Erekat took to the stage and hailed what truly was “an unprecedented event.”
“Today,” he said, “the world came to us. The international community came to us, and they told us we are not alone. It is about freedom, independence, dignity and justice.”
In the past, Netanyahu has easily managed to scuttle diplomatic initiatives having a whiff of Palestinian statehood. But the June rally was, without doubt, the most momentous diplomatic event ever hosted on Palestinian land, by Palestinian leaders, and it was a slap in Netanyahu’s face.
On the ground, however haltingly, a two-state solution is coming into being. We saw a glimpse of it in Jericho, alongside a foretaste of a future regional realignment in which the United States and Israel are relegated to the status of observers.