The Harvard Kennedy School is hosting a “One State Conference” this weekend and already the usual suspects are crying foul. Since I’m going to be speaking on a panel at the conference on Sunday, I thought it might be a good idea to weigh in with some thoughts.
I’ll begin with the stated vision/goals of the conference, according to student organizers:
To date, the only Israel/Palestine solution that has received a fair rehearsal in mainstream forums has been the two-state solution. Our conference will help to expand the range of academic debate on this issue. Thus, our main goal is to educate ourselves and others about the possible contours of a one-state solution and the challenges that stand in the way of its realization.
Sound reasonable? Not according to self-appointed Jewish community watchdogs like the ADL and NGO Monitor and the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz and Jeffrey Goldberg. According to the ADL, such a conference could only be interested in “the elimination of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.” Dershowitz referred to it as an “anti-Israel hate fest.” Goldberg thinks organizers share “a goal with Hamas: the elimination of Israel as a homeland and haven for Jews.”
Reading incendiary words such as these, I can’t help but be struck by the abject hysteria that gets regularly mistaken for public relations by the American Jewish establishment.
I find it fascinating that these concerned institutions and individuals are more than willing to rail against the wide eyed extremists and useful idiots participating in this conference, yet cannot take the time to ponder what might have brought us to this point in the first place. Has Abe Foxman, for instance, ever called out Israel over its settlement policy that has by now made a mockery of a viable two-state solution? Is Alan Dershowitz willing to bring half as much righteous anger to the concern that Israel is fast creating “one state” all by itself?
I wrote recently about the “ever-closing window” on the two state solution. We might still argue about whether or not the window has closed yet, but I think we can all agree that the prospect for a viable, equitable two state solution for Israel/Palestine is in serious jeopardy.
As I pointed out in my post, sooner or later we’ll be forced to choose between a patently undemocratic Jewish state that parcels out rights according to ethnicity and a democratic state in which equal rights are enjoyed by all its citizens. Given this scenario, is it unreasonable that people of good will seek to open conversations and suggest fresh, creative approaches that might ensure a better future for Israelis and Palestinians?
It’s even more ironic when you consider that notable and respected Israeli figures have been discussing a potential one state solution for some time. While the American Jewish establishment grows apoplectic at the very thought, Israeli society seems more than secure enough to tolerate the discussion.
As far back as 1991, for instance, respected Israeli/American political scientist Daniel J. Elazar promoted a one-state “federal solution” for Israel/Palestine (most notably in his book, “Two Peoples – One Land: Federal Solutions for Israel, the Palestinians, and Jordan.”) Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political scientist who was Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1978, has publicly advocated the idea of a bi-national state for several years. A more recent Israeli advocate of one state is Avrum Burg, former Speaker of the Knesset and chairman of the Jewish Agency, who wrote about the subject in a widely read 2011 op-ed in Ha’aretz.
It is even less widely-known in the American Jewish community that prominent numbers of the Israeli right wing, such as former Minister of Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Arens and current Speaker of the Knesset Reuven Rivlin, have suggested the desirability of some form of a one-state solution. Granted, the solution advocated by Arens and Rivlin – an undivided state that nonetheless retains it’s exclusively Jewish character – differs significantly from the federalist or bi-national models promoted by Elazar, Benvenisti and Burg. Still, I believe these unlikely bedfellows share critical aspects in common: the conviction that a two-state solution is unworkable, a willingness to pursue fresh creative ideas, and – contrary to what many might claim – a hard-headed political realism.
Many of the conference’s critics have pointed out that secular multi-ethnic states simply do not work. Goldberg claims that it “barely works” in Belgium and Dershowitz points out that it failed in India and the former Yugoslavia. Fine. If this is the criticism, then let’s put this issue on the table and discuss it – as we most certainly will be doing this weekend (most likely at the panels entitled “Nationhood and Cultural Identity: The Preservation of the Peoples” and “What are the Obstacles to the Realization of a One-State Solution?”) But must we seek to marginalize the conference for simply seeking to have the conversation?
There are also criticisms that the conference is too “one sided” and that the presenters are unduly “biased.” In truth, the presenters in the conference represent a spectrum of opinions on this issue. Some (like Ali Abunimah) have openly advocated a one state solution, others (such as Stephen Walt) support a two state solution and some (like me) are agnostic on the issue. But I know many of the presenters personally and have long admired many more. Contrary to the venom being slung their way, these are thoughtful – if sometimes controversial – people of good will. While we are a diverse lot, I believe we share a common desire to broaden this scope of conversation and an eagerness to bring fresh new thinking to a painful and paralyzed status quo.
The student organizers of the conference have released an open letter to their critics. Here’s an excerpt:
The aim of this conference is to explore the possibility of different solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Invoking inflammatory language like “anti-semitism” and “destruction of Israel” to describe the ideas and speakers of the conference is not only incorrect and defamatory but serves to prevent rational discussion of ideas and preempt the effective exercise of speech.
I look forward to reporting on my experiences at the conference.