A state for everybody who needs one

I think I’ve made a startling discovery: The eminent political philosopher and public intellectual Michael Walzer is a Revisionist like Jabotinsky – at least when it comes to his views about the rights of a people to have a state of their own.

Writing in the Huffington Post series “Liberal Zionists Speak Out,” Walzer describes the central tenets of his own Zionism under the title “The State of Righteousness.”

“It is first of all the emotion-laden belief of someone who grew up during World War Two that the Jews need a state, and that this need is so critical and so urgent that it overrides whatever injustices statehood has brought. We still have to oppose the injustices with all the resources we can muster, but we can’t give up the State. So I participate vicariously in Israeli politics by supporting my social-democratic and peacenik friends. I want the state to be as good as it can be, but above all I want it to be.

My Zionism is also a universal statism. I think that everybody who needs a state should have one, not only the Jews but also the Armenians, the Kurds, the Tibetans, the South Sudanese — and the Palestinians. The modern state is the only effective agency for physical protection, economic management and welfare provision. What the most oppressed and impoverished people in the world today most need is a state of their own, a decent state acting on their behalf. I feel some hostility, therefore, toward people who want to ‘transcend’ the state — and I am especially hostile toward those who insist that the transcendence has to begin with the Jews.”

By coincidence, I came across Walzer’s piece on the same day I read an article by Oren Kessler who explored the legacy of Benzion Netanyahu’s political views for his son Binyamin Netanyahu. Since the elder Netanyahu was a follower of the Revisionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky, Kessler outlined Jabotinsky’s views and quoted from his famous “Iron Wall” article published in 1923:

“To Jabotinsky, a Jewish home in Palestine was justified by events past and present. The Romans had expelled the Jews from their homeland two millennia prior, condemning them to an eternity of wandering and depending on the sufferance of other peoples. Virtually every inhabitable corner of the globe was populated by someone, he wrote, and the Jews had historical, spiritual, and emotional ties to one land alone.

‘[S]elf-determination does not mean that if someone has seized a stretch of land it must remain in his possession for all time, and that he who was forcibly ejected from his land must always remain homeless,’ Jabotinsky wrote in his best-known work, the 1923 essay ‘The Iron Wall,’ which remains central to Revisionists’ ideas about Israeli defense policy to this day. ‘Self-determination means revision — such a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination.’”

While Jabotinsky’s Revisionism is nowadays usually described as promoting hardline right-wing positions, his idea that there should be “a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations” arguably reflects solid left-wing principles of fairness: those who have plenty “should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination.”

One noteworthy aspect of the kind of national self-determination advocated by Jabotinsky here is that he obviously has no sympathy for the blood-and-soil nationalism that became so devastatingly popular among right-wing and fascist groups and that, unfortunately, is also a dominant theme in Palestinian nationalism. Instead, Jabotinsky’s call for a “revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations” ultimately reflects the same principle as Walzer’s liberal “universal statism” which envisages a world where “everybody who needs a state should have one.”

That the Jews needed a state should hardly be controversial given the long history of antisemitism in Europe and the Christian world. Similarly, Jews who lived in the Muslim world usually had to accept the second-class status of dhimmitude, and there are plenty of examples that document arbitrary persecution and anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries. Eventually, it was the Arab League that provided yet more proof that the Jews did indeed need a state of their own when the organization proceeded in early 1948 to draft laws that, by singling out Jews for discriminatory measures, were reminiscent of the infamous anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws of the Nazis.

It is important to realize that the Jews who felt they needed a state – that is to say, the Zionists – wanted a state mainly for the reasons Walzer lists when he says:

“The modern state is the only effective agency for physical protection, economic management and welfare provision. What the most oppressed and impoverished people in the world today most need is a state of their own, a decent state acting on their behalf.”

By contrast, most Palestinians had, and continue to have, markedly different ideas about why they would like to have a state. The Arabs rejected the UN partition plan in 1947 because for them, a state alongside a Jewish state in Palestine was not worth having – in other words, for them, territorial demands and notions of basically feudalistic ties to land took precedence over all other considerations.

While this understanding would usually be thought of as right-wing, Palestinian demands are nowadays most ardently championed by the left – even if Palestinians openly describe their hardly progressive views. One of the most striking examples is an article by Ahmed Khalidi – a Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, and former advisor for the Palestinian peace negotiators – who explained the Palestinian ambivalence about statehood in a 2007 Guardian article aptly entitled “Thanks, but no thanks”:

“But statehood as such is a relatively recent addition to Palestinian aspirations. The main Palestinian impetus after the disaster of 1948 was that of ‘return’; it was more about reversing the loss of Arab land and patrimony, than the fulfilment of classical post-colonial self-determination, via statehood.

Driven into national concussion by the catastrophic forced displacement of 1948 and up until the mid-1960s, the sense of a separate ‘Palestinian’ national identity all but disappeared. This ‘lost consciousness’ was only reversed by the emergence of Fatah under Yasser Arafat in the Arab diaspora in the late 1950s.

It was only after the 1967 debacle that a new Palestinian national identity began to take shape. At its core was the notion of the armed struggle as a galvanising force. Armed struggle, according to Fatah, restored Palestinian dignity and gave the Palestinians a say in determining their future.

Statehood and state building had no real place in this scheme. Indeed, the first tentative proposals to establish a state in Palestine (ie the West Bank) were rejected as defeatist and a betrayal of the national cause. This was certainly not an exercise in institution building, land acquisition and state building by stealth, as in the Zionist movement before 1948. After the 1973 war, Fatah’s leaders turned to the notion again. This was largely the result of a realistic reading of the balance of power and a recognition of the limits of what force, on the part of the Arab states or Palestinian irregulars, was likely to achieve. Eventually, in 1988, Arafat himself backed the idea of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders as a historic compromise […]

Today, the Palestinian state is largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinian’s worst historical enemies; Israel and its implacable ally, the US. The intention behind the state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel’s diktats on fundamental issues of sovereignty.”

Khalidi concludes his piece by arguing that “Palestinians could simply continue to say no to a state that does nothing to address its [sic] basic needs. Either way, it’s hard to see how Israel can win this struggle in the long term.”

For Khalidi, the idea to prevent Israel from “winning” is apparently still crucial, and when he mentions Palestinian rights, territorial “aspirations” remain a central consideration. Khalidi also suggests that the Palestinians might be best off “by demanding equal civil rights to those of the Jews themselves” – not from the government of a state of their own, but from Israel, which, by granting those rights to millions of Palestinians, would of course cease to exist as a Jewish state.

The tasks of a modern state listed by Walzer don’t seem to figure much in Khalidi’s thinking and in the way he views Palestinian aspirations.

It is also noteworthy that the views and positions expressed by Khalidi are widely shared by most of the so-called pro-Palestinian activists campaigning for the Palestinian “cause” in the West – which means that most of them don’t campaign for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but focus instead on delegitimizing Israel as a Jewish state and on insisting that the Palestinians should have “equal civil rights to those of the Jews themselves” in a state that would do away with Israel as a Jewish state.

Palestinian ambivalence about a state of their own is rarely taken into account when pundits ponder the reasons for the failure of the peace process. Arguably, this is not only because it is always easy and popular to blame Israel, but also because it is fairly awkward to acknowledge that there is little that can be done about this ambivalence:  the price of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would indeed mean giving up the “anti-Zionist” struggle that Khalidi rightly describes as so central for Palestinian national identity; at the same time, Palestinians have little reason to believe that they would then get “a decent state acting on their behalf,” because unfortunately, neither the Palestinian experience with Fatah or Hamas nor the experience in other Arab states encourages such hopes.


6 responses to “A state for everybody who needs one

  1. Nathan West

    “Arguably, this is not only because it is always easy and popular to blame Israel, but also because it is fairly awkward to acknowledge that there is little that can be done about this ambivalence …”

    The Palestinians manifest none of the normal attributes of a group seeking a state. That hardly means that no Palestinians want a state. It means that the elite among them do not want a state, unless that state is a step in destroying Israel. They mean to destroy Israel, as the Guardian article you cite anecdotally evidences.

    The portion of your article which is directed to showing the liberality of the Palestinian movement and the, by comparison, liberal revisionist movement is excellent. I think you are, as usual, quite right.

    • Actually, as far as you count the PA as elite, I think there’s no question that they very much enjoy the quasi-state benefits — like embassy-style missions, all the UN infrastructure busy with Palestine, etc. The people who are part of the Palestinian jet set arguably have the best of all worlds, because they don’t have any real responsibilities, but tons of international attention and support.
      One of the few really competent Palestinian leaders that worked hard and seriously to advance statehood is of course Fayyad, but with this, he hasn’t made too many political allies… Ben Birnbaum has a good piece on Fayyad at TNR: The Visionary: A Palestinian reformer’s downfall http://www.tnr.com/article/world/magazine/103096/fayyad-palestinian-state-reform-israel-abbas-minister

      • Nathan West

        Thanks for the reference to the Birnbaum piece. Best regards.

      • Nathan West

        Reading the Birnbaum article, I think he puts too much hope on Fayyad’s ability to resolve the dispute. Which is to say, how can the Israelis really cede land when Fayyad remains an accidental leader in power due to a fight between the main Palestinian factions, those factions both being, in reality, unwilling to resolve the dispute? On the other hand, Fayyad does appear to be a breadth of fresh air.

  2. Nathan West

    Strike “liberality” and substitute “illiberality. Call it my spell check technique.

  3. It seems to me that the central beliefs of zionism is quite in line with nazism [… enough of Joe’s nonsense – so the rest is deleted]

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