Israel and Palestinians

Do rights appertain to individuals or peoples?

At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of the Palestinians, and their descendants, who were driven from the land during Israel’s founding. It would seem that, forced to leave their homes during war, they should have the right to return when war ends. It would also seem plausible that, by admitting as citizens a majority which is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, the state would cease to exist, or at least could not function as a democracy. Surely the Jewish people are entitled to a state which gives them a home? And, if so, surely, if the question is one of existence, that state may defend itself even if it must take measures which otherwise could not be justified?

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma. Suppose that Israel were to grant the right of return to a certain number of descendants of Palestinian refugees every year, with the limit chosen with regard to practicality, but high enough to ensure that all who chose to could return in a reasonable time frame (a decade, say). Returnees would get temporary residency. They would be required to take a civics class, and to complete (age appropriate) civil service, being supported by the state so that they weren’t indigent. At the end of this period, if they choose to, they could take an oath of allegiance to Israel, and become citizens.

The payoff for a peace counted as just by many now divided would be enormous: an Israel incorporating and at peace with Palestinians would be a secure Israel; it would dominate the region economically and militarily, and could assume a larger role on the world stage. But who, really, could tread this path?

Currently, radical leadership enjoys widespread tolerance among Palestinians, because those who might have the impulse to moderation would seem to have no choice. If this force majeure were removed, perhaps moderates may come to be determined for the preservation of Israel, rather than its destruction. Surely a devout Muslim or Christian can chose to accept citizenship in a state which provides – and must remain institutionally constituted to provide – a home for the Jewish people. Terrorists might infiltrate the process, taking sham oaths in the hope of causing mayhem. But their enemies would not only be Jews, but all – certainly the great majority – who commit themselves to this journey in good faith. The wedge between people would divide not Jew from Palestinian, but the reasonable from the fanatic.

No one chooses the heritage they are born into. As we become adults, we can chose to accept or reject this heritage; in either case we assume responsibility for it. Those who have held Mosaic law to be sacred may recognize in this principle the doctrine of original sin. The Jewish people has survived centuries of persecution because, generation after generation, individual Jews have chosen to affirm their identity as Jews. We may inherit nationality and religion, but nations and religions are grounded in individual choices.

Is it not reasonable for Jews to give Palestinians a choice to live at peace within a common domain, and to have a say in the functioning of the institutions which govern that domain? The mass nationalism of the 19th century, from which Zionism, also, sprang, is a creation of – and even more a reaction to – the European Enlightenment. In her book, Renaissance Man, Agnes Heller points out that the Renaissance, part of the common history of both Christians and Jews in the west, was the first cultural context in which people felt empowered to choose their pasts. The Enlightenment, whatever else it brought, was in part a step back from the disorientation this power of choice brought with it. The Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) vision of a single, common, pure intellect grows through the Middle Ages like an underground root to sprout up in modern empiricism, and flower in Kant. From here, it was a short step to the violence of Romantic nationalism, which expresses human purpose not just as intellectual, but through the grasp of the deep heart to choose something both personal and common: a Nation.

The outburst of nationalism equipped societies poorly to deal justly with their neighbors. Zionists should be ware their image in history’s mirror.

My perspective is not existentialism – that people have identity separate from their allegiances. It is relationalism: individuals and the common identities that bind them do not exist separately, but individuals and commonalities act on and constitute each the other. Living together can be prescribed by our heritage. Living together, with human choices, can also forge new commonalities.

Currently, possible politics are dominated by an essentialist perspective: people are defined unilaterally by their formal identities. This is a mistake, and a tragedy. Essentialism points the way to a world in which each group must war against others; and within every group, there will be subgroups, which must similarly establish a hierarchy. For if our identity is given to us essentially, and it determines the law we live under, any choice to cooperate can only be, at best, a temporary, utilitarian strategy, and not an expression of principle. Politics predicated on the basis of an original Hobbesian war of all upon all is destined to return there.

States do not always spring from nations. The United States of America is home to a nation defined – in aspiration at least – by its acceptance of the covenant of a common state. Perhaps the United Nations, calling for two states in Palestine, got it wrong. Perhaps Israel can be home to a Jewish nation, but need not be exclusive to it.

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