Jacob David recalls his travels to Israel, and his awakening to the full reality of the colonial state. He argues that the course of its history leaves room only for a one state solution.
I took my first, and possibly last, visit to Israel-Palestine in 2018. I had spent long enough equivocating over what is an inevitable rite of passage for young Jews, specifically shunning the idea of Birthright (I’m above any attempt to be preached to) but not quite bringing myself to boycott the enterprise entirely (I’m pro-peace). I didn’t have any ideological commitment – I just wanted to see what the fuss was about.
By that point I had read enough to know that I wasn’t going to fall for some tour guide telling me his grandfather made the desert bloom. Put simply, I had risen above this mysticism and decided I was a non-Zionist. Having been involved in Jewish communal organising on campus in a city with a dwindling Jewish population, I thought we had better things to be doing than debating the finer points of this faraway conflict, and I was tired of people insisting that I take a public position. Some say diaspora Jews are privileged because Israel claims to act on our behalf; I don’t recognise the legitimacy of this claim.
Still, despite my interest in the topic, there was plenty I didn’t know. For instance, it wasn’t until quite recently that I found out the alleged mass suicide at Masada during the Roman-Jewish wars was attested to by only one historian, and that the archaeological evidence for it ever having taken place is non-existent. This tidbit of ancient history might seem irrelevant to the current situation, but it shows how memory (in this case a fabricated memory of an act of extreme religious fanaticism) can be co opted to serve ideology. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to know that the Israeli military use the supposed mass grave for the swearing-in ceremonies of their new conscripts.
In this vein, there are many things for a budding critic of Israel to unlearn. Take some of the circumstances around the creation of the state. I already knew the truth about the pernicious “broadcasts” fable, which tells us that Palestinians fled their homes during the Nakba at the order of Arab leaders, but it took me a while to get round to work by the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim unearthing what he termed “collusion” between the pre-state Zionist movement and King Abdullah of Jordan. He shows how there were back-channels of communication between the two sides, and how the Zionist movement exploited the Hashemite king’s willingness to compromise on the issue of Palestinian statehood. When the civil war of 1947-48 became an international conflict after Israel’s declaration of independence, far from seeking the immediate destruction of the nascent Jewish state, Jordan kept a defensive position in the West Bank, holding back from confronting Israel within the borders delineated in the United Nations’ Partition Plan. Hardly the fabled attempt to drive the Israelis into the sea.
I came home without having any meaningful interactions with Palestinians. In fairness, that was not my intention, but the architecture of the Israeli state and the structural obstacles it has created to prevent their movement render them all but invisible.
What was clear to me then and now is that the two-state solution is dead. Devised by the same international community that wreaked havoc on the region to begin with, the current terms of re-partition are simply an attempt to impose Israel’s terms (“as much of the land with as few of the people as possible”). Palestinians will be asked to accept a rump statelet, rendered non-contiguous by Israeli annexation of settlement blocs, with the fledgling state surrendering control of airspace and borders to the former occupiers.
Jews and Palestinians already live in a one-state reality. Israel is the only sovereign power between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, and it rules over 13.5 million people, denying millions of them the most basic of rights.
The way out of the current round of atrocities is not to further carve up the land along the ethno-state model, but rather to embrace the reality of what the late Palestinian academic Edward Said described as “two peoples, one land”. Put simply, the future is one person one vote. This would radically alter the systems of power in the region, spelling an end to Israel as we currently know it – but it ought not mean the end of Jewish life in the land nearly seven million of them call home. Rather, it is a recognition that the Jewish future there is linked to that of the Palestinians: that statehood built on the mass expulsion of another people is an unjust national independence which, contrary to the tenets of Zionist ideology, renders the Jewish future in the land untenable and dependent on extreme militarism. Just as it was not possible to establish a Jewish-majority state in 1948 without ethnic cleansing, it is not possible to maintain one today without tolerating the kind of cultural degradation one might expect when violent nationalism and legalised discrimination and theft are national policy. The whole concept of partition needs to be abandoned in recognition of the bi-national reality.
The 2020s will probably be the last decade in which Israel can rely on the instinctive backing of elder generations in the west. Support for Zionism amongst diaspora Jews, especially American Jews who do much of the legwork for Israel’s image-obsessed public relations, is falling. This is the right time for a joint Jewish-Palestinian movement for democratic equality in Israel-Palestine, supported by the wider diasporas.
But international public opinion is only half the battle. The dismantling of apartheid in Israel-Palestine cannot simply mimic the South African model. Formal recognition of the rights of Palestinians, even including their right of return, will not undo the entrenchment of ethnic supremacy. Some of it is physically built into the land. The Israeli architect Eyal Weizman explains in his book Hollow Land how Jewish settlements in the West Bank are designed to exploit the resources of the land and ensure physical dominance over the Palestinian towns which surround them. The colonies are almost always on hilltops, with Palestinian villages in valleys below; the roads connecting them to “Israel proper” expansive and without regard for physical obstacles, whilst Palestinian roads meander underneath them, subjecting their users to checkpoints and rendering their movement almost impossible; water supplies diverted to allow for irrigated gardens and swimming pools whilst Palestinian herders subsist on mere fractions.
A unified state must look beyond the neoliberal apartheid of modern South Africa and should aim to radically redistribute the land’s wealth and resources. In divided societies where one community benefits from privileged access to economic architecture at the expense of another, inter-communal resentment and violence often follow. If we want to avoid this becoming an inevitability in Israel-Palestine, the movement for equality must be built around solidarity between the Jewish and Palestinian working classes.
When Paul Theroux visited Israel, he wrote that the people looked “uncomfortable and overdressed”, Haifa’s newer buildings “had the look of a colony, which is also the look of a garrison”, and that the whole country buzzed with “the persistent whine of air-conditioners”. I have to admit, seeing it first-hand, it didn’t seem like a particularly comfortable existence – certainly no homeland I wanted a stake in. Nothing about the towns reminded me of anywhere else I’ve been in the Mediterranean. There was simply no context to a lot of what I saw, until you begin to realise that any development constructed on top of the remnants of a destroyed society is by nature alien to the landscape.
Of course, parts of Tel Aviv’s White City have impressive examples of Bauhaus architecture from interwar Jewish emigres fleeing Nazi rule, but for the most part the towns built over sacked villages are a testament to brutalist apartment block architecture. What is more surprising is that you don’t often find expropriated villages forming quaint, tourist-friendly “old towns” in the centres of the new cities. Of around 500 villages depopulated during the Nakba, 384 were not built over. In fact, the areas of Jewish settlement in Israel today are broadly contiguous with the pre-state towns and villages, given some natural expansion. Clearly, there is some possibility for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in these unpopulated villages without the need for the eviction of Jews from their homes. The Israeli NGO Zochrot, which aims to spread awareness of the Nakba amongst Israeli Jews, have explored this issue in some detail, and have consulted with refugees to devise compensation plans and ways in which properties can be returned to their original owners. These are practical examples of how to square the circle of two peoples seeking a viable self-determination in the same land.
So – a project of Jewish national liberation which is intertwined with the struggle of another people seeking freedom from oppression. A just settlement which affirms the best principles of cosmopolitanism in the face of Zionism’s ethnic particularism, and would be something to which Jews around the world could feel an unashamed attachment – as well as affording the Palestinians the dignity of a return home.
 A. Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan, Oxford University Press, 1988.
 E. Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Verso, 2017.
 P. Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, Penguin, 1996, pp. 383-384.