Beyond “relative humanity” to a secular democratic state

Omar Barghouti 8 - 4 - 2004

Bron: openDemocracy

The end of Zionism and its denial of the humanity of Palestinians will open the way to a single state that makes Israelis and Palestinians both moral and political equals, says the Palestinian writer Omar Barghouti.


“[A] conquest may be fraught with evil or with good for mankind, according to the comparative worth of the conquering and conquered peoples.” Theodore Roosevelt

The two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is finally dead and we can all move on and explore the more just, moral and therefore enduring alternative for peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs (both Muslims and Christians) in Mandate Palestine: the one-state solution.

We are witnessing the demise of Zionism. Nothing can be done to save it if Zionism is intent on killing itself (and I, for one, support euthanasia). Going back to the two-state solution would preserve it. But even then, in the best-case scenario, if UN Resolution 242 were meticulously implemented, it would have addressed most of the legitimate rights of less than a third of the Palestinian people over less than a fifth of their ancestral land.

But no one is offering the “best-case” scenario. Rather, the best available current proposal falls significantly short of 242 – not to mention basic principles of morality. After decades of convincing the Palestinians to surrender their rights to the properties they lost during the Nakba (1948 catastrophe of dispossession and exile) in return for a sovereign, fully independent state on all the territories that were occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem, Israel has shown it has no intention to relinquish these occupied lands.

From Camp David II, to Taba, to Geneva, the most “generous” Israeli offer was always below the minimal requirements of successive UN resolutions and a just peace. Indeed, former Israeli foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami said that Camp David gave the Palestinian a choice between “justice or peace”.

Peace decoupled from justice, though, is not only morally reprehensible but pragmatically unwise. It may survive for a while, but only after it has been stripped of its essence, becoming a mere short-term stabilisation of an oppressive order. Peace cannot be an alternative to justice: each needs the other.

From the outset, Zionists presented two main justifications for their colonisation of Palestine: first, Palestine was a land without a people, an uncivilised wasteland; second, Jews had a divine right to “redeem” Palestine, in accordance with a covenant with God, and because, according to the Bible, the Israelites built their kingdoms all over the Land of Canaan thousands of years ago.

In 1940, Joseph Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonisation Department, swept away both the political fabrication and the Biblical mythology: “Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country. We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries – all of them. Not one village, not one tribe should be left.” At the core of Zionist thinking is a colonial belief in the irrelevance, or comparative worthlessness, of the rights, the needs and aspirations of the native Palestinians. For instance, the author of the Balfour Declaration wrote: “The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” This is a classic case of what I call the idea of relative humanity and of its practice, relative humanisation.

Relative humanisation

Relative humanity is the belief, and relative humanisation the practice based on that belief, which hold that certain human beings lack one or more of the necessary attributes of being human precisely because they share a common religious, ethnic, cultural or other identity. Their shared identity attribute is therefore perceived as mutually exclusive with full humanity. They are human only in the relative sense, not absolutely, and not unequivocally.

This belief and practice are embodied in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians – supported by the US and in many cases by Europe also. They explain why Israel assumes that the Palestinians neither can nor should have equal needs, aspirations or rights to Israeli Jews. Moreover, they play a fundamental role in inhibiting the evolution of a unitary state solution.

There are, it is clear, other impediments to such an outcome. The current level of violence, mutual distrust and hate between the two sides are enough to make a unitary state solution difficult to imagine. Besides, given the immense power gap between Israel and the Palestinians, why would Israeli Jews accept a unitary state, where, by definition, Jews would be a minority? On the other hand, could their consent eventually be achieved through a combination of intensive pressure and lack of viable alternatives, as in South Africa?

These are major obstacles. But the fundamental ingredient in any lasting and just peace is the principle of equal human worth – and it is conspicuously ignored, breached or repressed in all the proposals currently on offer. Once it is brought back into the centre of discussion, and the practice of relative humanisation rejected, the one-state solution appears if not the only way to escape the current abyss, then the only political end-result of the conflict that combines justice, logic and morality.

The status quo and the right of return

The status quo is characterised by three elements: Denial of the Palestinian refugees’ rights Military occupation and repression in the West Bank and Gaza Zionist version of apartheid in Israel proper. Israel, far from admitting its guilt in creating the world’s oldest and largest refugee problem, and despite overwhelming incriminating evidence, has systematically evaded its responsibility. The most peculiar dimension in the popular Israeli discourse about the “birth” of the state is the almost blanket denial of any wrongdoing. Even committed “leftists” often grieve over the loss of Israel’s “moral superiority” after occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 – as if, before that, Israel was any more civil, legitimate and law-abiding.

Israelis have always yearned to be members of a normal state – to the extent that they actually started believing that it was. It is as if most of those Israelis who actively participated or bore witness to the Nakba were collectively infected by a chronic selective amnesia.

This denial has its roots in the Holocaust and in the unique circumstances created as a result of it, which allowed Israel to argue that, unlike any other state, it was obliged to deny Palestinian refugees their unequivocal right to return to their homes and lands. Preserving the Jewish character of the state, the argument went, was the only way to maintain a safe haven for the Jews of the world, who as super-victims were unsafe among the Gentiles. All this was of much more import than the rights of the Palestinians.

No other country today can sustain such an overtly racist attitude about its right to ethnic purity.

This Israeli self-image is crucial to the issue of the right of return. The Israeli law of return for Jews is based on the principle that since they were expelled from Palestine over 2,000 years ago, they had a right to return to it. But in denying the rights of Palestinian refugees, whose 55-year-old exile is much closer and more immediate, Israel is essentially saying that Palestinians cannot have the same right. This implies they are not equally human.

Here are some examples of such moral inconsistency: Thousands of Israelis whose grandparents were German citizens have successfully applied for a right to return to Germany, to gain German citizenship and receive full compensation for pillaged property. The result was that the Jewish population of Germany jumped from 27,000 in the early 1990s to over 100,000 in 2002

Belgium passed a law “enabling properties that belonged to Jewish families to be returned to their owners.” It also agreed to pay the local Jewish community 55 million euros in restitution for stolen property that “cannot be returned” and for “unclaimed insurance policies belonging to Holocaust victims”

Ha’aretz reports that in Spain: “More than five centuries after their ancestors were expelled from Spain, Jews of Spanish origin… called on the Spanish government and parliament to grant them Spanish nationality... Spain should pass a law ‘to recognize that the descendants of the expelled Jews belong to Spain and to rehabilitate them’, said Nessim Gaon, president of the World Sephardic Federation… some Sephardic Jews have even preserved the keys to their forefathers’ houses in Spain…”. Much has been written about Israel’s crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. It suffices to highlight the irony evoked by Oona King, a Jewish member of the British parliament, upon visiting the completely fenced Gaza Strip: “…in escaping the ashes of the Holocaust, they have incarcerated another people in a hell similar in its nature – though not its extent – to the Warsaw ghetto.”

Any human being with conscience who has recently visited the occupied territories cannot but agree with her.

There are basically only two possible explanations – not necessarily mutually exclusive – of the Israelis’ acceptance of, and occasional fervent support for, the systematic violation of the basic human rights of Palestinians: A widespread belief that their demographic war against the Palestinians could be won by implementing the suggestion of cabinet minister, Benny Elon, who called for intensifying the siege and repression in order to: “make their life so bitter that they will transfer themselves willingly”

A racist colonial tradition and rising Jewish fundamentalism that, secular or not, nourishes the entrenched Israeli perception of the Palestinians as less than fully human. It is commonplace to read about Islamic fundamentalism, its militancy, anachronism and intrinsic hate of “the other”. Jewish fundamentalism, by contrast, is rarely mentioned in the west. But it is increasingly gaining ground in Israel, making the state, as British journalist David Hirst describes it “not only extremist by temperament, racist in practice, [but also] increasingly fundamentalist in the ideology that drives it.”

For example, referring to Jewish Law, or Halacha, Rabbi Ginsburg, the leader of a powerful Hassidic sect, defended the 1994 massacre of Muslim worshippers in a mosque in Hebron, saying: “Legally, if a Jew does kill a non-Jew, he’s not called a murderer. He didn’t transgress the Sixth Commandment …There is something infinitely more holy and unique about Jewish life than non-Jewish life.” Rabbi Shaul Israeli, one of the highest rabbinic authorities of the National Religious Party and of the religious Zionism in general, justified the 1953 Qibya massacre, perpetrated by an Israeli army unit led by Ariel Sharon, by also citing Jewish law. He wrote: “We have established that there exists a special term of ‘war of revenge’ and this is a war against those who hate the Jews and [there are] special laws applying to such war… In such a war there is absolutely no obligation to take precautions during warlike acts in order that non-combatants would not be hurt, because during a war both the righteous and wicked are killed… we have already found in the sayings of our Sages, of blessed memory, that little children have to die because of the sin of their parents.” These are extreme voices of fundamentalism. But some degree of the same ill has seeped to every corner of Israeli society, without being recognised or condemned. To advocate comprehensive and unequivocal equality between Arabs and Jews in Israel has become tantamount to sedition, if not treason. An Israeli High Court justice has recently stated on record that: “it is necessary to prevent a Jew or Arab who calls for equality of rights for Arabs from sitting in the Knesset or being elected to it.”

A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) reveals that 53% of Israeli Jews oppose full equal rights for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and a staggering 57% believe they should be “encouraged to emigrate”. One main finding was that when Israeli Jews say “we” or “us” they hardly ever include the Palestinian citizens of the state.

In land ownership rights, the inequality is categorical. “It is forbidden to sell apartments in the Land of Israel to Gentiles”, said Israel’s Chief Rabbi in 1986, commenting on an attempt by a Palestinian to buy an apartment owned by the Jewish National Fund in East Jerusalem.

In other vital areas of life, including marriage laws, urban development and education, Israel has perfected a comprehensive apparatus of racial discrimination against its Palestinian citizens that is unparalleled anywhere today.

Palestinian population growth: Israel’s solution

Israeli politicians, intellectuals and mass media outlets often passionately debate how best to face the country’s demographic “war” with the Palestinians. Few Israelis dissent from the belief that such a war exists or ought to exist. The popular call to subordinate democracy to demography, however, has entailed the adoption of population control mechanisms to keep the number of Palestinians in check.

In a stark example of such mechanisms, the Israel Council for Demography was reconvened last year to “encourage the Jewish women of Israel – and only them – to increase their child bearing; a project which, if we judge from the activity of the previous council, will also attempt to stop abortions,” as reported in Ha’aretz. This prestigious body, which comprises top Israeli gynaecologists, public figures, lawyers, scientists and physicians, mainly focuses on how to increase the ratio of Jews to Palestinians in Israel, by employing “methods to increase the Jewish fertility rate and prevent abortions”.

Besides demographic engineering, this all-out “war” on Palestinian population growth has always involved enticing non-Arabs, Jewish or not, from around the world – preferably, but not necessarily, the white part of it – to come to Israel, and be eventually Israelised.

Concerned about the imminent rise of an Arab majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, Ariel Sharon has called on religious leaders to smooth the progress of the immigration and absorption of non-Arabs, even if they weren’t Jewish, in order to provide Israel with “a buffer to the burgeoning Arab population”, reports the Guardian. The Israeli government’s view is that “while the first generation of each wave of immigration may have difficulty embracing Israel and Jewishness, their sons and daughters frequently become enthusiastic Zionists. In the present climate, they are also often very rightwing.”

Albeit popular, such a policy is not endorsed across the board. Eli Yishai, the leader of the largest Sephardic Jewish party (Shas), for example, who is particularly alarmed at the influx of gentiles, forewarns: “By the end of the year 2010 the state of Israel will lose its Jewish identity. A secular state will bring ... hundreds of thousands of goyim who will build hundreds of churches and will open more stores that sell pork. In every city we will see Christmas trees.” If non-Jewish immigrants can be welcomed, why not non-Jewish residents already present?

So now we hear increasing advocacy of ethnic cleansing.

The famous historian, Benny Morris, has recently argued that completely emptying Palestine of its indigenous Arab inhabitants in 1948 might have led to peace in the Middle East. In response, Baruch Kimmerling, professor at Hebrew University, wrote: “Let me extend Benny Morris’s logic… If the Nazi programme for the final solution of the Jewish problem had been complete, for sure there would be peace today in Palestine.” Ilan Pappe of Haifa University explains: “The constraints on Israeli behaviour are not moral or ethical, but technical. How much can be done without turning Israel into a pariah state? Without inciting European sanctions, or making life too difficult for the Americans?” Offering a diametrically opposing explanation, Martin van Creveld, Israel’s most prominent military historian, supports ethnic cleansing, and shrugs off any concern about world opinion: “We possess several hundred atomic warheads and rockets and can launch them at targets in all directions, perhaps even at Rome. Most European capitals are targets for our air force… Let me quote General Moshe Dayan: ‘Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.’ … Our armed forces are not the thirtieth strongest in the world, but rather the second or third. We have the capability to take the world down with us. And I can assure you that that will happen, before Israel goes under.” A third possibility is that Israel currently enjoys the best of both worlds: it is implementing – on the ground – an elaborate mesh of policies that are making the Palestinians’ lives progressively more intolerable, and therefore creating an environment conducive to gradual ethnic cleansing, while at the same time not making any dramatic – Kosovo-like – scene that would alarm the world, inviting condemnation and possible sanctions.

Can a state that insists on ethnic purity ever qualify as a democracy, without depriving this concept of its essence? Even Israel’s loyal friends have started losing faith in its ability to reconcile the fundamentally irreconcilable: modern liberal democracy and outdated ethnocentricity. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt affirms that: “In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry, where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed, where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel constrained if we had to answer to just one, in such a world, Israel is truly an anachronism. And not just an anachronism, but a dysfunctional one. In today’s ‘clash of cultures’ between open, pluralist democracies and belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-states, Israel actually risks falling into the wrong camp.” Avraham Burg, a devoted Zionist leader reached a similar conclusion. Attacking the Israeli leadership as an “amoral clique”, Burg asserts that Israel, which “rests on a scaffolding of corruption, and on foundations of oppression and injustice,” must “shed its illusions and choose between racist oppression and democracy.”

Rejecting relative humanity from any side, and insisting on ethical consistency, are I believe, the most moral means of achieving a just and enduring peace anchored in equal humanity and, accordingly, equal rights for all. The one-state solution offers a true chance for decolonisation of Palestine without turning the Palestinians into oppressors of their former oppressors. The vicious cycle launched by the Holocaust must come to an end altogether.

This new Palestine should: allow and facilitate the return of and compensation for all the Palestinian refugees, as the only ethical restitution acceptable for the injustice they’ve endured for decades. Such a process, however, must uphold at all times the moral imperative of avoiding the infliction of any unnecessary or unjust suffering on the Jewish community in Palestine

grant full, equal and unequivocal citizenship rights to all the citizens, Jews or Arabs

recognise, legitimise and even nourish the cultural, religious and ethnic particularities and traditions of each respective community. As a general rule, I subscribe to what Marcelo Dascal of Tel Aviv University insightfully proposes: “the majority has an obligation to avoid as much as possible the identification of the state’s framework with traits that preclude the possibility of the minority’s commitment to it.” Israelis should recognise this moral Palestinian challenge to their colonial existence. It is not an existential threat to them. Rather a magnanimous invitation to dismantle the colonial character of the state, will allow the Jews in Palestine finally to enjoy normalcy, as equal humans and equal citizens of a secular democratic state – a truly promising land, rather than a false Promised Land.