A few weeks ago Peter Beinart set off a firestorm when he expressed support for a binational state in Israel-Palestine in back to back essays in the New York Times and Jewish Currents. While Beinart’s shift from a two-state solution to a one state solution was indeed surprising, the idea of a shared, binational state in historic Palestine has a long and rich history and can be traced all the way back to early 20th century cultural Zionists including Rabbi Judah Magnes, Hannah Arendt, and Henrietta Szold, founder of Hadassah the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
According to essayist Ahad Ha’am, whose cultural Zionism challenged Theodor Herzl’s political Zionism, the presence of an indigenous population in Palestine made a binational state the most practical political arrangement:
“If you do not go about building your home in a field of empty people, but rather in a place where there are other homes and residents, then of course you can only be the sole ruler inside your own gates. There, inside, you can organize your belongings as you see fit. But beyond your gates, all residents of the area must work together, and the overall leadership must be agreed upon for the benefit of all.”
Like Bienart, Ha’am envisioned a Jewish homeland within a multinational state. This homeland, Ha’am wrote, would eventually become a center of Jewish culture and learning, admired by people across the world.
In the 1970s a single democratic state was also the official position of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). More recently a steady stream of scholars and intellectuals, including Tony Judt, Ali Abunimah, Virginia Tilley, Gideon Levy, and Yousef Munayyer have all argued in favor of a single, shared state.
Those who oppose the idea of a binational state in Israel-Palestine do so for a variety of reasons, most notably because they believe it will lead to the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state. However those who make this argument fail to realize that Israel has actually always been a binational state.
On November 29, 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two separate states. In theory one state would be an Arab state with a majority Arab population, and the other would be a Jewish state with a majority Jewish population. However the UN plan gave the Jewish state 56% of Mandate Palestine even though the Jewish population made up only 33% of Palestine’s total population at that time. The UN claimed this was to accommodate future Jewish immigration but in terms of demographics, it also meant the state of Israel ended up with a population that included 498,000 Jews and 497,000 Arabs. Under the partition plan approved by the United Nations in 1947, Israel was clearly a binational state.
To transform binational Israel into a Jewish majority state, the founders of Israel had several options, none of which were especially ethical. Ultimately they chose to “transfer” the indigenous population because as Israeli historian Benny Morris argues in the Guardian, political Zionists had long supported the policy:
“Zionist historians […] had charged that I had accorded the subject too much significance and that the pre-1948 Zionist leadership had never supported transfer. The newly available material shows that the Israeli critics were wrong: the Zionist leadership in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, through Chaim Weizmann, the liberal president of the World Zionist Organisation, and Menahem Ussishkin and Zeev Jabotinsky, had supported the idea.”
Over the course of a few months over 700,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes as Israel conquered land well beyond the boundaries set by the UN and took over a full 77% of Mandate Palestine. When the hungry and malnourished Palestinian refugees tried to return to their fields to gather the harvest, Israeli forces shot the “infiltrators” on sight and burned their crops. In August 1948 the State Department warned President Truman about the dire conditions confronting the now stateless refugees:
They are destitute of any belongings, are without adequate shelter, medical supplies, sanitation and food. Their average daily ration, made up exclusively of bread, is only 600 calories. Once the rainy season commences and winter sets in, tragedy on the largest scale will be inevitable unless relief is forthcoming. Thus far the Provisional Government of Israel has refused to admit the Arab refugees to their former homes, which have in some cases been destroyed by fighting and in others preempted by Jewish immigrants.
Through transfer, or what today we call ethnic cleansing, the newly established state of Israel successfully transformed itself from a binational state to a Jewish state, and the demographic problem appeared settled.
Except it actually wasn’t because the Palestinians refugees forced from their homes have the right to go back home. Under both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the Fourth Geneva Convention (1948), no government can prevent refugees from returning home. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 affirmed that Palestinians are not an exception to this rule.
There may be some who argue that Israel must do whatever necessary to remain a Jewish state and stand as a safe haven against the resurgence of anti-Semitism, even if it means denying Palestinian rights. To maintain its illiberal policies, though, the Netanyahu government has made alliances with right-wing nationalists including Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil, and President Donald Trump. In an effort to undermine Palestinian rights, Israel has unwittingly undermined the rights and safety of other minority and vulnerable groups, including the Jewish diaspora. Indeed, Israel cannot undermine the human rights regime that protects Palestinians without also undermining the safety of all vulnerable groups protected by that same human rights regime.
There may be others who hope that if enough time passes the refugees will simply give up and go away, but for many Palestinian refugees the right of return is a dream they hold on to just as fiercely as the Jewish people once held tight their dream of returning to Zion. Just as Jewish longing is captured by the traditional Passover words, “next year in Jerusalem”, for the Palestinians also, according to Irish peace negotiator Padraig O’Malley:
“In the camps I visited, young boys and girls asked to draw a picture of a home would invariably draw a picture of a house surrounded by trees – the ‘once upon a time’ home in Palestine where they earnestly assured me they were going to live someday. Invariable, old men would take out their wallets to produce a crumpled photograph of the home in Palestine they had once lived in, expressing an implacable hope that they would return to their homes before they died.”
The inescapable truth is that Israel is home to both the Jewish and Palestinian people. Israel was established as a binational state by the UN in 1947 and remains a binational state to this day because all refugees have an inalienable right to return home. Denying this reality has led to decades of suffering and bloodshed. Unless we wish to bequeath another generation of children a legacy of bloodshed and violence, it is time to set aside illusions, no matter how dearly held, and accept a difficult truth: Israel has always been a binational state.