That Third Demand

02.08.13

Why BDS Isn't Compatible With Two States

The latest salvo in the BDS movement’s attempt to find broad appeal is its claim that, contra its critics, the movement does not necessarily oppose a two-state solution.

It’s of course the third demand of the BDS movement—the wholesale return of four million Palestinian refugees—where even the most liberal Zionists part ways with the BDS movement. Both groups agree that the occupation is wrong, and that whatever barriers to equality still exist within Israel should be abolished (Judith Butler cites the existence of 20 Israeli laws that are discriminatory). But liberal Zionists are respectful of Israel’s desire to maintain its core Jewish identity. And that means that the Palestinian refugee issue should be addressed by any means—financial compensation, symbolic return, limited family reunification, return to within a nascent Palestinian state—except a full return to inside Israel.

Despite his own professed commitment to a one-state solution, Ali Abunimah cites Northern Ireland to show how a two-state solution could be compatible with BDS’s core demands. “Jews would have no separate right of self-determination, but like Protestants in Northern Ireland, would enjoy full democratic rights to participate in self-determination as residents of the territory,” Abunimah writes.

But here’s where Abunimah’s singular focus on the Palestinian experience without a desire to seriously engage the Jewish experience reveals the greatest flaw of BDS. Through a combination of pull factors (a desire for Jewish national normalization) and push factors (the scourge of anti-Semitism), the Zionist movement succeeded in convincing the world that the “right of self-determination” that Abunimah would seek to deny the Jews was, indeed, rightly theirs. Abunimah is willing to see two-states emerge in Israel/Palestine, but neither, of course, would uphold this right.

Abunimah, of course, isn't troubled by that because he sets himself in opposition to Zionism, which holds that Jews are a distinct nation deserving of self-determination.

Comparing Jews to Protestants, as Abunimah does, insulates him from the need to extend the right of self-determination to Jews, and can be done only in the most superficial manner. Both groups are guided by some religious creed. But on the global stage, to be a Jew means to be part of much more than a religion. Unlike Protestants, Jews constitute a nation; the range of belief (and non-belief) among Jews who still feel deeply connected to Jewish peoplehood suggests as much. And while not all contemporary states are nation-states in the strictest sense, the global stage has evolved to allow the nation-state pride of place.

Add to this the fact that the Jews—unlike Protestants in Ireland—were buffeted for centuries by the bloody vagaries of anti-Semitism, that scourge of being deemed as a fundamentally "Other" people. And the fact that Jews share the basic textbook definition of a nation, an acute sense of their own collective past coupled with a common destiny, means, for Zionists -- and anyone else who views nations as in principle being deserving of self-determination, that Jews are entitled to restoration in a state of their own.

Anyone who cares about Israel and Palestine should indeed stand shoulder to shoulder with the BDS movement in their demand for an end to the occupation and for full equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel. But to demand that the Jewish nation give up national self-determination and simply embrace the “we” poetically invoked by Judith Butler in her remarks at Brooklyn College overlooks another “we”: one that is ultimately much more salient. That is the sense of collective identity that propels nations through history. Only through a two-state solution that honors the basic material and identity needs of each side—will a healthy and sustainable mix of individual and collective rights be achieved in that tragic land.