From Here to There! / Adi Ophir

“Where to? is a call for formulating novel proposals and courses of action through a study of various historical options for dealing with the Jewish Questions”.[1]

What is the Jewish Question? The Jewish Question is the Israel Question. There is virtually no conscious Jewish existence today that does not position itself with one form or another of relation to Israel, whether it accepts Israeli hegemony in Jewish life or rejects it, whether it accepts Zionist hegemony in Israeli life or rejects it. The State of Israel – by virtue of its very establishment, history, unique separation regime, the living conditions it enables and imposes on Jews and non-Jews within its borders, and the Zionist ideology whereby the majority of its Jewish inhabitants perceive it – redefines not only who is a Jew, but also the possibility for Jewish existence and the frameworks within which the Jewish Question can even appear and be formulated. The non-Israeli Jew who is even stimulated to engage with the Jewish Question, i.e., the fate of the Jews, the situation of Jewish religious cultures and frameworks, and his own Jewishness (and these three questions are linked but discrete), has to first of all decide whether he accepts the answers proposed and shaped by the Jewish state’s apparatuses and its hegemonic discourse, Zionism in its contemporary version, rejects them, or ignores them.

Zionism in its prevalent meaning is an entire doctrine of the impossible.[2] This doctrine can be cursorily and simplistically phrased as follows: it is impossible without an entire system of separations whose principles were determined a priori and their validity never examined. Today the Zionist says that it is impossible – at least in present historical conditions – to maintain a state that is not a nation state, that it is impossible to realize nationhood without a state, that it is impossible to ensure Jewish existence without a Jewish state, that it is impossible to  maintain a Jewish state without ensuring a Jewish majority, and that it is impossible to ensure a Jewish majority in a Jewish state without Jewish monopoly over the state’s apparatuses. This political doctrine of the impossible is founded on acceptance of one a priori principle of separation – separation between ethnic nationalities, identifying national separation with state separation, and deriving a long series of a posteriori separations that need to be created and maintained in order to ensure the a priori separation.

But everything that the hegemonic Zionist discourse claims to be impossible – is possible. The simple proof of possibility is the fact that they actually exist or have existed in the past. Each of the ostensible impossibilities determined by the Zionist discourse exists or has existed in practice.

What Exists in Practice and is Presented as Impossible

  1. “It is impossible to maintain a state that is not a nation state”. Israel is living proof that it is possible to maintain a state that is not a nation state. Since 1967 Israel has been a two-nation state; its two-nation regime is based, as we know, on separations – between Jews and non-Jews, between citizens and non-citizens. These are of course hierarchical separations whose implications are structural discrimination against non-Jews in general and systematic and violent oppression of non-citizen non-Jews in particular.
  2. “It is impossible to realize nationhood without a state”. The Zionist movement in the past, and the Palestinian movement that accompanies it like an echo in the present, are proof that it is possible to maintain national life without a state. At the same time, Israel is also proof that nationhood is not a historical entity that precedes the state and hovers somewhere outside it, but a product of the national ideology practices; and once the state appears and considers itself the realization of Jewish nationhood, nationality is also – decisively so – the effect of its legal, military, economic, and ideological mechanisms.
  3. It is impossible to ensure Jewish existence without a Jewish state”. This argument is attended by a big question mark posed by the leaders of the state themselves when they present the possibility of the Iranian regime developing nuclear weapons as a threat to Israel’s very existence, not only as a state but as a populated area. If they are right, Israel is under permanent threat of annihilation. If tempted to defuse this threat by means of a suicidal attack by Israeli forces (with or without American backing) on a country like Iran – which has existed as a sovereign state since the beginning of the sixteenth century, whose population numbers approximately 75 million people, and according to various sources, not only Israeli, it is armed and equipped with long-range missiles, and experienced in activating terrorists throughout the world – they are sentencing Israel to a regional conflict that will continue for generations to come. The war that is ostensibly intended to ensure Jewish existence will make Jews all over the world targets for Iranian retribution. These threats of war and the practical preparations for it (overt and covert, real and false) only serve to highlight what is already obvious: Israel is dangerous for the Jews. Since the extermination of the Jews in World War II, Jewish existence is far less secure within Israel than without, and this holds true whether Iran possesses nuclear capabilities or not, whether it intends to use them against Israel or not. Added to that is the unique contribution of the continuing occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people to hatred of Jews, especially among Muslims. This hatred also exposes non-Israeli Jews to new threats, since they are perceived as the representatives and successors of the Jewish regime in Israel. The fact that about half of the Jewish people lives in Israel, which is in a permanent state of hostility and war with nations and countries in the region (currently with the Palestinians within and without, the Hezbollah, the Syrian and Iranian regimes, and with Muslims all over the world) creates a situation whereby instead of constituting a guarantee for Jewish existence, the Jewish state has become the greatest danger to Jewish existence in the present era; the non-critical identification of extensive Jewish publics in the US and Europe with Israel’s regime and policies contributes to the spread of hostility to Jewish communities all over the world, to new forms of anti-Semitism, and in countries with large Muslim concentrations such as France, to new physical threats as well. This can be understood only when taking into consideration the extent to which organized Jewish life in the Diaspora is intertwined with the State of Israel, i.e., the extent to which the Jewish Question is the Question of Israel.
  4. “It is impossible to maintain a Jewish state without ensuring a Jewish majority”. This argument is refuted by the fact that the state was declared and established as a Jewish state before it had a Jewish majority, and it continues to be declared Jewish even though the Jewish majority in it almost disappeared with the occupation of the Territories. The maxim whereby a Jewish majority in the Land of Israel is a condition for realizing Zionism guided Israel’s political and military leadership in 1948, and contributed directly to the decisions that led to the expulsion and flight of 750,000 Palestinians between 1947 and 1950, and to preventing the return of refugees ever since. The same maxim has guided the Israeli occupation regime since 1967 and enabled control of the Territories without counting their inhabitants, perceiving them as ‘foreign’ and external for legal and diplomatic purposes, and ‘domestic’ and internal for economic and settlement purposes, for infrastructure development, and to foster national consciousness. But when we overcome the representations of the occupied territories in the Zionist discourse, and understand that excluding the territories is a form of including and containing them, it transpires that a little over six million Jews and a little less than six million Arabs live in the Jewish state, and its Jewish majority is temporary and coincidental, a broken reed. And for precisely this reason, the following argument is also false:
  5. It is impossible to ensure a Jewish majority in the state without Jewish monopoly over the state’s mechanisms”. It transpires that even Jewish monopoly over the state’s apparatuses cannot ensure a Jewish majority over time. It also transpires that a Jewish majority would have been possible without such a monopoly. The Partition Plan granted a majority to the Jews in the state without granting them monopoly over its apparatuses on the premise that the new state would not discriminate against the Arab minority that was meant to remain within its borders, and would invite it to “participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions”, as promised in the Declaration of Independence. This promise has never been fulfilled. The majority-minority ratio was rapidly changed by means of the massive Jewish immigration, alongside expulsion and displacement of Palestinians, which continued uninterrupted from the end of 1947 until the early 1950s, resumed during the June 1967 battles, and has continued by administrative means and on a smaller scale since the occupation of the territories. In other words, in historical terms, creating a majority through the expulsion and displacement of Palestinians from 1947 to 1950, and attaining monopoly of the state’s apparatuses were bound up in one another, the two sides of the violence that founded the Israeli regime, and it is incorrect to view one as a condition for the other. From an ideological perspective, sustaining and feeding the fear of losing the Jewish majority (the ‘demographic demon’) are a means to maintaining and justifying this monopoly. This impossibility is groundless – and in this it differs from its predecessors – not because the situation declared as impossible exists in practice, but because it existed in the past, on the eve of the state’s establishment, and the causal connection it contains is false: fears of losing the Jewish majority constitute motivation and justification for achieving and maintaining monopoly. This monopoly creates a chronic distortion of the allegedly democratic regime within the Green Line, for in a democratic regime that grants equal rights to non-Jewish citizens, this monopoly is not supposed to reflect the Jewish majority and cannot be justified by it. And most importantly – it is used to establish a tyrannical regime beyond the Green Line, which instead of reinforcing the Jewish majority, in effect reduces and endangers it.

These maxims, as we have seen, underpin Zionist ideology as a doctrine of the impossible in Jewish existence. Once refuted, one by one, a horizon for new thinking opens up. I shall now present outlines for two such ways of thinking, both linked to the negations presented by Zionist ideology: the first reformulates what is possible according to what already exists in any case, or according to what could exist as a result of certain combinations of existing elements, but does not commit to what is right and desirable. The second formulates what is right and desirable in accordance with an understanding of the possible.

What is Possible

  1. It is possible to maintain a state that is not a nation state. Due to the recent waves of migrations from poor to wealthy countries all over the world, there is in effect a considerable disparity between citizenship, nationality, and residency in virtually every developed country. Today, practically all democratic nation states are contending with an increasingly growing ‘backyard’ of national minorities with impaired citizenship and immigrants without citizenship. In order to remain democratic they have to adapt the universal element of citizenship to the particular-historical element of nationhood. In other words, they have to separate nationhood from state just as they separated religion from state in the past. Different models of this kind of separation already exist, for example in the US, Spain, Belgium, and Germany. The non-nation state can protect the nations residing within it just as it protects the religious communities that exist within it, and can enable each of them to prosper, on condition that this prosperity is not manifested in oppression of or discrimination against other nations.
  2. It is possible to realize nationhood – even in its modern meaning that was created in the nineteenth century – without a state. Kurds, Armenians, Basques, Palestinians, and Catalans maintain national life without having a state of their own. Germans maintain national life even though they share their country with millions of Turks, Arabs, Jews, and others. Members of certain nationalities envisage a state and aspire to attain it, while others lament a state that has been lost, but their nationalism does not come into being in a state and does not cease in its absence. Even if we insist on thinking about nationhood within the boundaries formulated by nineteenth-century nationalist ideology, we can imagine a national identity of which a uninational/mononational nation state is not an essential component, and develop national political imagination that does not view the state as a necessary embodiment of national existence. And there is no need to insist on this model of nationalism. A state is a form of governance, nationality is a form of association and partnership, and the connection between the two is the product of contingent historical development; it is neither logical nor necessary. Jews lived as a stateless people long before modern nationalism, and will certainly continue to exist as a people even when this nationalism passes from the world as a unique form of association. It should also be borne in mind that the Nazis exterminated Jews not because they were a stateless nation, but because they were perceived as an inferior race that must be eliminated in order to preserve the purity of the Aryan race – not the German nation.
  3. It is possible to ensure Jewish existence without a Jewish state. In fact, Israel’s success in eradicating the distinction between regime (as a form of political rule) and state, and between state and nation, and in existing as a one-nation state at the expense of the non-Jewish population within it, largely depends on Jewish existence outside it. Instead of Israel ensuring Jewish existence, the world’s Jews are enlisted to ensure the fantasy of a Jewish nation state. These Jews, and especially the organized Jewish community in the US, directly contribute to preserving Israel’s military power and diplomatic status, and the wellbeing of its citizens, especially its Jewish citizens. Israel provides them with a focus for national activity and call upon them to identify with an imagined national reality at the cost of increasingly deepening denial of Israel’s regime, its form of political rule, and the moral consequences of Jewish sovereignty. But it does not ensure either the very existence of these Jews or their existence as Jews. In the US, France, Berlin, and more recently in Warsaw and Kiev, Jewish communities, some more and some less religious, are flourishing in the heart of non-Jewish countries under the auspices of their respective governments and due to the conditions they enable. Jews fill senior government posts, maintain religious and cultural institutions, split and unite depending on circumstances, because the regimes under which they live allow national and religious freedom to their citizens. The State of Israel, as an ideal and a collection of ideological apparatuses, is the most important element that provides them with the story of their unity in a single nation-community as well as the image of that community, but they are free to do with this story as they see fit, to reshape this image in their own way.
  4. It is possible to maintain a Jewish state without ensuring a Jewish majority. On the one hand this is possible if Jewish monopoly over the state’s apparatuses is ensured. That is precisely what is happening today, and what will happen in the foreseeable future, when demographic changes create a reality wherein the majority of the country’s inhabitants who are subject to the Israeli regime will no longer be Jews. And there is also another possibility, if one believes that the state becomes Jewish according to the contribution of its Jewish citizens to its culture, public space, politics, and according to their reflection in the laws of the state. If Israel becomes a state that respects the nationality of all its citizens, it will be able to be Jewish (as well) in its culture and character, no less than it is today. For the state to embody the national belonging of its citizens in its governance and laws, a separation of nationhood and state is required, not the imposition of one nation on a multination state. This kind of coercion distorts rather than ensures nationhood, and turns it into an ongoing campaign of humiliation and oppression.
  5. It is possible to ensure a Jewish majority in a Jewish state without Jewish monopoly over the Jewish state’s apparatuses. This can come about in a variety of ways. For example: Jewish Israeli citizens join forces with Palestinian Israeli citizens and form a coalition that withdraws from the territories occupied in 1967, and gradually changes the one-state separation regime within the 1967 borders until Israel becomes the state of all its citizens. The bi-national  agreements on which the new regime will be founded will remove the state’s apparatuses from the exclusive grasp of the Jews, ensure not only due representation of Palestinians in the Knesset but also equal access to all government institutions, and will establish the state’s responsibility for the two nations living in it in the new constitution. The rise in the standard of living of Palestinian citizens and reduction of the inequality between them and Jewish citizens will also reduce the differences in birthrates. Following withdrawal from the Territories, Jews will constitute approximately 78% of all Israeli citizens. A compromise on the refugee issue will enable absorption of a further one million Palestinians into Israel (within the Green Line). Following this immigration wave, there will be 2.5 million Arabs in Israel, and they will constitute approximately 30% of all Israeli citizens. Out of responsibility toward the two nations, the state will be open to absorb Jewish and Palestinian immigration. The immigration of Jews and Palestinians will be subject to a regulating mechanism so that the relative proportion of immigrants from the two groups remains fixed in accordance with their proportion in the population. Maintaining the Jewish majority will be the product of agreements at the center of which is the Jews relinquishing their monopoly on the state’s apparatuses.

What is Right

  1. A nation state – it is right and desirable to completely separate nationhood from state. Under conditions of globalization and mass immigration, which is an inseparable part of world economy, it is right to redefine citizenship on the basis of a combination of duration of stay, subordination to the laws of the state, and employment. After a specified transition period, anyone residing in the state’s territory, abides by its laws, and is employed within it, so that other residents of the state enjoy the fruits of his labor, has to become a citizen. For its part, the state has to protect all its citizens and provide them with the freedom and infrastructure for their various associations – religious, national, professional, political, economic, and so forth. There is absolutely no necessity for the different associations to unite into a single bloc (i.e., for all the members of a religion to be members of the same nation, or vice versa, for all members of a political party to belong to the same trade union, or worship in the same church, and so forth). All that is required is for the state to provide equal services to all the associations of the same type, and foster them as it is supposed to foster individuals: provide them with equal conditions to advance their issues, protect them against the trespass of other associations (or individuals), and provide them with a neutral framework wherein they can resolve disputes between them non-violently. In this kind of framework, the shared interest of all citizens overshadows their interest in fostering their particular associations, since they are always liable to find themselves harmed by other associations due to the tendency of associations to spread, trespass, segregate, or attain exclusivity in their particular sphere. In other words – and these are essential but insufficient minimum conditions for a just regime – the classic opposition to monopoly must be expanded beyond the economic sphere and applied to all aspects of society.
  2. Nationhood without a state – as an ideology propounded by ‘nationalist movements’, nationalism was the uniting adhesive and facilitating discourse that enlisted many to a political struggle with the aim of attaining liberation, power, and control in conditions of relative inferiority vis-à-vis the existing regime and other groups. As the ideology of a state, nationalism provided a false political image that gave expression and provided a metaphysical basis for the unity and oneness of the state, blurred the heterogeneity within it, and enabled one group to take control over others. But as a framework of belonging that accords meaning, historical depth, and a horizon of development for the existence of the individual as one of many, among many, as someone who in any case already always maintains multiple relationship with many, nationalism does not necessitate a state. This kind of framework is the only proper existence for nationhood, which the state has to facilitate just as it facilitates religious congregations. There is no need to shunt nationalism aside to the private domain in order to achieve this – in the way that liberal thinking sought to and still seeks to shunt religion to the realm of subjectivity and ‘inner belief’. Like religion, nationalism can occupy the public domain, on condition that it is perceived as a shared space for different religions and nationalities, political groups and economic companies, and to which none of them can lay claim for itself.
  3. Jewish existence without a Jewish state – this kind of existence should be possible anywhere and everywhere. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the possibility of peaceful, secure Jewish presence wherein not only physical existence is ensured, but also the cultural, national, and religious existence of the Jewish community, became the test of a society’s enlightenment. It is not a state in the Middle East that should or can ensure this kind of existence, but an enlightened regime and civic responsibility wherever Jews live. The Zionists, who seize upon every anti-Semitic outburst, or one that can be presented as anti-Semitic, in order to display it as proof of the justness of Zionism, are unwitting partners of the anti-Semitic forces seeking to cleanse their surroundings of Jews in Europe, Islamic countries, or anywhere else in the world. Israeli Jews who are fearful for the Jewish fate should aspire to a situation whereby Jewish existence is ensured wherever Jews live by virtue of the regime and social conditions prevailing there, irrespective of the State of Israel, its regime, or policies. Moreover, in light of the current situation of this regime and the Israeli government’s disastrous policies, Jews in Israel have a direct interest in secure Jewish existence in the Diaspora: these are their sanctuaries from the catastrophe in whose shadow they live, these are the solidarity groups on whose support they can rely in times of trouble.
  4. A Jewish state without an ensured Jewish majority; A Jewish majority without monopoly over the state’s mechanisms – the homogeneity – national or religious – of a state that is homogenous in any case can be ensured by means of strictly enforced, stringent immigration laws that protect the state against the entry of foreign workers and against excessively long stays by tourists. But under conditions of a mixed population, immigration laws are insufficient (the solution proposed above to maintain the majority-minority ratio by means of control over Jewish and Palestinian immigration rates is effective only on the premise that the rate of natural increase remains unchanged). The only way to truly ensure a majority, either national or religious, is to control the minority’s birthrate and nurture that of the majority. This is not right. This form of racial biopolitics lurks at the bottom of the slippery slope of the ‘demographic danger’ even after the Palestinian state is established on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and is liable to invite control over birth rate, and hence is not right. The issue is not to ensure a Jewish majority, but to enable free but non-suppressing Jewish existence that ensures the freedom of every individual to nurture his or her nationhood, or the freedom to live with total indifference toward this aspect of one’s identity. In the dual nationality conditions of Israel/Palestine, this kind of existence is only possible on the basis of agreement between Jews and Palestinians. The question of whether such agreement will lead to the ‘two-state solution’ or a binational state that will be the state of all its citizens, is secondary. Any appropriate solution will have to include federative arrangements that acknowledge national distinctness on the one hand, and geographic, historical, and economic partnership on the other. Perhaps it will be one state in which different national and religious groups have autonomy, and perhaps it will be two states with agreements between them enabling different forms of integration between their citizens. In any event, it would not be right for these agreements to be dictated by temporary majority-minority ratios, they must not stabilize these ratios by means of biopolitical intervention, and in the event of binational states as well, no group, either national or other, can be allowed to monopolize the state’s mechanisms.

A state that is not a nation state, wherein citizenship is granted on the basis of duration of stay, subordination to the laws of the state, and employment, and wherein the national associations within it are equally protected and nurtured; nationalism that does not require a state, and its existence is ensured in every state and country; conditions for peaceful and secure Jewish existence wherever Jews live; federative arrangements between Jews and Palestinians within a single, dual, or split state framework, and in any event one that grants Jews and Palestinians the freedom to nurture their nationhood as well as the freedom to live in total indifference toward this aspect of their identity – this is what is right and possible. It is of this, not the Zionist doctrine of the impossible, that it is appropriate to say: If you will it, it is no dream.

Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

[1] From the introduction to the Where To? project, The Israeli Center for Digital Art, Holon.

[2] From here onward, the present article develops ideas presented in two previous texts: Ariella Azoulay and Adi Ophir, The One State Condition: Occupation and Democracy in Israel/Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, forthcoming), Chapter 4; Adi Ophir, Minimum Conditions for Critical Theory, in Gil Eyal (Ed.), Four Lectures on Critical Theories (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and Hakibbutz Hameuchad, in print).