At Harvard conference, a one-state vision Israelis can live with

Concerned the Harvard-hosted One-State Conference would rationalize a call for the destruction of Israel, the writer was pleasantly surprised to take part in a creative and intelligent weekend that offered hopeful ideas for the future of Israelis and Palestinians. 

By Itamar Mann

Last week, I experienced some discomfort surrounding the One State Conference at Harvard, in which I participated this past weekend. As allegations that it is “anti-Semitic” or “seeks the end of Israel” surmounted, I felt my intestines gradually transforming into an angry knot. To try and relieve that, I resolved to air my indignation in an inevitably crass and self-righteous blog post (which I wrote in my mind only). Luckily, a good friend with a track record of Palestine campus activism told me to chill. “You might want to see what the conference is really like before making judgments,” he said.

But as the conference came closer and it gradually became clear that everyone on campus had something to say about this event, the advice got me even more worried. I thought maybe the friend was implying that there might be a grain of truth in these claims of delegitimization. The last thing I wanted was to end up being associated with positions that I would not be able to defend; or worse yet, being labeled a “soft eliminationist” – the term of the day to describe those who supposedly use rational arguments to destroy Israel.

In reality, the conference housed one of the most informed, nuanced, creative, and responsible discussions on Israel-Palestine I’ve recently participated in. It was by no means only academic, but rather a political event, aimed to mobilize and encourage sophisticated thinking about a place I care for. Granted, some of the speakers voiced their ideas in terms I found too shrill to be politically constructive. But during the two days, I felt the room was consistently filled with people who genuinely believe, as organizer Ahmed Moor put it in his concluding remarks, that “both Palestinians and Jews deserve better.” To say that Israel’s government doesn’t share this belief would be an understatement.

My main disagreement with many one-state advocates I met had to do with the relationship this unified Israeli-Palestinian state should or should not have with Jews abroad. In my talk, I tried to illuminate the opportunities for a bi-nationalist movement, with settler leaders now calling for a one state plan. Alongside recognizing the rights of Palestinian refugees, such a movement would seek to preserve relations with the Jewish diaspora. Other speakers, such as Nadim Rouhana, objected to this position. Like Ali Abuminah and Ilan Pappe, Rouhana believes that Israel is a colonial project. For him, such an extraterritorial idea of citizenship flows from its colonial nature, and should therefore be rejected. This analysis seems to me flawed. The reason why maintaining such a connection is important, is not to artificially preserve a Jewish majority. Rather, it would reflect recognition of Jewish-Israeli political culture and identity, which cannot be simply ignored if a one-state movement is to gain any serious support from Jews.

I found the most exciting idea in the conference to be Diana Buttu’s invocation of the need for a political party of Palestinians and Jews from both sides of the Green Line, and I tried to expand on that in my own talk. Such a party would have to use the Israeli Knesset as its institutional platform. The idea raises readily identifiable problems. Leila Fasakh pointed out its tension with the positions of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Perhaps more importantly, it would inevitably grant more power to those who already have Israeli citizenship – as only they would be able to vote and run for office under the existing regime.

But as party membership does not necessarily have to be attached to citizenship, there is room for creativity in its institutional design. Many seem to be interested in what a one-state constitution would look like, and particularly in how group rights would be protected under such a constitution. Should such a party appear, these imaginative energies could first be poured into the charter-drafting stage. It would be unprecedented but necessary to grant Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza voting rights in the mechanisms of a party running for the Knesset. That way a one-state apparatus could be operational and put into practice before the theoretical (and seemingly messianic) vision of one state for both groups is hopefully realized.

Apart from such bare-boned procedural proposals, it might be wise not to load such a party with more normative content than simply a call for universal suffrage. As much as conferences are important in envisioning a democratic and more just future, we shouldn’t pretend to be making too many decisions about this state before deliberation is possible on formally equal footing. This kind of normative humility would hopefully help garner support from whoever understands the current situation is no longer tenable whatever their own interests and motivations.

All this may sound to readers all too detached from realities on the ground. But this distance might not be all bad. It’s crucial in this context to emphasize the potential role of diaspora communities. In an age of radically extra-territorial nation-states – often with large expatriate communities remaining politically active – the one state movement can perhaps benefit from a nesting period overseas.

Itamar Mann is a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School.