Part One: The Failure of Zionism
Nathan Milstein (1903-1992), one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century, has left us fascinating memoirs (From Russia to the West, London 1990), which he had dictated in the United States to Solomon Volkov, a Russian emigrant from Leningrad. On page 232 he reports from a meeting with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, when visiting Israel, and remembers “how he spoke with humour about Israel becoming a real state at last: ‘We even have our own gangsters, and I’m happy about it!’”. Milstein carries on by remembering his “former Odessa neighbour Jabotinsky (the spiritual father of Israel’s Likud party): ‘Allow us to have our own scoundrels.’”
Odessa at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century was not only home of some of the world’s later most famous musicians like Milstein, David Oistrakh, Josef Roisman (First violin of the Budapest String Quartet), Emil Gilels, and Sviatoslav Richter, but also of the famous writer Isaac Babel and the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. This beautiful city on the Black Sea coast has such a rich history. Presently we have to witness the ruthless attacks from the Russian army, trying to prevent the export of Ukrainian grain and terrorizing the civilian population with drone and missile attacks. In 1939, on the eve of the WWII, the Jewish population of Odessa comprised about 180,000 inhabitants, some 30% of the city’s population. Many of them who managed to escape the attack of the German army in 1942 emigrated either to the United States or tried to become settlers in Palestine.
As Milstein’s quotes from Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky indicate, most of the Jewish refugees yearned to have their own state which would guarantee their security. Only few of them refused a ‘Jewish state’, like Orthodox Jews, pacifists like Joseph Abileah, or those like Moshe Menuhin who left Palestine because they didn’t want to live in a state at the expense of the indigenous Arab population.
Since 1948 Israel has now existed as a state, recognized by more than 160 of the 193 member states of the United Nations. It can claim its statehood to the UN Resolution 181 of the General Assembly (29 November 1947). However, there has rarely been any time when Israel’s population could live in real, durable peace. They were seldom free from wars with its Arab neighbours (1948, 1956, 1967, 1972, 1982 etc.) or from ‘terrorist attacks’ committed by Palestinian Arabs or Muslim groups. The latter were fighting because they had lost their homes or were suffering from oppressive measures in occupied territories (West Bank, Gaza and southern Lebanon). Israel could only survive due to its military superiority and the support of Western states, primarily the US (since 1967). The constant fear of renewed hostilities has moved the Israeli society more and more to the right. This move is led by politicians, who claim the need for more settlements in the occupied territories and more “iron fists” to be used against the Palestinian population, both within Israel and in the occupied territories. The long dispute between the two major trends of Zionism – the proponents of a ‘Two-States-solution’, led by most of the Labour Party leaders, and the ‘Revisionists’ from Jabotinsky to Netanyahu – has ended with the victory of the latter, the Likud Party’s argument that only military superiority and suppression, supported by a major outside power, can guarantee Israel’s survival.
However, this cannot be the ultimate guarantee for Israel’s security and well-being. After 75 years the Jewish population in Israel-Palestine is 7.1 million, but only 46.2% of the world-wide Jewry of 15.3 million, according to a September 2023 press release from the Jewish Agency for Israel. So more than half of world-wide Jews still live abroad, most of them in the United States. The decades-long efforts of encouraging ‘Aliyah’ (Jewish immigration to Palestine) cannot be called a comprehensive success. And this is no wonder, since the key argument of Zionism was to provide safety for the Jews in their own state.
Still, after 75 years of existence, 46 years of occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza strip and the Golan Heights, and more than 16 years of “putting more than 2 million Palestinians in a cage in Gaza” (Gideon Levy – see my earlier article), Israel has managed to change the reality in former Palestine. Although still not having gained a clear majority in population over the Palestinian Arabs, Israel controls the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It has built homes and settlements for more than 700,000 people in the occupied territory, (roughly 10% of its population), thereby constantly violating international law and basic human rights of the indigenous population.
Given these conditions, is it a wonder that the expropriation and humiliation of the Palestinians has repeatedly lead to frustration, aggression and “terrorist acts”, of which leading Israeli politicians never cease to complain?
Alternative to Statehood
Is there no alternative? Can’t the parties concerned, the regional actors and the world community find a solution which would guarantee the Israelis durable security and find a better, honourable way of living for the descendants of the original native population?
The long-debated option of a ‘Two-State-solution’, as first proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937 and then the UN in November 1947 doesn’t seem feasible any more. There is just not enough land available for the Palestinians to have their own separate state next to Israel’s. And to drive out the 700,000 Jewish settlers from their homes built in the West Bank since 1967 would only result in a civil war within Israel.
This is why serious experts who are truly interested in a durable, peaceful settlement of the conflict come back to the old alternative to Zionism: the creation of a bi-national state in which Israelis and Palestinians enjoy the same equal democratic rights and guaranteed safety.
In a follow-up article I shall present my own – rather utopian – concept of this bi-national state in Israel-Palestine, consisting of three dimensions:
- the domestic aspects for the people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river,
- the regional implications – Israel-Palestine’s place within the Middle East, and
- the global responsibilities – the role of international institutions, major powers and donors.
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