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Azmi Bishara and the Rhetoric of Binationalism

By Reihan Salam

As of this writing, Azmi Bishara, member of the Knesset, academic philosopher, and a leading “Palestinian patriot,” to use his term of choice, is standing trial for violating Israel’s Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. He has been accused of inciting violence by, among other things, praising Hezbollah. Shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, Bishara—again, a citizen of Israel and a member of its supreme legislative body—reportedly said “Hezbullah has won and for the first time since 1967, we have tasted the sweet taste of victory.” It is this “we” that is of particular interest. After all, this “sweet taste of victory” is, as only the painfully naďve or painfully meretricious would deny, bound up with the murder of Israeli citizens. Which “we” is in question?

The answer is, of course, the “Palestinian people,” a collectivity which, for a Bishara at least, transcends the demands of mere citizenship, including, one presumes, the minimal civic obligation to refrain from killing one’s compatriots, or anyone else for that matter, without due cause. By now, the ferocious opposition of many Palestinian-identified Israeli citizens to the survival of Israel is a commonplace, an unmistakable feature of the increasingly ugly political landscape. Leaving aside the (crucially important) historical negotiations that have brought us to this point, this depth of animosity has theoretical implications which are, I submit, worthy of scrutiny. Specifically, what does this enduring hatred—which is by no means one-sided, certainly not now—mean for the prospects of a final settlement, an imaginable institutional design that can end Palestinian-Israeli turmoil? Azmi Bishara’s idiosyncratic perspective, which reflects both his secular orientation and leftist allegiances, offers a lens for pondering this question.

But before turning to the “Palestinian Question,” consider the improbable success, relatively speaking, of Israel’s experience with deep cultural differences within the Jewish majority, fortuitous product of a sui generis amalgam of settler nationalism, socialist humanism, and multicultural accommodation. The cleavages in Israel—between immigrants and natives, the secular and the religious, not to mention the classical binary between the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim (which itself elides finer cultural distinctions)—would be enough to paralyze and divide any society under far less strenuous circumstances. Even so, despite successive destabilizing waves of migration, not to mention periodic (arguably permanent) political crises, there is a high degree of social solidarity among Israel’s roughly 5 million Jewish citizens, as well as a nontrivial minority of its 1 million Arab citizens. In large part, this reflects the coalitional imperative in a democratic polity. Assimilationist programs have been met with disfavor in many communities, a disfavor then translated into votes, thus forcing existing political elites to welcome newcomers on more or less their own terms—a process which has involved many a charismatic politician, including some as demagogic as Azmi Bishara, leading his coethnics to the bargaining table. The tenacity of ethnic and other subnational identities has thus not precluded the creation of common bonds.

Despite notable exceptions—the celebrated Bedouins of the I.D.F. come to mind—the great exception to this broadening of loyalty has been the Arab minority. In light of a daunting demographic picture in which the Russian influx, in all likelihood the last major wave of Jewish immigration to Israel, has been exhausted, Jewish emigration from Israel is rising (of high human-capital individuals, no less), and high Arab birthrates, this failure represents nothing less than a disaster. And so Azmi Bishara’s vision for the Israeli future may prove more salient than the various concessions proposed by Shimon Peres and others.

Unlike the Palestinian Authority leadership, Bishara opposes establishing a “right of return” for all those claiming descent from the 1948 wave of Palestinian refugees. Rather than hope for the literal obliteration of Israel, the nonnegotiable demand of most Palestinian militants, Bishara accepts Israel on the grounds that though “born illegitimately,” the Zionist project has “created a nationality of Hebrew Jews. And therefore their right to self-determination has to be taken into account.” At the same time, he believes Israel ought to become a “state for all its citizens,” an implicit rejection of the Law of Return, the foundational premise of Jewish self-determination. In essence, Bishara is calling for a binational solution, not unlike that associated historically with Martin Buber and more recently with Edward Said.

Presented as a kind of civil rights agenda, a broadening of Israeli inclusion not unlike that which embraced the Sephardim, this has an obvious appeal, particularly for Americans. After all, the fantasy of the U.S. as a “creedal nation,” a country united by liberal-democratic principles rather than, say, the hegemony of English along with widespread adherence to Christian or at least quasi-Christian norms, runs deep. If binationalism is fundamentally about rooting out “discriminatory Israeli land and housing policies,” as Lama Abu-Odeh of Georgetown argues, who can possibly object? Isn’t this directly analogous to U.S. civil rights struggles? This is where “the sweet taste of victory comes in.” In the U.S. context, sweet victories included the passage of key legislation; for Bishara, champion of civil rights—a man described as Israel’s Nelson Mandela—“the sweet taste of victory” involves guerrilla violence, and worse.

For Rousseau, the task of the political theorist is to reconcile “men as they are and institutions as they might be”; in designing common institutions, aspirations must be tempered by a recognition of human limitations, including human hatreds. Had the logic of linguistic nationality prevailed, the assimilated Jews of central Europe would have had no need for a Jewish State; similarly, had the common hope for a common peaceful future been enough to prevent the Palestinian leadership from sowing and exacerbating anti-Semitic hatred, there would be no need for an institutionalized defense of the Jewish majority, for a militarized Israel unwillingly policing violent P.A. fiefdoms. This is not to suggest that Israel has been unimpeachable—far from it. But it is hard to deny that Israel has made good faith efforts that have not been reciprocated by radical the Palestinian leadership on both sides of the Green Line. Arab students in Israel ought to learn Hebrew long before high school, as is the case now; similarly, Jewish students ought to learn Arabic at a young age. Persistent economic inequalities can be alleviated through serious interventions. Integration needn’t mean marginalization, as Bishara has argued. All of these steps should be taken. For now, though, as long as the partisans of binationalism—like Bishara—are also the partisans of violence, Israelis and friends of the Israelis must resist its siren song.


Reihan Salam, Harvard Class of 2001, is a researcher-reporter for The New Republic.


This Issue

HIR Notebook
Compiled by the editors

What Many Liberals Can't See Arthur Hertzberg

The Costs of U.S. Aid to Israel
Daniel Feith

Reviving Religious Zionism
Daniel Shoag

Hudna-winked: How Hamas Fooled the Media
Adam Levine

HIR Book Review - Illegal Construction: a Legal Deconstruction
Max Davis

Security Fences Make Good Neighbors
Eric Trager

The State of the Jewish State
An Interview with Efraim Karsh