In November 1946, the philosopher and theologian Martin Buber testified before the Anglo-American Inquiry Committee, which was tasked with exploring the political situation in Mandatory Palestine. Like other Central European Jewish intellectuals involved with Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), a movement to establish a binational state, Buber was convinced that the Zionist movement’s quest for national and territorial sovereignty would inevitably lead to a violent conflict with Palestine’s Arab population. He therefore opposed the Zionist movement’s attempt to establish a Jewish state, believing that Zionism must accommodate rather than disregard Palestinian national claims. “Independence of one’s own,” he told the committee, “must not be gained at the expense of another’s independence.”
Buber’s writings have resonated with me ever since I first came across them in college, shortly after completing my military service — much of it in the West Bank — as a combat soldier in the Israeli army. His words gave expression to the deep ambivalence I felt toward Israel following my army service. On the one hand, it was my belief in the Zionist dream of a Jewish homeland which led me, an American Jew from Southern California, to become an Israeli citizen in the first place. On the other hand, I had come to believe, in part because of my military service, that my commitments to Israel could not be reconciled with my democratic and liberal sensibilities.
I no longer feel that same ambivalence. The diminishing prospects for a viable two-state solution, along with the sharp rightward shift of Israel’s public and politics, have made it clear that there is no end in sight to Israel’s 53-year occupation of the West Bank. With the Israeli government’s plans to formally annex territories in the West Bank, it’s time to admit that Israel has crossed the Rubicon, creating a situation of permanent occupation from which there is no return.
Successive Israeli governments have long argued that Israel’s occupation was justified as a temporary arrangement until the status of the Occupied Territories could be resolved through final status negotiations with the Palestinians. But occupation has become a deeply entrenched policy, one that Israel is now taking steps to formalize and make permanent.
We must confront an unavoidable truth: a permanent occupation entailing the wholesale denial of political and civil rights to more than 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank is morally and politically indefensible. Indeed, it is a terrible crime. It is therefore incumbent upon those who are committed to human rights and human dignity to fight for the fundamental rights of all the people living in the territory Israel now controls, even if that means eschewing our commitment to exclusive Jewish national and territorial sovereignty. That is the only morally and politically viable path forward.
I did not come to this conclusion easily. I have considered Israel my home, in one way or another, since I was nine years old. It is still the place I love most in the world. But if the price of a Jewish state is permanent Palestinian subjugation and disenfranchisement, such a price is far too high.
Israel’s annexation was set to begin on July 1 and now appears to be stalled. Initial reports indicated that territory earmarked for annexation could include up to 30 percent of the West Bank, a move that would allow Israel — as mapped out by the Trump peace plan — to formally apply its sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, fulfilling the messianic fantasies of many right-wing Israelis and some evangelical Christians. But even a modest annexation would be a disaster. Not only would unilateral annexation of any amount of territory constitute a flagrant violation of international law, it would formalize and make permanent an illegal and unjust system of racial discrimination against Palestinians in the West Bank.
If Israel extends its sovereignty to territory in the West Bank without also extending full citizenship rights to the Palestinians living there (something Israel’s Prime Minster has vowed he won’t do), Israel will, in effect, institutionalize a system of legal inequality between Israelis and Palestinians reminiscent of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Even if Israel avoids annexing lands which contain large numbers of Palestinians, the result will be to render the West Bank into a patchwork of isolated, non-contiguous administrative areas akin to apartheid-era Bantustans. Notwithstanding the differences between apartheid South Africa and Israel, there simply is no other word to describe a permanent occupation entailing the systematic denial of fundamental rights to a people based on their national identity. Apartheid is an ugly word, and its application to Israel is a searing indictment of Israel’s actions — especially for Israelis like me.
But make no mistake: annexation of any amount of territory in the West Bank will create the conditions for de jure apartheid, a moral stain and a crime under international law.
In fact, it is increasingly difficult to argue that the situation in the West Bank is not already analogous to apartheid, whether or not annexation moves forward. If occupation is distinguished from apartheid by its provisional and temporary nature, one could reasonably argue that, after 53 years of Israeli occupation, a situation of de facto apartheid already exists in the Palestinian Territories. This is what Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights lawyer, recently concluded. In a detailed legal opinion, Sfard argued that Israel’s occupation — even without formal annexation — meets the legal definition of apartheid under the United Nation’s 1973 Apartheid Convention and the 2002 Rome Statute. Annexation, to be sure, would make this reality significantly worse, especially for Palestinians living under Israeli rule. But it would largely formalize what is already a situation of de facto apartheid in the West Bank.
We can’t ignore this shameful and intolerable political reality any longer. Nor can we continue to obscure it by refusing to use precise language to describe it. Indeed, the looming specter of annexation has laid bare the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories in unmistakable clarity: one state (Israel) currently controls the entire territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea while denying political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians under its domain. Israel’s government is now taking steps to formalize this one-state reality, creating a permanent regime of legal segregation between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
Americans who care about peace between Israelis and Palestinians must demand that Israel’s government abandon its plans to formally apply Israeli sovereignty to territories in the West Bank. But opposing Israel’s annexation is not enough. We must also make it clear that a growing number of Americans — including many in my generation of young American Jews — will refuse to lend Israel our political, material, and moral support if Israel continues to deny basic political and civil rights to Palestinians in the West Bank. At the very moment we are reckoning with the pernicious legacy and reality of structural racism in the United States, we must refuse to stand idly by as Israel institutionalizes a system of legal discrimination against Palestinians.
Even if Jewish Israelis and Israel’s supporters are not moved by the plight of the Palestinians, they should at the very least recognize that the occupation has been a moral and political disaster for Israel. As many Israeli leaders have long warned, Israel’s occupation is the only existential threat facing Israel today. Those warnings — unheeded for years — have turned out to be tragically prescient. The occupation has also exacted an enormous moral toll on generations of young Israelis who spent their military service in the Occupied Territories, as the organization Breaking the Silence has long sought to bring to the Israeli public’s attention. It is a terrible thing to occupy another people. It requires, among other things, subjecting the occupied population to constant humiliation, cruelty, and violence. And those condemned to carry out the lion’s share of this task are 19- and 20-year-old Israelis, teenagers barely out of high school. Israelis are deceiving themselves if they think that a brutal occupation can be maintained indefinitely without destroying both the occupier and the occupied. Ending the occupation may well present significant risks to Israel’s security, but such risks pale in comparison to those of continued occupation.
Yet it may be too late to bring Israel back from the brink. Even if Jewish Israelis were to wake up tomorrow and decide to end the occupation, it is no longer possible to reverse course. More than 650,000 Jewish settlers (1 in 10 Jewish Israelis) currently live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and their population is growing at nearly twice the rate of Israel’s overall population. Many settlers live in large settlements close to the Green Line (the 1949 Armistice Line) that it is assumed Israel will retain in any future peace deal. But many others live in settlements located deep in the West Bank which were established in order to prevent the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. The settlement of Ariel, for example, located in the heart of the land earmarked for a future Palestinian state, is home to some 20,000 residents. Anyone who has spent time in the West Bank knows that Israeli settlements and outposts, dotting the hilltops, have become a permanent fixture of the landscape, as has the infrastructure of Israel’s occupation: segregated highways and roads, military bases and checkpoints, and a massive security barrier that snakes through much of the West Bank.
As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to distinguish today between the Occupied Territories and the sovereign state of Israel within the Green Line, a line Israel’s occupation and settlement enterprise have both literally and figuratively erased (even as Israel maintains a two-tier legal system in the West Bank, one for Israeli citizens and the other for Palestinians). Although not formally annexed, the West Bank is already functionally a part of Israel, which is perhaps why a majority of Israelis — at least according to one recent survey — support annexation. Some point to Israel’s prior willingness to uproot settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005 (and from the Sinai Peninsula following Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt before that) as proof that Israel would, in exchange for peace with the Palestinians, withdraw from the West Bank. But there is a huge difference between 8,000 settlers in Gaza, a place with little religious value for Jews, and the West Bank, home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers, many of whom subscribe to an ultra-nationalist and messianic ideology which considers Jewish sovereignty in Judea and Samaria (the biblical names for the West Bank) a divine imperative.
The fact is that successive Israeli governments have, through settlement expansion and continued occupation, chiseled away at the territory designated for a future Palestinian state, foreclosing the possibility of any future Israeli territorial withdrawal and eroding the prospects for a viable two-state solution. If anyone still believed that a two-state solution was feasible, the specter of annexation should rid them of this illusion for good. It is therefore patently absurd to claim — as Ron Dermer, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, recently wrote in The Washington Post — that Israeli annexation would “open the door to a realistic two-state solution.” Instead it would deal a final deathblow to any remaining hopes for a viable two-state solution and lead to endless bloodshed and violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
The principle of a two-state solution has been the guiding paradigm for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1937, when the Peel Commission first recommended partitioning Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, and it has been the basis of every round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from the Oslo process in 1993 to John Kerry’s failed peace initiative in 2013-2014. Proponents of a two-state solution argue that it is objectively necessary to fulfill the competing national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. Belief in the viability of the two-state solution has, in recent years, been elevated to the level of a dogma, something grounded not in rational analysis but in faith and magical thinking. Even in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary — including decreasing levels of support for a two-state outcome among Israelis (34%) and Palestinians (42%) — many people continue to cling to a belief in its continued viability, even inevitability.
Holding out hope for the possibility, indeed necessity, of a two-state solution in some hypothetical future now merely serves to justify what has become an untenable status quo in the West Bank, even as facts on the ground have rendered such an outcome virtually impossible. Pundits have long dismissed warnings about the death of the two-state solution as greatly exaggerated. But it turns out that the two-state solution died a long time ago. It was buried under decades of Israeli occupation and settlement construction.
Israel’s annexation plans leave little doubt: we must finally abandon the false hope of a two-state solution. The demise of the two-state paradigm means that a separation between Israelis and Palestinians—what the Israeli author Amos Oz called a “dignified divorce”—is no longer possible. It follows that we must begin to seriously consider alternative solutions — whether a confederation or a binational democratic state — that can offer Israelis and Palestinians (including in the Gaza Strip, over which Israel still effectively maintains control) a realistic hope for a peaceful future. Such solutions are far from perfect. There are good reasons, for instance, to be skeptical about the ability of two distinct national groups — with different languages, religious and cultural traditions, and historical grievances — to join together and build a shared future. But these solutions are now, whether we like it or not, the only realistic options left.
Confronted with the demise of a two-state solution, many onlookers and pundits have preferred to wish the issue away — something that was clearly discernable in the lackluster responses to Peter Beinart’s recent articles advocating for binationalism in The New York Times and Jewish Currents. Rehashing tired tropes, Beinart’s critics were incapable of entertaining any notion of the two-state solution’s demise, to say nothing of their unwillingness to take his arguments seriously. Sooner or later, though, we must confront the question as to whether a two-state solution is still feasible.
There is, however, a deeper — and far more troubling — reason for the failure to fully and honestly confront the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian Territories: an obstinate refusal to reckon with the moral and political implications of apartheid-like conditions in the West Bank. It is, after all, far easier to ignore a painful reality than to acknowledge it. But Israel’s ongoing occupation raises urgent moral and political questions. These questions brook no easy or simple answers. Nevertheless, Jewish Israelis and Israel’s supporters must confront them with all the moral urgency, political imagination, and epistemic humility that such questions require. Moreover, we must not lose sight of the fact that, for all of its political and practical dimensions, Israel’s occupation is, above all, a moral disaster. If we do not do everything we can to bring it to an end, if we do not put a stop to Palestinian suffering, it will remain a permanent stain on our conscience.
A two-state solution is the only arrangement that could have preserved Israel’s identity as both a Jewish and a democratic state. With its demise, Jewish Israelis and Israel’s supporters must finally confront the grave dilemma we have long sought to evade: either grant Palestinians full citizenship rights and preserve Israel’s democratic character, or deny citizenship rights to Palestinians in perpetuity and preserve Israel’s Jewish character. Our choice, in other words, is between democracy and apartheid. It is insufficient to merely acknowledge the depth of the dilemma, all the while continuing to deprive fundamental rights to millions of Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel’s annexation plans have made it clear that we can’t defer this binary choice any longer.
The path forward, at least for those committed to human rights and human dignity, is to demand that Israel grant full citizenship rights to Palestinians living under its domain, joining thousands of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians already working to build a more equal and democratic future for all the inhabitants of the territory Israel now controls. If necessary, we must also bring severe economic and political pressure to bear on Israel to achieve this goal. That is now the only certain way to end Israel’s occupation and secure the political and civil rights of Palestinians in the West Bank. Preserving Israel’s identity as a Jewish state simply cannot provide an alibi for the indefinite deprivation of Palestinian human rights.
It’s admittedly hard to imagine the majority of Jewish Israelis relinquishing their hegemonic control over the Israeli state and its institutions and joining together with Palestinians to demand equal rights. But that something is hard to imagine, much less achieve, is hardly a reason not to pursue it. After all, it was anathema for Afrikaners in South Africa to imagine relinquishing control over their state, just as it was anathema for white Southerners in the United States to imagine giving up the institution of slavery and, a hundred years later, the enforced racial segregation of the Jim Crow-era. But it was morally and politically necessary to abolish these immoral institutions, no matter the cost to those who upheld them. The same must now be said of Israel’s decades-long occupation.
None of this is to deny that the road ahead will be full of uncertainty. But the same is not true for Israel if it continues down its current path. For this much is certain: continued occupation is a dead-end street leading to Israel’s ultimate demise.
The dilemma facing Jewish Israelis and Israel’s supporters today is hardly new. From the very beginning of the Zionist movement, many Zionists appreciated the moral and political implications of their national and territorial goals for Palestine’s Arab population. In 1891, Asher Ginzberg (known by the penname Ahad Ha’am), the founder of cultural Zionism, published an influential and widely read essay following his visit to Palestine in which he dispelled the myth that Palestine was, in the words of a popular Zionist slogan, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Yitzchak Epstein, a Russian-born Zionist who had settled in Palestine, succinctly summed up the dilemma facing Zionists in a 1907 article entitled the “Hidden Question.” “Among the grave questions raised by the concept of our people’s renaissance on its own soil,” Epstein wrote, “there is one that is more weighty than all the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs.” This question, he added, “has not been forgotten, but rather has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and in its true form has found almost no mention in the literature of our movement.”
Many Zionists were fully aware that Arabs constituted a sizeable majority in Palestine (at the end of the 19th century more than 90 percent of the people living in Ottoman Palestine were Arab), even as the mainstream Zionist movement sought to minimize their presence and downplay Arab opposition to Zionist goals. The vast majority of Zionist leaders, regardless of their ideological leanings, simply determined that Zionist political priorities superseded whatever moral and political misgivings they may have harbored toward Palestinian Arabs.
But there was always a vocal minority within the Zionist movement that considered these moral and political questions of paramount concern. According to thinkers like Ahad Ha’am and Martin Buber, Zionism’s moral and spiritual legitimacy depended upon its ability to balance its own political priorities with those of Palestine’s Arab population. These same concerns animated Brit Shalom’s program to advocate, on both moral and pragmatic grounds, for a binational state in Palestine.
In fact, statehood was highly contested among Zionists and did not become the official policy of the Zionist movement until the 1940s. During the interwar period, many Zionists fiercely opposed the political aims of the mainstream Zionist movement and conceived of Jewish nationalism in decidedly non-statist terms. These alternative conceptions of Zionism — what the scholar Noam Pianko memorably called Zionism’s “roads not taken” — imagined Jewish nationalism as a movement dedicated to Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal rather than to the goals of national and territorial sovereignty. It was only in response to the Second World War and the destruction of European Jewry that the Zionist movement ultimately coalesced around the goal of establishing a Jewish state, relegating these alternative, non-statist Zionist visions to a largely forgotten historical past.
With the demise of a two-state solution, however, it is incumbent upon Jewish Israelis and Israel’s supporters to recover and rehabilitate these neglected Zionist voices. They provide us with abundant intellectual resources for conceiving of Jewish national and cultural life in Israel beyond a Jewish nation-state. Though they ultimately failed to alter the course of Zionism during their own lifetimes, these dissenting thinkers now offer us a path to envisioning a Jewish national homeland that is not a sovereign Jewish state.
I am keenly aware of what Israel represents to millions of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora. The state of Israel has become, for better or for worse, the collective manifestation of the Jewish people’s highest ideals and aspirations. Jews have invested the Zionist project with enormous political, moral, and theological significance. Its failure would be a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. Israel, to be sure, may very well survive as an apartheid state — at least for a while. The question is whether we, as Jews, will be able to survive along with it.
Eschewing the Zionist dream of exclusive Jewish national and territorial sovereignty — the vision of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism — does not require eschewing Jewish nationalism altogether. Instead, it requires decoupling Zionism from its dependence on a sovereign state and beginning to build the theoretical and political foundations of a shared society for Israelis and Palestinians. Only then will it be possible to hope for a peaceful future in the small piece of land Israelis and Palestinians both share. As Martin Buber put it: “We have been and are still convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and we believe in its future; and, seeing that such love and such faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the Land must be within the range of the possible. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic contradiction.”