In response to:

Israel: The Alternative from the October 23, 2003 issue

To the Editors:

Tony Judt should be lauded for cutting through a forest of clichés [“Israel: An Alternative Future,” NYR, October 23]. Refreshingly free from the usual cant about Israel’s allegedly robust democracy, he makes a remarkable attempt to think through the long-term possibilities of a binational—and, of course, secure—state. Few who face the facts of recent history can doubt that if Israel persists in its current settlement policy, there will be no acceptable alternative to such a solution. The tragedy is that neither Sharon nor Arafat is likely to emulate the statesmanship and foresight of de Klerk or Mandela. The end result is more likely to resemble Zimbabwe than post-apartheid South Africa.

Even if Israel should once again return to being a national state within its pre-1967 borders, there would still remain compelling reasons for its finally turning into a secular “state of all its citizens” instead of the “state of all Jews” of the world—as it has been repeatedly defined by Knesset resolutions, which have been implemented by a series of discriminatory laws. Between one quarter and one fifth of Israel’s population today are Arabs.

During the first decade of Israel’s existence, a time when hundreds of thousands of stateless Jews lingered in European DP camps and many others were forced to leave Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa, a convincing case could still be made for consolidating the new immigrant state by the “affirmative action” of the Law of Return and other seemingly ad hoc laws that served official state ideology. There was hope that an Israel at peace with its neighbors would be able to reconcile the ethnic and religious diversity of its population (and to deal with the diversity and plurality of assimilated Jews elsewhere). In such a country, the state, religion, and ethnicity would be clearly separated, as they increasingly are in the modern democratic world. This had certainly been the aim of Israel’s founding fathers, notably Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Instead, the fundamentalist clamor for a dominantly “Jewish” state—as pre-war Poland or Romania were ruthlessly “Polish” and “Romanian”—has increased over the years. “Affirmative action” for Jews has degenerated into crass discrimination against Israeli Arabs by means of punitive legislative as well as judicial, budgetary, and administrative measures.

In the Occupied Territories, as the settlements have constantly increased in size, such discrimination has led to oppression and dispossession of the restive Palestinian population. The resultant dead end both in the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper has been well described by David Grossmann in his book The Yellow Wind and its sequel Sitting on a Wire. To all who doubt the seriousness and cogency of Judt’s observations, I would highly recommend both books.

Amos Elon
Buggiano, Italy

To the Editors:

I have great respect for Tony Judt as a scholar, an essayist, and a political observer. But his recent essay is strangely wrongheaded. Judt’s main premise is that Israel is an anachronism because it insists on being a Jewish state. His solution is to make it into a binational state of Palestinians and Jews. These two assertions obviously contradict each other: If most Israelis want to live in a Jewish state, why would they ever wish to be in a binational state where they would quickly become a minority? These assertions are also based on a bizarre view of recent history. Watching the flow of humanity from the vantage point of a café in Paris or London, one may indeed believe that the future is a happy pluralistic society. But examining some historical examples more closely will indicate that Judt has his history backward.

Compared to which nations is Israel an anachronism? Obviously Judt does not mean Syria, where a brutal military dictatorship by a religious minority keeps the population isolated from the rest of the world in a state of poverty and fear. Or Saudi Arabia, where a corrupt monarchy has managed to squander its huge oil revenues while refusing to modernize society under the name of a fundamentalist reading of Islam. Or Iran, where a theocracy of old men is oppressing a majority of young men and women who long for a better future. Judt means that Israel is an anachronism compared to Europe. But according to his reading, modern Poland and Serbia, for instance, are anachronisms, because they are based on a view of a unity of nation and state. Conversely, Poland of the interwar period, 40 percent of whose population was made up of Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, and other minorities, and which was rife with ethnic conflict and antiSemitism, points out the way of the future for Israel. Or Yugoslavia, which broke up in a sea of blood.

Judt neglects to mention that Germany, the most populous and important European country, still bases its citizenship on a law dating back to 1913, which defines Germans by blood and heritage, and that a majority of Germans today support the idea of minorities accepting the Leitkultur (primary culture) of the land. He also curiously leaves aside the fact that about a fifth of the French recently voted for Jean-Marie Le Pen in the name of kicking out foreigners, and that traditionally the French republic accepts foreigners only if they are willing to become culturally French republicans. Finally, he does not mention that the European Union is based on the principal of opening its interior borders and sealing itself off from the rest of humanity, which is banging on its gates in despair caused not least by economic policies pursued by Europe and the United States vis-à-vis the poorer countries of the world.


The idea of a binational state in Israel/ Palestine is absurd not only in the light of recent history, but also because apart from Tony Judt and the late Edward Said, no one wants it, neither Israeli Jews nor Palestinian Arabs. Even the so-called post-Zionist Israeli left spoke before the last intifada about “a state for all its citizens,” which meant equal rights for Israeli Arabs, but never of a binational state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Avraham Burg, cited so approvingly by Judt, would be vehemently opposed to this idea. For Hamas or Islamic Jihad the notion of sharing sovereignty with the Jews, whether in Nablus or in Jaffa, is anathema. And the more reasonable and rational people on either side of the emerging security fence—whose numbers are diminishing every day—know that if such a binational state were ever to be imposed, it would spell civil war and bloodshed on an unprecedented scale even for this long-suffering region. The only solution is finally to create two separate states, more or less along the 1967 Green Line, with as a high a wall as is needed separating between them. Most Israeli settlers would be happy to accept compensation and move to Tel Aviv; the remaining minority can either stay in the Palestinian state or replace the Palestinians in Israeli jails. Most Palestinians would prefer to have peace and a modicum of economic prosperity in their own state than return to their nonexistent villages in pre-1967 Israel. When the wounds heal and the memories fade, perhaps the fence could also be removed. But for now separation and mutually recognized statehood is the only viable solution.

Omer Bartov
John P. Birkelund Distinguished Professor of European History
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island

To the Editors:

Tony Judt paints an offensive caricature of the State of Israel in order to justify his call for the demise of that country’s sovereignty and independence. He calls for a binational state to replace the State of Israel on the grounds that it is failing on many levels and cannot be both a Jewish and democratic state.

In fact, Israel is a modern state with all the democratic and civil rights of any modern Western country. Its identity as a Jewish state is comparable to France’s identity as a state of the French and Italy’s identity as a state of the Italians. Minorities live and flourish in all these countries, have equal rights and protections, but there is something inherently French, Italian, and Israeli to these countries.

Mr. Judt chooses to see Israel as a failure but the truth is it’s a remarkable story in the face of tremendous odds. It has built a modern democratic society while integrating millions of people from different backgrounds. It has managed to be an open society with a boisterous press despite being surrounded by enemies intent on killing Israelis and, if possible, destroying the state. It has maintained moderate positions including the overwhelming readiness to make significant concessions on territory and settlements despite the murderous intent of its neighbors. And it has been a staunch friend of America in the face of extremist Islam which sees America as the enemy, not because of Israel, but because of everything we represent—modernity, power, wealth, and democracy.

Abraham H. Foxman
National Director
Anti-Defamation League
New York City

To the Editors:

Tony Judt believes that it is a hopeless task to persuade Israeli Jews to remove 200,000 of their fellows from the West Bank and Gaza. So he wants to persuade them instead, all five million of them, to give up political sovereignty and remove themselves from the society of states. The craziness of the proposal is matched, of course, by everyone else’s craziness when it comes to Israel/Palestine, but it does have its own peculiar features. Here is a state with the strongest army in the region, with a nuclear arsenal, a flourishing economy that provides (despite today’s hard times) a Euro-American standard of living, and the only democratic political system in the whole of the Middle East. And Judt proposes to make it disappear. It is a nineteenth-century nation-state, and the nation-state is, as we all know, an anachronism: away with it!


Ridding the world of the nation-state is an interesting, if not a new, idea. But why start with Israel? Why not start with France—which is, after all, the original nation-state? The French led the way into this parochial political structure that, in violation of all the tenets of advanced opinion, privileges a particular people, history, and language. Let them lead the way out. Or the Germans, or the Swedes, or the Bulgarians, or the Japanese, all of whom have enjoyed those “privileges” much longer than the Jews.

But the real problem with Judt’s proposal is not that it unfairly focuses on a single nation-state. Israel is, after all, an occupying power, at war with another people. The real problem is that Judt’s proposal would simply replace one nation-state with another. In the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, there will, within a decade or so, be a Palestinian majority. And a Palestinian majority will, sooner or later, make a Palestinian state. This is the explicit goal of Palestinian nationalists, and the recent history of the movement hardly suggests that they have given it up. They would ask the same question I have asked: If the nation-state is to be abolished, why should we go first? (And they would think it no more than marginally better to go second.)

Judt, of course, has another goal in mind. He wants a state in which Jews and Arabs will simply be individual citizens, just like Americans—though with this important difference: that their security and political rights will have to be “guaranteed by international forces.” If military power rules in Israel/Palestine, the rights of the Arabs will have to be guaranteed; if numbers rule, the rights of the Jews will have to be guaranteed. Judt must be thinking of some other set of international forces than the ones we know in the world today, which have failed so tragically to guarantee even the minimal safety of Bosnians, Rwandans, Timorese, Sudanese, and—well, it is a long list. What political leader, what political intellectual, in his right mind would entrust the fate of people he cared about to “international forces”?

The truth is that the Jews would rapidly depart from Judt’s imaginary post-national state, since its creation (Judt tells us nothing about the creative process) would represent a definitive defeat for Zionism. Or, better, those who were able would depart, and the rest would find themselves a very vulnerable minority in a Palestinian nation-state that would doubtless have (as Judt writes of Israel) “more in common with…post-Habsburg Romania than [its leaders] might care to acknowledge.” But I suspect that Romania would be an upscale reference.

So what is the alternative? It seems obvious to me: two anachronistic states are better than one. Judt says that this was “once a possible and just solution.” He can’t really believe this, given his view of nation-states, but it is kind of him to tell us that the solution preferred by most Israelis and most Palestinians would once have been all right with him. In fact this solution is still both possible and just: two states divided by the 1967 lines, with two privileged peoples, two privileged languages, two privileged histories, two laws of return—the whole anachronistic thing.

The difficulties are as great as Judt suggests—greater, in fact, since he focuses on the policies of the far-right Israeli government and has little to say about Palestinian nationalism or Islamic radicalism. These are the enemies of the historic compromise that seemed so close in 1993 and again in 2000. The greatest threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish state comes from the government of Israel, and the greatest threat to Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza comes from the PLO. Israelis who oppose the settler movement have been greatly weakened by the terrorist attacks; Palestinians who want to co-exist with Israel have been greatly weakened by the steady expansion of the settlements. But all this just sets the dimensions of our political task. Judt’s fantasy is escapist, but it offers no practical escape from the work of repressing the terrorist organizations and withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.

Every opinion poll shows that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians want the two- state solution. The US government is formally committed to it; so are the Europeans. There is still time to enforce it. And afterward, when the French, Germans, Swedes, Bulgarians, and Japanese begin to worry about their anachronistic politics, Jews and Palestinians will be able to join them.

Michael Walzer
Professor of Social Science
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

Tony Judt replies:

The solution to the crisis in the Middle East lies in Washington. On this there is widespread agreement. For that reason, and because the American response to the Israel–Palestine conflict is shaped in large measure by domestic considerations, my essay was directed in the first instance to an American audience, in an effort to pry open a closed topic. Many readers have castigated me for heedlessly engaging so volatile a subject without due regard for the sensitivities affected. I respect those feelings. But, like Yael Dayan, I am very worried about the direction in which the American Jewish community is moving; reaction to the essay suggests that this anxiety is well founded.1

Much of the American response verged on hysteria. Readers accused me of belonging to the “Nazi Left,” of hating Jews, of denying Israel’s right to exist. “Distinguished professors” at American universities canceled their NYR subscriptions (in marked contrast to Israeli correspondents who welcomed the disagreement, “basic to freedom” as the director of the Yad Vashem Archives put it). Andrea Levin, executive director of the “Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America,” accused me of “pandering to genocide” and being “party to preparations for a final solution.” Alan Dershowitz of Harvard made the analogy with Adolf Hitler’s “one-state solution for all of Europe.” David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, charged me with advocating “genocidal liberalism”: characteristically, he attributed my opinions to my origins, which he mistakenly took to be Belgian. The New Republic described my essay as “crossing a line”: in a broad hint to readers for whom anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are indistinguishable, it dubbed my views “anti-Zionism with a human face.”2

The most depressing aspect of the American reaction is not so much the taboo on any discussion of Zionism as the widespread ignorance to which that taboo has given rise. My US correspondents routinely assume that all Arabs seek only to exterminate all Jews, that there are no Arabs with whom to negotiate or live. For these readers, nothing has changed since 1948. I lost count of the number of letters where “Palestinians” appeared in scare quotes, their very existence dismissed as a figment of the European imagination. Indeed, it is striking how many people sincerely believe that nothing has changed since 1933: Europe is once again on the verge of a second Holocaust and only Israel stands between international Jewry and bloody catastrophe. Seeing the world thus, even those who claim to share my distaste for the methods of Mr. Sharon insist that there is no choice. Israel must do what it must do, and the rest of us should just be grateful that it has the will and the means to carry it off.

However, many reasonable critics took issue with me on a number of points—most of them raised in the letters published here—and I welcome the chance to try to address these. In the first place, I was not calling for Israel to “disappear” (Michael Walzer), or demanding the “demise of that country’s sovereignty and independence” (Abraham Foxman). All I wrote was that Israel, as now constituted, is an anachronism and an increasingly dysfunctional one. When I asked, “What if there were no place for a ‘Jewish state’?” I was posing a question, not “imposing” (Omer Bartov) a binational alternative. I just don’t believe that Israel, as now constituted, has a very promising future; and like the Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, I think the best long-term hope for the Middle East lies in “a Jewish-Arab state in which Jews and Arabs have completely equal rights.”3

Secondly, I harbor no Panglossian illusions about the contemporary world. I agree with Michael Walzer (at least, I think I do—his long letter is rather hazy on this point): we have not entered into a post-national, transcultural, globalized paradise in which the state has become redundant. On the contrary: in a time of heightened insecurity the prime attribute of the state as Hobbes saw it—providing security in return for allegiance and obedience—will matter more than ever.

That is why the European Union, for example, can never replace its constituent member states as the legitimate incarnation of their citizens’ core interests. It is also, incidentally, why Israel has a right of self-defense, like any other state. I did not write that Israel should take actions that would endanger its citizens’ security, and I would not expect it to do so. When I wrote that Israel is at odds with “a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law,” what I meant—as I went on to say—is that a state in which one category of persons has exclusive privileges, from which another category is forever excluded, is out of step with modern democratic practice.4

This, then, was the core of my argument: it is not the state that is anachronistic (pace Walzer’s misreading of me), but the Zionist version of it. This is partly because political power in Israel has now shifted toward religious zealots and territorial fundamentalists. As a consequence of their influence, many of Israel’s Jews would look favorably upon a “transfer” of Arabs out of the Occupied Territories; one third of those polled a year ago even favored “transferring” the Arab citizens of Israel itself. Well before the second intifada, over half of Israel’s Jewish population was willing to prohibit Israel’s Arab citizens from participating in political referenda and the election of a prime minister. In November 2001, exploiting the post–September 11 mood, one Herut member of the Knesset even proposed “emigration packages,” financial incentives to Israeli Arabs to leave the country. As retired General Shlomo Gazit put it, “Sometimes democracy has to be subordinated to demography.”5

The comparison with France, which many critics raised, is revealing in this respect. Yes, France—like Italy, Germany, and every other sovereign state—distinguishes and discriminates between citizens and noncitizens. No country welcomes anyone and everyone—as Omer Bartov rightly observes, the Europeans in particular discriminate quite shamelessly against would-be immigrants. And all countries have resident noncitizens who get second-class treatment. But if someone is a citizen of, e.g., France, he or she is French and that is all there is to the matter, at least as far as the law is concerned. The categories become tautological: France is the state of all the French; all French persons are by definition citizens of France; and all citizens of France are…French. Israel, by contrast, is by its own account the “state of all the Jews” (wherever they live and whether or not they seek the association), while containing non-Jewish (Arab) citizens who do not enjoy similar status and rights. There is no comparison.

To be sure, there is indeed a political party in France that would very much like to emulate the Israeli model and discriminate between categories of citizenship according to religion or ethnicity or country of origin. That is the Front National, whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is—perhaps not coincidentally—a great admirer of Israel’s way of handling Arabs and has long advocated “relocation packages” for French citizens of the wrong color, creed, and provenance. But no respectable European politician, however tempted to pander to local prejudices, would ever contemplate recasting citizenship laws along such lines; moreover, any such proposal would fall foul of European law. Even Germany (whose 1913 citizenship law has since been revised, as Professor Bartov must know), while it favors certain candidates for citizenship, makes no distinctions among German citizens themselves. Israel is truly unique in this respect.

But Israel is at war, and that, as many correspondents suggested, has to be taken into account. Indeed so. Actually, Zionism has always been at war and its very identity is a function of conflict, struggle, and mutually exclusive claims on history. From the outset, and long before the Holocaust could be invoked in mitigation, the leaders of the Zionist project regarded the indigenous Arab population of Palestine as their enemy. More than a century ago the Zionist writer Ahad Ha’Am observed that the settlers “treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly on their territories, beat them shamelessly for no sufficient reason, and boast at having done so.” To the extent that little has changed, it is understandable that many readers would dismiss my reflections on a binational state as a crazy fantasy.

But when I wrote of binationalism as an alternative future, I meant just that. It is not a solution for tomorrow. Both Jews and Arabs have on various occasions embraced the notion, but not in recent times. As Salim Tamari has written, most Palestinians don’t even want a single secular democracy of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, a possibility mooted for a while in the 1970s.6 If the problem with a two-state solution is that Israel’s rulers won’t make the necessary sacrifices to achieve it, how much less would they be willing to sacrifice Israel’s uniquely Jewish identity? For the present, then, binationalism, is—as I acknowledged in my essay—utopian.

But things change. In the first decades of the Israeli state it was officially denied that any Arabs were forced to leave during the War of Independence of 1948–1949; a large part of the moral self-image of Labour Zionism rested upon this ingenuous assertion. Now that mainstream Israeli historians have shown the claim to be false, the fundamental premise in Israel’s dealing with Palestinians has changed.7 An injustice was committed: How should we acknowledge this and move forward? Indeed, even the very existence of Palestinians was once hotly disputed. In the later 1960s, at a public meeting in London, I was tartly informed by Golda Meir, Israel’s future prime minister, that I could not speak of “Palestinians” since they did not exist. Who, now, would seriously maintain such a position? Things change.

The Palestinians themselves—taking their wishes for fact—officially ignored the existence of the State of Israel for decades. Like Israelis, they scorned and abhorred the very premise of a two-state solution—until 1988, when the Palestine National Council finally adopted it. Many American Jews who today accuse me of indulging a binational fantasy and who insist that hard-nosed reality dictates a two-state outcome would not, I suspect, have welcomed such an outcome a few decades back. Most Israelis could not have begun to conceive of a Palestinian state back in the 1970s. Israeli law forbade all contact with Palestinian representatives, and denied the existence of any willing Arab interlocutors. Today, only Benjamin Netanyahu and the zealots continue to reject the very principle of a Palestinian state. Things really do change.

Ideas acquire traction over time as part of a process. It is only when we look back across a sufficient span of years that we recognize, if we are honest, how much has happened that we could literally not have conceived of before. Franco-German relations today; the accords reached across a table by Protestant Unionists and Sinn Fein; post-apartheid reconciliation in South Africa—all these represent transformations in consciousness and political imagination that few but “escapist fantasists” could have dreamed of before they happened. And every one of those thickets of bloodshed and animosity and injustice was at least as old and as intricate and as bitter as the Israel–Arab conflict, if not more so. As I said, things change. Of course, they also change for the worse. After all that has happened, a binational state with an Arab majority could, as Amos Elon ruefully reminds us, very well look more like Zimbabwe than South Africa. But it doesn’t have to be so. Those of us who observe from the side can at best hope to put down markers for the future.

Meanwhile, we face the present crisis. Michael Walzer waxes sarcastic at the lack of detail in my proposals. He sees no “escape from the work of repressing the terrorist organizations and withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.” Just so: but the devil is in the details, in this case, how the continuing expansion of settlements can be halted and reversed. About this Walzer is silent. Omer Bartov is more to the point. He acknowledges that a two-state solution means getting the settlers out, and knows enough to see that this is no small matter. But he believes that we have been bamboozled by the settlers’ own propaganda: most of them are mercenary rather than millenarian, and will go quietly if given no choice. As a former IDF officer, he also has faith in the Israeli army’s willingness to do whatever is required to enforce the government’s will. I’m less optimistic—Israeli domination of the West Bank is not just about settlements, it’s about land and water and highways. Abandoning all that will not be easy.

But in any case, as Bartov knows (and has acknowledged in private exchanges), the settler cause will be seen by Israelis to be hopeless only when the US tells them uncompromisingly that this is so and gives them no option but to concede. And so we return to Washington, and the problem with which I began.8 What are the chances of an American president in the foreseeable future forcing Israel not just to stop colonizing the Occupied Territories but to dismantle its holdings there and retreat to the 1967 frontiers? I don’t mean the US saying that this would be a nice idea, or tut-tutting when it doesn’t happen; I mean forcing Israel to comply right down the line (and, yes, exerting the same pressure on Palestinians, which is a lot easier to imagine).

Just now that is very hard to envisage. Only this month, the Bush administration gave its unofficial approval for Israel’s security fence, wherever Sharon sees fit to place it.9 And so it doesn’t seem to me so very crazy to ask which is a more realistic scenario for the foreseeable future: effective American pressure to end the Middle East crisis, or the transformation of Israel into a secular, democratic state for Jews and Arabs? Perhaps the former, if we are lucky; but it is not self-evident. And even so, there remains the problem of Israel itself.

I am not the first person to remark upon the distressing state of Israeli public life, increasingly dominated by zealots and demagogues; the subject is commonplace in Israeli writing, as Amos Elon notes. It is mainly Israel’s American defenders who seem blithely unaware of this state of affairs. Lenin used to describe Bolshevism’s foreign admirers—fellow-traveling progressives who resolutely heard and saw no ill in their promised land—as “useful idiots.” Today’s armchair Zionists are their modern successors, and they are doing Israel a disservice. In one respect, however, I will concede that they have a point. Zionism is only an anachronism if you think of it, as I was taught to do, as a secular nationalist movement with real, albeit outdated, ideals. As the dogma of intolerant, belligerent, self-righteous, God-fearing irridentists, however, it is well adapted to its locality and may indeed represent the wave of the future.

This Issue

December 4, 2003