With the two-state solution increasingly invoked as either tragically out of reach or altogether unjust, a new film seeks to examine another possibility for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the one-state solution.
More in the tradition of didactic documentary films than storytelling ones, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s “A People Without a Land,” which recently premiered at the Manhattan Film Festival, winning a “Film Heals” award, features the most prominent voices of the one-state movement. There’s Ali Abunimah, founder of The Electronic Intifada, Omar Barghouti, an organizer of the BDS movement, and anti-Zionist activist Jeff Halper. There’s also Neta Golan, a trilingual Israeli-Jewish Ramallah-based activist for Palestinian solidarity, and Eitan Bronstein, director of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that seeks to raise awareness of the Nakba. Rabbi Asher Lopatin, a U.S.-based Orthodox rabbi, provides a slightly different twist on the one-state idea, and Saeb Erakat and Hanan Ashrawi make brief appearances.
Perhaps most importantly, the film admits modesty in its aims, something that is both its strength and its weakness. Through the words of the interviewees, the film stresses the desirability — rather than practicability — of the one-state option. “First tell me whether it’s a good idea,” one of the interviewees suggests, “then we’ll talk about what is possible.” A more ambitious project might have attempted to tackle the equally pressing question of whether and how the one-state option could be brought to fruition given the historical propensity for the two-state option on each side. And despite recent polling revealing that the two-state solution is losing adherents, the one-state solution is even less appealing (with only 10% of Palestinians favoring it).
The film presents the case for the one-state idea as three-fold: : First, the occupation of the West Bank is morally corrupt; second, Palestinian citizens of Israel are second-class citizens; and third, if Israel wants to call itself a democracy, it cannot deny Palestinian refugee return.
On the point about the ills of occupation, two-staters are in agreement, so the argument rests on the other two points.
We know that casual racism is prevalent in Israel, and that there is regrettable inequality when it comes to funding for Jewish schools and municipalities versus Arab ones. But these are issues that can be remedied within the two-state model as well. If Palestinian citizens are fundamentally treated as second-class citizens in a way that cannot be reconciled with Israel’s core identity, we need to be shown how and where.
Second, the film attempts to paint a picture of basic injustice between the Israeli “law of return” for Jews, and Israel’s denial of the Palestinian refugee “right of return.” But countries are allowed to set their own immigration policies and still be considered democratic. The question lies with what obligation Israel has to admit these millions of refugees. On this, a wider discussion with refugee experts beyond the Israeli-Palestinian dispute might have helped provide context. We know, for instance, that the UN resolution demanding refugee return “at the earliest practicable date” was issued by the General Assembly, not the Security Council; hence it is non-binding.
As to whether a one-state solution would result in a bloodbath after all these decades of conflict, the film lets the viewer decide. Abunimah — more soft-spoken than his blogosphere persona would suggest — stresses that Jews, especially those who are persecuted for being Jews, should be able to immigrate freely. And Barghouti attempts to assure viewers that revenge is not on the agenda. Arnon Soffer, an Israeli geographer, is disdainfully doubtful.
Perhaps most important is the question of culture and politics. It’s one thing to say that the one-state should be “secular and democratic,” as these advocates suggest. Indeed, among the pragmatic international set, no one wants a theocracy. But what about the preservation of the Hebrew language, and the symbols and tropes of Jewish-Israeli cultural life? The predominant music used in the film is eerily in Yiddish, making me wonder whether would this be a post-Hebraic state, a harkening back to European cultural life in an attempt to erase Zionism from the cultural imagination. Jeff Halper says he indeed would want to see Israeli culture maintained: the Hebrew University should stay, he says.
Watching the film with an open mind, one might be convinced that the time has come to think more broadly. The lack of progress on the two-state agenda — capped by the current war-torn landscape of Israel and Palestine — should give anyone pause. And perhaps the solution will lie in a one-state arrangement, after all. But if it shall be, it must rest on the realization that not only do Jewish individuals populate the land, but that the State of Israel represents a deep and meaningful experiment in collective Jewish national belonging.