Interview and editing: Nina zu Fürstenberg
Filmmaker: Anna Fanuele

Read the full interview:

How would you describe Israeli-Palestinian relations today? While the conflict has evolved, a positive outcome of the negotiations is still out of sight, let alone a long-lasting (national? Bi-national?) solution to the conflict. Do you think that something should change in the traditional perception and self-perception of the different actors and positions of this conflict?

The question of Israel and Palestine is hardly discussed as part of the Arab world, and the discussion of the Arab world also isolates the question of Palestine: Palestine is something else, Palestine is exceptional, as is the way we preserve the exceptionality of Israel and Palestine. At the same time, the question of Palestine is also discussed as Palestine is isolated. The current debate about a one-state or two-state solution does not deal with the Arab world: each one has a different vision. Indeed, the only consensus in the Arab world is the objection to Israeli policies and to Zionist fundamentalism. But, while I share these criticisms, I also believe they become not effective at all. In both cases, there are two extreme ways of looking at Israel: either Israel is accepted as such, as a regional power according to its own self-perception, or – as if this was possible – it will disappear miraculously. What I think is very urgent for us today is to try to find a space between these two extremes, between “Israel-as-such” and “Israel-not-existing-at-all”.

We need to create a space where both Israelis and Palestinians can discuss. We cannot accept Israel’s definition based on its self-perception as the “State of the Jewish People” for many reasons, but at the same time we must ask ourselves about what are the rights of the Israeli Jews. We naturally speak about and concentrate on the question of the rights of the Palestinians, because these are the rights that are being violated, but in order to begin to fulfill the rights of the Palestinians we must make a shift and ask ourselves “what will the collective rights of the Jews be?”, which means to limit them, to decolonize Israel to a certain extent, but at the same time to recognize that there are rights. Because the present discussion does not leave any space for this.

Is it necessary to redefine the terms of the conflict in this context, in order to create the necessary space for a more genuine discussion about bi-nationalism, nationalism and collective rights?

Paradoxically, the situation as it is now follows the Israeli propaganda, I would say, is that if you criticize Israel you are immediately condemned as a denier of the right of the Jews to exist, you become a holocaust-denier and similar things: that is why we need a space for discussion.  And that is why I prefer the concept of bi-nationalism. Believing in bi-nationalism is crucial for us, because bi-nationalism includes both the rights of the Palestinians and the rights of the Jews. I do share most of the criticism addressed to Israel, but I think we must discuss it in a very different way, and bi-nationalism provides us with the space to do this. My question as an Israeli Jew is “how can we define the Israeli collective rights, based on the recognition of Palestinian national rights.” The precondition for any discussion is the recognition of the rights of Palestinians as a nation, a Palestinian national right, including the right of return. But saying that I have to ask “which will be the rights of the Jews?”. Without recognition of these rights the discussion becomes totally meaningless. So, we have to distinguish between national rights – in the broadest meaning of the word ‘national’ – and political power. And this, I think, can only be done in the larger  framework of the Arab world.

Bi-nationalism is not a solution (I have no idea about what the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is): it is first of all a critical tool against the current situation, in which the idea of equality of Jews and Arabs is denied; in that sense, bi-nationalism is a set of simple principles, the idea of equal national and civil rights of Israelis and Palestinians, that should be discussed together. The idea is that you cannot separate the question of Israel and the Jews from the question of the Palestinians in any way.

The fundamental aspects of these thoughts were provided by Hannah Arendt in a series of essays she published in the Forties. She expressed both her sympathy with the idea of Jewish collective rights idea but she also had a total objection to the idea of a Jewish national state and mainly to the idea of partition in 1947. When this idea was raised, she expressed her total objection to it and warned for its consequences. What is interesting about Arendt is that her discussion of Palestine was part of the general discussion which then led to her book on the Origins of Totalitarianism, her general discussion on imperialism, anti-Semitism and the nation-state. She believed that Zionism should be based on principles that deny anti-Semitism and argued that if Zionism accepted this idea of nation-state, it would obviously lead to the exclusion of the Palestinians and finally to a catastrophe for both peoples. I think that we have to follow her principles in order to make our thinking progress: Israel problematic, Israel is the exception, but I think that from within Israel we can find the ideas for a different way of thinking, a way that could challenge the very principle of the nation-state. Israel is the exception, but it is an exception that tells us about the rule. Israel pretends to be a nation-state, but for different reasons it is impossible to accept Israel as it is right now. But we must understand that the fact of saying that Israel is not a nation-state cannot be based on accepting the model of the nation-state, because this model itself is to a certain extent a problem. Israel presents itself as a “Jewish and Democratic State” and the entire discussion about Israel as a Jewish and Democratic State has to deny many aspects. First of all it is based on the assumption that the occupation of 1967 came to its end: when we talk about Israel, we do not talk about the Occupied Territories, but about Israel in its 1967 boundaries. In other words, we are talking about a state that allegedly existed for 19 years, and we ignore the more than 45 years that came after. That is why the peace process is essential to Israel, it assumes the end of occupation, and this would allow us to speak about Israel as such. But even if we talk about Israel as it was in the first 19 years, we have to remember first that it was founded on the expulsion of the Palestinians and that its definition as a “Jewish State” implies a permanent process of judaization and de-arabization, and we cannot accept it as such.

How does the question of exile play out in the Israeli and Palestinian consciousness? Should it play a role in our understanding of the conflict?

We have to remember the two exceptional aspects that define Israel. One is the Bible: Israel considers itself as the realization of the biblical myth. The second is Auschwitz and the anxiety it created. Both aspects show the exceptionality of Israel. But then again, the problem with this exceptionality is that it gives us a different way of thinking. The general myth of Israel as a Jewish State is based on a theological myth, embodied in the conceptualization of exile. On the one hand, the negation of exile sees Zionist settlement as the return of the Jews to their homeland, seen as empty, and the realization of Jewish expectations for generations. In other words, in spite of the attempts that are made to distinguish Zionism from messianism, this is a messianic idea. Indeed the Bible inspired many national movements in Europe as well, but the problem with Israel is that it is considered as the realization of the Bible. Negation of the exile means the return to the Bible, and at the same time the denial of Jewish experiences and Jewish post-biblical tradition: it is the denial of Judaism itself, and this is the paradox of Zionist identity. This is secular Zionism: the return to the Bible is about secular Zionism, not about the religious trend. What we call ‘secularization’ is in fact the nationalization of the religious myth, regarding it as national regarding the Bible as a national book, but still following it. Secularism can be summarized as “God does not exist, but he promised the Land to us.”

Nevertheless, at the same time, I find the concept of exile, the concept on whose denial Zionist consensus was established, as crucial for thinking about both of Israel and Palestine, but also as a concept of further interest for discussion about nation-states in general. Zionist negation of exile generated the exile of Palestinians. Israel made all of the Palestinians live in a state exile, including those Palestinians who remained in their houses, but suddenly found themselves as a minority under a continuous process of oppression and dispossession in Israel. Exile is the state of the Palestinians. Now we can go back to the Jewish idea of exile, to think about the Jewish existence in Palestine, in Israel, as an exile: we are in exile on the land. This in fact is the Jewish orthodox perception of living in Israel – Orthodox people believe that they live in the Holy Land, but that they are in a state of exile. Because exile is not a territorial concept – according to Jewish citizens it is a state of the Jews after the destruction, wherever they are – it is a state of the world, and sometimes even of date. Exile, according to this perception, is a theological concept developed against the Christian attitude towards the Jews: “We are in exile, but our exile tells us about the state of the world.” Interestingly, exile is the main aspect of the Jewish exilic tradition and was developed in Palestine, after the destruction at the beginning of the Ottoman period, in that amazing spiritual centre of Judaism that was established in Safed in the sixteenth century.

How is this portrayal of exile relevant in the question of bi-nationalism?

We should combine the notion of bi-nationalism with the notion of exile. This is now the main aspect of both Palestinians, who are in exile, and Jews. “Who am I without exile?” asked the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. And I read “myself ever-Jew” through his perception of exile, in order to bring back the idea of exile as a foundational term, as a basic understanding of Jewish existence and Palestine: both are in exile. Because for Palestinians, accepting to recognize the right of the Jews as a nation is a compromise, a compromise that should be done in order to share the country together. The only way to share the country together is this idea of common exile.

Palestinians usually discuss their attitude towards their land and say “we are the children of the land”. Many Israelis still use the word “the Land belongs to us”: this is maybe the difference. The logic of the nation-state is the logic of “the land belongs to us”, an exilic notion…that maybe is the natural way of understanding of many communities. The notion that “we are the children”, “we are exiled in the Land”, “the Land does not belong to us”, brings us to an inclusive perception of belonging, rather than the exclusionist perception of the logic of the nation-states. That is where I find the idea of exile so crucial. It is crucial first of all in the local case of Palestine, but it may lead us to a much wider thinking of the nation-states and of belonging, both in Europe and in the Middle East.

In that case I also believe that the recognition of Israel cannot be done only within the framework of Palestine: it is part of the discussion of the Arab world. When we will think about recognition in Jewish identity – limited of course – we will try to think differently of many cultures.

Do you think  that something should change in the way we envision the conflict?

Our perception of decolonization is one of “withdrawal” and it deals only with the colonized, and not with the colonizer…While in Palestine we have decolonization as a process that includes both Jews and Palestinians. Decolonization does not strictly mean withdrawal of the Israelis, but it is a creation of a new concept that includes both of them. That is why I think of bi-nationalism more as of a process of decolonization than of a solution; I don’t like the idea, and I don’t have any solution.

We naturally concentrate on the rights of the Palestinians, because the Palestinians are those whose rights are constantly violated. But if we take the rights of the Palestinians as a beginning for our discussion – and for me as an Israeli Jew there is no way to deny the national right of the Palestinians, including the right of Israel – here comes the question: what will be the rights of the Jews? The problem is that the support of Palestinian rights remains minimal if we don’t address the rights of the Jews, if we don’t see the anxiety of the Israelis. Bi-nationalism generates anxiety among the Israelis. It is considered as the denial of the right of Israel to exist. This is the paradox with Israel, the idea of equality. It is frightening, we cannot ignore it, we must address it and to make the discussion shift. It is strange of course to ask the oppressed to talk about the rights of the colonizer…but paradoxically this is the only way.