Do the Palestinians Deserve a State?
Writing about a topic as sensitive as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be an extremely daunting task for a YU student. Theologically speaking, the Land of Israel is the spiritual epicenter of the Jewish faith. At the national level, the modern State of Israel represents our most significant manifestation amongst the greater world community in millennia. And at the personal level, most of us know somebody who has served—or is currently serving—in the IDF, and nearly all of us have friends or family living in the State of Israel. That is to say, it would be an understatement to label the existence and security of the State of Israel as sacrosanct to our community.
Unfortunately, our favorite little country has faced significant adversity in its relatively short lifespan. There is a large amount of internal strife in the country’s incessant struggle to determine the role of Judaism in a democratic state. The rapid transition to a more privatized economy—galvanized by the high tech boom of the last two decades—has created a large degree of class stratification, with a wealthy minority driving up real estate values beyond the reach of many middle class citizens. On the international stage, Israel faces ever-growing isolation, with “allies” like Turkey and Egypt backing away from their former amicability. All the while, the threat posed by Iran—and its proxies in Lebanon—always looms, with armed conflict a persistent possibility. And then, of course, there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of all the issues facing Israel, perhaps no other evokes as much emotion as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the fact that we all hope for peace, the current prospects are not especially promising. “Land for Peace,” the strategy so touted in the “Camp David Accords,” has been shown to be far more tenuous than concrete in the dynamic Middle East; especially when Hamas, an organization sworn to the total destruction of the State of Israel, is in firm control of the Gaza strip. Thankfully, the more moderate Fatah party, which publically disavows violence for political gain, governs PA territory in the West Bank. But many Palestinians perceive the party as being a hotbed for corruption, and prefer Hamas, who they view as being more dedicated and faithful to the Palestinian people. Thus, Hamas’s gain in popularity has, from one viewpoint, frozen the peace process; it has caused Netanyahu, and many other Israel supporters, to lose faith in the notion of a “two- state solution” guaranteeing peaceful coexistence.
Such reservations are perfectly reasonable. Israel has a lot to lose by giving up claims to land of religious, strategic, and financial importance,[i] and if the result were anything short of a significant resolution to the conflict, pursuing such a plan might not be in Israel’s best interest. But not every reason cited by Israelis—and Israel supporters—for avoiding the peace talks is quite so sensible. There is one in particular, which borders on recklessness.
Go back in time one year to an interview with Newt Gingrich, one of the Republican candidates who lost the nomination race to Mitt Romney. When Gingrich was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he responded by stating, “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire.”[ii] He then went on to say, “I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs and who were historically part of the Arab community.”[iii] It’s a narrative that has been echoed in our own community, essentially implying that the Palestinian people are not a legitimate national group, and that they have no claim to any of the land we call Israel. It’s a bizarre notion.
Starting with his second statement, there is nothing so profound about labeling national groups artificial constructs. The Palestinian people are surely “invented,” but so are all other national groups. For example, the Germans, the Swiss, and the Austrians are all descendants of common ancestors, and they all speak a common language, but nobody denies that they are legitimate national groups. There are surely enough cultural differences, economic advantages, or other perks—no matter how slight—to excuse their autonomous existences. The same can be said of the numerous national groups that comprise the Arabic speaking world.
Perhaps Gingrich was alluding to another common “Pro-Israel” argument, which speaks of how the number of Palestinians was “insignificant” before the development of the modern Yishuv—further proof of the recent invention of the Palestinian people. The problem with this argument is that it is hardly supported by substantial data. According to the lowest estimates, there were at least 410,000 Palestinians living in Ottoman Palestine by 1893, while the upper estimates suggest that there were over 600,000.[iv] Furthermore, Palestinian population growth between 1893 and 1948 can be largely attributed to natural growth. There is only evidence of 100,000-200,000 Arab immigrants in the later portions of this period (when the British eased restrictions on immigration), a number that can explain only a fraction of the total Palestinian population of 1.3 million by the year 1948.[v]
Regarding his first statement, it is clear that Gingrich was factually correct in saying there was never a state called Palestine. But this hardly proves that the Palestinian people have never existed. By the same faulty logic, the Italian people would not have existed until Italy’s unification in the late nineteenth century. The truth is that the Jewish people and the Palestinian people are both legitimate national groups with ties to the land of Israel/Palestine. And to deny that is not only unproductive, it is potentially foolish.
As Orthodox (Zionist) Jews, we would never give up claims to the entirety of the land of Israel, because the land is central to our identity. It would be naïve of us to expect anything other than a parallel viewpoint from the Palestinians, who clearly view Palestine in the same light. Unfortunately, there are people who fail to accept this reality. I believe that one of the main reasons for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the inability of people—on both sides of the conflict—to recognize the other side’s legitimacy.
Regrettably, forces that refuse to compromise, and refuse to recognize our legitimacy, seem to have infected the Palestinian cause. But this doesn’t mean that the Palestinian pursuit of self-determination is intrinsically wrong. There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of a two-state solution in the current political climate. But we should never allow ourselves to become plagued with the inability to compromise or see the other side. We’re better than that.
[i] A “two-state solution” would result in at least some settlements being evacuated. The Israeli government would, presumably, need to reimburse the value of lost homes and businesses.