A Nepalese historian once told me a story. On a plane to Kathmandu, he was sitting next to an American legal expert who had been called in to help design Nepal’s first-ever republican constitution. But after sparking a conversation about Nepal’s history and its diverse peoples, the historian was shocked at the expert’s lack of knowledge about the country. The American was quick to explain that this ignorance was deliberate, and that he had no desire to learn about Nepal. “You see, good constitutional law is good regardless of the context,” the expert said. “I make a point of not learning details about a country, because they are irrelevant to constitutional design.”
This case might be extreme, or perhaps embellished in the retelling, but something about it feels terribly familiar in regard to the Middle East. Americans debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often resort to simple categories and narratives, seeking to impose them without regard to context. One such narrative ignores the history of nationalism and the national right to self-determination. Israel, by this account, is uniquely evil because it is an ethno-nationalist state, and thus the only acceptable solution is for all the land between the (Jordan) river and the (Mediterranean) sea to be part of “one secular democratic state,” presumably without an ethno-national reference, similar to the United States.
I’ll say at the outset that many reasonable debates can be had about the nature of both Israel as a Jewish state and any possible solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, have long contested what exactly it means for a state to be Jewish, or for Israel to be “a state of all its citizens.” Many Israelis and Palestinians have made eloquent cases for various forms of a one-state solution, as is their prerogative.
My problem isn’t with raising these questions, but with having prepackaged answers to them based on facile categories. In a view common on the American left, ethno-nationalism is no different from racism, and for Israel to be a Jewish state is comparable to the United States wanting to be a white state. Many American proponents of the one-state solution use a similar logic. When he abandoned his long-held liberal Zionism in 2020, the journalist Peter Beinart claimed that he had embraced a vision of one state for all in the name of opposing “Jewish-Palestinian separation” and condoning “equality.” The strong implication is that a two-state solution would not bring genuine equality.
Many in this crowd take support for what liberal proponents of Israel have long called a “Jewish and democratic state” to be a demand for ethno-supremacy. A recent letter that calls for “Palestinian liberation,” signed by a number of eminent scholars, such as Étienne Balibar, Judith Butler, and Angela Davis, condemns Israel for having been “an ethno-supremacist state” since its foundation in 1948. By this logic, anyone who supports a two-state solution, which stipulates that a state of Israel exist alongside a state of Palestine, must be racist and ethno-supremacist. For this reason, even Representative Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, was once attacked as defending “pure racism” due to her support for the two-state solution.
Progressives have many good reasons for treating nationalism with skepticism. But proponents of Palestine seem to miss the irony that, even as they disavow any idea of Jewish nationalism as verboten ethno-supremacy, they are asserting a rival form of nationalism—Palestinian nationalism, which comes with its own rich traditions and history. The Palestinian flag they wave at demonstrations isn’t a random symbol of liberal secular democracy but one based on pan-Arab national colors. In other words, it is very much an ethno-nationalist flag.
Does that mean the Palestinian flag is one of Arab supremacy? Of course not. Like other nationalisms, Palestinian nationalism can have many variants with different degrees of inclusivity. The Palestinian National Charter, written in the 1960s, called Palestine “an indivisible part of the Arab homeland,” entitled to all the land between the river and the sea, and asserted that the majority of Israeli Jews had no place in a liberated Palestine. The charter also asserted that Jews were not “one people with an independent personality” (in the 1964 version) or “a single nation with an identity of its own” (in the 1968 version). But many Palestinians have long contested this exclusionary version of nationalism. Palestinian thinkers and scholars, such as Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, and Mahmoud Darwish, came to recognize the reality of Israeli nationhood. So did the leadership of the Palestinian national movement, which, in 1996, amended the charter to make recognition of the state of Israel possible.
Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, also has many variants. Under its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has become more and more discriminatory toward its non-Jewish citizens, as evidenced by the 2018 passage of the Nation-State Law, which demoted the status of the Arabic language. Things got much worse last year, when Netanyahu invited outright anti-Arab and Jewish-supremacist fascists into his government. But many in Israeli society and politics, including many Zionists in the political class, heavily oppose this government and its discriminatory legislation. Millions of citizens fight for a more equal vision of Israel even as they defend its existence as a national state.
These values are reconcilable because the core idea of nationalism is not the supremacy of one ethnic group over the other, but the right of a nation to self-determination. The right to self-determination has long been central to progressive politics, among both liberals and socialists. The world of empires crumbled in the First World War, and in its aftermath, postwar leaders, including Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, championed this right (at least in rhetoric, if not always in practice), as did their ideological descendants. The world of empires was thus turned into a world of nations, with nationalism a cornerstone of the modern global order (it’s called the United Nations for a reason).
Of course, like all political movements, nationalism has its share of contradictions, not to mention a gory track record. The demographic and geographic boundaries of nations, and the status of minorities within them, have occasioned no end of contestation and conflict. Zionism, in fact, was born from this contestation, as Jews found themselves excluded from most forms of nationalism in the places where they lived. Additionally, as the political scientist Joseph Huddleston has argued, international law has long struggled to find a balance between the national right to self-determination and the right of states to their territorial integrity.
National boundaries are everywhere soaked in blood. Ultranationalist governments have helped kill millions of people, in atrocities such as the Holocaust in the 20th century, and in campaigns of ethnic cleansing in both the last century and the present one. The creation of Israel was followed by a war that displaced an estimated 750,000 Palestinians; Arab states subsequently drove out hundreds of thousands of their own Jewish citizens. India and Pakistan were co-created in an orgy of violence that killed up to 2 million people. Millions of ethnic Turks, Greeks, Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and Russians were driven out of their ancestral lands.
Yet, terrible as nationalist history is, national identities can’t be reduced to exclusion and bloodshed. These identities have endured precisely because they have demonstrated the power to connect millions of people together into meaningful communities. The historian Benedict Anderson is known for his critical take on nationalism. But he also appreciated its integrative qualities and noted that “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”
Both Israelis and Palestinians have shown deep attachments not just to their shared homeland but to their own nations, in precisely this form of “horizontal comradeship.” Edward Said, who remained devoted to his Palestinian identity through long years of exile, is known today for advocating a one-state solution. What’s often missed is that he believed in a binational version of such a state that would recognize the national rights of both communities in Israel/Palestine: Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. He also acknowledged the necessity of starting with a two-state solution before such state unity could take place.
This strong sense of national belonging explains why the idea of sharing one united and democratic state usually doesn’t poll very well among either Israelis or Palestinians. Not a single political force in either Israel or Palestine supports it. This despite the fact that Israel’s intransigent and brutal occupation of Palestinian territories and its expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank have made many lose hope in the feasibility of a Palestinian state. Whenever such feasibility improves, so too might enthusiasm for a two-state solution, which even now enjoys a plurality of support in both communities in most polls.
The idea that Palestinians and Israelis can simply give up their respective national identities and merge into one peaceful democratic nation-state doesn’t seem to have much basis in history. Nations in the modern era have almost never decided to willingly dissolve themselves into a single state, and even confederations are quite rare, although laudable when they do happen.
The hubris of outsiders in ignoring the national realities of Israel/Palestine resonates eerily with American attitudes of an earlier era. After 9/11, many liberals and neoconservatives seemed to bank on fantasy visions of the Middle East, thinking that the region could be forcibly rightsized to match such projections. Then as now, many didn’t take the Middle East and its actually existing nations seriously, even as they cheered on the disastrous invasion of Iraq.
Beinart was one such liberal. He realized his mistake, writing a few years later that he was wrong to be “willing to gamble,” because, as he wrote, “I wasn’t gambling with my own life.” Yet a similar attitude underlies his endorsement of turning Israel/Palestine into a federation like Belgium without following the lead of people who actually live there and have no lives to gamble with but their own. Last year, hundreds of thousands of Israelis came out to protest Netanyahu’s government, and Beinart dismissed them as offering merely “a polite brand of ethnonationalism.” They received a similarly cold shoulder from most of the American left. The attitude of Palestinian citizens of Israel could hardly be more different. Ayman Odeh, a popular left-wing member of the Knesset in Israel, greeted the demonstrators as “my future partners in creating a better life for this country.”
Today Odeh calls for a cease-fire in Gaza but remains clear-eyed about what will be necessary to secure a future of peace and coexistence: “The only way we can fulfill our responsibility to the nation of our youngest ones—and to ourselves—is to recognize the nation of Palestine and the nation of Israel, and to establish a state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel,” he wrote in The New York Times.
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going anywhere, and neither will give up their national identity. Those who truly want peace and justice in the Holy Land should start by recognizing this reality. Israel can and must be pushed to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories and stop the obstruction of Palestinian sovereignty. But neither it nor Palestine can be pushed to commit ethno-national suicide.