A New Vision for Palestine-Israel, by John Docker

We all engage in critique of apartheid Israel and so we should, but it may be time now, especially with the gathering strength of the BDS movement, to put forward some ideas for a truly democratic and inclusive future, with new institutions, that people can discuss, argue over, disagree with, offer alternatives to. My framing premise is that Israel-Palestine should become a single state where citizenship is not based on race, ethnicity or religion. To this end, I’ll quickly sketch in older ideas of the German-Jewish and cultural-Zionist philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) and the great Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, and close by seeing if we can draw on contemporary contexts, in particular the key institutions of post-apartheid South Africa. Here I refer to Albie Sachs’ recent book The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law (2009). Indeed, it was reading Sachs’ book that inspired me to these reflections.

In terms of the history of Zionism, Buber is most well known for his advocacy of the idea of Palestine as a bi-national state with equal citizenship for Arabs and Jews. Through the decades in the first part of the twentieth century Buber wrote essays suggesting that the land could and should be shared between its Indigenous people and the incoming Jews from Europe; there would be two autonomous Arab and Jewish communities living amicably together and cooperating in the one sovereign state. Arabs and Jews should strive for a parliament “with the consent of both peoples on the basis of a Magna Carta”, with a constitution that secures Jewish as well as Arab “basic rights” (“The National Home and National Policy in Palestine”, October 1929).

Walid Khalidi edited From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948 (1971), a famous collection of reports and memoranda. In his introduction, Khalidi tells us of his support for a proposal put forward in September 1946 by Arab delegates to a conference called by the British in London:

They envisaged a unitary Palestinian state, the citizenship of which would be Palestinian. Qualification for this citizenship would be ten years’ residence in the country. Jews with Palestinian citizenship would have full civil rights equally with all others. Special safeguards would be provided to protect Jewish religious and cultural rights. These safeguards would be alterable only with the consent of the majority of the Jewish members of the Legislature. Jewish representation in the Executive and Legislative branches would be proportionate to their numbers on the principle of one-man-one-vote. Legislation on immigration and land transfers would require the consent of the majority of the Arab members of the Legislature.

There were common positions between Buber and Khalidi. Both opposed partition, what we would refer to today as the two-state solution. Both shared notions of Palestine as a unitary state that would include Palestinian Arabs and Jews as equal citizens. Both argued for kinds of democracy that respected heterogeneity. Buber and Khalidi shared a common admiration for medieval Moorish Spain, with its mixed society of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Buber reflected that “it was the Spanish-Arabic period that saw a blossoming of spiritual and philosophical creativity among the Jews” (“Two Peoples in Palestine”, June 1947), while Khalidi similarly noted in his introduction that the “hey-day” of Jewish civilisation occurred not in Western Europe but in the “brilliant Islamic Spanish Caliphate”. In Khalidi’s view, the incoming Jews had much to learn from that society, with its various imbricated communities: religious, ethnic, cultural – an idea and image that historically questions the desire and drive of nationalism and modern state formation based on ethnic and religious homogeneity. Indeed, Buber and Khalidi anticipated a contemporary interest in medieval Moorish Spain, with its convivencia, its living together of different communities and mutual tolerance. This world is brilliantly evoked in Maria Rosa Menocal’s 2002 book Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

Recent South African history may also give us a basis for new ideas and visions. In Sydney this year I heard Albie Sachs speak about human rights and the rule of law before and after apartheid South Africa. It was very moving to see him in person, a man who in 1966 had gone into exile after sustained mistreatment, including lengthy bouts of solitary confinement, only in 1988 in Mozambique to lose an arm and the sight of an eye after being car-bombed by South African security agents. In The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law Sachs refers to the new legal institutions of post-apartheid South Africa, institutions which I think could be seriously considered as models for a post-apartheid Israel-Palestine.

In the opening chapter, “Tales of Terrorism and Torture”, Sachs gives some of the background for the post-apartheid creation of the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He observes that state terrorism by South African security forces led to mutilation, massacre, and extermination on a large scale. But he also refers to intense debates in the ANC in exile, initiated by Oliver Tambo, over the question of torture, for it turned out that ANC security personnel were torturing captured South African security agents in ANC camps in Angola. Tambo wished Sachs to be involved, so that a Code of Conduct could be drawn up, “a code of criminal law and procedure, adapted to the peculiar circumstances of an exiled and dispersed political organization”.

What had to be debated, Oliver Tambo made clear to the 1985 assembly, was “whether the Code of Conduct should make special allowance in extremely grave circumstances for what were called ‘intensive methods of interrogation’”.

Sachs reports that, one by one, the “young soldiers of Umkhonto We Siswe came up to the platform and gave their answer: an emphatic no”. They insisted that there be “very clear standards and that absolutely no torture be used in any circumstances, whatever the euphemism used”. In Sachs’ view, the young soldiers were making a statement about “the kind of people we were, what we were fighting for, and what our morality and core values were about”.

Opposition to torture became a part of the Code of Conduct, supported by the soldiers and Oliver Tambo and formulated by Sachs and ANC lawyers. Such opposition to torture was also, Sachs says, “absolutely consistent with hard-won principles of international law”. It was in this spirit, Sachs feels, of creating a future “constitutional order in a free South Africa”, that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and allied institutions were established. This includes “what many today regard as the most progressive Constitution in the world”, with its centrepiece Bill of Rights and its respect for human dignity.
So, there’s a key feature here that I believe can be drawn from The Strange Alchemy of Life and Law. A future Israel-Palestine could create such a constitutional order, with a Constitution and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modelled on post-apartheid South Africa’s.

Later, in the chapter “A Man Called Henri: Truth, Reconciliation, and Justice”, Sachs writes that the objective of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with its principle of amnesty linked to an individual coming forward and acknowledging what he or she had done, was to examine the crimes committed and hidden during apartheid – “mainly those in defence of apartheid, but also violations of human rights perpetrated in the struggle against apartheid”. Sachs believes that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission laid the “foundations of national reconciliation”. An interesting aspect of Sachs’ book is his view that the new South Africa owes much to India, in particular Gandhi and Nehru, and the processes they used in their struggle for freedom to “accommodate diversity in a democratic national framework”.

In the chapter on “The Azapo Case”, Sachs argues that the Constitution has assisted a “transition” to a new future. He quotes from its epilogue:

The Constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.

The appendix to Sachs’ book has extracts from the 1996 Constitution and Bill of Rights. They are well worth contemplating.

In my view, what these different visions and experiences point to is that ethnic, religious and cultural diversity is potentially reconcilable with a cosmopolitan mutual tolerance, as in Moorish Spain, and with democracy, respect for human rights and for international law, as in India and post-apartheid South Africa. Ethnic, religious and cultural diversity also permits humanity as such to become more imaginative, sophisticated, and admirable. To adapt Buber’s phrase in evoking Moorish Spain, such diversity can enable “a blossoming of spiritual and philosophical creativity”. All this is possible in Israel-Palestine.

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