The One State Conference at Harvard: March Madness

"I'm looking for Rick Santorum.  I guess he preferred to go to AIPAC." Thus lamely, Stephen M. Walt broke the ice in the opening panel of Harvard's One State Conference Saturday. With these lines, Walt, the co-author of The Israel Lobby and professor of international affairs at the Kennedy School, delivered one of the very few light-hearted remarks at the deadly serious two-day conference.

In the packed auditorium, Walt was unique, too, in saying nice things about the two-state solution, which is apparently now known as "partition," and which in any event was pronounced dead by every other speaker.  "At first glance," he said, "the two-state solution still looks good: the Green Line separating two states for two peoples." Forcing these two people together in one state would be a "mess." But why have we failed at two states? He blamed, on the Palestinian side, "the Palestinians' lack of unity, personal corruption, and a series of tactical errors following the Oslo Peace Process," including poor public relations.  All of which naturally necessitated "reliance on suicide bombers." Of course, "the real culprit is Israel. Their leaders have never been interested."

At this, one grew dizzy recalling names from all over the Road Map, from Madrid to Oslo to Camp David to Wye River, from Taba to Annapolis to Gaza, this last, by the way, still considered "an occupied prison."  But none of these destinations was mentioned.  Meanwhile, Walt went on to harpoon Netanyahu and also to castigate the United States, calling it "Israel's lawyer," defending as usual the stronger party,  thanks again to "domestic politics," aka the Israel Lobby. Even Obama came in for criticism -- for "raising hopes at Cairo, and later retreating by working to prevent Palestinian membership in the UN." Strange as it may seem, Obama was frequently chided at this conference -- while simultaneously being lionized at AIPAC.

Being at the One State Conference was a disorienting experience; somehow one had been translated to an alternate, not quite parallel universe, a cloud cuckoo land blooming with exotic pathologies.  But navigating this terrain requires an awareness of its guiding  principles, which include Marxism, multiculturalism, globalism, secularism, sexuality (any kind), inclusivity/diversity, and gender equity.  And it is helpful to have a command of the vernacular (college students will not need this guide).  For example, every chronicle, every story, is a narrative:  a hegemonic narrative, a nationalistic narrative, one that is heteronormative, colonial or postcolonial, feminist, transgressive, progressive, regressive, or repressive.

However, having navigated this paradise, one unfortunately finds the obligatory serpents, in this case organized religion, capitalism, racism, imperialism, and of course, Zionism, which conveniently encompasses them all.

Interestingly, it is a land where certain words are never uttered; for example, Sharia. Apparently, it doesn't exist there.

Walt, like many others, managed to incorporate many of the requisite shibboleths into a couple of sentences, as in "Israel's support depends on far-right, xenophobic racists and fanatical Christians.  But there is a community there that cares about human rights, and this opens a space for us." And: "The Old Testament is not a good guide for political action." The Qur'an, along with Sharia, was not mentioned.

Now, touching on the Old Testament brings up the question of anti-Semitism. One wag muttered as he took his seat next to me, "There haven't been as many anti-Semites in one room since the Nuremburg rallies." But in fairness to the participants, it must be said that they earnestly endeavored to keep separate -- imagine a Green Line -- the concept of Zionism and actual human Jews.  As stated by Nimer Sultany, an Israeli doctoral candidate at Harvard Law School, "There is no identifiable correlation between Jews and Zionism.  Zionism, a political and colonialist movement, has created a new nation."

This concept was shared enthusiastically by the numerous Jews and Israelis, including rabbis, at the conference.  Indeed, panelist Rabbi Brant Rosen of Evanston, Illinois, announced that he routinely preaches that Zionism is idolatry.  "My Torah," he said, "is the Torah of universalism and humanism."

The protestors on the sidewalk outside, alarmed at the potential extinction of the Jewish state, had thus ironically nailed the precise outcome hailed by the participants. A "Jewish" state is the problem they came to solve. Indeed, the word "Israel" came up only in its context as conqueror, occupier and supremacist.  Otherwise, it was supplanted in the conference vocabulary by "Palestine," which will be the name of the proposed single state. 

One questioner, a rabbi without a congregation, asked a panel member whether "Jews, even Lefties like me, will be able to live in Palestine."  After the desired approbatory chuckle, the participants were unanimous in emphasizing the absolute equality of Palestinians and Jews in the coming state.  This sentiment was repeated in every panel, but the quid pro quo would of course be a "voluntary" dismantling of all the modalities of Israeli power and identity. Everyone agreed this won't be easy for the Jewish Israelis, which is why they also stated repeatedly that change must come from the bottom. The Occupy movement was suggested as a model. Incidentals such as Article 7 of the Hamas Charter ("The Day of Judgment will not come until Muslims fight Jews and kill them") were not considered, perhaps because of time constraints.

One possibility for the newly disempowered Israeli Jews, said Leila Farsakh, associate professor in political science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, would be to "reconnect with their Arabism." Indeed, the term "Arab Jew" became ubiquitous toward the end of the conference.  Or, as Marc Ellis, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Baylor University, himself a Jew, said, "Becoming un-Jewish is the first step." After that would come, in his words, "revolutionary forgiveness."

Rabbi Rosen emphasized that the "hysteria" of people like Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz is a symptom of desperation, completely out of touch with this new vision, which, by the way, is understood primarily by academics and the young.  Another sign of desperation is Birthright Israel, he said. "Look how much money is being spent to send rich kids to Israel." Evidently, a Jewish Israel is so yesterday.

So if the promised land is to be a haven for Palestinians and de-Judaized Arab Jews, who will be the elect and how will it work? According to Susan Akram, a professor at Boston University School of Law, there must be Palestinian self-determination. Then there must be a recognized Right of Return -- for all Palestinian refugees "to the same dwellings they left."  She called this "mass property repossession," and emphasized that "a return to the West Bank for refugees from Jaffa is not a satisfactory recognition of their right." But to be fair to Akram, she did add that Jewish refugees from Arab countries should have the same right of return. This might be hard to picture.

"Two peoples in one democracy is not an impossibility," said Sa'ed Atshan, who, like all the other speakers, does not consider Israel a democracy.   A doctoral candidate in Anthropology/Middle East Studies at Harvard, Atshan predicted that in the future state, Arabic and Hebrew would both be taught, and that there would be a joint Palestinian-Jewish police force. Since both of these goals became facts on the ground in Israel long ago, perhaps Atshan was reading from the wrong notes.  As for his claim that Christians cannot access the Holy Sepulchre, nor Palestinian Muslims the Temple Mount, well, these were far from the worst howlers of the day.

Professor emerita Elane Hagopian of Simmons College rejected any suggestion that Jordan might play a part in the one-state solution. The problem is the Jewish state, and that is where the work must be done. Israel, she said, "is a unique colonial settler-state in that its aims were always to transform Palestine into a state for the Jews." But of course there will be obstacles to the new single state. For example, can Israel accept a new orientation to the East? Would it be willing to share its nuclear power, even demolish its bombs? Would Israeli Jews be willing to give up their "European style of life?"  They consume "much more water than the Palestinians. Would they be willing to share their water?" (One wonders: Would Hagopian be willing to read the Interim Agreement?)

Sharing the panel with Hagopian was Amahl Bishara, assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts University.  Bishara was particularly focused on the isolation of the Palestinians: "They have no advocates (!), they can't be in touch with other Arabs because they don't have the technology, and they're even forbidden to pray."  Then, too, the infamous Wall keeps them segregated and out of touch.  Still, she admitted, "there's a lot of cool stuff going on," like "a new transgender Palestinian singer."

Which brings us to Sarah Schulman, a gay professor of humanities at The College of Staten Island, for whom the envisioned promised land will recognize the "multidimensionality" of gay Palestinians.  Speaking of her work with "three queer Palestinian organizations (we talk almost every day!)," she mentions "homonationalism," or "pinkwashing," terms with which the audience seemed familiar, to judge by the nodding of heads.  What these terms signify, apparently, is that just because Israel is so happy to be the cool destination for gays, "white gay people" should be taught not to "privilege their racial and religious identity." Don't ask.

Schulman, it seems, led a six-city LGBT trip to Israel recently, where she met with  groups like Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (the initials BDS are now officially out) and other gay activists. One of the trip's members was panelist Timothy McCarthy, a lecturer at the Kennedy School, who dissolved into tears when he recalled the trip.  Although he described himself as "a fierce queen" who "steps right up to bullies," he brimmingly lamented that he found "violence all over Israel" -- check stops, searches, and the like. He did find new Palestinian queer friends, however, who were "painfully" jealous when he spoke about his husband.

We close by noting that the world-class celebrity whom everyone was waiting for, Ilan Pappe, delivered one of the other two witticisms of the conference: "I want to get through in time for lunch.  I can deal with angry Zionists, but not hungry activists."  The conference organizers promised his multitude of breathless admirers that his speech, the usual viciously delusional polemic, will be posted in its Orwellian entirety, at the One State Conference website.  But let the reader beware: As Pappe himself has often said, "We do [historiography] because of ideological reasons, not because we are truth seekers....There is no such thing as truth, only a collection of narratives."

Which is not a bad description of the madness known as Harvard's One State Conference.

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