Questioning the Two-State Solution: A Dilemma for Progressive Jews

By JEFFREY WILKINSON

Recently, liberal Jewish thinker, journalist and teacher Peter Beinart wrote a highly provocative article in the journal Jewish Currents, followed by a shorter piece in the New York Times calling the two-state solution “dead” and advocating for a binational state with equal rights for all.

In his longer piece, “Yavne: A Jewish Case for Equality in Israel-Palestine,” Beinart reflects on moments in Jewish history where seismic shifts happened in religious and cultural practices that may have seemed threatening at the time, but were instead movements that propelled us to be better and stronger. So how will we respond to Beinart’s call for another seismic shift in our thinking and practice?

Predictably, there were rebuttals from many sides, including complete rejection from the more rigid advocates of Israel, calling Beinart irrelevant. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) went so far as to call him antisemitic (a rich claim to be aimed at a devout Jew).

The focus here is on the response from the “progressive” Jewish community. While the term “progressive” encapsulates a wide swath of Jewish thought, I refer specifically to the large numbers who refer to themselves as Zionists but also voice concern, to varying degrees, over Israeli government policy, particularly in terms of the occupation, settlements, possible annexation, and Palestinian human rights. Beinart has long been a part of this progressive Zionist movement, though he has been retreating from the two-state camp for some time.

He makes three key points. The first, holding on to the two–state solution, based on today’s political realities, including the lack of viable left-leaning political movement supporting it, is akin to supporting the status quo indefinitely.

Second, a binational state has been successfully achieved in other places in the world, so it is attainable.

Lastly, the focus on Israel as the liberation of the Jewish people and the only “insurance policy” against another Holocaust can no longer be used as the sole justification for defending injustice and inflicting suffering on Palestinians.

The dilemma for progressive Zionists is that if the very idea of “progressiveness” is to be willing to challenge the status quo and resist injustice, how do we respond when we ourselves are being called out for maintaining the status quo? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on why so many are resisting Beinart’s call for a re-examination. Is it not innately “Jewish” to reflect and re-examine?

While there are layers to dealing with this dilemma, we must begin with what I would offer is the root of the challenge: Trauma. Historical trauma, present trauma, and the fear of future trauma.

The challenge that Beinart’s article presents for progressives is really a challenge that is already baked into the idea of progressive Zionism: To be pro-peace, pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel. I would suggest there is an existing irresolvable tension in supporting Palestinians while also supporting the very institution that oppresses them.

In spite of these seemingly incompatible goals, there are many deeply committed to this trilateral cause to support peace, support Palestinians, while remaining steadfastly Zionist. I have struggled with these contradictions for many years. To deal differently with Beinart’s call, and with the two-state dilemma more broadly, we need to deal with the built-in contradictions in our “pro-pro-pro” stance.

The key to this journey, in my own experience, is in recognizing that that this “pro-pro-pro” commitment is viewed through a 1967-forward lens. If we dig more deeply into this, it means viewing Palestinian oppression only in terms of settlements, the occupation, and the daily injustices that the Israeli government and military inflict on Palestinians.

The two-state solution is entirely a ’67–driven solution: Returning to the pre-’67 borders, sharing Jerusalem, ending the occupation, and resolving the settlement issue. This allows us to maintain Israel without acknowledging or addressing the core trauma for Palestinians: 1948.

It is, in many ways, a “have our cake and eat it too” solution. Yes, it does involve compromise from us, but not in terms of trauma. We get to have our liberation from trauma (Israel), without deeply addressing Palestinian trauma.

There have been many responses to Beinart’s article from Jewish progressives. They centre on the idea that abandoning the two-state solution is tantamount to cultural suicide. In a recent webinar, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of JStreet, a strongly progressive lobby group in the United States, asked Beinart why he would “abandon the Jewish State at a time Jews are under such threat?” That this fear of impending trauma continues to dominate the progressive Jewish narrative means that we have not found a way to deal with the central contradiction of being supporters of both Israel and Palestinians.

To face Beinart’s call head on, we need to be able to see justice for all as a response to the genesis of the trauma for Palestinians. We need to examine whether our call for a two-state solution is in fact “progressive” or is it clinging to the status quo? We need to ask if the binational state is really the existential threat to Jews that we have made it out to be. Granting that this is a genuine fear, does holding on to the status quo create greater safety for Jews in the long-term, and even if it does, is it a just solution for all, including Palestinians?

While I agree with Beinart and have come to similar conclusions myself some time ago, my purpose here is to remind us that re-examination is an essential tenet of our tradition, and that we should never feel that the call to question is inherently dangerous. We are strong enough to have this difficult conversation with ourselves and we must have it if justice for all is indeed our guiding light.


Jeff Wilkinson
Jeffrey Wilkinson, PhD

Jeffrey J. Wilkinson, PhD, is an educator, facilitator and researcher focused on the psycho-social causes of intractable conflicts, researching not only how these conflicts are formed, but also how they may be undone over time. His doctoral dissertation explored the Israel/Palestine conflict through the experiences of Canadian Jews and Palestinians. He is the co-author, with a Palestinian, of an upcoming book addressing the current polarization in Jewish-Palestinian discourse within the two diasporas.