The Haifa Republic – full equality for Middle East peace
In your book you criticise German intellectuals, accusing them of self-censorship when it comes to Israel. What do you mean?
Omri Boehm: I do think there is censorship on Israel, and most of it is probably self-censorship. Due caution has slipped into self-censorship, meaning that the latter has become so internalised, that most people may not even realise that they self-censor. But if you point this out, you get furious reactions. The recent Weltoffenheit initiative is a case in point. A lot of people dismissed the initiative's warning that "accusations of anti-Semitism are being misused to push aside important voices and to distort critical positions".
Criticising Israel is a sensitive topic in Germany and for good reason. For a country with its particular history, which claims Israel’s security as its own raison d’etat, discussing Israel is naturally different from critically debating other topics. Hence the frowned-upon term ‘Israelkritik’. But the limit of what is considered legitimate criticism in Germany is off. Of course, you may criticise the occupation, Netanyahu, or the Israeli government.
But it is considered illegitimate to discuss the question of Israel's establishment as a Jewish state – even though the definition of a Jewish state is incompatible with liberal democracy. Or to seriously discuss the Nakba, for that matter. Engaging in this type of criticism immediately invites accusations of anti-Semitism. Even stating the facts has become impossible.
Which facts do you mean?
Boehm: Take the demographic reality. The fact that at least an additional three million Palestinians live within Israel’s de facto borders – subject to aggressive military law, yet not counted as Israel’s citizens. Germans think this description contradicts the facts: they hold on to the two-state solution and the ‘green line’, instead of counting Israel’s population properly. But in Israel, this green line distinction doesn’t exist. It’s not taught in schools or mentioned in textbooks – students learn that Israel’s borders simply include the West Bank.
Nor is there any talk of occupation in the Israeli discourse: just as people learn that there was no Nakba, you also will not hear the term occupation in mainstream media. These days, ‘occupation’ is actually considered a term of the radical Left.
Officially the media refers to the West Bank as ‘Judea and Samaria’.
Boehm: Exactly. The Israeli Bureau of Statistics obviously counts Jews in Israel proper and ‘Judea and Samaria’ (the West Bank) as Israeli citizens. What is more, it’s illegal in Israel to vote from outside the country: I can’t vote if I am in Berlin or New York – but of course 700,000 Jews in the settlements in the West Bank are allowed to vote. Were the three million Palestinians living there also to be counted, which would be the correct thing to do, there would be no clear Jewish majority.
We would have 55% Jews, 45% non-Jews, living in a Jewish state. And that is only if we ignore the other two million Palestinians in Gaza. These are the facts – but many Germans can’t bring square them with their own relationship towards Israel. And that’s why they dismiss the term ‘apartheid’ – whether appropriate or not – as sheer anti-Semitism.
Meanwhile, the term has become almost commonplace in Israel. The country's leading human rights organisation, B'Tselem, has just officially explained why it uses the term.
The demographic reality is one reason why the Jewish state cannot be a liberal democracy. We must begin addressing this reality for the sake of the country. German intellectuals would never accept that I, as a German Jew, would have the same status in Germany as Palestinian citizens have in a Jewish state. They would reject such a status as racist. If you claim Israel has the right to be a Jewish state, then Germany would have the right to be a Christian and German ethnic state. Some on the right and in the AfD actually want this. But I don’t believe German liberals want to go down that path.
Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state is enshrined in the current coalition agreement between CDU and SPD. And the motion passed in the German Bundestag against the BDS threatens all those who question this right with "resolute resistance".
Boehm: Yes. It must be pointed out that this is a major departure from the IHRA definition of antisemitism, which the German government adopted in 2017.
The IHRA should be revised, too; but it was at least careful not to say that questioning Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is anti-Semitic – and they knew exactly why.
The IHRA defines using a ‘double standard’ with regard to Israel as anti-Semitic. And calling Israel a racist state is allegedly by definition anti-Semitic, too. I personally reject the claim that Israel is a racist state – but when a Palestinian, an Israeli, or even a German or American claims that it is, is this per se anti-Semitic?
Were the U.S. to re-instate segregation, there would be nothing wrong with calling it racist. It would be stating the facts. According to the IHRA, however, whatever Israel does, calling it racist would always be anti-Semitic. That is clearly a double standard! In other words, by the IHRA’s own understanding, the IHRA definition is anti-Semitic.
"We need a different language"
Why is it so important what German intellectuals or politicians say?
Boehm: I think soon enough we will face moments when Germany needs to take a stance on Israeli foreign policy again. The status quo cannot be maintained. I am not talking about annexation – the West Bank has basically been annexed for a long time. I fear it will get worse and we will face the possibility of expulsions. The Israeli government won't call it that. According to the Israeli mainstream, the Palestinians were never expelled. There was no Nakba. Just as there is neither occupation nor apartheid.
Imagine the following scenario: during a future round of hostilities rockets are fired from the West Bank, seriously disrupting Israeli daily life. Ben Gurion Airport is shut down. What does Israel do? A right-wing government is likely to take the opportunity to advance their goals. The usual suspects in Germany would then explain that Israel has to defend itself and that the Palestinians have brought this suffering on themselves.
But should it come to large scale expulsions from the West Bank – or some kind of ‘Gazaisation’ of the Palestinian enclaves there – how would the German government and the Bundestag react? What would the German media say?
We have grown accustomed to international law being flouted to the detriment of the Palestinians. We need to talk about this. We need a different language to define Germany's commitment. It is about responsibility for the past, rather than guilt. In the U.S. we can already observe a change in the discourse; these days the U.S. Jewish community is refusing to support the Israeli right-wing vision.
And the Biden administration will increase this trend?
Boehm: It’s far from clear whether we will see anything meaningful with a view to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Democratic Party under Obama was unable to achieve much with its vacuous attempt to uphold the dead two-state solution. Then came Trump. By contrast to Obama or the EU, he actually had a meaningful policy – a terrible one, to be sure. Will we see Biden returning to the old, meaningless language of “saving the two-state-solution“? That would be disastrous. The U.S. government needs to find the language for a new, meaningful policy.
[Ed.: Interview is in English, despite its German YouTube title]
If you were Biden’s national security advisor, what kind of language would that be?
Boehm: Honestly, I am thankful to be merely a philosophy professor. But the way I understand it, it is all about strategy: how do we move forward towards a new type of politics? What would be the alternative to two-state politics? We already know that the U.S. under Biden will have an interest in re-establishing respect for international law and politics: re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate agreement.
By the same token, they must retreat from Trump's disastrous decisions on Israel/Palestine – recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the ‘deal of the century’, etc. – but without returning to the old paradigm. I strongly recommend that it be guided by the right of the two peoples to self-determination, potentially expressed in the form of an Israeli-Palestinian federation.
The Haifa Republic utopia
In your book you propose such a utopian solution: The “Haifa Republic”. Can you explain what it refers to?
Boehm: The idea goes back to Menachem Begin’s 1977 autonomy plan proposing Palestinian autonomy preceding the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. While it fell short of a state – Begin was a staunch opponent of a Palestinian state – it offered national self-determination and even included the right of return. And most importantly: all Palestinians were supposed to receive Israeli citizenship. The plan was accepted with a vote in the Knesset, but obviously not pursued. Still, the essence of the plan could serve as the initial idea – especially as it was proposed by someone like Begin and can hardly be dismissed as “anti-Zionist”.
Of course, it needs to be renewed and re-legitimised. It should address both people’s right to self-determination in two entities along the 1967 border forming a common state, checked by a mutual constitution which regulates individual and national rights and shared institutions, with a constitutional court in Haifa. Between the two federal states, i.e., on the whole territory, there would be full freedom of movement and full economic freedom. Anyone living on the territory of historical Palestine is a citizen of the state. The Haifa Republic emerges from the idea of full equality and the same rights for all its citizens.
The idea of a federation has been an academic exercise for quite some time. It is easy to dismiss it as unrealistic. But you don’t?
Boehm: There have also been some political initiatives, such as the ‘two states, one homeland’ campaign, even if it has been quite weak. That’s due to the fact that Israel’s left disappeared for lack of meaningful politics. This is why we must offer such politics. For now, it’s allegedly only the right that is being ‘realistic’. This realism will drag us quickly towards annexation or the expulsion of Palestinians. Expulsion is the endgame of the vision of the Israeli right, and some say it openly. So what is the alternative to this path? Just repeating the two-state approach, which has failed? Surely not.
The thought that an apartheid reality can be contained in the future with more than 50% of the population being non-Jewish is unrealistic. The idea of a federation is currently the only realistic option for promoting equal rights. Don’t confuse ‘realistic’ with ‘simple’. But we have to fight for it in order to overcome our Gramscian moment: ‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born.’
Elections in Israel – right, or far-right?
Israel is moving towards another election. Looking at the polls, the most likely question seems to be: right, or far-right?
Boehm: The Israeli left is completely destroyed. And its remnants legitimise the right. They are backing candidates like Gideon Saar, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennet – who are even further to the right – for the sole purpose of getting rid of Netanyahu. Even the left-wing Meretz party is being swept along. Currently the only party to stand fast against the rise of the extreme ideological right is the Joint List (editor’s note: alliance of one Jewish-Arab and three Arab parties led by Ayman Odeh since 2015).
Many on the left know that ‘two states’ is a thing of the past. But as ‘good Zionists’ they cannot abandon the idea of a Jewish state. Their strongest allies in this are the Palestinian Israelis. Although the Joint List officially supports the two-state solution, they have the ability to move past it. When Jews elect Arab representatives; when the most liberal vote is the Joint List – which supports the civil state, citizenship, ethnic equality; indeed, when my own father, a reserve IDF officer and child of Holocaust survivors recognises that the Joint list represents him best, it is proof to me that joint politics are possible.
There can be a new coalition of Jews and Arabs. We can discover that identity isn’t necessary for representation: we can overcome the division. People then say: but what about the Palestinian militants, what about Hamas, etc.? It doesn’t matter. These joint politics need to start in Israel first. Unfortunately, the Joint List is not in good shape at the moment. A few weeks ago, I was more hopeful. But I fear it will not do well in the coming election, unfortunately. Nevertheless, these are the politics we need to promote.
When can we hope to see the Knesset vote on the Haifa Republic?
Boehm: History often moves faster than we think. I don’t know when, but it’s entirely possible we will live to see it – hopefully without first experiencing a wave of violence that surpasses anything we have yet seen.
Interview conducted by Rene Wildangel
© Qantara.de 2021
Omri Boehm is a philosophy professor who teaches at The New School in New York. In this interview he talks about his forthcoming book "A future for Israel" in which he re-examines a proposal from a 1977 plan approved by the Knesset, which became part of the Egyptian-Israeli ‘framework for peace in the Middle East’ agreed at Camp David in 1978.