19 July 2007

19 July 2007 - The federal idea in Zionist thought

I’m currently reviewing a book by Prof. Yosef Gorny of Tel Aviv Univeristy entitled From Binational Society to Jewish State: Federal Concepts in Zionist Political Thought, 1920-1990, and the Jewish People. It’s an intellectual history, part of a series on Jewish identity, and Gorny says he wrote with a sense of “disillusionment” about the future prospects of confederation between Israel and its neighbours.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about the book is its conclusion, in which Gorny writes that Zionism “is beginning its second historical journey”—back to Europe, where he foresees a future cultural center of world Jewry. Gorny is not, like Avraham Burg, giving up on Zionism and celebrating the Diaspora; rather, he is worried about the fate of Jews if there is no resolution to the conflict with Arabs.

Putting this aside for now, let us return to the beginning, and Gorny’s definitions of the “federal” idea. A “federation” is “a sovereign state composed of autonomous political units that derive their power from one political center”; a “confederation” is “a regional alliance of sovereign states that maintain join institutionst in various domains.” Power devolves down in the former, and up in the latter.

Gorny also defines different versions of utopian thinking. Utopianism considers “society as it should be”; realistic utopianism, such as Marxism, considers society as it is but imagines the ideal situation will emerge; and utopian realism is more concerned with how things actually are, with the ideal merely serving as a guide. Zionism, he says, always moved between utopia and reality, vision and pragmatism.

He goes on to demonstrate how different versions of the federal idea have been proposed by various Zionist leaders as a way of bridging the gap between utopian national visions and the practical obstacles to establishing and maintaining a state. Often, federation and confederation were proposed to resolve the fact or potential of Jewish minority in Palestine, and Israel’s solitude among Arab nations.

Gorny excludes versions of the federal idea, such as certain forms of binationalism, that did not uphold the general Zionist principle of a Jewish majority in the part of Palestine that was to be theirs. Turning to mainstream Zionist leaders of both the left and right, he shows how the federal idea was inspired by various precedents, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the United States, among others.

Leaders who proposed federal ideas often changed their model as circumstances changed. Thus David Ben-Gurion first proposed (separate) autonomy for Jews and Arabs in Palestine in 1922; a joint federation of Jewish and Arab nations in the mid-1920s; a complex federal arrangement between Jews and Arabs, in 1931; and a confederation of a Jewish state within a larger Arab formation, in the mid-1930s.

One of the most interesting subjects Gorny addresses is the federal idealism of Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who is considered a right-wing and militant thinker. Gorny points out that Jabotinsky was a political liberal, and that despite his conviction that Jews woud have to resort to the use of force, he continued to believe in a federal solution that recognized the national rights of both Jews and Arabs.

Gorny demonstrates that in their deliberations with each other and themselves, the Zionist leaders were capable of considering a wide range of different ideas. The idea of “transfer”—which was considered impractical but not “morally illegitimate” at that time, having recently been implemented to resolve matters between Turkey and Greece—coexisted with utopian ideas of shared states and confederations.

Demography played a role in the formulation of the various models—just as it does today. After the Six Day War, Israeli Labor politicians Arie Eliav and Shimon Peres proposed different forms of the federal model as a way of resolving the moral and demographic challenges of occupation. Today, the “demographic threat” is in doubt, given the Gaza disengagement and questions about Palestinian population figures.

The geopolitical environment has also changed, with Arab states now prepared—at least in theory—to accept peace with (if not the legitimacy of) Israel. These two factors, perhaps unforeseen by Gorny when he wrote his book, have pushed the federal idea even further to the margins of Israeli discourse. However, it has not disappeared, because the fundamental conflict remains to be resolved.

It is possible, and perhaps even likely that the next few years will indeed see some form of Palestinian state emerge—whether along the lines of the old “autonomy” model, as a “provisional” state, or a fully-fledged nation-state. If so, there will also be a need for institutional arrangements between the two states to govern affairs, such as water, that must be dealt with in common. The federal idea lives yet.


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