by Bennett Muraskin
Discussed in this essay: A Land Without Borders: My Journey Around East Jerusalem and the West Bank, by Nir Baram, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia, 2017, 284 pages.
FOR DECADES, Jewish Currents and others on the left have beat the drum for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and a limited “right of return” for Palestinian refugees who were displaced during the Israeli War of Independence, with monetary compensation to the large majority. The sad truth, however, is that this scenario has no prospect for realization any more, despite bouts of intense negotiations and endless UN resolutions. In recent years, both Israelis and Palestinians appear to have given up on the “peace process.”
Nir Baram, an Israeli Jewish journalist and novelist, once advocated the two-state solution outlined above, but after a year-and-a-half-long journey (2014-15) along of the border between Israel and the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, engaging with a variety of Palestinians and Jews, he is no longer a believer. What changed?
An obvious answer is the growth of the Jewish settlements, but Baram barely mentions this subject. His discovery is that Jewish and Palestinian attitudes toward each other and towards the prospect of co-existing states are in conflict.
On the Jewish side, the occupation has been normalized. For all but the first nineteen years of its existence, Israel has directly or indirectly controlled the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the construction of the separation barrier in 2004, built to deter Palestinian terrorist attacks, the only Israelis found in the West Bank are settlers or soldiers. Most Israelis don’t know and don’t want to know what goes on there and are convinced that further attempts toward the negotiation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel are a waste of time. If the occupation has gone on for fifty years, who is to say it can’t go on indefinitely, with minimal impact on the lives of the average Jewish citizen of Israel?
On the Palestinian side, the wall has kept them from working inside Israel and meeting Israeli Jews who may be sympathetic to their plight. Settlers and soldiers are the only Jews they know, and both are hostile forces who make Palestinian lives miserable. The Olso Agreement was a false dawn for them: It gave them the Palestinian Authority, which is seen as ineffectual at best and a collaborator with Israel at worst. The political ascendancy of Netanyahu and the rightwing parties in his Israeli government coalition send a clear message that Palestinians’ status as a occupied people will not change for the better. They instinctively believe the worst about Israel, including that it has designs on the al-Aqsa Mosque.
On a deeper level, says Baram, Palestinians have are not reconciled to their defeat in 1948. Israel, as a Jewish state, has no legitimacy in their eyes. They can accept Judaism as a religion and Jews as believers in Judaism, but not Jews as a national entity, because that is Zionism and Zionism is Western colonialism.
BARAM DOES NOT minimize the reality of Palestinian terrorism or Israel’s systematic denial of Palestinian human rights, and he devotes considerable attention to certain Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who are Israeli citizens, trapped in a no-man’s land between the separation barrier and the actual 1967 border, receiving services from neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority while passing through humiliating checkpoints to enter Jerusalem..
With due credit to his translator, Baram is, by all measures, an excellent journalist, with outstanding writing and interviewing skills. He does not just write about border checkpoints, he stands in them. He visits a kibbutz struck by rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza. He meets with Palestinian activists who spent years in Israeli prisons. He seeks out settlers who believe the land of Israel belongs only to the Jews, as well as those who seek common ground with Palestinians based on religious values. Baram talks to Palestinians who sincerely believe that all Israeli Jews, even those with roots in Arab lands, like Baram himself, should leave Israel for Europe or America, as well as those who accept that Jews and Palestinians have an equal claim to the land, whether it is called Israel or Palestine.
Ultimately, Baram rejects a two-state solution that would separate Palestinians and Israelis, each to their own territory, in favor of a two-state solution with open borders, where Israelis and Palestinians can live where they choose. This would enable settlers to stay put under Palestinian sovereignty, and Palestinians to move to Israel under Israeli sovereignty. The guiding principle must be equality. Baram recognizes that this outcome would require “a revolution in Israel society’s value system,” which is currently predicated on the principle of Jewish privilege.
Actually, Baram’s proposal is not so far from the 1947 UN Partition Plan, albeit with different borders, that the Arab side, except for the communists, rejected. The Plan called for an economic union between the two independent states — with Jerusalem under international control. It would have left 450,000 Arabs within the borders of the Jewish state, with equal rights. This is why I believe that Baram’s proposal will also require a revolution in the Palestinian value system: acceptance of Jewish national rights in one small corner of the Middle East.
A Land Without Borders is simultaneously an easy read because of its style and a difficult read because of its provocative point of view. Baram closes with a prophetic literary peroration: “[T]here is not much time left, and we must believe we can achieve reconciliation between two peoples even if the models we once believed in are no longer valid. Do we have any other option?”
Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.