Columbia University’s panel “One State or Two: Alternative Proposals for Middle East Peace” presented a biased, tendentious Israel-bashing program on Monday, January 31, that provided more heat than light. The very title was a dead giveaway: a one-state solution is widely understood to be a code word for the disappearance of the Jewish state and its replacement violently and/or demographically by an irredentist Palestinian majority.
The evening, nonetheless, began on a largely sober note with an overview of the Islamic Middle Ages by Professor Mark Cohen of Princeton. He spoke of the intolerance of monotheism, broad brushing all three Abrahamic faiths. He did, however, stress that Jews did a lot better under the Islamic rule during the Middle Ages than under Christianity. Anti-Jewish prejudices in the Middle Ages in the Islamic realm “did not have the same salience as anti-Semitism in Christian Europe,” he explained. He underscored dhimmitude (the second-class status of Jews and Christians—Peoples of the Book) as a relatively benign form of both ethnic toleration and social discrimination. Compared to the Catholic Inquisition, the poll tax and various other civic humiliations Jews suffered in the Arab world were fairly tolerable. After all, he reminded his audience, anti-Semitism, as such, came to the Arab in the nineteenth century largely via Christian Arabs and French missionaries in the Levant. Until then Jews had not been persecuted qua Jews, but simply as one disfavored minority among others.
Cohen differentiated two interpretations of Arab treatment of the Jews in the Middle Ages—the conflict school and the harmony school. The latter viewed social and economic attitudes towards minorities as on the whole friendly, if somewhat stern and discriminatory; the former as riddled with interminable dispute and socially sanctioned degradation. Adherence to the conflict school led by extrapolation to a preference for a contemporary two-state solution, while belief in the harmony school propelled one in the direction of the one-state alternative. Cohen, in the end, subscribing to the conflict school, favored the two-state solution to the present Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The harsher, ideologically accented part of the evening began with Dr. Rashid Khalidi’s presentation. He spent a few tortured minutes stating that the talk he was giving was not the talk he wished to present because of time limitations, implying that he had heavier artillery in store. He declared that he was not speaking in favor of any one solution and that he came with no concrete proposals for peace in hand. However, he quickly underscored that Israel’s national sovereignity was won at the expense of another people’s and that its continued appropriation of Palestinian land boded ill for the future. He said he was far more interested in structural rather than discursive features of the Middle East, in the actual reality on the ground—walls, watchtowers and roads—rather than declarations and demarches issued by the powers-that-be. Largely pessimistic about the future, he appeared dismissive of the recent warming in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Dr. Khalidi proved to be mere preamble to Dr.Joseph Massad’s philippic against the Jewish state, which he declared in no uncertain terms had not only expelled the Palestinian Arab majority and confiscated its property, but continued to prevent its rightful return. He almost always prefixed or suffixed the phrase “the Jewish state” with such adjectives as “racist” or “apartheid.” Gaza and the West Bank were invariably termed “bantustans.” Any state defining itself as specially Jewish was, in Massud’s lexicon, ipso facto labeled racist and beyond the pale. The two-state solution, he argued, “was asking diaspora Palestinians to commit suicide.” Only within the confines of a bi-national state, he explained, “can Palestinians be repatriated… and Jews become equal citizens.” In order to bring this “equitable” solution about, Israel must be sufficiently weakened by boycott and divestment for starters. Only a change in the balance of power in the Middle East, Massad averred, could bring to fruition his longed-for solution. (Some might even be forgiven the unholy thought that Massad’s arguments necessitate Mossad’s existence).
Not to be undone, Dr. Ilan Pappe of Haifa University, who some have named “the Noam Chomsky of Israel,” gave his own gloss on history, promising to add further polish and refinement to Dr. Khalidi’s position. He quickly reminded his audience that Israel controls 80 percent of mandatory Palestine, while the Palestinians are stuck with a mere 20 percent. He selectively ignored the historically recognized fact that 80 percent of the Palestine promised to the Jews as their national home by Lord Balfour was lopped off by Winston Churchill in 1922 and given to the Arabs as the kingdom of Trans-Jordan.
Dr. Pappe’s heavily sardonic tone served to portray Israel in the worst possible light as a blunt force riding roughshod over liberty-loving Palestinians. He privileged the Palestinian right of return, while contradictorily insisting that nationalism was even a more baleful force in the world than religion itself. He too invoked apartheid imagery whenever and wherever possible, daubing South Africa and Israel with the same thick brush.
Dripping sarcasm, Pappe described an Israel desperate to “whiten” its population, searching high and low for light-skinned immigrants. To appreciative laughter, nods and titters from parts of the audience, he recounted Israel looking for possible “Hebraic” tribesmen in the mountain fastnesses of Peru, the alluvial plains of India and the equatorial heart of Africa to bring to the Jewish state, while obstinately refusing entry to Palestinian Arabs. “The preoccupation with Israeli demography is the basis of discrimination,” he further explained.
Dr. Pappe saw little hope for a two-state solution. “As a salesman,” he declared, “I would he hesitant to offer it.” Preventing millions of Palestinians from reclaiming their land and homes was so large and insufferable an injustice in his own mind that nothing short of comparison with Nazi Germany would do. The Haifa University professor concluded by saying that as long as Israel denies the “naqba” (Arab defeat of 1948), no peace can ever be achieved. It is much like asking “Israel and Germany to reconcile if Germany were today involved in Holocaust denial.”
Sponsored by Qanun (the Arab students in Columbia University’s School of Law), the Human Rights program of SIPA (Columbia’s School of Public Affairs), office of the University Chaplain, Student Services and the Student Senate, the evening, top heavy with rehearsed post-colonial rhetoric—the contemporary stock-in-trade of any number of academic satrapies—offered little in the way of balance, probity or human rights.