JULY 15, 2020
In his 1961 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the renowned historian of science Thomas Kuhn explained the process by which an existing paradigm of scientific knowledge is criticized, challenged, and ultimately replaced. The displacement of an old paradigm is not, in this context, either exceptional or unwelcome. It allows for the productive juxtaposition of competing ideas through which knowledge can be advanced.
And not just knowledge, but justice. We are witnessing in the United States an extraordinary moment in which the old paradigm of structural racism is being criticized and challenged. It has not yet been replaced, but what we see, at this moment, is a powerful movement of protest demanding that we push past incrementalism to achieve overarching structural change in policing, education, sports, and many other domains.
This is also a moment in which the existing paradigms of American, and American Jewish, support for Israel has been challenged. Ten years after his first blockbuster essay, the prominent journalist Peter Beinart published a pair of articles this week that challenged long-standing orthodoxies about Zionism and Israel. Not only was it the case, he claimed in a detailed historical argument, that key Zionist thinkers from the past did not require the instrumentality of a political state in order to realize their ideal vision for the Jewish nation, but it was also the case that the current sacralization by Jews of a Jewish state has obscured and enabled injustice against the Palestinian people. It is time, Beinart declares, to replace the current paradigm of injustice, and this requires surrendering the mythic dream of a two-state solution and privileging at long last the equal rights of all Palestinians in the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Beinart has been roundly condemned from the heart of the establishment for his embrace of the vision of binationalism, which his critics attack as dangerously delusional. He has also been criticized by some on the left, who ask: what took you so long? But there are certain things for which one can’t attack Beinart. One can’t rehearse the usual canard that Beinart is a self-hating Jew, because he makes clear that he is animated by deep love for the Jewish people and even for Zionism, albeit in his own idiosyncratic formulation. Nor can one say that it is leftists such as Beinart who have brought Israel to its current predicament. Rather, it is Israeli settlers, aided mainly, but not solely, by right-wing governments since 1967, who have sought to erase the Green Line and effectively kill off the dream of two sovereign states standing side by side. As a result, one cannot say that we’re in such a good situation that we don’t need to think of alternatives to the status quo. In the absence of new ideas, the likeliest scenario is that Israel will continue to annex more land, Palestinians in the West Bank will become more disenfranchised, and the old paradigm of injustice will be strengthened. Beinart’s essays, including their call for a binational state, are above all an invitation to expand our political imaginations and contemplate a paradigm different from the broken one of today.
Another common criticism of Beinart is that he has the luxury of concocting a fantasy from his comfortable home in Manhattan. The argument goes that, since he doesn’t live in Israel, he doesn’t understand or have any right to weigh in on the Israeli experience. There are many ways to dispatch with this claim, but it is important to add that Peter Beinart is hardly alone in insisting that we not rest content with the existing paradigm. In the same week that his essays appeared, another powerful piece of writing about Israel and Palestine was published. This was the authoritative legal argument of the brilliant Israeli lawyer Michael Sfard. After many years of litigating on behalf of human rights in Israeli courts, Sfard has now meticulously outlined why Israel’s occupation of the West Bank—even absent formal annexation—is apartheid.
It is true that many who dislike Israel and see it as nothing more than a malevolent settler colonial usurper — unlike Sfard and Beinart, who have a more nuanced view — have been invoking the “A” word for a long time. Sfard arrives at his conclusion with sadness. “Apartheid,” as he uses it, is not a loosely formulated epithet. It is a technical term drawn from international law, and more particularly from the 1973 Apartheid Convention of the United Nations and the 2002 Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court. Sfard argues that, according to the terms of international law, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank is “a regime centered on systematic domination and oppression of one group by another,” which persists in a “denial of rights” to the Palestinians. He further maintains that there is a “dual legal system” that embodies the discriminatory essence of apartheid and is reflected in practices such as land expropriation, forced population transfer (as in the case of Susiya), and persecution of regime opponents. For the moment, Sfard delimits his application of the term “apartheid” to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, but warns that more annexation of land, including the formal extension of legal sovereignty proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu, would transform the “Israeli regime in its entirety into an apartheid regime.”
Before leaping to dismiss Sfard as an anti-Israel propagandist, one should examine his step-by-step reasoning carefully. It makes for very sober reading. But it also joins with Peter Beinart’s essays in an important way. Both authors arrive at the conclusion that the current political and legal paradigm in Israeli-Palestinian relations is broken. Beinart proposes a new political vision; Sfard calls on Israelis to “take resolute action to stop the commission of this crime.” The two rest their claims on the primacy of equality for all. This is difficult for some to accept, because it could mean that the land between the Jordan and Mediterranean would be one, not two, polities. But whether one is an advocate for a single state or the two-state solution, it is no longer possible to ignore the call to equality, to bury it under the familiar refrain about considering Israel’s security first. Of course, Israel has legitimate security demands that must be addressed. But a new paradigm insists on re-prioritizing what has long been relegated to second-tier status: equality for all.
Co-authored with Daniel Sokatch