London Jewish Cultural Centre meeting “Two States for Two Peoples: Solution or Illusion?”

The London Jewish Cultural Centre is running a series of events on Israel at 60. Last night’s was on the theme “One State or Two?” I found it astonishing, not at all what you would expect – certainly not if you go along with the usual right-wing convention that one-state means “pro-Israel” and two-state means “anti-Israel” (for example, remember the recent fuss when the Oxford Union gave in to right-wing pressure to remove Norman Finkelstein from the two-state side of a debate because he’s “anti-Israel”? Really, we should refuse to accept these meaningless terms at all.)

The speakers here were Tony Klug, who started arguing for a Palestinian state thirty years ago (and of course was regarded as deeply anti-Israel for doing so then). He’s been a sharp critic of the occupation ever since, and is a founder member of Independent Jewish Voices. Speaking for one state was Daniel Gavron, a lifelong Zionist who has recently concluded that withdrawal from the Occupied Territories will never happen and that democracy can only be achieved within a unitary state. The meeting was chaired by Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian and of the Jewish Chronicle (when the Board of Deputies permits).

The room was full, with well over a hundred people. In their appearance and in their comments, the audience seemed not to be JfJfP types, but rather part of the mainstream North London Jewish community. Richard Kuper, who is prominent in JfJfP, told me that the last time he had tried to contribute to a discussion in that room, the chair had to intervene to prevent him from being shouted down, but the event last night was totally different in its tone. The background assumptions of all three speakers were the same: that the Israeli government, and often the Israeli people, have completely misunderstood their own situation in the world, and as a result are passing up on a unique opportunity for peace, one which won’t come again. Since all three also expressed affection (or more) for the idea of Israel, there was an air of complete puzzlement and sadness about how so many people could be making such a huge mistake. Of course, there’s no shortage of theories — some were offered here — for why that has happened, but what surprised me was the unanimity of the tone and the fact that these assumptions were shared by virtually everyone who spoke — probably a third of the audience.

The discussion between one and two states did have some of the usual elements, mainly the argument over the feasibility of the two solutions. Each side argues that the solution offered by the other can’t work, for well-rehearsed reasons: two states can’t work because of the settlements, one state can’t work because of the hostility between the people. It may be pessimistic to say this, but I find the arguments against each solution pretty convincing. (But in any case I don’t think it’s up to me to choose what solution other people choose for how they live). Usually, this part of the debate feels very tired because there’s no discussion about the actual-existing Israel – only an argument over whether it should continue or cease to exist. Last night, by contrast there was agreement that in any imaginable future Israel would have to change enormously to remove the injustices and inequalities that currently exist in the treatment ofa quarter of the non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state.

Leaving, I could hardly feel cheerful about a debate in which each side had convincing arguments as to why the “solution” proposed by the other would not work. And as Tony Klug said, “We are now in the last chance saloon… the alternative is perpetual conflict”. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of hope that the situation is finally being understood in mainstream British Jewry. That is far from saying that opinion has changed unanimously, but there’s no question in my mind that a decisive change of mood is under way, in London at least. It may be a little while before it makes its way North to our parts.

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