Shira Robinson writes: “To believe in a democratic Jewish state today is to be caught between the jaws of a pincer,” writes Peter Beinart in his widely circulated and hotly debated op-ed. Indeed — but it was ever thus.
Today the pincer is not, as Beinart would have it, the incongruity of the “democratic Israel” inside the Green Line and the “undemocratic Israel” outside it. It is the discrepancy between the notions that Israel — whether a Greater Israel encompassing West Bank settlements or the pre-1967 Israel for which Beinart pines — is both “democratic” and a “Jewish state.”
This discrepancy is nearly as old as the Palestine conflict itself. In the aftermath of World War I, the patent contradiction between Jewish colonization and the Wilsonian principle of democratic self-rule loomed large in the minds of Zionist luminaries. Quite simply, they understood that there was no way to reconcile the two. As David Ben Gurion told his colleagues in 1918, “There is no solution…. There’s a national question here. We want the country to be ours. Arabs want the country to be theirs.” He and his colleagues thus set out to convince the great powers that Palestine should not be democratic until it was considerably more Jewish.
Zionist leaders had good reason to believe their efforts would pay off. Less than one year earlier, the Balfour Declaration had promised British backing for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” while undertaking not to “prejudice the civil and religious rights” of the country’s “non-Jewish communities.” The Arabs of Palestine, who at the time comprised some 95 percent of the indigenous population, understood correctly that the text’s express delineation between Jewish “national” rights and Arab “civil and religious” rights was incompatible with the principle of national self-determination. In July 1919, the American King-Crane Commission traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean to survey the political wishes of its inhabitants. Apart from the Zionists themselves, an overwhelming majority reiterated the demand for unified independence under democratic rule and an end to Jewish settlement. If immediate sovereignty was off the table, the only mandatory power they would accept was the United States, which (at the time) lacked the stain of imperial interference in the region.
The prospect of US rule was terrifying to Zionist boosters, who lobbied aggressively at the Allied peace talks in Paris to block it. Their fear derived from a simple numerical formula. Despite the near doubling of their demographic ratio since the 1880s, Jews still comprised less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population. As the Zionist Organization in London explained at the time, the possibility that the Americans might help to create a local democratic republic any time soon would make “the task of…developing a great Jewish Palestine…infinitely more difficult.” [Continue reading…]