Lama Abu-Odeh's proposal for a binational Israeli-Palestinian state
is bold, courageous, and moving. People with entrenched interests in
old and tired ways of thinking about the problem—that is to say,
almost all the participants in the dispute—are bound to dismiss
her ideas as utopian or worse. An entirely sufficient answer to these
complaints is that all the alternative courses of action have reached
a dead end. Abu-Odeh's proposal is indeed utopian if one is prepared
to give up on the hope that the conflict over Israel/Palestine can yet
be resolved without denying the common humanity and aspirations of the
people who live there. Of course, a two-state solution is also utopian
in this sense. And we may indeed have reached the stage where any proposal
that avoids a blood-soaked disaster can be dismissed as utopian. Still,
Israelis and Palestinians alike are wrong if they suppose that they
can inflict devastation on the other side while avoiding it themselves.
In the current environment, utopianism is the only real option.
I will leave to others who are more knowledgeable the difficult and
crucial task of turning a utopian sketch into a practical blueprint
for action. Instead, in this brief response, I want to locate Abu-Odeh's
ideas within the a broader, evolving discussion among progressives about
the political valence of nationalism.
At first, it may seem that Abu-Odeh's proposal runs counter to the
main thrust of that discussion. There was a time, of course, when most
progressives were universalists. Socialism was supposed to be an international
movement, and working class solidarity was supposed to transcend national
and ethnic boundaries. For the universalist left, nationalism was a
trap used by an entrenched ruling class to prevent workers from understanding
their own interests.
Although left universalism retains a vestigial hold on some progressives,
many others have come to see it as naive and misguided. The problem
is not simply that many workers have remained stubbornly attached to
their national and ethnic identities. It is also that for many modern
progressives universalism itself is a trap. They claim that it is not
nationalism, but the suppression of nationalist impulses by liberal
constitutionalism, that obstructs meaningful change.
Progressives of this stripe want to unmask the false facade of neutrality
and objectivity that hides what they see as the real nature of liberal
constitutionalism. Liberal constitutionalism is not, and cannot be,
a neutral arbiter between contending groups, they claim. Instead, it
adopts the rhetoric of neutrality and rationality to legitimate institutions
and outcomes that favor powerful interests.
Left nationalism has had a profound influence on the movement for racial
and gender justice, where older integrationist ideals are under assault
by advocates of identity politics. For obvious reasons, those convinced
by the rhetoric of this politics are likely to view Abu-Odeh's proposal
with profound suspicion. Civil rights law cannot bring liberation, they
will claim, because civil rights law is an empty vessel that will inevitably
be filled by those who exercise social power. What is worse, civil rights
law is positively harmful because it allows the dispossessed to win
just often enough to make the overall system appear just without actually
doing anything significant to make it just. On this view, the civil
rights revolution in this country has made the continued subjugation
of African Americans seem like it is their own fault. If Abu-Odeh's
proposal were ever put into effect, it would do the same for Palestinians.
Although there is surely something to this worry, the Palestinian example
also reveals a significant flaw in the nationalist position. Left nationalism
rests on a crucial non sequitur. Beginning from the premise that the
neutrality of liberal constitutionalism is a fraud, left nationalists
reach the conclusion that the oppressed should have more power. But
if neutrality is in fact a fraud, then there is no reason why oppressors
should even pretend to be neutral. The unmasking of liberal constitutionalism
leaves nothing but force to take its place, and the brute fact is that
the Israeli army has overwhelming force at its disposal.
There is thus reason to think that Abu-Odeh is right to prefer Israeli
lawyers to Israeli generals. Even if we grant all the criticisms of
the civil rights revolution in the United States (and, to be clear about
it, I'm quite prepared to grant them), my guess is that many Palestinians
on the West Bank would gladly trade places with African Americans in
the United States. Liberal constitutionalism may indeed help prop up
unjust regimes, but it is nonetheless often inclusive enough to allow
advances that cannot always be achieved by the raw power available to
Moreover, it is simply wrong to suppose that the choice is between
naive left universalism and self-defeating left nationalism. There is
a version of liberal constitutionalism that recognizes the hollowness
of civil rights rhetoric while taking advantage of it to achieve progress.
Indeed, it may be the very emptiness of the rhetoric that allows progress.
The liberal constitutional tradition is closely associated with a contractarian
political theory that imagines a final working out of conflict that
divides groups. It is this final working out—often in the form
of a "neutral" written constitution—that avoids a war of all against
all. Left nationalists are right to deny the possibility of a constitution
that is both determinate and neutral. But they tend to ignore the virtue
of indeterminacy. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a liberal state
is that the very emptiness of constitutionalism—its failure to
achieve a final, neutral resolution of social conflict—provides
the space within which oppressed groups can find a measure of justice.