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The Talmud, The Tallit and the One State Solution

MISHNA Bava Metzia I.:

Two lay hold of a cloak. This one says: “I found it!” And that one says ‘I found it!” This one says, “It’s all mine!”. And that one says, “It’s all mine!”. This one takes an oath that he has no less a share than half, and that one takes an oath that he has no less a share than half. And they divide it up.

Translation: Neusner

This little nugget of Mishna is traditionally one of the first taught to children. You can see why, it, along with the many cases that follow, is a simple expositions of one of the key aims of the rabbinic project, to present a clear legal system designed to smooth out all uncertainties, resolve conflicting claims and demonstrate a method for dealing with all social issues that might arise. The text is pretty clear, it presents a case when two people have equal claim on an object, having, presumably, both come across it simultaneously. The image suggested is a cartoonish one, each picking up one end, only then realising the presence of the other. We know that their claims are totally equal as they use totally identical language. How can they divide the garment, seeing as they both have a just claim to all of it? To ask they to say that they own only half of it would be to force them to lie. Rather, the Mishna comes up with an innovative solution, that each should swear that he owns not less than half. With this approach, both owners can maintain the integrity of their claim, while allowing a practical division of the garment to take place.

Now I’ve heard this text used several times in recent months, not as an introduction to rabbinic laws of property but as a political analogy.  There seems to be something of a fashion for using this Mishna as a metaphor for the two-state solution. It requires little explanation: just as the two characters each believe the whole cloak is theirs, each side in the Israeli Palestinian conflict believes the whole land belongs to them. They cannot say that only half the land is theirs, as this would be to make a nonsense of their deeply held beliefs. Rather, they can say that ‘not less than half’ of the land belongs to them, allowing each to maintain the theoretical purity of their position whilst permitting the land to be divided into Israeli and Palestinian states in practice.

So far so cute. I can, however see at least problems with this analogy. The first is political – why is it necessary at all? We have been told for so long that the two-state solution is the only, most just and totally inevitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If so, why the need to propagandise on its behalf, to marshal Mishnaic metaphors in support of it.

The second problem is a textual one. While most translations describe the two characters as fighting over a garment or a cloak, the Hebrew is rather more precise. It refers to a Tallit, the Jewish prayer shawl. The notable thing about a Tallit, the factor that makes it a Tallit rather than any other garment, is its fringes, 613 of them. These represent the 613 Mitzvot (commandments) and the Tallit thus reminds the wearer of their obligations. A Tallit with less than 613 fringes would not be a Tallit and thus worthless. Its value lies in its unity. Therefore an agreement which divided the Tallit in two would be an absurd, monstrous one.

This argument is bolstered by seeing a Biblical story behind the Mishnaic text. It seems to me implausible that a reader knowledgeable in Tanach would not see a connection to the story of King Solomon and the baby claimed by two mothers, found in 1 Kings 3:16-28. Here, famously the urge to divide is seen as proof of a false claim, the true mother would want the baby intact, even if it meant relinquishing ownership to the other.

This is an apt metaphor for the state affairs in what remains of ‘peacemaking’, behind the apparent inevitability and necessity of the two state solution lies its monstrous shadow, the enfant terrible of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the one state solution. Such a solution questions how the land, with its water resources, overlapping populations, criss-crossing roads and contested capital can be meaningfully/justly divided in two. Is not what is most beautiful about the land its unity? Are not borders, and the urge to police them a source of oppression as much as liberation?

Until now these ideas represent the ‘lunatic’ fringe of Israeli Jewish opinion. They were rather more popular amongst Palestinians, but were dropped by the Palestinian leadership in the 1980’s after being told that a two-state solution was all Israel would accept. It turns out however, that even that was too much to expect.

The collapse of the Oslo process in 2001 (let’s not go into reasons here) led to the total ascendancy of the Israeli right, and their associates, the settler movement. What seemed wholly possible in the 1990s, that Israeli state might evacuate almost all settlements as part of an agreement now seems impossible to conceive. The right is so dominant, and increasingly unwilling to concede anything at all to placate the ever-concerned ‘International Community’. The strongest card of what remains of the ‘Peace Camp’ (the fact thus Kadima is seen as part of it shows how far things have come) is the ‘demographic argument’ that points out that in not too many years there will be Palestinians than Jews in the strip of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan river. If this tipping point occurs without a Palestinian state existing, then the monstrous option will occur by default, and a one state solution will inevitable occur. For this reason, it was supposed, all Jewish Israelis had to support the two-state solution in one form or another, and when rightists opposed it they were simply putting their heads in the sand, having no other solution.

Until, it seems, now. Haaretz recently published an extraordinary article by Noam Sheizaf on the seemingly impossible subject of settler bi-nationalism. It seems that a series of people within Likud and the settler movement have decided that a) their priority is not to divide the land so no settlements need be removed b) if so, Palestinians must be given the vote, otherwise the world will view Israel as a full apartheid state and thus c) they are prepared to give up on the idea of a Jewish majority. This is a mind-boggling development. Have the most racist, most nationalist Israeli Jews suddenly become the biggest doves of all? Not quite.

As Uri Averny has pointed out, these thinkers have a series of major caveats. Firstly, they try to take Gaza out of the picture, seeing it as an enemy state, and perhaps hoping it could eventually become part of Egypt. Removing Gaza from the picture takes 1.5 million Palestinians out of the equation – certainly helpful for the demographic equation. Secondly they suggest that Palestinians would only be given the vote gradually, in some cases, on some kind of ‘earned’ basis. This is obviously unacceptable to any democrat.  Thirdly, and in connection with the previous point, they maintain that this state will continue to be unambiguously a ‘Jewish state’. This is clearly delusional – if the Palestinians form, say 45% of the electorate, naturally they are going to demand that said state be neutral or bi-national.

These inconstancies, however, do not invalidate the whole idea. If this is the beginning of a total sea change it will naturally take some time to develop into a coherent political programme. Ali Abunimah, at argues that once the one state principle is established, it will gain its own momentum, however these figures might want to control it. He points out, that right until the end of apartheid, most white South Africans opposed creating a universal franchise, preferring some kind of halfway house or power sharing arrangement. Once the negotiations began it became clear that this was simply a non-starter. The same would be true of any proposal to give Palestinians the vote ‘gradually’.

At the point where the two-state solution’s moment has probably passed, its adherents in the diaspora are sounding more and more desparate. There has been an increase around ‘Zionist left’ activism, through initiatives like J-Street and J-Call, that fail to notice that the Zionist left in Israel is pretty much dead and buried. The last two-staters are desperate to drown out the calls of more radical groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, and the ever-growing BDS movement. They are trying to trap a genie that has already escaped from the bottle – nowadays the whole Tallit is in sight.

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7 thoughts on “The Talmud, The Tallit and the One State Solution”

  1. Well said, Baruch Scmotzsky. But since one state ism is unfortunatley sooooo unpopular (seen the JPR survey?), what do you plan to do? Educate the masses? Call for UN intervention like in Srebrenica?
    Oh, BTW, the ascendancy of the infamous Israeli Right happened to be not in the 1990s, but one generation before. In 1977 first generation Mizrahi immigrants voted Likud en masse, you remember? Can you guess why? I am afraid you still have to do your history homework.
    And maybe it would be a good idea to have a reading of the newspapers too. What now is happening is the longest construction freeze of Israeli history. Not that the Palestinan workers are happy about that. Haven’t you noticed it?
    It is so fascinating reading you, guys. Don’t switch off the PC, don’t get in touch with reality, please. I truly enjoy your Orwellian world. Keep on.

  2. Happy to have a debate – but your comment is incoherent rubbish.

    What’s the JPR survey got to do with anything? The views of Anglo-Jewry will have very little impact on events in Israel-Palestine. Sure, the one state solution is unpopular amongst most Jewish Israelis, but its pretty popular amongst Palestinians. And its popularity is growing amongst the Israeli right, which was the subject of this article.
    On 1977 – thanks for the history lesson, but I do know this. As widely acknowledged, there was a period of dominance of the left in the 1990s, particularly the governments of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. The right has regained dominance since 2001 – it is possible for a group to gain ascendancy twice!

    As to the construction freeze – how is this relevant? If you want to talk about (perhaps you have a set of stock comments you make on all issues related to Israel) the freeze with more holes than swiss cheese, how about the fact that it excludes East Jerusalem, and that there was a vast amount of building approved before it began, and will be a vast amount after it concludes.

    Glad you enjoy our writing Nahum, but I can’t say that reading your rambling comments give us as much pleasure.

  3. Laughable – at Serge Katz urges all the readers to do the survey. An appeal, no less, to give voice to “a goodly number of moderate Jews who are easily cowed by the jackboot of the Jewish establishment’s blackmail”. Now we know the results of “the largest opinion poll [and] the most academically trustworthy!”. Such a goodly number of sympathetic post Zionists is next to zero. So the survey had become unrelevant. Please comrade Shmotzky, clarify the issue with comrade Katz: one of you two is writing -let me quote you- rubbish.

    Comrade, may I recall you Gramsci’s writings on cultural hegemony? 1977 is not a matter of ballots. It has to do with Sephardim turning to the Right. Guess why, I did ask – and I see no answer. And they still are there, so the Left has to court them, being the Israeli one a proportional system (you didn’t do your politics assignment, too) and being the Russians a lost game for the Left – guess why, once again.

    You won’t guess why. You have no time. You already know that whoever challenges your Orwellian speech has, by definition “a set of stock comments to make on all issues related to Israel”. Learnt, you like to hint, in some ZF hasbara seminary. Never mind if I did not. You already know. You disqualify those who do not subscribe, 100 %, your ideology, just like you erase those historical facts that can compromise its purity.

    [speaking of stock comments – is it, or is it not, the longest construction freeze in Israeli history. You cannot deny it is. And you cannot say Palestinian workers are happy about that. Workers, comrade Shmotzky; have you ever heard about working class?]

    So, let me ask the question once again, since here too I do not see any answer – how do you plan to implement the one State solution of your dreams? Calling the UN? Like in Srebrenica, right? Or you trust Iran?

  4. Sorry to indicate that you’d trained in some ‘ZF hasbara seminary’. Had you done so your posts might actually display some coherence and logic. Perhaps you trained in some more budget course? Or JfS ‘Ambassador’ programme?

    So to answer your random collection of points:

    1) The JPR survey. Its indeed interesting and relevant for thinking about Anglo-Jewry, but what’s it really got to do with what happens in Israel-Palestine? Pretty much sod all. I hope that either Serge or I will address the survey in a separate post, but its of no relevance here because this post is not about Anglo Jewry. I can see that you’re desperate to state all your points at once, but would Mark Regev (presumably a hero of yours) do that? I think not. Wait till we do that post – we can have the debate then,

    2) What’s Gramsci got to do with it? And what is the relevance of the Sephardic move to the right in the late 70s? My brain is clearly too addled with post-zionism to understand your oh so subtle

    3) the construction freeze. Is it the longest in Israeli history? I do not have details of all previous freezes. Perhaps this was covered on your budget hasbara course. But let’s assume that you’re right. Doesn’t that prove the point – if this, totally inadequate freeze is the longest in Israeli history that simply shows how pathetic the other ones were

    4) How do I think the one state solution might come about? Something like this: Present trends will continue in that the Israeli government will continue to be extremely hardline, and in tandem the BDS and delegitimization movement will grow rapidly. The economic and international pressure on Israel will become so strong that something will have to shift. The Israeli right and the settler movement will refuse to countenance any division of the land, and so will move towards giving Palestinians (or at least some of them) the vote. This process will gain its own momentum and within a relatively short amount of time, Israel will have to abolish all its discriminatory laws and become a single democratic state for all its citizens.

    Don’t agree with that? What’s your solution then Nahum? Do you even have one?

  5. Glad to hear that JPR survey was interesting. To me it is interesting especially re: the poor results of your appeal. You Jewdas guys seem to be a minority, not so much influential. It is therefore fascinating to look at your reactions – and BTW, I already made my point there but at the moment I see no answer. Are you busy? Are you studying?

    If so, please add Gramsci to your reading list. You may find some insights about cultural hegemony. Gramsci knew about ideology while you just seem daydreaming. “Something will have to shift” – LOL: is it part of the Divine Plan?. After the reading, which I assure you will find interesting -always it is, especially the first time- try to answer the questions you are sensationally avoiding. Here they are, for the benefit of the reader.

    -Why did the Sephardim turned to the Right? What is their experience of Arabs and Muslims? Just to make it clear, I am talking about Israeli voters, Israeli working class and not British Academics.

    – Is this experience of Arabs (not an amusing one, to be sure) a part of the Israeli culture? Please, please, give an eye to the ballots – and thake into consideration the Russians.

    It is probably not part of that goodly-Godly something that will have to shift, but I guess that Israeli consensus is needed to implement your fabulous plan. And it seems so hard to achieve, not from the settlers, but from the mainstream Israelis. Ask them about your one State solution. Many of them understand Russian, Schmotzky.

    So let me ask you again, how do you plan to achieve it? You have to impose your dream to recalcitrant citizens of a democracy. Do you plan to call the UN, like in Srebrenica? Let Ahmadinedjaad do some part of the job? I have no solution, I am just curious to hear from people who know so much more\ than me And, by the way, these were other questions you did not answer to.

    P.S. With 3 you just prove my point. It IS the longest construction freeze in Israeli history. The others were maybe pathetic, surely shorter. Just like, you know, peace with Egypt. It is the longest peace in the neighbourhood. And of course is not the peace of your dream, and the construction freeze is not the freeze of your dreams, and the expulsion from Gaza was not the expulsion of your dreams (pardon: the peace dreamt by everybody). Reality seems to care very little of your dreams. British Jews too, and Israelis as well. I know it’s hard. But you have your solution – what a relief might be. I am soooo envious.

  6. hi Baruch, nice piece, enjoyed reading it. I liked the bit about how people talk about the cloak when really it was a tallit and therefore by ripping it in half changed the whole outcome, both sides just end up with a small rag. Maybe if the two had come across a wheelbarrow and both claimed it, they could have agreed to maintain it and share its usefullness. For example, the israelis could carry lots of olive sapplings to the Palestinians land and plant them, to in some way make up for all the ones they’ve destroyed, oh yeah and use it to help rebuild, with their own hands, all the buildings they’ve trashed etc. And so it’s not one sided, the Palestinians could help put all the settlers tat in it and take it to the airport.
    @nahum, on reflection don’t you think you was alittle harsh on Baruch considering he got people thinking and offered an interesting opinion that wasn’t filled with nastiness, whereas you brought up the mental image of a frothing at the mouth, hardly able to contain his bile, whilst perched on a smug tower of self righteousness, wanna be jew sitting in his hasbara office. Come on mate calm down, it’s obvious to all you’ve been waiting to have a pop.
    As you say ”You Jewdas guys seem to be a minority, not so much influential” Well maybe ”You israeli guys seem to be a minority, not so much influential” is more the truth. Not long now nahum! …Palestine will be free (did you know nahum that your name is a anagram of human? Something for you to think about sunshine.
    Anyway, nice one Baruch, as you were. x

  7. Of course, Palestine will be free.
    And Mashiach will come.
    And the workers will invest the state with a revolutionary and transitional form.
    In the meantime the silenced British Jews, closeted Post Zionist, will express their support to JewDas wisdom. But not today. Surely tomorrow. Oh well, maybe another time.
    But all of this will happen, for sure.
    It’s just a matter of faith, after all. Enjoy.

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