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.
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 aljazeera.net 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.