Opinion: Running off the rails

On the 4th day of Adar, on the front page of Haaretz, there appeared a most curious story. Its headline read: “Israel Railways planning to build 475-kilometer rail network in West Bank.” The artwork consisted of a photo of Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of the Likud party, sporting a red hard hat in a railway tunnel, and a map of the proposed new lines: north from Jerusalem to Jenin via Ariel and Nablus, a southern route from Jerusalem to Hebron and Kiryat Arba, and several east-west lines as well.  The intention, according to the Transportation Ministry, is to serve “local residents and other passengers,” which presumably means Jews and Arabs alike. 

“In a visit to the northern part of the West Bank in 2010,” reported Haaretz, Katz “promised to revive the pre-state Ottoman and British Mandate-era rail line there with establishment of service between the city of Jenin and Afula in the Jezreel Valley,” in other words, linking the West Bank with Israel proper. In addition, plans are afoot for a line between Rosh Ha’ayin, also inside the Green Line, and the West Bank cities of Nablus (Arab) and Ariel (Jewish.)  No timetables or construction budgets have been set by the ministry, according to Haaretz.

Appearing as it did ten days before Purim, the article prompts an obvious question: Is this for real? Could such a vision conceivably be implemented, given the obvious need for Palestinian cooperation in the project? Might this possibly be a satire, a premature Purim spiel, a seasonal journalistic hoax? May it be interpreted as a wishful, impossible dream, a utopian fantasy of a new Middle East, where bygones are bygones and a thousand flowers bloom? Perhaps so, as it is written in Haaretz: “The plan also includes infrastructure that would connect the rail lines at a later stage to lines in the Gaza Strip and in Arab countries.” The Israeli reader, over her morning latte, may start to dream of hopping aboard the 8:55 in Tel Aviv and lunching on hummus in Damascus. 

Or is the plan, plain and simple, a blueprint for annexation — one more nail, however theoretical, in the coffin of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Whether the Netanyahu government is serious in its avowed pursuit of territorial compromise remains an open question for some, a closed book for others. The Ministry of Education is promoting class trips to Hebron, to instill in Israeli youth the centrality of the West Bank city — home to more than 150,000 Arabs and 500 Jews — to Jewish identity. Teachers were lately instructed to devote a designated “Gush Katif Day” to the idea that Israeli settlement in Gaza constituted Zionist idealism par excellence. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, visiting the Gush Katif Museum in Jerusalem on that same day, drove home the point that the uprooting of the Gaza settlements in 2005 was a dangerous folly that must never be repeated. If Hamas turned Gaza into a terrorist camp, imagine what might happen if they gained sovereignty over the West Bank. So goes the melancholy megillah, the widely persuasive scenario that explains how such a dream as the railway plan — envisioning one big state, Jewish if not exactly democratic — could be seriously entertained.   

We are accustomed, of course, to viewing the notion of a “one-state solution” as an anti-Zionist agenda aimed at undoing Israel as a Jewish state. The topic is bandied about on the campuses, most recently at a student-run conference at Harvard’s Kennedy School. The logic of such efforts is quite plain. As Israel holds fast to the West Bank, it becomes easier for critics to puncture its claim to upholding democratic values. At the end of the day, it matters not whether Israel’s adversaries play the “apartheid” card, or apply a pernicious double standard, or are impelled by sinister motives, or even whether Palestinian terrorism and cynical rejectionism are the real roadblocks to a two-state compromise. What matters is that the indefinite deprivation of full political and civil rights for West Bank Palestinians is insupportable and undermines Israeli democracy. The Gordian-knot solution, say the one-staters, is one person, one vote, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. To many reasonable people, this seems fair enough. But as a practical matter, it spells the end of Israel as we know it. 

Back in the pre-state era romanticized by Yisrael Katz, when Beirut was a scenic train ride away from Haifa, some of the keenest Jewish minds in Palestine supported a movement called Brit Shalom, whose aim was to create, slowly and carefully, a shared, democratic Jewish-Arab political entity in the land: a one-state or binational solution. These idealists included Gershom Scholem, the towering scholar of Jewish mysticism; Rabbi Judah Magnes, the California-born founding president of the Hebrew University; and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. These were not Jews on the margin. They were giants of Zionist history in the 20th century. Their agenda, need one add, was steamrolled into oblivion by tragic historical realities: the rise of Hitler, the need to bring as many Jews as possible to eretz Israel, the hostility of the Arabs who saw their homeland settled by another people. 

The Zionist mainstream rejected Brit Shalom from the start. On the other end of the spectrum, Mahatma Gandhi, in November 1938, published an essay contending that Palestine belonged to the Arabs, and arguing, absurdly, that German Jews should practice satyagraha, or nonviolent resistance, to challenge the Nazi regime. The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, another supporter of Brit Shalom, penned an eloquent letter of rebuttal. “I belong to a group of people,” he wrote to Gandhi, “who, from the time when Britain conquered Palestine, have not ceased to strive for the achievement of genuine peace between Jew and Arab.” Such a peace, said Buber, means that “both peoples should together develop the Land without one imposing his will on the other.”

“We cannot renounce the Jewish claim,” continued Buber; “something even higher than the life of our people is bound up with the Land, namely, the work that is their divine mission. But we have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form of agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and we believe in its future, and, seeing that such love and such faith are surely present on the other side as well, a union in the common service of the Land must be within the range of the possible. Where there is faith and love, a solution may be found even to what appears to be a tragic contradiction.”

Today, neither de facto one-staters on the Israeli right or de jure one-staters on the international left come close to embodying Buber’s poetic vision. Given current circumstances, his fine words can be dismissed as no less fanciful — or grandiose — than the plan to weld the West Bank to Israel with rails of steel. And yet, an abandonment of Buber’s values would seem to consign Israel to a fate anticipated by Judah Magnes, in a letter of 1929 to Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization: “A Jewish Home in Palestine built up on bayonets and oppression is not worth having, even though it succeed, whereas the very attempt to build it up peacefully, cooperatively, with understanding, education, and good will, is worth a great deal, even though the attempt should fail.” But this is not 1929, and failure is no longer an option. Our “divine mission,” in Buber’s phrase, is to persist in a Jewish quest for justice and equality for all who dwell in this land.

Stuart Schoffman is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a member of its Engaging Israel project.