In his remarkable Jerusalem Post op-ed of March 30, 2016, Prof. Elie Podeh calls on US President Barak Obama to deliver a valedictory address sometime in early January 2017 in which the departing president should “define the precise boundaries of [the Jewish] state as part of Israel’s centennial celebration of the Balfour Declaration.”
Wow! With one rhetorical sweep of the hand, Podeh wants to overturn an entire century of Zionist obscurantism about the importance of territorial boundary lines for maintaining Israel’s identity as the sovereign nation-state of the Jewish people. And he is confident that Obama, America’s first African-American president, can be recruited to his cause.
We applaud the professor for his political chutzpa. We stand ready to dedicate our political resources – meager though they may be – to his cause. And here is why.
Once upon a time, America was a country in which southern jurisdictions were steeped in racist Jim Crow segregation.
But toward the middle of the previous century, America’s formal, de jure racist tradition was defeated by America’s Civil Rights Movement when that movement galvanized to its cause the Federal authority which the American Constitution recognized as superceding state law in regard to fundamental rights. This Enlightenment concept of American Federalism is characterized by the series of internal separations and distinctions which subdivide the American nation into distinct political and jurisdictional territorial domains, first and foremost into 50 sub-national states defined by territorial boundary lines that can only be altered by Constitutional amendment.
Nevertheless the primary source of its authority is located, quite literally, on America’s external boundary lines, the lines which separate America from its northern and southern neighbors.
Those boundary lines, not the ethnic demography of the population, maintain the identity of the American nation in that every individual residing legally within the territorial boundary lines of the sovereign state is a full and equal member of the American nation without regard to the color of his skin, her faith or the cadence of their mother tongue.
So it is indeed appropriate that Podeh would turn to an American president and not to Israeli history in search of authorization for the drawing of precise territorial boundaries for Israel. Israel, you see, has never had territorial boundary lines. Because Israel fought its War of Independence to a draw, its sovereign authority was circumscribed by frail and porous armistice lines which delimited nothing that could not be sustained by the raw power of the sovereign state’s military might. And while the military inspired social solidarity among its citizens, the state recognized that a militarized society was incompatible with a democratic polity.
Without territorial boundary lines, Israel was unable to define its nationhood in terms of its sovereign authority.
It fell back, instead, exactly on the content of the faith and the cadence of the mother tongue, if not the color of the skin, of its inhabitants.
And after 1948, Israel continued relying essentially on ethnic identification in its nation building. The state doubled down on the importance of Hebrew, as if its national identity hinged somehow upon the language spoken by its citizens while conducting the mundane affairs of their personal lives. The collective farmers of the kibbutz became national icons feeding the illusion that the sacralization of the earth could compensate for the state’s missing territorial boundary lines.
Flora and fauna would provide the Jewish nation what politics and diplomacy had failed to deliver. Most incongruously, the state imbedded its national institutions with the cultural and religious tribalism of pre-state Zionism. The electoral system of proportional representation which the state adopted prevented territorially- based local and regional affiliations from developing among Israeli citizens. Instead, politics in Israel were defined by the non-territorial categories of the pre-state era, the dizzying maze of pre-sovereign supra-national Zionist prefixes.
It was as if independence had not yet been achieved despite the fact that the War of Independence had already been fought. Deprived of the security of external boundary lines, the state sensed that it also lacked the authority to establish internal boundary lines.
After reaching its sovereign majority, Israeli nationhood became frozen in time. The Jewish state was unwilling to remain a Hebrew-speaking militarized ghetto lacking a democratic future. But without territorial boundary lines it could only survive by cannibalizing its Zionist origins. Something had to happen to end this intolerable situation.
In June of 1967 something did happen.
In just six days of warfare Israel erased the armistice lines created by its unfinished War of Independence and extended its sovereign power deep into the territories of its enemies. The authority of the Jewish state reached all the way to the edges of its substantial military might.
And that is how things have remained, more or less, for nearly 50 years. Why? Because, as illustrated by Podeh in his essay, the State of Israel, either unilaterally or multilaterally, has not been able to decide where to draw its permanent territorial boundary lines. Should the Jewish state incorporate all of the territory of Israel’s ancestral patrimony into its sovereignty, setting its territorial boundary lines at the borders of biblical Israel? By so doing, Israel would be following the American example of non-ethnically defined nationhood, relying instead on the authority of its boundary lines to preserve its Jewish identity. Or, should the Jewish state use its sovereign power to transform the Jewish nation into a nation like all other nations, or at least like all other Middle Eastern nations? For this purpose, Israel would delimit its sovereign authority with arbitrary boundary lines the way the rest of the states of the modern Middle East were compelled to do when the Sykes-Picot agreement was imposed upon the people of the region by the nations of Europe more than 100 years ago. This option, apparently the preference of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, sets the boundaries of the State of Israel at the 1949 armistice lines with “landswap adjustments” within the context of a multi-lateral agreement that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people.
One wonders how possible this scenario really is.
But each of these choices is perfectly legitimate. And each carries astounding and utterly divergent consequences for the future of the Jewish people. As such, we are not surprised that even after 50 years the Jewish state has yet to arrive at a final decision. However, as Podeh has made clear, Israel’s indecision must now come to an end.
The Sykes-Picot model is the two-state solution. Although Israeli sovereignty will no longer be circumscribed by armistice lines, its identity as the nationstate of the Jewish people will continue to depend upon a Jewish demographic majority for authorization.
But the American model leads to the one-state solution. By drawing its boundary lines to include Judea and Samaria, Israel will be forced to end the non-territorial maze of proportional representation, inaugurating a new era of distinct internal sub-national territorial jurisdictions which will make the Jewish state a truly modern nation-state with a multi-ethnic population.
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and is the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim which is located in the Rimon section of Efrat. John Bradford is a professional artist based in New York City where he established the Biblical Painters group. His work has been reviewed in many venues including The New York Times. Berkowitz and Bradford have been exploring the significance of territorial boundary lines in both the Jewish and western traditions for more than 35 years.