The American student had a question that boiled down to this: Would Twitter and Facebook change the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians and make a one-state solution possible?
I’d just finished my lecture to a group of overseas students in Jerusalem on the need for a two-state agreement. The student who asked about social media was earnest, polite, and curious. His was a real question, not a rhetorical one.
For me, it was also an indication of how the one-state concept continues to seep into the American intellectual milieu. It seems only logical to some American academics, students, and politically engaged writers that Jews and Palestinians should get over their particularism and live in a single shared state. In part, this is because of misperceptions of the conflict—misperceptions to which Americans are particularly prone.
One is techno-utopianism. That’s the faith that new technology will build a better world—not just in the practical sense, but also in the political and moral sense. This is not a uniquely American faith. It was born of the industrial and scientific revolutions. But a utopian streak in American culture, along with pride in inventor-heroes of the 19th century, made this way of thinking resonate strongly in the United States. Techno-faith was shaken by the atomic bomb and other 20th-century horrors, but the Internet brought a great revival: All the world’s information will be accessible to everyone, says the 21st-century version. Facebook will unite the oppressed. The geeks will erase borders and inherit the earth.
So in that new cosmopolitan universe, won’t national identities fade and demands for separate Palestinian and Jewish nation-states become obsolete?
Actually, no. Technological advances, particularly in communications and transportation, do reshape politics. They don’t homogenize humanity. In his classic work on nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson writes that the invention of the printing press and later of the newspaper pushed people to standardize languages and to think of themselves as belonging to nationalities—and to fight for their nations’ independence. Long before the Internet, the telegraph and railroads made it possible to publish the Lincoln-Douglas debates in close to real time across the antebellum United States. Those inventions did not resolve the slavery debate.
Today the Internet lets information move more quickly, but the data still flow in a multitude of languages. Social media enable movements to organize more easily—including movements demanding national self-determination. Next year Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. The “Yes Scotland” campaign is thriving on Facebook. In Catalonia, supporters of secession from Spain used Facebook to bring out 1.5 million demonstrators in September. The printing press may be the mother of nationalism; the Internet is not its undertaker.
A related misconception is that global business makes people into citizens of the world—to the extent that their more local loyalties wither. So globalization should make national conflicts fade away. Again, this isn’t an exclusively American conceit, but it’s easier to believe that businessmen will bring world peace in a society that already assigns too much prestige to business. Political scientist Ian Lustick slipped into this attitude in his controversial New York Times op-ed announcing the demise of the two-state vision. Among potential builders of a single state, Lustick listed “global-village Israeli entrepreneurs,” who could be expected to move beyond Zionism.
Sorry. Israel’s entrepreneurs, who are mostly in high tech, are global in the sense that they want their stunning startups to be bought out by world-class companies. I’ve yet to hear of a wave of post-Zionist sentiment among them. Lots of the tech wunderkinder honed their skills during their service in army units whose products will never be cleared for publication. As for Palestinian businesspeople, their dearest dream is to build Palestine.
The most serious mistake, though, is to try to squeeze the conflict between Jews and Palestinians into American political categories. The major concerns for ethnic groups in the United States today are that their identity be recognized as part of the larger American mosaic and that their members have full civil equality as individuals. Ethnic nationalism—the demand by a group with a shared culture and history for political autonomy or independence—is a freak phenomenon in America, while the struggle for individual civil rights is an ongoing theme of politics.
But looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these terms leaves out the core dispute: two national groups demanding self-determination in the same land. It’s true that Palestinians are denied a host of civil rights in the occupied territories and face inequality within Israel. It’s true that this is unjust and undemocratic and has to end. But if Israel annexed the occupied territories and gave all Palestinians the vote, the conflict wouldn’t be over. Finding a neutral name for the country, changing the flag and anthem, would just paper over the problem: Palestinians want to realize their right as a nation to political independence. Jews, as a national group, don’t want to give up that right.
Twitter is merely another tool for communicating this dispute. Globalization won’t end it. The only way to resolve it is dividing the land into two independent states. Any further questions?
This article originally appeared in Moment magazine’s November/December issue. Moment magazine is an independent bimonthly of politics, culture, and religion, co-founded by Nobel Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. For more go to momentmag.com.