Noah Feldman
Bloomberg (Opinion)
March 7, 2013 - 1:00am

If Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing, it’s that more settlements in the West Bank will eventually make a two-state solution impossible. Rabbi Menachem Froman, who died on March 4 at age 68, thought differently.

Froman was a proud and early settler, a founder of the hard-line Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”), theologically committed to permanent Jewish settlement in what he considered historical Judea and Samaria. But Froman also fully accepted the idea of a Palestinian state there -- in which he and his fellow settlers would continue to live as minority citizens.

Crazy, you say -- as did just about everyone else in Israel, to say nothing of other settlers. Froman played up the appearance of madness by appearing in Palestinian villages in his prayer shawl, tefillin (phylacteries) and long white beard and blessing the people in Arabic and Hebrew. His acting and speaking like a biblical figure further underscored the impression that he was some sort of unrealistic prophet, whether utopian or dystopian resting in the eye of the beholder.

But why, really, is it impossible to imagine that religiously committed Jews might live under Palestinian sovereignty as citizens in the way that some Palestinian Arabs live under Jewish sovereignty in Israel proper? Looking at the standard reasons carefully, instead of just assuming their truth, can provide us with a much-needed thought experiment about the viability of the two-state solution, which looks increasingly tenuous to its supporters and critics alike.

Safety Guarantee

The first reason that it’s hard to imagine several hundred thousand Jews living under Palestinian authority is their security. What sort of safety guarantee could be provided by a Palestinian state, whether secular and led by figures such as those at the head of the current Palestinian Authority or Islamist and dominated by Hamas?

Watch: Video of Rabbi Menachem Froman visiting a vandalized mosque in Qusra on the West Bank.

Such a guarantee could never be absolute -- but the state of Israel sitting next door, with its vastly superior firepower, would provide as much of a guarantee as minorities ever get in emerging states where democratic institutions are gradually consolidating. Any settlers who wanted to remain would have to assume the risk that a Palestinian state would enable them to live safely.

Then there’s the question of whether Jews in a Palestinian state would be treated equally. The reciprocal example of the Palestinian minority population in Israel might provide the beginnings of a guide. Formal legal equality would not be hard to provide -- in Froman’s occasional discussions with Yasser Arafat and figures in Hamas, the Palestinian side expressed willingness to confer equal citizenship. When it comes to actual, de facto equality, one is inclined to be skeptical --but such real-world equality has also not been accomplished by Israel with regard to its Palestinian Arab citizens.

An ethnic minority living in a nation-state that makes its own separate claim to morally legitimate ownership of the land will always be in a tricky position, demographically and practically. Jews in a Palestinian state would have to accept that -- but the barrier does not seem insurmountable. Most so- called economic settlers in the West Bank wouldn’t take the risk, but religiously committed believers could.

The faith of the hard-line settlers leads to the last major challenge to the existence of a minority Jewish enclave in a Palestinian state: Most of them believe with perfect faith that Jewish sovereignty between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea is divinely ordained, commanded -- and imminent. What made Froman unique was his willingness to accept the idea of Jews living under non-Jewish authority in land he fervently believed to be the part of the historic land of Israel.

Theological Complexity

The rabbi’s reasons were theologically complex, the subject of study by the Rutgers anthropologist Assaf Harel. Froman accepted the basic world view of modern religious Zionism, according to which the state of Israel began a historical process leading to a messianic era where peace would prevail and Jews would live in harmony in their land.

His simultaneous theological commitment to the equality of all humans led him to think that Palestinians had a right to their own land. This allowed him to reconcile the idea of Jewish sovereignty over the state of Israel with lack of sovereignty over Judea and Samaria -- provided Jews could still live there.

In this compromise, it’s possible to see both the benefits of a sovereign state of Israel and a willingness to consider that being in diaspora need not be inherently negative. The existence of Israel means in practice -- and, to Froman, in theory too -- that Jews don’t have to live under foreign subordination. But in a democratic state that’s not defined as a Jewish state, Jews can also live as full citizens. Froman imagined that Palestine could become such a place.

In essence, he was gambling that if Jews in a future Palestine could give up their claim to be the majority power, they could be accepted by Palestinians, in the same complicated way that most Israelis accept the equal citizenship of Arab Israelis.

The lesson for the rest of us, who lack Froman’s religious imagination, is not that the practical challenges of a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state can easily be overcome. It is that the only route to a two-state solution comes through rejecting the absolutist idea that either side must have absolute sovereignty -- and imagining new and creative possibilities for coexistence.

To accept the settlements as a fait accompli that will prevent peace plays into the hands of those who would like to stop it from happening. At its best -- which is also often its strangest -- religious thought allows us to reimagine the world through new and different ethical lenses. That has great value even for those of us who have trouble seeing God at work in today’s politics.


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