In Praise of the Dash in “Israel-Palestine.”

Photo: Me making silly faces as I do simultaneous translation to Hebrew and Arabic for the author Jacqueline Woodson, who read one of her amazing books to a bilingual preschool class at the Jerusalem Hand in Hand school this past summer. Photo by Oren Ziv. 

How do we refer to this place? Palestine and Israel? Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories? Israel/Palestine? Just Israel? Just Palestine? 

 I recently wrote a letter to a friend on the subject, and I decided this afternoon to pull out parts of it, and transform into a short blog post, unbound by current events or political goings-on, unrelated to Netanyahu’s Ethnic Cleansing video or the legacy of Shimon Peres, but, I hope, relevant and worthwhile for some, nonetheless. 


A few years ago, I settled on writing and saying “Israel-Palestine” or “Palestine-Israel.” At first, it was because it seemed the easiest. As I’ve thought about it more and more, I also feel, deeply, that it’s also the best. Here’s why.

Palestine-Israel, for me, is in a sense similar what Kayla, my wife, and I did to our last names (Rothman-Zecher). Sure, hyphenation is clunky, and hyper-syllabic and not-entirely-satisfying and confuses people over the phone, but it is also the closest to my values and to my aspirations.

(And, yes, in both cases, I realize its imperfection: I am a member of two oppressive entities, Men and Israel, and I am asking the entity whom my entity has oppressed (Women, Palestine) to go 50-50 with me, rather than changing my last name to just Zecher, rather than changing the way I refer to my home to just Palestine).

Still, complexities and last-name parallels aside, Palestine-Israel is, I think, descriptive, in a way that other terms are not. It allows for acknowledgement of both entities and identities here, and of the fact that the ‘borders’ have not been determined, and it is impossible to point to, concretely, where one begins and the other ends. Is the Western Wall part of Israel? Can Jaffa and Haifa justly be severed from Palestine? 

But it is more than that: For me, “Israel-Palestine” is aspirational.

Patriot of a Country That Doesn’t Yet Exist

I had the privilege of meeting Vincent Harding before he passed away, and during our conversation over dinner, he shared with me the idea of “being a patriot of a country that hasn’t yet been founded.” In my mind, and in my interpretation, this idea can mean so many things: It can mean being patriotic about an America that has neither existed in the past  –I just read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and I keep thinking about the section in which the conductor tells the main character, Cora, to look out the window of the train to see America’s true face, and she does, and all she sees is darkness and darkness and more darkness — and still doesn’t exist today, but maybe, just maybe, has a tiny sliver of existing in the future. 

Or it can mean, in this context, being a patriot of an entity that is proudly called Israel-Palestine or Palestine-Israel; an entity that recognizes that both of our people’s connections to this place need not be exclusive.

That the best parts of this place are the parts that are inclusive and creative and strange and multifaceted and unbalanced. This, for me, is what differentiates between the “dash” and the “backslash” (“Israel/Palestine” or “Palestine/Israel”). That one makes me feel like its an either-or. Which, to be fair, for many here it is: while there are many Palestinians I know who include Israeli Jews in their vision for a future Palestine, there are also many for whom “Palestine” has no place for Israelis, and of course, vice versa, many for whom Israel has no place for Palestinians. What and how Israelis would be allowed to exist in a future Palestine is, of course, a purely hypothetical question; how Palestinians –citizens of the State, let alone those held under military dictatorship — are treated in the current Israel is a daily reality. As of today, September 14th, 2016, I’d say that Israel has done rather abysmally.

(And it is from this point that “Israel and Palestine,” as some say, also doesn’t do it for me, because it makes it sound like there are two independent entities, which there aren’t — there is one controlling, dominating State (Israel) controlling two populations, while making a mockery of concepts of equality and justice and fairness and decency). 

So I’m a patriot of Israel-Palestine. I’m a patriot of a country that does not yet exist. It doesn’t seem like this country is minutes or days or years, even, from being founded, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be.

And that doesn’t mean that shards of it don’t already exist. They do. They are imperfect, flawed, problematic, like parts of the bilingual schools. Like some of the joint Palestinian-Israeli activism against the occupation and its apartheid-like policies. Like 

In Israel-Palestine, Arabic and Hebrew are spoken and cherished. In Palestine-Israel, Jerusalem is a Palestinian city and an Israeli city. So is Haifa. In Israel-Palestine, one people’s suffering need not be pitted against the other people’s: there need be no contest. It can all be contained within this entity.

Binationalism in Israel-Palestine

This, for me, is connected to the binationalism the Palestinian political theorist Bashir Bashir and Israeli historian Amos Goldberg advocate for, so beautifully, in their work, The Nakba and the Holocaust: Memory, National Identity and Jewish-Arab Partnership.

”…Various forms of governing polities such as federation, confederation, parallel state structure, condominium, binational state and/or expansively cooperative, overlapping and interlinked two-state solution can realise and respect the egalitarian individual and collective national rights of Arabs and Jews in Palestine/Israel.”

It’s not saying that there needs to be a one-state solution, per se; what it is saying is that the many of the Two State Solution[-ish] plans put forward by so-called Liberals, based on the values of separation or segregation or demographic threats, must be see as what they are: despicable and destructive.

Whatever the borders become —one state, two state, three, ninety-nine— this place must be binational. Our two peoples are bound to each other. Some see this as a burden, a shame, a tragedy. Many do. I don’t. I see it is a sliver of hope: If we can build binationalism in this place — even, for now, on small scales, in campaigns to prevent the demolitions of peoples homes, simply because they were born of the “wrong” group, in the eyes of the regime; in classrooms in which the Nakba and the Holocaust are both discussed with empathy and nuance and expansiveness and pain and compassion — then maybe the world is not only a gray, despair-filled place, a place of violence and horror and bigotry. Maybe we are not sentenced to repeat evil after evil.

Maybe we can grow something beautiful in this tortured soil.