(First published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Sept. 19, 2011 )
The 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly has just begun. Unless a diplomatic miracle happens, that body will soon be asked to approve what amounts to a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. Palestinian spokesmen say they had no choice but to make their end run around serious negotiations with Israel—because what Israel is offering in such negotiations is just a fraction of the territory to which the Palestinians are entitled.
To appreciate the hubris in this justification, it helps to recall a historical fact: Virtually no nation founded in modern times has been born in possession of all the territory to which it could lay plausible claim. Settling for half a loaf—that is, statehood in a territory significantly smaller than the historic or desired homeland—is the price that most national liberation movements have paid for self-determination and international recognition.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, the pre-eminent military leader of 19th-century Italian unification, was born to an Italian family in Nice, where most inhabitants spoke the language of northern Italy. One of Garibaldi’s goals was to unify the Italian peninsula into a single state, including Nice. When a peace treaty was imposed giving the city to France in exchange for statehood, Count Cavour, the political leader of the nationalist movement, at one point tendered his resignation as prime minister.
When the treaty was ratified, there were riots in the streets of Nice, and thousands moved across the new border to Italy rather than be ruled by France. French possession of Nice was the price Italy paid for independence, recognition, and peace. Politics is the art of the possible.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was born in Salonika. It had been an Ottoman city for four centuries. During most of that time, Jews were the largest ethnic group in the population; for many years they were a majority. But the city also had a large and powerful community of Ottoman Muslims—including not only Ataturk, who was born there in 1881, but most of the leadership of the modernizing Young Turks. In 1912 the Greeks conquered the city and renamed it Thessalonica. After World War I, Greece suffered a military defeat by the Turks. But in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Thessalonica was ceded to Greece in return for recognition of the Republic of Turkey, with internationally settled borders.
This has been the pattern. Greece, for its part, achieved national independence in 1823. At that time it was a tiny statelet, with territory ending just north of Athens. Mount Olympus, the plain of Thessaly, Constantinople, Homer’s birthplace, and most of the world’s Greeks were beyond its borders. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles created a series of independent states for previously stateless peoples, including Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Czechs, and Slovaks. None of these states had the borders that their people’s leaders wanted. In 1947, Lord Mountbatten drew a line across the map of India. With his stroke, the Indus Valley, the cradle of Indian civilization and then home to millions of Hindus, was excluded from the new nation of India. A long and bloody ethnic cleansing by Pakistani Muslims has left the Indus Valley almost without Hindus. They moved across the line to India, which flourishes inside the arbitrary line that Mountbatten drew.
Just this summer, the primarily Christian and animist South Sudan assumed statehood with gratitude and hope, despite a border that excludes the heavily Christian province of Abyei. Meanwhile large, historic peoples, including Kurds, Tibetans, Baluch, Pashtun, Sri Lankan Tamils, and Uyghurs, can only dream of an opportunity for national self-determination. Most would accept sovereignty even over a piece of their historic homeland no larger than a postage stamp, as long as it was a place in which they could determine their own fate and cultivate their unique history and culture.
In 1937, the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky asked “merely for a small fraction” of the “vast piece of land” that included modern-day Israel. And in 1948, that is precisely what the United Nations offered the Jews, reserving the larger part of the land west of the Jordan for Arabs. Jews accepted the UN’s offer even though the heart of the biblical kingdoms, Judea, Samaria, and Jerusalem, lay outside its borders. Arab leaders rejected the offer, launching a war to destroy the Jewish state instead of seizing the opportunity to build an Arab Palestine.
Garibaldi and Ataturk achieved statehood at the cost of ceding the cities of their birth to rival nations. When the goal of a national movement is to build a state in which a treasured language, literature, and culture can flourish and be passed on to new generations, the leaders of the movement will pay such a price.
In contrast, if leaders of a national movement declare that they will not even negotiate until they have been promised every square inch of the land that they regard as their historic homeland, they are effectively announcing to the world that they are not prepared to assume a responsible place in the community of nations. If Palestinian leaders are serious about taking their place in this community, they will need to make the kind of concession that Ataturk and Garibaldi, Greece, Poland, India, and Israel made. They would do well to recognize that the borders sought by some members of the movement are only aspirational, that the nation on the other side of the border also has a right to statehood, and that it will be necessary, finally, to settle down to the business of building a government, an economy, and a peaceful future.
Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.