In Catalonia, a Warning on One-State Solutions

AP Images/Paco Serinelli

From the balconies above the narrow stone-paved streets of Girona hung gold-and-red striped flags. A blue triangle and white star adorned most of them, transforming the banner of the autonomous region of Catalonia into the standard of Catalonian independence. Here and there a legend emblazoned a flag: Catalunya, Nou Estat D'Europa—"Catalonia, A New State in Europe."

I'd taken the train north from Barcelona to see Salvador Dali's personal museum in Figueres and then explore Girona's medieval old city. I was on vacation from the Middle East. But a political writer's time off can so easily become a busman's holiday. I looked at the flags and thought of the arguments about how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, about political scientist Ian Lustick's very recent New York Times essay despairing of a two-state outcome, and about the furies that the late Tony Judt released almost precisely 10 years ago when he came out for a one-state solution. Nationalism was passé, the great historian of modern Europe wrote; nation-states had been replaced by "pluralist states which have long since become multiethnic and multicultural… as any visitor to London or Paris or Geneva will know."

In Catalonia, as any visitor to Girona or Barcelona will know, nationalism is alive and very 21st-century. In mid-September over a million and a half people—a fifth the region's population—formed a chain the length of Catalonia to demand independence from Spain. Since the end of the Franco era, Catalonia has been on a long march toward ever greater autonomy from the central government in Madrid. The Franco regime repressed the Catalan language. Today the regional government works in Catalan, schools teach in it, and a language law requires businesses to use it. That menu, fair visitor, is in Catalan, not Spanish. The restaurateur does not get to choose.

Media reports on demands for independence often stress finances: Better-off Catalonia is tired of paying more to Madrid than it gets back. Regional President Artur Mas includes that problem in his case for secession. But let's not fall into lazy economic determinism. If giving more to a federal government than you receive in return was reason enough to demand self-determination, you'd see million-person rallies for independence in California and New York.  The economic argument resonates in Barcelona because so many Catalans feel that their shared language, culture and history give them a national identity separate from Spain, and want to express that identity in their own state. This is nationalism, and it's the platform of Catalan parties on both the left and the right.

North of the Pyrenees, there's further evidence that post-nationalist pluralism hasn't progressed quite as far as Judt claimed. On a Paris street, a young Muslim woman can choose to wear fashionably color-coordinated pastel pants, blouse, and hijab. But a 2004 law requires her to take off her headscarf to attend a public school, or to teach in one. This year's controversies include an unpopular court decision that permits a woman wearing a hijab to work in a private nursery school, and the question of whether a headscarfed mother can accompany her child's class trip. Calls to extend the legal ban on the hijab have come from politicians on the left as well as the right.

In France, the principle of a state based on shared national identity has worked in the opposite direction from Catalonia. The state came first, and has engaged in a two-century project to forge a common national culture, language, and historical memory. The Third Republic successfully imposed French as the national tongue, marginalizing other languages. Taking the long perspective, the headscarf ban is the newest stage in the old process.  Formally, the 2004 law that bans headscarves in public schools prohibits wearing other religious symbols as well, in the name of shared secularism. But the hijab was the target. France is arguing about whether a woman who is publicly Muslim is a true Frenchwoman, or merely a citizen.

It's ironic that Malala Yousefzai, the heroic 16-year-old Pakistani advocate of education for girls, would have to remove her hijab to attend a public school in France, and that Egyptian human-rights activist Dalia Ziada would have to do the same to teach a class. But my point is not to defend language laws or condemn veil laws, or to take a stand on Catalonian secession, or for that matter whether Scotland should choose independence in next year's referendum. I am merely reporting: Working out how a nation-state should function is still a basic issue in Europe. Nationalism isn't over in the democratic world. Jews are not atavistic in wanting their national self-determination, nor are Palestinians. Judt knew this. His call for a one-state solution expressed his personal, painful disappointment with the particular way that the Jewish nation-state had turned out. (I share the disappointment and have other ideas about the solution, but that's a separate story.)

Advocates of the one-state answer today are an odd mix. They include Israeli rightists so opposed to giving up land that they'd rather annex the West Bank and give citizenship to its Palestinian residents—but who expect Israel to remain "the state of the Jewish people, with a large Arab minority." As individuals, Palestinians would have full rights; as a nation, none. Some Palestinian one-staters have a vision that, at best, is a mirror image of this: The state of Palestine, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, would have Jewish citizens—defined as a religious rather than national minority, because Palestinian nationalism has always had a hard time with the idea that Jews constitute a nationality. Among American proponents of a single state, quite a few speak only of how it will provide individual civil rights to all. That position reflects a natural but deceptive inclination to fit foreign events into American analogies. Civil rights battles are basic to American history; the ideologies of national rights are largely a foreign language.

The one-staters with whom it's easiest to sympathize are those who have lost all hope for negotiating the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Their most common claim is that Israeli settlements are too large to evacuate, and a Palestinian state is impossible if they stay put. Though Lustick speaks of "one mixed state" only as a possibility, not a program, he is an effective spokesman for despondency. The Israel and Palestinian visions of a two-state agreement are too far apart, he writes. The current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are "negotiations to nowhere." They provide cover for Israel to build settlements and for the Palestinian Authority to survive on aid from abroad, he says.

Lustick is right that, so far, the talks appear to be producing nothing—except for talk in closed rooms. But his alternative to diplomacy—"outcomes [that] develop organically"’—is a very soft euphemism for outcomes that come about violently. Independent Ireland didn't just "emerge," as Lustick writes; it was born in bloodshed. His description of potential partners in creating a single state is a lovely fantasy. But contrary to what he writes, "Tel Aviv's… non-Jewish Russian-speaking immigrants" are not post-Zionists. "Global village Israeli entrepreneurs" are just as Zionist as the other Israelis who served with them in elite army units. On the other side, Palestinians committed to democracy are no less committed to their national identity and the hope for independence.

The challenge to one-staters is to explain how two national groups, Jews and Palestinians, will peacefully put together a single state, live together in that state, and prevent it from ripping apart. Expecting that their nationalism will disappear is even less realistic than expecting the gold, red and blue flag to vanish from Catalonia.

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