The case for the One Democratic State Initiative as a counter-hegemonic endeavor

Alain Alameddine

Mondoweiss  /  June 11, 2023

Proponents of the One Democratic State Initiative call on armed factions, BDS groups, and activists to keep doing what they’re doing, but as part of a liberation movement that aims at imposing a transition from Zionism to democracy.

The occupation and settler colonization of Palestine is, fundamentally, a political project for a state based on identitarian claims. Indeed, the mere presence or residency of non-Palestinians in Palestine, under the rule of an inclusive Palestinian state, would have been immigration, not colonialism. It is the Zionist endeavor for the establishment in Palestine of a state exclusive to some — and therefore exclusive of others, the natives — that makes it settler-colonialism. It follows that the liberation and decolonization of Palestine is itself a political project that forms the antithesis of settler-colonialism, namely, the transition from the exclusive, Jewish, Zionist state (of Israel) to an inclusive, secular, democratic state (of Palestine).

This thus raises the question: What makes régimes or states stand? And how are transitions of power imposed? In other words — What is the roadmap to the liberation of Palestine?

Cultural hegemony, the main pillar of the state

A state gains and maintains its population’s overall consent — active or passive, enthusiastic or resigned — to its authority by a combination of persuasion and coercion. To do so, states resort to different means, such as the appeal to a grandiose national past (restoring the glory of the Ottoman empire), religion (the divine right of kings), promises of wealth and prosperity (the American dream), or violent repression (examples abound!), among others. However, a state’s main pillar, which is common to all these means, is cultural hegemony — a domination it achieves by the generally subtle imposition of beliefs, perceptions, values, cognitive patterns, reasonings, methodologies, narratives, or other axioms upon a population. This creates “cognitive comfort zones” that become hard to escape — hence the hegemony.

To give a few examples: If people have needs, why wouldn’t each receive “according to their need”? Yet if the economy exists, and freedom is a good thing, why wouldn’t we want a “free economy”? If democracy is the power of the people, and we are the people, and we are a democracy, why would we want anything else? Yet if God knows best, and we are a theocracy, how could any other -cracy be more legitimate? And if Jews are a people, and they have no land, and Palestine is a land, and it has no people, wouldn’t it be unfair for Jews not to live in Palestine? As we can see, effectively countering set narratives — particularly deceptive narratives induced to coerce hegemony for the erasure of other-ized people — is an uphill fight. Indeed, those who control the narrative have already won half the battle.

This is why disgruntled societies almost inevitably strive to make changes to the system such as changing ruling political parties or making limited demands rather than changing the system itself. Calls for change thus end up playing within the imposed cultural boundaries, unwittingly reinforcing the legitimacy of the very system responsible for their sorrows.

Sadly, this is the case with most of the Palestinian leadership’s current approaches. The two-state proposal or calls for the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the territories occupied in 1967 recognize the legitimacy of the Zionist state, effectively reducing the Palestinian cause to bargaining over a number of square kilometers. Discourses referring to Palestine as “Islamic land” or calling for Islamic states also legitimize the concept of a Jewish state — and for that matter of any other conceivable ethno-religious state in the region, such as Maronite or Druze, effectively wreaking havoc by fragmenting societies everywhere. Otherwise, why would Muslims be the only ones to have a state of their own? Political endeavors centered on Israel’s crimes and apartheid policies also fall short of challenging its legitimacy as a settler-colonial enterprise that is not merely segregating against some within its society but actively supplanting and eliminating the Palestinian native society. All of these approaches, however noble in intent, thus fall under Zionist cultural hegemony and play within its boundaries, as they fail to challenge the legitimacy of the structure exerting authority between the river and the sea: A Jewish, Zionist, Israeli state, or a secular, democratic Palestinian state?

How states are overturned

It is only when people break free from a state’s cultural hegemony that they can move, not to make changes to it, but to change it — to challenge the very legitimacy of its existence. The first step toward a régime change is thus a counter-hegemonic movement that seeks to challenge the dominating narratives. To illustrate, it is only after the Europeans managed to ask themselves “why would the lord own my land and take my labor?” that they were able to maneuver against feudalism toward democracy; after they wondered if God had really appointed the king that they were able to maneuver against religious monarchies toward secular republics. It is no wonder, then, that the seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century counter-hegemonic intellectual movement known as Les Lumières (literally, “The Lights,” but commonly translated as the Age of Enlightenment) led to the wave of European revolutions that successfully rattled and overcame the authority of the Church and its Kings.

Back to Palestine — the time is ripe for such a change, at least on the Palestinian side (things are more complicated on the Israeli side, although we are heading there). Indeed, times of crises rattle existing hegemonies and are thus critical junctions that provide historic opportunities. In much the same way that famine and oppression enabled French farmers to question the legitimacy of the powers that were, the evident death of the two-state proposal, Israel’s sharp veer to the right, and the obvious failure of the Palestinian leadership (through rampant corruption, subjection to foreign powers, and failure at establishing the promised Palestinian state), have all severely weakened the hegemony of these political visions and institutions. What Palestinians now need is their own Lumières — a “light” toward an alternative political project that forms the cultural antithesis to Zionism.

The One Democratic State Initiative as counter-hegemonic

Launched earlier this year by Palestinians, and supported by Jewish, Arab, and other allies, the ODS Initiative aims at challenging Zionist cultural hegemony by posing the pivotal question: Democracy or Zionism? This question has become the focal point of the Palestinian liberation discourse.

By means of virtual efforts that have reached millions, on-the-ground grassroots organizing in Palestine and in the diaspora, and the tireless efforts of its political networking team at contacting pro-Palestinian activists and groups, the ODS Initiative calls on Palestinians and their allies not to stop what they’re doing and start talking about ODS instead, but rather to keep doing what they’re doing and counter Zionist cultural hegemony by making ODS an explicit part of their discourse. In practical terms, this means that we call on armed factions resisting, BDS groups boycotting and lobbying, or activists raising awareness, to keep doing so, not simply as a reaction to Israeli crimes, but as a liberation movement that aims at imposing a transition from a state exclusive to some, to a state inclusive of all those willing — a transition from Zionism to democracy — and to be explicit about it.

In answer to the question “Yes, free Palestine — But how?” By focusing on the native Palestinian society’s right to an inclusive democratic state on their own land, to which they can return and of which they can be sovereign citizens, thus challenging the legitimacy of Zionism’s identitarian settler-colonial claim and project. Pushing this narrative forward, for all —Palestinians, Israelis, and others— to take a stand either with or against One Democratic State, is the first step on the roadmap to liberation.

Alain Alameddine is a supporter of the One Democratic State Initiative