by Ariel Hirschfeld
Yosef Haim Brenner (1881-1921), who was among the greatest figures in the new Hebrew literature, came to Palestine in 1909 and died there in the disturbances of 1921. More than any other writer or thinker of his generation, Brenner's work integrated literature, philosophy, publicism and criticism. His articles were the "pillar of fire" of the political and cultural thinking of the small Jewish community in the days of the second Aliya (wave of immigration, 1904-1914). Ever since his death, Brenner was to become one of the most influential figures in shaping the ideology of the workers' movement in Palestine, winning an almost religious admiration among the members of the Jewish youth movements in the 1940's and 1950's as well as among most of the Hebrew thinkers and writers who came after him.
His essay "Peace Be unto You, My Friend" is no more than a passing reflection following an actual incident in which he, Brenner, was involved, in the citrus groves of Abu Kabir in the winter of 1921. However, in these modest reflections we find the articulation of a central theme of special importance on the relations between Jews and Arabs in the country. One of the things which is most touching in this article is Brenner's readiness to open symbolical contacts with the Arabs at a bad moment, one which was unusually tough and unpleasant; his readiness to abjure all sentimentality - all this so as at the outset to lay bare his real anger and despair, without any apologetics. Along with this, one cannot read the words without their being linked in our minds with a harsh and essential item of knowledge: this essay, the last which Brenner published in his lifetime, was written a month or two before his death, near the same place where the incident described in the essay occurred, and published a few days before the writer's death. Brenner was murdered by Arabs on May 2, 1921 in the disturbances which broke out a few days earlier at the house of the Yitzkars, a place outside the town of Jaffa near a citrus grove in an Arab neighborhood (close to the "Mikveh Yisrael" school). He was murdered along with Yehuda Yitzkar, the father of the family, his son Avraham, his son-in-law Zvi Shatz, and two young writers who lived with Brenner, Luedor and Gugik. However, it is worth trying to isolate the essay from the above information so as to read it as a statement in its own right, only examining later what the information adds for the reader.
From a Notebook by Yosef Haim Brenner
With darkness, I wandered in the dusty paths of the citrus groves at the end of the town. All of them belong to those born in the country, to the Arabs. They are theirs.
I was about to pass by a landlord, a small Effendi who was sitting at the entrance to his courtyard in the company of two elderly neighbors and in the middle, a young man of about twenty, adorned in his kaffia. I greeted them. They did not reply. After passing them, I looked back and saw that their lack of response was deliberate and malicious. The youth straightened up, looking ahead as if with a shade of victory: we abstained from greeting the Jew.
"That's the right way."
I pondered bitterly: if there is truth in the assumption that the people dwelling in the country are from our race, and the Palestinian Fellahin are even of the blood of the remnant of Israel — I want no part of them! I have no other way, I must pass by them whether they want it or not, but it is better to meet with Velikorus in Tambov — certainly with a Lithuanian in the vicinity of Kovna — than with these Poles of the East. "Do not ever seek their peace and wellbeing."
Several steps further, on the next path, an Arab jumped out after me from one of the groves. He was dressed in European-style rags Tuzurka and had an old hoe on his shoulder. "Hawaja!" he cried as he caught up with me. And I saw that this was not an adult Arab, as I had for some reason thought at first, but a working youth, thirteen or fourteen years old. He asked me something in a clear voice, rather shrill but properly spoken and accentuated. Unfortunately, I couldn't answer him since I do not know the Arabic language. For my part, I asked him in one word: from Selima (that is, are you from the nearby village of Selima?). He answered: "no, minhan, from here, from the Boyiara", and he went on talking and telling me things. Then I asked him, hinting with my finger: Effendi? (that is, this Boyiara whence you come and where you, in your words, work — does it belong to that effendi who is sitting at the entrance to his courtyard?). He said yes and said that he, the youth, has no father or mother for they died during the war years and he is an orphan ... I understood this from the odd word and even more, from his movements and gestures. And he for his part understood my question: kadeish? (that is how much does he get a day?). And he answered proudly: "tamani grash", that is, eight grush. "No good," I said and he was surprised for a moment and found it hard to believe. Why "no good": far too little or far too much? I explain to him at length and forcefully that some get fifteen or even twenty grush per day ... Adult workers ... he has small sisters ... one must provide food and a livelihood ... and he gets eight... everything comes from Allah. At that time I blamed myself for not having learned Arabic. If only ... a working orphan! A young brother! Whatever the correctness or incorrectness of learned assumptions, whether you are close to me or not in terms of blood, I have a responsibility for you. I must open your eyes, give you a taste of human relations! ... No, not carrying out a quick revolution in the Middle East by order of a certain committee through emissaries of certain socialist politics — no, no politics! This is perhaps precisely what our task is not, and perhaps it will turn out that we will be involved in it in spite of ourselves, out of despair and lack of alternative. No, not this ... rather, soul to soul contact ... from this very day and for generations ... for very many days ... and without a purpose ... without any intention ... except that of a brother, a friend and a companion ...
"My peace unto you, sir" the youth said, soon leaving me when he apparently saw that I was occupied. But his parting greeting was nevertheless replete with satisfaction in that he had unwittingly succeeded in getting into a conversation with an adult, in talking properly like any older person.
"My peace unto you, my friend" my lips whispered and my heart warmed to him and to myself. I continued my wandering in the darkness of the evening.
Brenner opens his essay with a mention of his awareness that the Arabs are the ones born in the country and he is living in an area which belongs to them. His intention is clearly not that the whole land is theirs but that these groves are their property. But with a rhetoric typical of him, he repeats the matter of ownership three times: "of those born in the country, of the Arabs, theirs". Each time he draws attention to a different side of the subject: first he stresses the birth relationship of the Arabs to this area as against the strangeness of someone who recently came from eastern Europe. Second, he stresses the ethnic name (Arab) in its direct form, desisting from any poetic circumvention of the ancient name (in the form of "sons of Ishmael" etc.). And third, he emphasizes the third person, the hidden "they", the absolute "otherness" of the Eretz Yisraeli Jew.
The first episode, the meeting with the "little" Effendi (a real Effendi would not have sat at the entrance to his courtyard) brings Brenner round to a sharp and venomous formulation of the cultural position better known to the Jews: Exile (Galut). Brenner prefers to meet a Gentile in the Diaspora to the Arabs sitting opposite him. He takes care to define which Gentile, precisely so as to be exact and not to find himself under the canopy of the stereotype. A Lithuanian from the Kovno area or a son of greater Russia (Velikorus) is preferable here to "one of these Poles of the East". Brenner takes this to the extreme by completely rejecting any historical or mythical brotherhood (that "the people dwelling in the country are from our race" etc.). He examines the relations by means of the most practical test: can a real contact, momentary and passing, be created through a peace greeting? Brenner doesn't hesitate to touch upon the unsympathetic image of the Arabs he sees before him and he doesn't spare giving them the title he knew so well as a native of Russia: "The Poles of the East": not a "noble savage" nor do we have here a man seemingly joined to the earth as against some sort of Jewish detachedness. There is not even a vestige of romantic Oriental majesty of any kind.
What we have here is a meeting full of despair with a crude cultural presence, unimpressive from any other point of view - and above all, with a familiar and age-old experience. In his reading, it holds out a shattered hope, one according to which life in Palestine in the company of the Arabs was to have been a new and vital cultural experience precisely as regards the Jewish culture. Brenner, like those of the first and second Aliyot (waves of Jewish immigration, 1881-1919) did not forget the existence of the Arabs in Palestine and did not see before him an empty land, like the romanticists of the third and fourth Aliyot (1919-1928). But this article was written after living over ten years in the country, after the hardships of the first world war, soon after the British conquest, and following much observing of the nature of the Hebrew and Arab cultures in the country - and Brenner never allowed any romantic longing to cloud over what his eyes beheld on both sides of this ethnic barricade.
The first episode in the article is nothing but a vantage point for the second episode - the meeting with the Arab youth, which presents most powerfully the gap in speech and language between the two speakers, and the ancient rootedness of that on which the bridge between them grows: eight grushes.
Brenner's lack of knowledge of Arabic does not look to him like a lack of scientific knowledge or like a misunderstanding. On the contrary, understanding is not lacking, but no action is taken. The lack of knowledge is in his eyes a moral problem. Brenner transforms the language disparity into a gap on a different level: the lack of knowledge of Arabic looks to him like a failure and a betrayal of the ability to help "a working orphan", a "young brother"; "if only" ... (and here comes the transition) ... a working orphan. But he does not perceive the help as a mutual matter.
Brenner is no different from his contemporaries and has not been delivered from the concept that the West is superior to and rules the East. Along with this, he does not identify the superiority of Western civilization with spiritual or moral superiority, or one of any sort of values, and here his great spiritual responsibility is recognizable. Brenner here lays bare a situation of clear superiority from his side over the Arab, which is at once transformed into a sense of responsibility: "Whether you are close to me or not in terms of blood, I have a responsibility for you. I must give you a taste of human relations… (My emphasis - YH). This superiority is not explained here as that of the West over the East or as some sort of political superiority, and above all — it is not the superiority of any prevalent ideology (like Socialism).
Brenner ventures a prophecy and claims that even if cultural, political domination is not among the task of the Jews in the East, perhaps they will get involved in it "out of despair and for lack of an alternative". This is an area in which Jewishness is no longer a Diaspora experience and nevertheless it is not superiority by force; this is an area where Judaism is no longer mythological pride along the lines of the "Chosen People" and yet it determines a certain identity and ethos. That very uncertain place in this essay is the place which builds this "responsibility" which is destined in his eyes in the future to be "a soul to soul contact... without a purpose ... except the intention to be a brother, a friend and a companion ..."
The end of the essay reveals a complete consciousness concerning the closing of this dialogue with one announcement: "May peace be unto you, my friend, my lips whispered and my heart warmed to him and to myself' (my emphasis ¬- YH). Thus the article ends parallel to its beginning but opposite to it: just as the citrus groves are all "theirs", the thought is all "in my heart". The last words bring the talk back to the opening sentence - walking along the paths. But these last words add a new double significance: "I continued my wandering in the darkness of the evening". If you read evening, (Hebrew Erev) read only darkness. If you read Arab, (Hebrew Arav) read something different: the speaker is erring along paths of a foreign consciousness, one he does not understand, which does not belong to him, and yet he continues.
Brenner's tragic death at the hands of his Arab neighbors seems to constitute an ironic end, ridiculing any spiritual attempt at dialogue and certainly a refined dialogue like this one. The riots which broke out a month or two after Brenner's reflections mark forces and circumstances so strong and sweeping that Brenner's words seem not only petty and weak but also incorrect: words which bear no relationship to the forces taking part in determining the cultural and existential fate of the two peoples meeting in one place in these historical circumstances. As such, there is no point in stating these ideas and certainly there is no point in coming back and reading them seventy-three years later. However, for someone reading them through this veil of tragic irony, the opposite is revealed: Brenner does not portray a nearby reality or a reality whose possibility of consummation is imminent. He portrays something which he well understands is rare and distant. The prophecy in his words, revealing that the actions of the Jews are destined to be the absolute opposite of his intentions, show a deep and bitter understanding concerning the real forces at work around him.
It is particularly interesting to examine today the governmental and cultural activity of the Jews here through the prism of the Brennerist explanation of the role imposed in spite of itself on Jewish nationalism. This comes from despair and lack of alternative since his words pertain to a perspective far wider than that entailed in the present political dialogue. And the main point is that in Brenner's words there is sharp and bitter perception which enables neither of the parties to find even a small comer where they can feel satisfaction and repose.