by Dan Leon
“There may be a people without a country but there is no country without a people.” This is how the situation in Palestine in 1925 looked in the eyes of the distinguished journalist Robert Weltsch, a founder of Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was established in that year to promote Jewish-Arab understanding in Palestine.
Brit Shalom, which functioned until 1933 stood, in its own words, for “a binational state in which the two peoples will enjoy equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time” (from their first publication Our Aspirations, 1927). It had a few hundred members, mostly European-born intellectuals. The general concept of binationalism was to be adopted by other minority Zionist streams, like Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam, Kedmah Mizracha, the Ichud and the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement.
In her book The Binational Idea in Palestine during Mandatory Times, Susan Lee Hattis views the binationalists as supporting “not the ideal but the reality, and if this reality is not grasped Zionism will fail. Brit Shalom were not defeatists who were willing to make any concession for the achievement of peace, they simply realized that the Arabs were justified in fearing a Zionism which spoke in terms of a Jewish majority and a Jewish state [this writer’s emphasis]. Their belief was that one need not be a maximalist, i.e., demand mass immigration and a state, to be a faithful Zionist. What was vital was a recognition that both nations (the Arab and the Jewish) were in Palestine as of right.” The binationalists were Zionists but with different priorities. Thus Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University, thought that, as long as immigration and settlement were possible, he was willing to yield the Jewish state and Jewish majority. He warned in the 1930s that a Jewish state would bring war with the Arabs.
Perhaps the most distinguished exponent of the binational concept was Professor Martin Buber (1878-1965) who came from Germany to live in Palestine in 1938 at the age of 60. Buber, known for his philosophy of dialogue, replied in 1939 to a letter by Mahatma Gandhi, who thought that “Palestine belongs to the Arabs” and the Jews “should make that country their home where they were born.” Buber describes the German concentration camps and their significance, but the main thrust of his letter concerned the situation in Palestine.
He wrote that Jews and Arabs must “develop the land together without one imposing his will on the other. We considered it a fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to each other, two claims of a different nature and a different origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between which no objective decision can be made as to which is just and which is unjust.
“We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to reconcile both claims... We have been and still are convinced that it must be possible to find some form or agreement between this claim and the other; for we love this land and believe in its future; and seeing that such love and faith are surely present also on the other side, a union in the common service of the land must be within the range of the possible” (Mendes-Flohr, 1994).
What Sort of Peace?
Buber had been a Zionist since 1898, but as far back as 1918 (soon after the Balfour Declaration) he rejected what he called the concept of “a Jewish state with cannons, flag and military decorations.” He and his colleagues worked not for dependence upon a colonial alliance, but on parity between Jews and Arabs whatever the numerical proportions.
A year after official Zionist policy achieved its aim of Jewish statehood in 1948, Buber expressed his fears that after the war “peace, when it comes, will not be peace, a real peace which is constructive, creative [but] a stunted peace, no more than non-belligerence, which at any moment, when any new constellation of forces arises, is liable to turn into war.
“And when this hollow peace is achieved, how then do you think you’ll be able to combat ‘the spirit of militarism’ when the leaders of the extreme nationalism will find it easy to convince the young that this kind of spirit is essential for the survival of the country? The battles will cease, but will suspicions cease? Will there be an end to the thirst for vengeance? Won’t we be compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of vigilance for ever, without being able to breathe? Won’t this unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our society?”(Ibid.).
Looking at the terrible cost of the conflict in human lives, Buber, it seems, was more far-sighted and understood the nature of events more deeply than many of the political pragmatists who scorned him as being merely an unrealistic visionary.
A Concept Rejected
The binational concept was never put into practice because its protagonists were always a minority within the Zionist movement and because it was generally rejected by the Arab national movement. As regards the latter, in Aaron Cohen’s book Israel and the Arab World, he details a number of discussions and clarifications during the period of the Mandate between Jewish and Arab personalities, without concrete results. (One of the participants, Fawzi Darwish al-Husseini, a cousin of the Mufti, was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1946, apparently by Arab nationalists). The Arab leadership was not prepared for their becoming a minority in their own country. After all, the first mandatory census taken in 1922 recorded a population of 84,000 Jews and 661,000 Arabs in Palestine and, while by 1947 the Jewish population was up to 700,000, the Arab population far exceeded a million.
On the Jewish side, though, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann spoke of “permanent parity under British tutelage” in 1936; it was David Ben-Gurion, who, after meeting with Arab leaders in the late 1930s, summed up the Zionist position: “We need an agreement with the Arabs, but not in order to create peace in the country. Peace is indeed vital for us — a country cannot be built in a state of permanent war. But for us peace is only a means. Our aim is the complete and absolute fulfillment of Zionism.” He was referring to Jewish statehood which was adopted as official policy in 1942.
The Principle of Equality
In a speech in 1958, Buber, now aged 80, while affirming the factual reality of the State of Israel, referred to “the most pernicious of all false teachings, that according to which the way of history is determined by power alone... while faith in the spirit is retained only as mere phraseology.” Buber maintained that “he who will truly serve the spirit must seek to make good all that was once missed: he must seek to free once again the blocked path to an understanding with the Arab peoples [in] a peace of genuine cooperation” (Mendes-Flohr, 1994).
The rise and fall of Brit Shalom and binationalism, whose flicker and demise he sees as “a handy metaphor for the wider fate of political liberalism in the twentieth century,” has been interpreted in David Goldberg’s history of Zionist thought To the Promised Land as follows: “The significance of Brit Shalom lies in its failure. It correctly foresaw the consequences of Zionist policy, and while there is no proof that its approach would have been any more successful, it can be claimed with the benefit of hindsight that it represents the one brief genuine attempt to bridge the chasm between Zionism’s aims and recognition of the indigenous population’s rights.”
It is the principle of equality which is important. After all that has happened, in today’s circumstances, it may well be that at this particular stage in the protracted conflict, rather than the original binational framework proposed in the 1920s, the most effective interim application of the principle is in the two-state solution. Equality between the peoples would be realized through peaceful coexistence between Israel and an independent Palestinian state, with honest negotiations over outstanding questions like the refugee problem. This would be a necessary stage which, when conditions are ripe, can hopefully be followed by more radical ones.
If the proposals for a binational solution could not be implemented before 1948, and still appear to be a vision for the future, the principle of equality which they embody remains no less valid now than they were then. Writing in 1926 of Jewish-Arab relations, Buber referred to the need for the Jews “to decisively discard the invidious feeling of superiority.” The great contribution of the binational proposal for parity since the 1920s was in its seeing the two peoples in Palestine as equal, thereby rejecting the view that one of the two parties has exclusive or superior rights to the country. However much water has flown in the Jordan since then, the acceptance of this concept remains today, as in the past, a prerequisite for any progress toward ending the conflict.
Some of this material has appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of Cross Currents, the journal of the Association for Religious and Intellectual Life, New Rochelle, N.Y., U.S.A.
Cohen, Aaron. Israel and the Arab World. New York: Funk and Wagnall, New York, 1970.
Goldberg, David, To the Promised Land. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Hattis, Susan Lee. The Binational Idea in Palestine during Mandatory Times. Haifa: Shikmona, 1970.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1994.