Remembering a Forgotten Zionist Vision for Peace?

I was inspired after reading Bob Dockhorn’s review in Friends Journal about Maxine Kaufman-Lacusta’s book Refusing To Be Enemies: Palestinian and Israeli Nonviolent Resistance to the Israeli Occupation (FJ Nov. 2010). I recently reviewed the book myself for the Nonviolent Change Journal and I also recommend it to Friends.

The book was particularly meaningful to me because I sometimes despair about our ever finding a way to break the brutal cycle of conflict where the stronger party, Israel, remains locked into a rigid pattern of military occupation, state terrorism, and illegal settlements, and the weaker party, the Palestinians, fire rockets into nearby cities and deploy suicide bombers on public buses and in public marketplaces as acts of retaliatory terror and vengeance. Kaufman-Lacusta’s well-researched discussion of the nonviolent anti-occupation resistance movements among both Palestinian and Israeli activists presents a potentially powerful way forward.

Like Dockhorn, I was also moved by the yearnings expressed by several of the Palestinian activists that they would like to move beyond their current objective of creating a viable two-state solution with a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside the State of Israel. After all the pain and oppression of the Israeli occupation, these activists actually spoke of a long-range vision of someday negotiating a voluntary confederation agreement between the two adjacent states and creating a new, binational, multi-ethnic, and democratic state for all Israelis and Palestinians. I find this vision remarkable, under the circumstances.

While not highlighted in either Kaufman- Lacusta’s book or Dockhorn’s review, this same vision was central to an important wing of the Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century. This will likely surprise many people, but as renowned Jewish philosopher Martin Buber noted in 1948, competing visions within the Zionist movement did exist—and in a variety of complex patterns.

On one side of this divide, which occupied the majority of the spectrum of Zionist thought, was the "Territorial" wing of the Zionist movement. This wing was perhaps most identified with the left-leaning labor Zionist David Ben-Gurion, the main immigrant Zionist leader in Palestine from the early 1900s on—and the first prime minister of the new State of Israel. The Territorial Zionists worked hard to encourage European Jews to colonize Palestine in order to create a well-armed, ethnocentric Jewish state. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe notes in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, they aimed to conquer "as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians in it as feasible."

On the other end of the spectrum were Zionists like Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, the founding president of Hebrew University. These leaders, and Zionist organizations like Brit Shalom and Ihud, have often been called the "Spiritual" or "Cultural" Zionists. They were Zionists because they supported immigration to Palestine by European Jews who were in great danger in their home countries, even before the horror of the Holocaust. They also encouraged immigration of Jews from around the world who wanted to create a renewed spiritual center for world Judaism by reestablishing a large and vital Jewish community in the Holy Land.

The core vision of the Spiritual Zionists was that the growing Jewish community in Palestine would embody the prophetic Jewish values of peace and social justice through such modern means as intentional communities like the kibbutzim, and helping to create an independent, multi-ethnic, and democratic Palestinian state. They envisioned a new state whose citizens would include all the new Jewish immigrants and refugees, as well as all the indigenous Palestinians (the Muslims, Christians, and Jews who lived in Palestine before the Zionists started immigrating). Their hope was to create a revitalized and multi-ethnic State of Palestine that would be a light, a blessing, and an example to all the nations of the world.

In Overcoming Zionism: creating a single democratic state in Israel/Palestine, Joel Kovel writes that Buber and Magnes said to the Anglo-American Palestine Commission Inquiry in 1947, "We do not favor Palestine as a Jewish country or Palestine as an Arab country, but a binational Palestine as the common country of two peoples." Success for these Spiritual Zionists also did not require creating a Jewish majority in their envisioned multi-ethnic State of Palestine. In fact, Buber argued that any attempt by the Territorial Zionists to displace the Palestinian Arab majority, or create a separate Jewish state, would lead to war, involve Zionists in the gross injustice of ethnic cleansing, and risk the loss of Judaism’s very soul.

There is so much that was prophetic in Buber’s warning. As a new generation of Israeli historians has now documented, the ultimately victorious Territorial wing of the Zionist movement did in fact build up the Jewish State of Israel through Great Power imperial support; the violent displacement and dispossession of close to 1,000,000 Palestinians whose lands, homes, and businesses were seized by Israel in 1948; and the 1948 military conquest and annexation of much of the territory set aside by the UN for a Palestinian state.

The "New Israeli Historians" have also documented how these efforts were planned by the Territorial Zionist leadership long before the 1948 Israeli/Arab war. As just one example, in a map presented to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the World Zionist Organization claimed as its future territory all of British Mandatory Palestine and significant chunks of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, along with a tiny patch of Saudi Arabia. Pappe writes that in 1937 Ben-Gurion wrote to his son about the desired demographics of the envisioned State of Israel and said, "the Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war."

Noam Chomsky reports in The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians that in internal discussions within the Territorial Zionist movement in 1939, Ben-Gurion also said, "Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves . . . politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves. . . . The country is theirs, because they inhabit it, whereas we want to come here and settle down, and in their view we want to take away from them their country." Pappe writes that in the mid- 1940s Ben-Gurion further claimed, "Only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable state." Other Territorial Zionist leaders put the number at closer to 100 percent, but they still worked with Ben-Gurion to develop the notorious "Plan Dalet," a detailed military strategy for the ethnic cleansing of most of the Palestinian population from any territory obtained by the soon-to-be State of Israel. This plan was put into effect in 1948 when Ben-Gurion’s hoped-for war came to pass.

The territory of the Israeli state was further expanded in 1967 by the military conquest and occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories, as well as small areas of Syria and Egypt. This was soon followed by the rapid expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine and the violent repression of the remaining Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. All of this was consistent with the long-standing vision of the Territorial Zionists, as are the facts that Israel is now subsidized and supported by the world’s dominant superpower; is the eighth largest arms trader in the world as of 2009 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute; and wields an estimated arsenal of between 100 to 200 nuclear weapons, according to a 2008 BBC article.

The Israeli activists interviewed by Kaufman-Lacusta reference much of this recovered history, as well as the State of Israel’s frequent flouting of UN resolutions, its insincere participation in peace negotiations, and its significant number of invasions, bombings, and even massacres of its Arab neighbors. They, like many dissident Israelis before them, describe these historical realities as a motivation for their current nonviolent resistance work. As Israeli Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom notes in a conversation with Kaufman-Lacusta, "I’m interested in fostering a livable situation, which means that the colonialist domination, the structural domination has to give way to partnership between Jews and Palestinians." What these activists may or may not know, however, is that they are walking in the footsteps of some of the most visionary, ethical, and prophetic leaders of the Zionist movement.

The world, of course, is now living with the tragic legacy of the ideological and organizational defeat of the Spiritual Zionists, propelled in large part by the overwhelming trauma of the Holocaust. Yet, perhaps the region is now inching toward the fulfillment of some of these dreams through the Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent resistance movements that oppose the Israeli occupation and support a viable twostate solution that offers both Palestine and Israel self-determination and security.

I believe that as Friends we should become even more active in this effort. We would be acting most faithfully, I believe, if we not only supported the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement against the ongoing Israeli siege and occupation of their land, but also supported the work of Israeli anti-occupation activists who are building bridges and aiding the Palestinian nonviolent resistance movement, as well as engaging in their own efforts within Israel. These Israeli activists are not only the heirs of the Spiritual Zionists, their success is likely vital to the future of the region and to the rest of our world.

By supporting these activists more, we would also be helping to save Jewish lives and combat anti-Semitism. Kaufman-Lacusta tells an illuminating story about Ali Jedda, a former guerilla fighter with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In his talk with Kaufman-Lacusta, Ali Jedda tells how he has now broken with his old view that all Israeli Jews, and by extension all the Jews in the world, are evil and immoral oppressors. Why? Because he has been inspired by the existence of "the sector of Israeli society who are totally against the occupation." He now acknowledges that the bombs he set in the past "can’t make a difference between the good Israelis and the monsters." Today, he has completely turned away from terrorism, as well as armed struggle against Israeli soldiers. He now holds a vision where both Israelis and Palestinians "can live together in real peace and equality."

I call on all of us to support this fragile vision and this kind of profound personal transformation in both Israel and Palestine. As Kaufman-Lacusta argues so well, real progress in ending the Israeli occupation will require the active and creative participation of Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals like us.

Steve Chase

Steve Chase is a member of the Putney (Vt.) Meeting and the founding director of Antioch University New England's Graduate Environmental Studies Program in Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability. He has had a long-standing interest in Middle East peace initiatives.