Posted by: sean | April 21, 2008

Prophesying Palestine

I’m not generally fond of Jeffery Goldberg’s work when it comes to the Middle East, so I was pretty skeptical about the Atlantic’s big Israel story this week. (I haven’t read it yet, so I’ll reserve judgment until then.)  One thing that’s very interesting though, is that Goldman has dug up some old pieces on Palestine and Zionism that appeared in the Atlantic.

So far, I’ve only had the time to read William Ernest Hocking’s 1930 piece, Palestine: An Impasse? You can tell that these old pieces have been scanned, because there are a few mistakes with indentations, quotes and even a couple of letters (‘d’ for ‘cl’), but this article really warrants being read. Here are a couple of meaty extracts to whet your appetite:

If we in America, Jews and Gentiles, could see things as they are in Palestine, we should recognize as axiomatic three things: (1) That nothing like the full plan of Zionism can be realized without political pressure backed by military force; (2) that such pressure and force imply an injustice which is inconsistent with the ethical sense of Zionism, undermining both its sincerity and its claim; (3) that every increase of pressure now meets with increasingly determined Arab resistance, within and beyond Palestine. Hence the question which political Zionism must answer is whether or not it proposes to-day, as in ancient times, to assert its place in Palestine by aid of the sword.

To many Arabs, the Balfour Declaration, in spite of its careful safeguarding of all existing civil and religious rights, is understood as obliging Great Britain to ‘do something’ for the Jews. Many Zionists have the same conception. And the Arab mind inquires: What can Great Britain now do for Zionism which is not against the Arabs? What favor can it show which is not favoritism? If the question is capable of an answer, it needs to be a dear answer, plainly spoken. Great Britain is serving Zionism. It is doing so not only by maintaining security and order in the land (with some lapses), but by furnishing the administrative staff without which no such settlement would have been possible, and by creating new opportunities. Under the older Ottoman regime, foreign Jews were at a disadvantage: they—like other foreigners—could acquire land only in the name of Ottoman subjects. These disabilities are now removed; as is often said, Jews are now in Palestine by right, not on sufferance. Why press for more than this equitable opening, when more means a reversed injustice? The rural and industrial centres already founded need no more than an equal legal status for their normal peaceful development. The great Hebrew University on Mount Scopus needs no more than this on the legal side to realize its destiny. And this university, be it said, under the prophetic leadership of Dr. Judah Magnes, is the symbol of all that is best in Zionism. For the true and attainable Zion is the Zion of culture and faith, not the Zion of political nationalism.

It is indeed a bitter thing to the sincere Zionist that his ideal community cannot have in that unique spot of earth its perfect body as well as its perfect soul. What I have to say, I say with deep personal regret. For I went to Palestine seized with the idea of Zionism and warmed by the ardor of Jewish friends to whom this vision is the breath of life, prepared to believe all things possible. I came away saddened, seeing that to strive for the perfect body, as things now are, can only mean the loss of soul and body alike. To pursue any campaign for a more vigorous fulfillment of ‘the British promise,’ to force cantonization on Palestine and so to repeat the standing grievance of divided Syria, to press for any further favor of the state, is to work blindly toward another bloody struggle involving first the new settlements, then Great Britain, then no one knows what wider area. In this we have been assuming that on the issue of Jewish dominance the Arab mind is irreconcilable. Is this true?

The answer lies partly in the fact that for the Arab, whose local attachments are peculiarly strong, Palestine, beside being his home, is also a holy land. It lies partly in the fact that to his mind Palestine is not a separate province: it is an integral part of Syria, with Damascus as its natural trading and cultural capital, while Syria is an integral part of greater Arabia. In his dream of a free Arab empire, Damascus may have served as capital for the whole; or Syria, together with Palestine, may have constituted an autonomous province. In any case, the new Arabia through Palestine reached the western sea; while Palestine as a part of Syria became a partner in that new and proud political enterprise. The expulsion of Feisal from Damascus by the French was a cruel mutilation of this dream. The mandate for Palestine excludes it from the imagined kingdom and shuts that kingdom from the Mediterranean. Even so, political arrangements may be unmade. But village settlements are a more final obstacle—they build a human barrier and put an end to hope. The progress of Zionist colonization thus becomes for the Arab national outlook a culminating stroke in a series of breaches of faith.

…The two enemies of peace in the Holy Land are fanaticism and fear. The movement of the modern spirit within all creeds is having for one of its beneficent effects the gradual melting of fanaticism without argument. Fixed and antagonistic dogmas are transforming themselves into alternative sets of symbols which can dwell together. But fanaticism is kept alive and sharpened by fear; clashes at the Wailing Wall are symptoms of political rather than religious apprehension. These fears of displacement, of national thwarting, must be put to rest; and they can only be quieted by unequivocal public commitments, renouncing the intention to dominate and to exclude. If there is to be peace within the gates of Jerusalem, the first condition, as I see it, is that Zionism publicly disavow its unholy alliance with Western military power, and therewith (following the lead of a recent resolution within the Jewish Agency) its purpose to dominate in Palestine.

Hocking’s solution is finally a binational, or more accurately a multi-religious, state under the mandate of Britain, a solution that is obviously out the question as far as British rule is concerned. Nonetheless, he brings up a fundamental conflict between the Zionist body and the Zionist soul, the latter being crushed by what it would take (has taken) to create a Jewish state — something Avraham Burg’s new book is about.

I’m a little uneasy with the idea he has of keeping Palestine technologically “backward” so as to keep Palestine as a multi-religious spiritual land above all else. But that’s a small detail in an otherwise insightful analysis of the situation. To my mind, he really hits the nail on the head when he points out the violent and unjust conditions that would be necessary to create a Jewish majority in Palestine.

Goldberg, for his part claims that Hocking is arguing for “an exclusive Arab right to the territory of Palestine,” which is silly when you read the piece. What he does do is analyze the Jewish right to Palestine:

This claim of right, based on a mission which it is felt a religious disloyalty to compromise, cannot be shaken in the Jewish mind by analogies from history or international law. To urge that the same reasoning which leads the Jew to claim Palestine after eighteen hundred years would give the Arab a right to Spain after seven hundred years is quite sound so far as it appeals to the ordinary flux of historic conquest and possession; but it wholly misses the sense of this ‘organic indissoluble connection,’ this right of destiny. Such a right has the force of a religious conviction for those who have that vision; it has the weakness of subjectivism for those who do not share it.

He, correctly, I think, calls the Jewish right to Palestine a subjective one for those who do not believe in God’s covenant with the Jewish people and an ineluctable truth for those who do.

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