Palestine: An Impasse?

"The two enemies of peace in the Holy Land are fanaticism and fear."
More
IV.

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.

Sensible of this forensic weakness, Zionism has sometimes sought to strengthen its claim by emphasizing the cultural contrast between Jews and the rural Arabs of Palestine. Should half a million ignorant fellahin, it is asked, only languidly concerned in the matter except when excited by demagogues, block the united aspiration of fifteen million members of a highly gifted and advanced race?

The answer is not quite simple, even if the picture were a true one; but it becomes important to correct the error—unhappily widespread—of this picture. Palestine has its rural Arabs and also its urban Arabs; its Moslem Arabs and its Christian Arabs; its peasantry, its Bedawi, and its cultivated men of affairs; its fanatics and its sober leaders with liberal minds and a sense of humor. Amin el Husseini, Mufti of Jerusalem, is one of these leaders, a target of many unjust accusations. During the spring of 1928, an International Missionary Conference brought to Jerusalem a group of positively charged Christians whose intentions were an occasion of much speculative misgiving among the Moslem masses. Lord Plumer opened the Conference: perhaps the military subjugation of Islam was to be followed by an ecclesiastical campaign of aggression! The thousands of pious celebrants in the Nebi Musa pilgrimage of that year might be heard singing with wild fervor, 'Down with the Missionary Conference!' During this disturbed time, the Grand Mufti used his position to show to this suspected Conference an exceptional public courtesy. He threw open the chief Moslem shrine, the Mosque of Omar, to the supposed conspirators against Islam, and supplied them group by group with guides to its several sacred spots. He acted then in his usual role as a man of courage and wide understanding, to temper prejudice, not to rouse it. In thinking of Palestinian Arabs, we must remember their notables, their scholars, their tradesmen and their craftsmen with innate deftness and sense of beauty and arts long lost to the West, as well as their farmers, shepherds, nomads.

Of these peasants, it is true that they, like many peasant peoples, are for the most part ignorant and backward. But they are aware of their plight, and are growing out of it. Their direction is more important than their present place. They have a national movement of their own; they are a conscious part of the great Arab background having its foci in Damascus, Baghdad, Riyadh, Mecca, Cairo; they feel the pulse of the reawakening of Islamic culture. For the Arab as for the Jew we cannot forget that a man plus a national movement is a man enlarged and ennobled. Further, these people have a high native capacity, mental and artistic. It is a matter of justice, not to say of generosity, if we refer to their actual backwardness in terms of our arts, to remember that they and their leaders have suffered for centuries under the exactions of an unprogressive tyranny. What they are is not to be seen on the present surface of their culture.

But my plea is not for generosity, it is for realism. 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.

A letter from King Feisal to Mr. Felix Frankfurter is often quoted to show that there is no inherent incompatibility between the Zionist programme and the Arab interest. It may be surmised that Feisal when he wrote that letter (which he no longer endorses) spoke for few beside himself, inasmuch as the American Commission of Inquiry found but 1 per cent of its petitioners in favor of the National Home. Feisal was not a member of the official Arab delegation to the Peace Conference. His voice at that moment was presumably the voice of the British Government, with which he was in touch, and which had the strongest motives for persuading itself of the alleged harmony of Arab and Jewish interests. But the chief point in interpreting the letter is the circumstance that if and when Feisal wrote its Arabic equivalent (for at that time he understood English imperfectly, if at all) he had every expectation of ruling in Damascus with Palestine as a part of the Syrian state. A Zionist colony within an Arab state is worlds apart from an Arab colony within a Jewish state. The former might be considered by an Arab prince, the latter never.

No—Arabia will not be reconciled to Jewish dominance in Palestine. For thirteen hundred years Moslem Arabs have lived here, tilling the soil, caring for their herds, raising their fruits and olives, practising their trades and crafts. Between them and this habitat there is a genuine adjustment, an almost perfect equilibrium; technique and custom, dress and architecture, they transmit from antiquity with an unconscious faithfulness; they belong. The rights which go with this long occupation and use cannot be brushed aside, even though no letter of a British agreement could be cited to confirm them in their place.

On the basis of existing theories of right, then, there is no way to reconcile or to arbitrate the conflicting claims. Perhaps it is time to seek a new principle.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In