Palestine: An Impasse?

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

Zionism has challenged all prevailing theories of territorial right, in view of a unique religious and cultural mission. Regarded as an article of Jewish faith, the claim is, as we said, subjective. It ceases to be subjective when that mission or some part of it becomes an article of faith to the wider world, as when France, the United States, Arabia, can say with Great Britain, 'We believe in the mission of the Jewish people.' A claim of 'right' can substantiate itself just so far as this wider persuasion is forthcoming. The principle that seems to emerge is something like this: territory should belong, other things equal, to that group which can put it to its best use, the total interest of mankind being considered. What would be the implications of such a theory?

First, Palestine is a land of interest to three great living faiths. Each one of these may regard itself as able to make the best use of the land; no one of the three is qualified to act as sole judge in its own case. But since the use in question is primarily religious, any one of the three is clearly disqualified which aims to exclude or dominate the others. Result: no one of the three may he in exclusive control; Christian, Moslem, and Jew must recognize the separate status of Palestine and accept whatever consequences this fact may have for their national aspirations.

Second, Palestine is indivisible. Each faith is interested in all of it, and in free movement to all parts. Cantonization is offensive from every point of view; and those who propose it thereby show themselves spurious guardians.

Third, rights in Palestine have nothing to do with the results of war. Neither the Allies nor the League nor any other grouping of mankind is competent to dispose of it on military or political grounds. The idea of settling the status of Palestine by consulting the written promises given by Great Britain to one group and to another is the height of solemn impertinence. Not with the consent of all governments has Great Britain such authority. As conqueror, the Allies have the power to do what they will; if they consult right, they will regard Palestine as belonging primarily to the religious interests of humanity.

If these interests remain disunited, the powers will consider them politically—that is, in proportion to the aggressive pressure they exert. I should like to join a group to assert these interests collectively; a group of Jews, Moslems, and Christians, resolved to prevent as far as possible that secularizing and industrializing of the country to which the imperial interests of Great Britain and the economic drive of political Zionism are alike committed. I can imagine such a group addressing the political Zionist in this vein:—

'We do not want new social and economic experiments in Palestine. Worship there with us, but conduct your social laboratories in other lands, where they are favored by natural conditions and where they do not disfigure and secularize. To have meaning for the modern world, such experiments must be in the heart of it, not artificially fostered in a remote place. Your Einsteins cannot go to Palestine; they must live in the atmosphere of scientific concentration, among colleagues. Your Bergsons cannot go there; they must live where they can catch by intuition the élan vital of contemporary life. Your great artists cannot live in Palestine, if they have something to say to this age. Industry and finance on the modern scale cannot find a centre there, a land without fuel, without ores, and with meager power. ‘To our minds, the poverty of Palestine is its preservation. We do not want Palestine spoiled, and your attempt, if you persist, will merely spoil it and not satisfy yourselves. Bethink yourselves in time and save yourselves and humanity that distress and loss. Spiritualize your conception of the national home, and for the earthly Zion accept the achievable symbol in place of the inachievable completion. Strengthen that magnificent university, with its broad conception of its mission, with its scientific ministration to the needs of the people and to the historical interests of the Moslem and the Christian as well as of the Jew. Through that university and its affiliated institutions, let the Jewish wisdom show itself a comprehensive wisdom in which all creeds and races may find sustenance. "And all nations shall flow unto it. And many peoples shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths."'

And to the Arabs of Palestine and beyond, this group might say: 'With you, we record our rejection of Jewish domination in Palestine. We reject also the political domination of any faith, Christian or Moslem, in that place. We wish to assure the Moslem inhabitants of Palestine of the security of their possessions and of their ways of life: they shall not be placed at a disadvantage by any act of any Western power. We request your aid in maintaining the spirit of reverence in this ancient land. To achieve this, we call upon you to lay aside the spirit of exclusiveness proper to the older era of Islamic life, and adopt the spirit of cooperation proper to the newer stage. Recognize the religious element in other religions, the common bond among mankind constituted by the worship of God, and the peculiar bond between the three religions whose common tradition centres in this place. Welcome the situation which has brought the piety of Jew and Moslem to agree in honoring the site of the Temple; make it easy instead of difficult for your Jewish brethren to worship at the Western Wall. Allow Palestine to be set apart among the regions of the earth, not for the imperial aims of any nation, and not to the disadvantage of the new Arabia, but as a shrine and place of pilgrimage in perpetuity, a meeting place for the spirits of East and West.'

As to the administration of Palestine, there must be a political order there; and this order must be either national or international. Theoretically an international administration would show the needed hospitality of interest. On the other hand, it would suffer the curse of neutrality, which might bring with it a fatal indifference to any religious interest as outside the political province. These deeper concerns are better secured by a power which unites a positive appreciation of faith with a wide toleration of temper. No power, to my mind, fulfills these conditions so well as Great Britain—on one of the two sides which she shows in Palestine.

On that one side, Great Britain is acting as a faithful custodian of the wider human interest. She is conserving the monuments, clearing the walls of the city, preventing alterations within the walls without official approval, encouraging historical research, establishing a museum of antiquities, cooperating with the Hebrew University. But this side of Great Britain must be summoned to keep with us a watchful eye upon that other, the imperialistic side, which has no mandate, whether from the League of Nations or from mankind, for enterprises on this soil which serve the Empire alone—the guarding of the Canal, the opening of communications to the East, the piping of Mosul oil to port. Let Great Britain, we say, serve herself as she may within the greater interest; but let her act first as an honest mandatory. Let her put off her weak acquiescence in the trend to industrialization. Let her retard the inevitable changes of an intrusive modernity, adjusting their pace to the awakening needs of the people, so that Palestine may retain the harmony of its customary life and of its aspect as it grows into new forms. And let her recognize the interest of the Arab states by securing to them free access from the interior to the sea, and freedom of trade and political intercourse across the obnoxious boundaries.

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. Then, that Great Britain restate not alone her policy toward Jew and Arab, but also her general conception of the mandate, in terms which clearly subordinate the interests of the Empire to the general human good. Then, as under such a mandate they might reasonably do, that Moslem authorities publicly accept the administrative separateness of the Palestinian area. With this degree of mutual sacrifice, interests now mutually repellent will be found to enlarge because they can interpenetrate.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

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

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In