The Atlantic, Israel, and Palestine

Our new report is part of a long history of the magazine's coverage of Israel-Palestine

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A Palestinian man waits at a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah / Reuters

Tomorrow, The Atlantic launches a special report exploring issues in the Israel-Palestine conflict, "Is Peace Possible?", in collaboration with the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. For The Atlantic, this project builds on a vast archive of engagement with the Arab-Israeli conflict. The magazine was a seminal forum for debating these issues long before the establishment of the Jewish state.

As recently chronicled by Atlantic national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg, much of the magazine's original coverage of Zionism was defined by "unfriendliness." A prime example is William Ernest Hocking's July 1930 piece, in which he describes the forcing of Jewish sovereignty on the Arab population of Palestine as "an injustice which is inconsistent with the ethical sense of Zionism":

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.

Owen Tweedy, in the October 1930 issue, conveyed a particularly pessimistic assessment of Zionism:

Both tenants had what they considered and claimed to be impeccable title to possession; and for the past twelve years they have lived together in a house of discord, each going his own way regardless of the feelings of the other. Incompatibility of temper has been proved, but the situation cannot be eased by divorce. ...

Zionist immigration is out to establish itself in Palestine on lines of its own choosing. On the other hand, those lines are foreign, unintelligible, and antipathetic to the mentalities of the Arab communities that represent the large majority in the country. If no bridge is built, how can these two existing, and mutually repellent, social states grow side by side without endless friction?

... Zionism has lost the idealism which attended the birth of the movement.

But The Atlantic also published quite a few pieces supportive of the Zionist endeavor. A 1919 piece by Henry Sacher, an executive of the World Zionist Organization and a contributor to early drafts of the Balfour Declaration, went to great lengths to justify Jewish nationalism and its inherent connection to the land of Israel:

Rabbinical literature is full of apophthegms that express the positive passion of the teachers of Israel for the soil, the air, the water, the physical being of the national land. 'Whosoever walks four cubits in Palestine is assured of the world to come.' 'It is better to dwell in a Palestine desert than to live in a land of plenty abroad.' 'To live in the land of Israel outweighs all the commands of the Torah.' 'The air of Palestine makes men wise.' 'Even the chatter of Palestine is worthy of study.' 'Palestine is the microcosm of the world.' 'Rabbi Abah used to kiss the rocks of Palestine. Rabbi Chazah used to roll in the dust of Palestine.' The whole doctrine of the rabbis in regard to the national home is summed up in the sentence: 'God said to Moses, "the Land is me and Israel is dear to me. I will bring Israel who is dear to me to Land that is dear to me.' Here is the triple thread which is Judaism -- God, the Jewish people, the Jewish land. What the rabbis taught and felt, the Jewish people believed and felt.
9-11 Ten Years LaterHe saw no contradiction of "the establishment there of the Jewish national home" with "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine," who he saw largely as "absentee landowners, who rack-rent a miserable peasantry." He envisioned "a harmonious cooperation between Jew, Arab, and Armenian."

In a 1945 piece in the magazine, Milton Steinberg, rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, also justified Zionism by pointing to the religious roots of Jewish nationalism, though focused on the need of a post-Holocaust haven for the Jews:

I advocate Zionism as the most immediate and practicable answer to a vast, terrible and very tangible need. ... Has not the Old World House of Israel been trampled into blood-drenched splinters? And in the grim devastation, does not Jewish Palestine shine as a joy-bringing, hope-dispensing beacon?

Steinberg admits that the Arab residents of Palestine also have a claim to the land, but dismisses them as less compelling than the Jewish claim because "Jewish enterprise has made the land one of promise for them as well as for Jews." He also dismisses the charge that "Arabs have been driven from the soil," claiming that Jews primarily occupied "uncultivated" and "uncultivable" land.

He defines the situation as "two legitimate ideals [that] have come into conflict in Palestine." But to him, the choice is clear: Because of Jewish suffering the Holocaust ("Jews by the millions to whom entrance to Palestine is truly a matter of survival"), the preponderance of other Arab states across the region ("Has not the Arab world as a whole vast territories on which to realize political autonomy? Is not Palestine a mere 5 per cent of that world?"), and broader goals of "universal humanity" ("Jewish Palestine is the outpost in the Near East of modernity and democracy."), "not in anguish, urgency, or import does [the Arab case] begin to equal the Jewish."

These perspectives -- both for and against the Zionist project to establish a Jewish state in Palestine -- are relics of their respective time periods. The debate has, thankfully, moved far beyond many of these questions. But the roots of the conflict were apparent even in those early years, and many of the same battles over competing nationalist narratives persist today. Our hope with this special report will follow in The Atlantic's long tradition of thoughtful analysis of this decades-old conflict -- and advance the sober and substantive discussion on how to finally end it.