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The History of the original Brit Shalom, founded 1925

"If we do not give every member of the public the opportunity of considering the Jewish-Arab question, we will be committing, I think, an unpardonable sin. Why do I think so? For two reasons. First: it was Judaism, which brought me to Zionism and I cannot but believe that Judaism, Religion as I understand it, is our moral code; and Judaism bids us to find a way in common with the Arabs living in this country. Secondly: I am almost certain that at the end of the war it will not be easier that it is now to shape the development of our life in the way we desire by bearing our influence on those who determine the course of affairs. The more I return to this matter, the more do I become convinced that politically as well as morally, the Jewish-Arab question is the decisive question. I insist that we must reach an understanding of this question, and we can succeed in this only if we are offered opportunities of meeting and discussing the matter. I think that even at this late hour we must endeavour, through IHUD, to find ways of speaking and conferring about this question with clear insight and full knowledge of its importance. And that paragraph of national discipline printed on the Shekel cannot deprive us of the right to speak and understand."
Henrietta Szold (1942)

This quote is from one of the most passionate voices in support of cooperation in Palestine. It formed the opening of the most quoted of all the texts published by the IHUD (Union) Association in the period before 1948, a small booklet of essays entitles "Towards Union in Palestine". The book, edited by the three most visible and forceful leadiers of this marginal political organisation, Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and Ernst Simon, was at the time of its publication, already a neglected classic. By the time of its publication, Henrietta Szold had already passed away, but approach had been inherited by the editors.

Another forerunner and political inspiration of the IHUD group was H. M. Kalvaryski, whose death in 1938 marked the end of a productive and remarkable life in the early years of the Yishuv in Palestine. Kalvaryski states:

"Any solution found and put into practice against the will of the Arabs endangers our future. We must recognise the kinship existing between the two branches of the Semitic race, and the duty of both parts to act in accordance with the principle: "that which it would not have the other branch do unto him, that it should not do unto the other." From this follow the principles of equality - parity - and of non-domination of either people by the other. We must find a way of reconciling the two national movements, the Zionist and the Arab, which seem conflicting and mutually exclusive, but which are in reality complimentary to each other, and able to live side by side in peace and harmony. I have reached the conclusion, first, that it is not the fault of the other party only that so far the way has not yet been found; and secondly, that "if any one tell thee, I have striven and have not found, then believe him not."

These sentiments formed the basis for the original group that called itself Brit Shalom. It was started by Jews from Jerusalem and elsewhere in Palestine, in the mid-1920s. They were conjoined by a common belief in co-operation between the Yishuv and the Palestian Arabs, which they felt was not merely a moral necessity, but the only long term practical solution. They were influenced by the seminal Israeli writer Ahad-Haam, often referred to as the leader of spiritual Zionism. He was on of the earliest critics of the policies of the Zionist Movement, the title of his essay: "Lo zeh ha-derech" (This is not the way), quickly becoming a slogan of earnest criticism.

Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University, spoke of Jewish -Arab cooperation as both necessary and possible. He wrote:

Our contention is that Arab-Jewish cooperation is not only necessary for the peace of this part of the world, but that it is also possible. We contend, upon the basis of the experience of the past twenty-five years, that Arab-Jewish cooperation has never been made the chief objective of major policy, either by the Mandatory Government, by the Jewish Agency, or by those representing the Arabs. We regard this as a great sin of omission which has been committed throughout all these years.

Whether Palestine should be governed by majority rule or by a multi-cultural framework was a question that was much debated by the members of Brit Shalom. They concluded that having a dominant people decide the terms of the dominated would lead to friction of such a magnitude that it would eventually lead to war. Instead they proposed a solution built on the principle of parity, by which they meant that the different nationalities would coexist side by side. This for them meant a bi-national state, or at least that was the programme espoused by Magnes, the undisputed leader of the organisation. Now Magnes was fully aware of the concessions involved in achieving that aim. For the Jews it meant the concession that there would not be erected an independent, sovereign Jewish state. The Palestinians, similarly, would have to concede their ambition for self rule after the inevitable demise of the British.

Despite these concessions, Brit Shalom continued to propound their ideas throughout the twenties and thirties. In 1942, they founded a small political party, called the Ihud (Union) Association of Palestine, and continued to lobby mostly the international for support and recognition for their ideas. However, the Jewish Agency and the political leadership of the Yishuv all but ignored them. The Ihud party's biggest victory was undoubtedly the fact that they were able to present their ideas at length first to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946 and then to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947. The Anglo-American Committee voted largely in favour of the proposals of Ihud, recommending an Economical Union in Palestine. In both these cases, Ihud proposed the creation of joint organs of government, and a division of the country into districts based on a communal basis. Although there would inevitably have been differences of opinion among the Jews and the Arabs, Ihud stated that there would also be a great degree of cooperation. On issues such as economic development, social security, standards of life, trade, agriculture, industry, labour, commerce, etc, would, in their opinion draw the Jews and Arabs together.

The local districts or municipalities were envisaged to have a large degree of autonomy, including the right of taxation. The model they envisaged was that of the cantons in Switzerland and their relation to the Swiss federal government. This, in their view, would have rendered possible both political unity and cultural freedom. Political unity would take the form of two National Committees, the Jewish National Council and the Arab [Palestinian] National Council. Together these Committees would be represented in a Federal Executive and a Federal Legislature, guaranteeing national, political, religious and cultural freedoms.

In retrospect, it seems clear that the original Brit Shalom went too far, at least in relation to the political and ideological state of affairs at the time. Their ideas were not feasible because they were too far-reaching. They were also not practical because there was no real interest on the part of the Arab spokesmen of the time. The founders were considered aloof, Luftmenschen, exactly the antithesis of the ideal of the Zionist leadership. The prospects of Brit Shalom and the subsequent IHUD party of course would have been more solid had there been a strong willingness on the part of the Arab leadership in Palestine to consider their ideas seriously. The Palestinian leaders of the time, however, would, at least in public, lump all Jews together as seeking their dispossession, and there was no real effort on the part of Brit Shalom to recruit Palestinian partners in their struggle for cooperation.

One could argue that this was most likely why Brit Shalom, despite initial influence on the Anglo-American Committee, became an ultimately marginal group. It sought to replace the traditional Zionist aim of Jewish dominance and statehood with a unitary state for all its citizens. In doing so, it neglected the national aspirations of the Jewish as well as the Palestinian populations. They failed to consider that national aspiration, the drive to self-determination, is not only a powerful and potentially combustible political cocktail, but can also be an honest and legitimate political aim.

Daniel Reisel

2001-2002 Brit Shalom