From his home in New York City, the American pundit Peter Beinart has recently called to dismantle the Jewish state of Israel, advocating instead for a “one state solution”—a binational Jewish-Palestinian Arab state. Beinart’s proposal was hailed as “a monumental, agenda-setting piece” by Washington Post foreign affairs columnist Ishaan Tharoor, among other analysts, many of whom live far from Israel. But it is nothing of the sort. Indeed, arguments for a binational “solution” are a century old—and they collapsed under the weight of Jewish blood and Arab intransigence.
Ninety-five years ago this past May, a group of philosophers, academics and theologians announced the formation of Brit Shalom (the Covenant of Peace) in British-ruled Mandate Palestine. Brit Shalom “sought to promote peace between Jews and Arabs, primarily by arguing that Jews should give up their quest for statehood,” the historian Daniel Gordis noted in his 2016 history of Israel.
The movement, Gordis documented, “never had more than a hundred members, but its influence far outstripped its members.” This was largely due to its composition. Brit Shalom members would, over time, include prominent and well-known Jewish figures like Judah Magnes, an American Reform rabbi and the future president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Arthur Ruppin, a famous economist and high-ranking Jewish Agency official, as well as well-known philosophers like Gershom Scholem and Martin Buber. Other future members would include the Attorney General of Mandate Palestine, Norman Bentwich, and Edwin Samuel, the son of the first High Commissioner to Palestine, Herbert Samuel. Brit Shalom even counted Albert Einstein as a supporter. The movement was, in every sense, confined to a small number of the elite and intelligentsia.
Initially Brit Shalom conceived of itself as less as a political party than a “study circle” which hoped to influence debates about the future of Jewish self-determination. Brit Shalom’s foundational charter articulated the movement’s objective: “to arrive at an understanding between Jews and Arabs as to the form of their mutual social relations in Palestine on the basis of absolute political equality of two culturally autonomous peoples, and to determine the lines of their cooperation for the development of the country.”
The group founded a newspaper, She’ifoteinu (Our Aspirations), authored editorials, and made public speeches advocating for the adoption of a binational state. But problems soon arose.
Brit Shalom’s platform rested on the hope that many Muslim Arabs would support political, social and religious equality with Jews. Yet, under the Mandate—when many ruling British officials were opposed to Zionism and the Zionist project was far from assured—Arab anti-Jewish violence undermined both Brit Shalom’s premise and standing.
Indeed, anti-Jewish pogroms predated Brit Shalom’s founding, with organized attacks against the Yishuv, as the Jewish community in Mandate Palestine was called, in 1920 and 1921. The 1920 Jerusalem riots, which left five Jews dead and more than a hundred injured, erupted to shouts of the rhyming Arabic couplet “Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs.”
A period of relative calm lasted for several years despite a massive influx of Jewish immigrants spurred by a politico-economic crisis in Poland. The absence of a “militant response on the Arab side” the historian and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien noted in his 1986 book The Siege, “may suggest that there was some truth in the Zionist impression that the earlier violence was not so much spontaneous from below as fomented from the top” by anti-Zionist British military rulers and Arab notables like Haj Amin al-Husseini. Brit Shalom, nonetheless, opposed immigration.
By 1929, however, anti-Jewish violence returned with bloody massacres in Hebron and elsewhere that left more than 100 Jews murdered and hundreds more wounded. Brit Shalom, however, suggested that massacres should prompt a measure of soul-searching and, as Sam Brody of the University of Kansas noted, “intimated that Zionism bore some responsibility for provoking the riots.” Brit Shalom’s response can fairly be seen as a precursor of sorts to Peter Beinart’s infamous Aug. 19, 2019 CNN appearance in which he claimed, “there are many Palestinians who believe Palestinians have the right to use violence because [of] the daily oppression they feel.”
1929, Brody notes, “proved to be a turning point in Jewish-Arab relations.” The pogroms discredited Brit Shalom, and some members, “sensing that the tide of opinion was against them, left the group to join the Labor mainstream; others abandoned the Zionist movement entirely and emigrated from Palestine to the United States.”
Arab leaders, meanwhile, continued to refuse to negotiate unless their demands—including British repudiation of the Balfour Declaration and zero immigration—were met.
Further undermining support for Brit Shalom’s ideas, Arab leaders like al-Husseini launched a bloody terror wave from 1936-1939. With money and secret support from fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, Palestinians led by al-Husseini murdered political opponents, Jews and British officials.
A 1938 Palestine Partition Commission recommended a “two-state solution,” with the overwhelming majority of the land going to the Arabs, and a small coastal plain being left for the Jews. Al-Husseini, however “refused even to talk without a prior British guarantee that all of Palestine would become an independent Arab state.” Arab leaders also spurned terms at a subsequent London Conference which, historians Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz noted, would have made it so “no Jewish state could ever be created.” However, as the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state—something which has never existed—wouldn’t have been immediate, the terms were rejected.
Arab rejectionism would continue with the rejection of the U.N.’s 1947 Partition Plan and the decision to declare war on the fledgling Jewish state. By the time of that conflict, Brit Shalom had long since ceased to exist. During that war, an ambush of a Hebrew University convoy “had a curious political consequence,” historian Benny Morris observed in 1948: Yehuda Magnes who had “for years promoted a binational solution to the Palestine problem was in effect forced to quit his job.” For years, Morris observed, “he had promoted this non-Zionist alternative” but “the killing of the convoy’s passengers…thoroughly discredited him.”
“The study of history,” British author Paul Johnson once wrote, “is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.”
(Note: A slightly different version of this op-ed appeared as an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post on Aug. 6, 2020)