A Century-old Zionist Vision of a Jewish-Arab Binational State

In the early 1900s, an Orthodox Jewish writer envisioned Jews and Arabs living side by side in peace. Jews chose insularity instead.

Avi-Ram Tzoreff
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An illustration of R.  Binyamin.
Illustration. Credit: Eran Wolkowski
Avi-Ram Tzoreff

In an article by the writer and essayist Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, written during his first months in Palestine (where he settled in 1907), and published in a newspaper in his native Galicia, he describes the unfamiliar landscape of his new home in Jaffa: “And around are the Arabs, members of our race! [] How close to us these people are! – At that moment I hear the voice of the Arab shamash [the term for a synagogue beadle]: Awaken for the worship of Allah! The mosque has a tower, and very high up there is a banister around the tower, which the shamash circles and utters his cry to every wind of the winds of the universe, hastening the believers to prayer and supplications, five times a day. The voice begins with an ‘oy-vey,’ proceeds to a ‘shteyger,’ before moving on to a ‘hamelekh’ trill [reminiscent of chants with those names] from the High Holiday services, which penetrate your soul.”

Radler-Feldman (1880-1957), an Orthodox Jew who adopted the pen name R. (for “rabbi”) Binyamin and was one of the progenitors of the binational concept in the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, is describing the melodious voice of the muezzin, which to him evokes the sounds of prayer he knows from the Eastern European cantorial tradition. The reciting of the Koran, too, blends in with the chanting of yeshiva study. Interestingly, though, the voice of the muezzin does not transport R. Binyamin back to the imagined musical realms of the biblical Land of Israel, in contrast to the impact it had on others. On the contrary: that the sound of the muezzin penetrates the soul is due to the fact that it manifests an element of intimacy that returns the Jewish listener from Palestine to Galicia.

In short, this is a pattern of a “return to the Orient” that does not reject the diasporic Jewish tradition and is not perceived as a vocal expression of the Jew’s past. In fact, it seems to echo the diaspora experience and is not perceived through a negative prism.

Prof. Hillel Cohen, a Middle Eastern scholar, has shown how, as a result of the constitutional reforms that were introduced throughout the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1839, the Jews participated in local politics. These developments laid the foundation for the formation of a Jewish-Ottoman, or Jewish-Arab, identity, indicating the existence of cultural and political affinities, and closer relations in the Palestine of that era between Jews, mainly of the older generation, and Arabs. As researchers Michelle Campos and Abigail Jacobson have shown in their respective studies, the urban spaces constituted an important element in the formation of a shared Ottoman civil affiliation and became a central shared site shaped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

R. Binyamin is aware of the Europeans’ apprehension of the “savage” Orient, where one’s existential security is completely undermined. But in contrast to this attitude, he posits his experience of assimilation in the country. The region is not alien to him in the least, and his identification with its Arabs gives him the feeling that he is a native son. He writes: “He remembers that before going to Palestine he heard [] those same fears: Palestine is in wild Turkey, there is no security of life or property [] and now he has been in the Sharon region for more than a year, and he feels like a fish in water [] as though he were born here. For a month he lived [] in Ajami [a Jaffa neighborhood]. He walked the streets alone after midnight. Nothing ever happened. The Arabs sat in the cafes [] Once, on a visit to Kfar Sava [] he stayed late. At night, he got lost on the way home. He came to Bedouin residences [] One of them accompanied him for a long time and showed him the way.”

R. Binyamin goes on to describe the daily fabric of life, within which encounters between Jews and Arabs are unavoidable. His residence in the Ajami neighborhood, which signified Jaffa’s expansion beyond its Old City walls, reflects his refusal to condone the total separation of the Jewish city from the Arab one and expresses his wish for the continued existence of the joint Jewish-Arab urban experience.

In contrast to the rationale that guided the construction of Tel Aviv, which, like numerous colonial cities, was established as an urban space that would disengage from the mother city of Jaffa – R. Binyamin suggested a spatial logic that undermined the areas’ artificial ethnic division. In this conception, the residential units of the Jews and the Arabs are intertwined, and constant interaction takes place between them.

In the wake of rampant land speculation in Tel Aviv, he urged ending the concentrated construction of Tel Aviv as a center north of Jaffa, and the establishment of a parallel locale to the south – not as a periphery of the northern site but as a center in itself. He also proposed that Jewish land settlement be intertwined with the farming areas of the Arab rural region. A salient statement of the spatial logic that isolates Jews from Arabs is contained in an article by the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am (the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, 1856-1927). Describing travel between the Jewish moshavot, or rural colonies, he notes that “fields and villages of Gentiles fill all that space in-between” – between the Jewish habitations – and adds that the traveler “sees this space between them as if it were a desert devoid of human beings” (translation by Yael Zerubavel). R. Binyamin vehemently objected to the perception of the “space in-between” as an empty desert.

“A Jew residing in this land,” he wrote, “moves about from place to place and encounters the in-between area every day – he cannot treat it as a desert and annul it in his thoughts [] The heart of the Eretz Yisraeli Jew shrinks at the sight of this terrible ‘desert,’ at the sight of an imagined ‘desert,’ which is actually the essence of the Yishuv [] All he sees in front of him is the small ambition of conquering another locale and another locale [] They [the Jews] shut their eyes from seeing the in-between area, seal their ears from hearing the murmur of hatred that is starting to trickle into the hearts and blood of those hundreds of thousands of souls [the Arabs], and as they become willingly blind and deaf and huddle in their locales, they imagine they have done a great thing and that victory looms ahead.”

Muslims gather on Temple Mount before starting a pilgrimage to the tomb of Nabi Musa in 1918. Credit: Library of Congress

‘Conquest of labor’

For the Zionist land-settlement institutions, the Arab locales are like hametz, the leavened substances prohibited during Passover – something to be removed from one’s living space or, alternatively, to be ignored. In this view, the Arab domain is a barren desert to be taken over, its Arab character uprooted and replanted with more Jewish habitations. “Victory,” according to Zionism, means fortification in Jewish locales and turning them into regional centers, with the surrounding areas measured only in relation to them, perceived as “in-between spaces” that have no meaning in their own right. That attitude, according to R. Binyamin, generates hatred among those who are missing from the map that is being carved out on the ground by the Jewish habitations.

Similarly, in regard to the principle of the “conquest of labor” by Jewish pioneers, R. Binyamin wrote a scathing, no-punches-pulled piece on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in 1913: “Self-labor is a necessary condition. But not the only one [] The life [of every settlement] depends on any number of conditions. One such necessary condition is to create good and desirable relations with the indigenous people. It would seem that in connection with our Yishuv, we can add, ‘For the sin we have committed in treating badly the indigenous people.’”

In other words, clinging exclusively to the principle of the conquest of labor is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring the surrounding space.

In response, R. Binyamin was likened disparagingly to someone who ensconces himself in the city while spouting lofty talk about the “doctrine of settlement.” He retorted with ridicule, noting that the Yishuv’s priorities were askew in preferring the image of the perspiring laborer over addressing the fateful question of shaping relations with the Arab population. To those who sought to rebuff him by saying that the Jews were causing benefit to the Arabs by introducing modern methods of agriculture, previously unknown to the native population, R. Binyamin replied that there was no point to this “benefit” as long as Jews continued to set themselves apart from their neighbors and viewed them with condescension.

Furthermore, he argued, the view of native-born inhabitants as lacking all technological or cultural knowledge was patently incorrect. As an example, he cited Suleiman Al-Bustani, who translated Homer into Arabic and headed the Ottoman Ministry of Agriculture.

To elucidate the implications of the continued separationist approach to Jewish agricultural settlement on relations with the Arabs, R. Binyamin created the fictional character of an Arab teacher, named Ahmed Efendi, who complains to the author about the Jews’ insular behavior: “You have apparently not taken heed of the fact that you are intent on robbing what is most precious to us and usurping what is most important to us. You are coming with aspirations of conquest. True, it is conquest by money, by bills and by law [] but conquest all the same. You are not coming with the aim of living among us and with us and next to us [] At every moment you emphasize the difference and the disparity: here a Hebrew, and here an Arab.”

Adopting the Arab’s viewpoint allows him to challenge the network of images on which Zionist agricultural settlement was then based. Indeed, beginning with the Second Aliyah – the second wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine, 1904-14 – land purchases by the official Zionist institutions entailed the dispossession of the fellahin, who were the workers of the land in practice even if not its owners under Ottoman land laws. R. Binyamin’s aim is to illuminate the viewpoint of the fellahin, who viewed Jewish land settlement as an expression of ambitions of conquest, and land purchases as plunder. The Jews, guided by the logic of the market economy, believe that the purchase of land gives them the right to expropriate it from the Arabs who live on it and work it; whereas according to Ahmed Efendi, R. Binyamin’s protagonist, this is not mere acquisition but a violent act of conquest and dispossession.

One of those who took issue with R. Binyamin was the writer Yakov Rabinovich. He argued, in 1922, that R. Binyamin was trying to establish Jewish-Arab relations on the rickety foundation of romantic affection, but this, he maintained, had collapsed with the outbreak of the violent clashes between Jews and Arabs a year earlier. Rabinovich accused R. Binyamin of abandoning the romantic dreams he had harbored and of deciding, in this difficult period, to remain in a safe Jewish locale, namely Tel Aviv, and of subsequently going “to rest and refresh himself in the West, of all places.”

R. Binyamin’s response was to describe a visit he had paid to Hebron after the period of the clashes. It was a trip to “a city that is wholly orient,” that houses those who are perceived as “others”: Arabs, Sephardi Jews (or, more accurately, Arab Jews) and ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim. “In Jerusalem there was a clash, and in Hebron the Jews attended an Arab wedding and socialized with their intelligentsia,” R. Binyamin wrote.

Avi-ram Tzoreff is a PhD candidate in Ben-Gurion University’s department of Jewish history and a research associate at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

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