The antecedents of the Israeli peace camp go all the way back to the days of the British Mandate. A group of well-known intellectuals formed an organization, Brit Shalom, that sought a peaceful accommodation with the Arabs of Palestine and called for the establishment of a binational (Arab and Jewish) state there. They included personalities such as Arthur Ruppin, Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann and Gerschom Scholem. Judah Leib Magnes, at the time president of the Hebrew University, was a high-profile spokesman for the cause.
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They were totally divorced from reality – the determination of most of the Jewish community in Palestine to establish a Jewish state, and the almost total Arab opposition to the Jewish presence there. In time they disappeared from the scene. Their leaders are probably enshrined in the hall of fame of the Israeli peace camp: well-intentioned and idealistic but refusing to look reality in the face. The Israeli peace camp has followed in their footsteps.
Now the peace camp is going through a period of soul-searching. Motivated by the highest ideals – peace with our neighbors, the end of the “occupation” – not discouraged by failure and willing to ignore unpleasant realities, it marched on for years with little to show for its efforts. Its slogan “peace now” has become devoid of meaning. Its aim “two states for two people” seems to have come beyond reach. Its inane slogan “you make peace with your enemies” has fallen into disuse.
They are embittered, frustrated and discouraged. The peace with Egypt was achieved not by them but by Menachem Begin, who they considered a warmonger. Their attempts to arrive at peace with Hafez Assad in Syria fortunately ended in failure. Peace with the Palestinians evaded them. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat may have received Nobel Prizes for their efforts, but the Oslo Accords brought terrorism to the land, not peace. What a disappointment.
One is reminded of another peace movement, whose slogan was “fight for peace.” As World War II ended, the Cold War began – a confrontation between wartime allies the United States and Soviet Russia. It was to last 40 years. This development was opposed by a group of idealistic Americans, believers in peace, who sought a rapprochement with the Kremlin rather than a confrontation.
Their leader was Henry Wallace, who had served as Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president and who would have become president after Roosevelt’s death had he not been replaced by Harry Truman as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate in 1944. Wallace led the Progressive Party in the race for the presidency in 1948. He opposed the hard line that Truman as president had taken against the Soviet Union.
“I urge that we accept all people who wish for a peaceful understanding between the United States and Soviet Russia,” Wallace announced. He was supported by many prominent people in academia and the arts, many of them Jews. Among them were Aaron Copland, Howard Fast, Lillian Hellman, Burl Ives, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Thomas Mann. They were a group of talented idealistic intellectuals.
Wallace failed at the polls. In the 1948 election that pitted Truman against Thomas Dewey, Wallace won 2.4 percent of the popular vote. The vast majority of American voters considered the Progressive Party’s approach to the Soviet Union naive and unrealistic, and they turned out to be right. Wallace himself resigned from the Progressive Party in 1950 and endorsed the Republican candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, for the presidency in 1952.
Of course, there are many differences between Israel’s peace camp today and the peace camp led by Wallace in America after World War II. Still, is there a lesson to be learned?