The History of Zionism and the Elusive Quest for Peace

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Hermann Struck's portrait of Theodor Herzl (1903), from the collection of the Haifa Museum of Art (detail).

One of the reasons history offers as to why the conflict has yet to be resolved lies in a fundamental failure of Zionism’s founding fathers: ignoring the Palestinians’ existence. Although the foundation of the modern Jewish national movement was accompanied by all kinds of disputes and proposals – social, economic, theological, etc. – the one overlooked question pertained to the population that was already living here.

This is why so many people felt Yitzhak Rabin’s remarks in October 1995 were so deeply significant. The then-prime minister’s declaration that “we did not return to an empty land” was perceived as an expression of historical regret, a kind of late apology for Zionism’s blindness. After the Oslo Accords two years prior, it seemed that Rabin’s statement signaled a sincere, significant shift in relations between Jews and Arabs in this land of dispute.

Rabin, as we all know, was assassinated a month after this speech.

Nevertheless, the idea that Zionism ignored the Palestinian issue from the start is inaccurate. Beginning at least with Theodor Herzl, questions of relations with the Arabs and the option for peaceful coexistence were raised – even if only in passing – in Zionist thinkers’ writings. Even the long-believed myth that Herzl spoke of “a land without people for a people without a land” is mistaken (that quote was by Israel Zangwill).

The various ideas for ending the conflict being reviewed here attest to the numerous possibilities for peace that have emerged over the years (on the Jewish side). Some of them should rouse inspiration and ideas that could also still be relevant now. Some of them actually reveal the contempt for, and fundamental misunderstanding of, Palestinian national aspirations, which could lend to explanations for the lack of a solution to the conflict these past 100 years.

It’s important to note that I’ve included various perspectives on life here as peace proposals as well – even if those worldviews were not formulated with diplomatic solutions in mind – as they imply possibilities of coexistence, which may be relevant.

Paradoxically speaking, Herzl’s peace plan – if it can be called such a thing – was based on his rather hostile attitude toward the East as a whole. The visionary of the state believed that one secret of the Zionist idea’s power was that it served world interests by bringing Western advances to the Middle East. In his own words, he hoped that Zionism would be “a pioneering force against barbarism.”

In contrast to how that remark might be perceived today, this wasn’t racism, but rather an Orientalist perception, common in those days, which held that the West must instill what were considered essentialist qualities in the East. This Enlightenment Age perception included not only Arabs, but also Jews from Islamic states, though primarily it pertained to Jews from Eastern Europe.

Although the hero of Herzl’s utopian novel, “Altneuland,” turns toward Palestine in order to create the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the book also details the long process of Westernizing Eastern European Jews – in the Levant, of all places.

Herzl’s beliefs were rooted in the historical idea of “progress,” meaning the advancement of mankind toward a better future through wisdom and intelligence. Based on this perception, the Arabs in Herzl’s book actually thank the Zionists for coming to the land. Rashid Bey, Herzl’s Arab protagonist, was educated in Germany and is glad when the Jews arrive.

Practically speaking as well, Herzl believed that good relations and technological developments would convince the Arabs that they should welcome Zionism with open arms – that even though the Arabs themselves were far behind, they would also wish to take part in advancing humanity.

It’s important to note that while Herzl lacked understanding of Palestinian national aspirations, he wasn’t blind to increasing anti-Arab sentiments among Jews. The politician trying to strip the Arabs of the right to vote in his novel is painted in a negative light. In the end, the state envisioned by Herzl is Jewish, but religion and state are separate, and the Arabs enjoy cultural autonomy, equality, a good life and technological advancement.

Herzl’s naïve, condescending perception sounds totally cut off from reality in modern times, though it can be understood as a product of its time – before the age of relativism and postmodernism – as even then, the existence of a Palestinian national movement was still disputed. At the same time, the influence of this Herzlian perception is evident in current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who based his recipe for a peace agreement on “economic peace” – until his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, in which he agreed, at least declaratively, to partition the land.

In other words, Netanyahu – a passionate fan of Herzl – continued to believe, until about five years ago, that economic cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians (based, of course, on Israeli superiority) would bring an end to the national conflict.

Ben-Gurion’s idea

David Ben-Gurion also based his original coexistence plan on the developments the Jews would bring to the land. In talks with British as well as Arab representatives, Ben-Gurion often mentioned the claim that the Zionists would improve the standard of living for all residents in the land, making Palestinian opposition pointless.

At the same time, Ben-Gurion had another idea for peace: to Judaize the Arabs in Palestine. Like many of his other proposals, Ben-Gurion based this one on his unique understanding of history. Along with Israel’s second president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, he claimed that the fellahin among the Palestinian Arabs – as opposed to the urban Arabs – were actually descendants of the Jewish people that had remained there after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba revolt.

Ben-Gurion believed that these Jews converted to Islam because they did not want to leave their lands, and because they felt that Judaism and Islam were closely related. The idea of Judaizing them – not exactly conversion under Jewish law – came up again in the 1950s regarding the Bedouin of the Negev, though it was quickly cast aside.

Recognition of just how strong the other side’s national ambitions were did not hit Ben-Gurion until the 1929 riots and the Arab revolt of the late 1930s. Until his last days, Ben-Gurion spoke of how much his understanding of the conflict was influenced by remarks made by Musa Alami, leader of the Palestinian nationalist movement during the days of the Yishuv (pre-state Israel).

Alami rejected Ben-Gurion’s proposal for coexistence in exchange for economic prosperity, stating that he would prefer the land remain desolate for another 100 years, until the Palestinians could develop it themselves, rather than reconcile with Zionism.

Afterward, Ben-Gurion focused his efforts on developing Jewish power, culminating in the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Aside from power, he also factored in the lengthy amount of time it would take to quell the national struggle. He never let go of his faith in a future peace, however: His ideal vision was a joint Jewish-Arab federation in the Middle East. “A Jewish-Arab alliance, like days of old,” he said, would see a Jewish nation bound to the Arab states. Within such an alliance, Jordan was supposed to rule over the Arabs in the West Bank, where only they would have autonomy. In his later years, though, he came close to recognizing that such an alliance would include a Palestinian state as well.

The last echoes of Ben-Gurion’s federation utopia was seen in 1987, as Shimon Peres signed the London Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. The agreement sought to form a confederation with Jordan, which would assume responsibility for most of the West Bank. The proposal, however, was thwarted by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

The Jabotinsky approach

As opposed to other Zionists, Ze’ev Jabotinsky recognized relatively early on the magnitude of the Palestinians’ nationalist sentiments. Although his famous essay from 1923, “The Iron Wall,” is perceived by revisionist historians as an expression of the need to fortify against the Arabs, in actuality the essay reflects Jabotinsky’s approach to peace.

He writes of the condescending nature of the idea that economic prosperity will convince the Arabs – at this point, hardly any Zionist had taken to calling them Palestinians – to curb their nationalistic aspirations. On the contrary, Jabotinsky admitted that, from the Arabs’ perspective, the Zionists were stealing their land. Therefore, he decided to focus his Zionism on military might, in the hope that the Arabs would eventually understand that the conflict would not be solved by force.

This is only the first part of the equation, however. In the second part, he recognized the fact that, on the day when both sides gave up on the idea of ending the conflict by force, the Jews would also have to make compromises.

Jabotinsky didn’t specify what kind of compromise he meant. Revisionists, like current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, believe his essay grants legitimacy to territorial compromises. Menachem Begin, on the other hand, used “The Iron Wall” to partly explain his decision to return the Sinai Peninsula. The Egyptians, he believed, had reached the point where they had given up aspiring for a military victory, which made retreat an option – though for Begin, Sinai wasn’t a part of Israel anyway. Within Israel, he would have only compromised for autonomy in the territories.

Without getting into a debate over Jabotinsky’s views, the Jewish state he envisioned had a Jewish majority, if not an overwhelming majority. His vision included equal rights, as well as an Arab deputy prime minister who would serve alongside the Jewish prime minister.

Brit Shalom’s peace proposals

Ideas for peace did not stop at proposals for diplomatic agreements. There were those who sought to alter the basic philosophy of Zionism in order to reach an agreement. The Brit Shalom movement claimed, during the 1920s, that the real Zionism would be expressed in a binational state. They believed the existence of a binational state would be justified by the renewal and development of Jewish and Arab culture.

Political theorist Hannah Arendt, who at first saw herself as a card-carrying Zionist, believed Zionism’s problem was that it was based on an historical understanding that incorrectly made anti-Semitism the main reason for its existence. She believed the best way to combat anti-Semitism was actually recognizing the Arabs’ rights, and therefore she also joined the binational camp.

Another interesting view on the conflict came from a Brit Shalom member who later quit the movement, historian Hans Kohn. He believed that British aid to Zionists looking to establish a Jewish national home smelled of colonialism, and that the Jews and Palestinians should have sought independence together, as they were the “natives,” up against the empire. Further, Kohn believed that the mere idea of a nation-state in its European format, which so enamored the Zionists and fueled the Palestinians’ own aspirations, was in and of itself an obstacle to peace.

In many respects, Kohn believed that the Jews and Palestinians could get along better through partitioning the land if each side remained true to its religious traditions. After he grew tired of developments in Israel, however, he moved to the United States, where he became one of the most important researchers of nationalism in the 20th century.

Canaanites and Hebrews

The Canaanite movement, which was formed during the 1940s, ended up having a greater influence on Israeli culture than politics, but its proposal for coexistence is still interesting as it is based on erasing both Jewish and Muslim religious identities from the area. Their aspiration was to return to the biblical era, when people in Israel were united by geographical and cultural factors alone. They sought to “skip over” Judaism as it had developed in exile – meaning rabbinic Judaism – and create a new Hebrew people here, which could be joined by Arabs as well, should they choose to forego their Muslim identity. It was a kind of proposal for geo-cultural nationalism.

It is interesting to note that currently, as the idea that the Palestinians are not actually descendants of the Arab conquest but the Canaanite age gathers momentum, this seemingly absurd idea could actually serve as a future platform for a utopian peace.

Another version of the Canaanites, the Hebrews, was proposed by Hillel Kook, as well as Jabotinsky’s son Ari and other revisionists (many of whom were active during the days of the Yishuv in the Jewish National Council – Etzel’s arm in the United States). Their idea revolved around a complete separation of religion and state, and separation of Jews in exile – whom they believed belonged to the nations in which they lived – and the Jews in Israel, who were meant to return to their Hebrew-ness from the biblical era.

As opposed to the Canaanites, the Hebrews did not seek to erase the cultural aspects of rabbinic Judaism, but rather to create a new people, politically speaking. The Hebrew state they envisioned would have sprawled beyond Greater Israel, and would have included a federative system with Lebanon. This utopian vision saved a special place for the ethnic minorities of the Middle East – primarily the Maronites in Lebanon, who were believed to be descendants of the Phoenicians.

Muslim Arabs would have been granted citizenship and equality, as long as they were willing to define themselves as Hebrews of Muslim descent (as Jews would have been Hebrews of Jewish descent). A certain echo of this plan was heard during the first Lebanon war, as one of the Begin government’s goals was to establish a second peace treaty with the Lebanese Christians.

The partition problem

The year 1967 was a watershed not only for the Six-Day War and its consequences, but also in that it signals in many regards the end of the grandiose visions for peace. After the war, as the Palestinian national movement became formulated in the Palestine Liberation Organization, the primary solutions for peace resolved around different aspects of partition. When the left wingers, who seemed radical at the time, proposed two separate states, the believers in Greater Israel demanded that the line be drawn at autonomy. The mainstream Zionists were satisfied with a plan formulated by then-Labor Minister Yigal Allon. The Allon Plan sought a compromise for most of the territories – but not all of them – in exchange for peace with the Arab states and most of the territories’ residents being under some kind of Jordanian sovereignty.

Some 20 years later, in 1988 – about a year into the first intifada – the PLO announced that it recognized Israel and agreed to a two-state solution. Five years later the Oslo Accords were signed, which to a certain extent realized the Allon Plan. Although the Oslo Accords had a clear goal – two states – this wasn’t said out loud until Ehud Barak said so at the 2000 Camp David summit. Three years later, after negotiations broke down, Ariel Sharon also joined the two states camp, after being a fierce opponent of a Palestinian state for security reasons. Netanyahu, also fiercely ideologically opposed to a Palestinian state, got on board in 2009.

Consensus but no peace

So it seems that the historical consensus has reached two states for two peoples. Nevertheless, despite the fact that this idea is supported by most Israelis and Palestinians, as well as most Arab nations, and the fact that there is already a worded agreement in the 2003 Geneva Initiative, the two sides are far from peace. Without having to mention the controversial issues – the status of Jerusalem, land concessions, right of return and recognizing Israel as a Jewish state – there is no doubt that something deeper is driving this impasse, currently leaving two options, used more as threats than as actual proposals: one state for two peoples, or a unilateral withdrawal.

Why is it that despite being accepted in principle, the two-state solution has not been implemented? Perhaps, as Jabotinsky, Alami and Ben-Gurion understood, the time factor plays a dominant role easing the hostilities, and this will be judged throughout the generations. It could be that the impasse is rooted in the lack of faith on both sides, rather than in the propositions themselves.

In that regard, perhaps it is detrimental that the leadership on both sides belong to the generation that experienced 1948, or were at least born by then. Perhaps peace will be achieved as historic nationalist ideas begin to disappear, as many have predicted with regard to globalization (even if developments on the ground attest to the contrary).

Perhaps peace will sprout from a trend that is still on the sidelines – and here it’s possible to make a connection between the Mizrahi Black Panthers of the 1970s and the Keshet Hamizrahi Sephardi Democratic Rainbow of the 1990s. “Mizrahi peace,” meaning peace that should come – in contrast to Herzl’s vision – from East to West, is based on the Eastern cultural connections between Israelis and Palestinians. One could also make the simple claim that the Palestinians and Israelis have not yet found their next great leader, someone who can both envision and act.

Sometimes, a heretical thought arises: Maybe there is something in a peace agreement that threatens Zionism? Throughout the years of the conflict, we’ve lost almost all of the values and unique, positive qualities that connect us all – save for the tireless debates over the future of the territories.

Avi Shilon is a Ph.D. scholar of political science. He has written a biography of Menachem Begin and monograph on Ben‑Gurion.

The articles that appear in this section have also been published in Hebrew and Arabic

Theodor Herzl (illustration)
Hermann Struck's portrait of Theodor Herzl (1903), from the collection of the Haifa Museum of Art (detail).

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