"There may be a people without a country but there is no country
without a people." This is how the situation in Palestine in 1925
looked in the eyes of the distinguished journalist Robert Weltsch,
a founder of Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which was established
in that year to promote Jewish-Arab understanding in
Brit Shalom, which functioned until 1933 stood, in its own words,
for "a binational state in which the two peoples will enjoy equal
rights as befits the two elements shaping the country's destiny,
irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any
given time" (from their first publication Our Aspirations, 1927).
It had a few hundred members, mostly European-born intellectuals.
The general concept of binationalism was to be adopted by other
minority Zionist streams, like Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam, Kedmah
Mizracha, the Ichud and the League for Jewish-Arab
In her book The Binational Idea in Palestine during Mandatory
Times, Susan Lee Hattis views the binationalists as supporting "not
the ideal but the reality, and if this reality is not grasped
Zionism will fail. Brit Shalom were not defeatists who were willing
to make any concession for the achievement of peace, they simply
realized that the Arabs were justified in fearing a Zionism which
spoke in terms of a Jewish majority and a Jewish state [this
writer's emphasis]. Their belief was that one need not be a
maximalist, i.e., demand mass immigration and a state, to be a
faithful Zionist. What was vital was a recognition that both
nations (the Arab and the Jewish) were in Palestine as of right."
The binationalists were Zionists but with different priorities.
Thus Judah Magnes, the first president of the Hebrew University,
thought that, as long as immigration and settlement were possible,
he was willing to yield the Jewish state and Jewish majority. He
warned in the 1930s that a Jewish state would bring war with the
Perhaps the most distinguished exponent of the binational concept
was Professor Martin Buber (1878-1965) who came from Germany to
live in Palestine in 1938 at the age of 60. Buber, known for his
philosophy of dialogue, replied in 1939 to a letter by Mahatma
Gandhi, who thought that "Palestine belongs to the Arabs" and the
Jews "should make that country their home where they were born."
Buber describes the German concentration camps and their
significance, but the main thrust of his letter concerned the
situation in Palestine.
He wrote that Jews and Arabs must "develop the land together
without one imposing his will on the other. We considered it a
fundamental point that in this case two vital claims are opposed to
each other, two claims of a different nature and a different
origin, which cannot be pitted one against the other and between
which no objective decision can be made as to which is just and
which is unjust.
"We considered and still consider it our duty to understand and to
honor the claim which is opposed to ours and to endeavor to
reconcile both claims... We have been and still are convinced that
it must be possible to find some form or agreement between this
claim and the other; for we love this land and believe in its
future; and seeing that such love and faith are surely present also
on the other side, a union in the common service of the land must
be within the range of the possible" (Mendes-Flohr, 1994).
What Sort of Peace?
Buber had been a Zionist since 1898, but as far back as 1918 (soon
after the Balfour Declaration) he rejected what he called the
concept of "a Jewish state with cannons, flag and military
decorations." He and his colleagues worked not for dependence upon
a colonial alliance, but on parity between Jews and Arabs whatever
the numerical proportions.
A year after official Zionist policy achieved its aim of Jewish
statehood in 1948, Buber expressed his fears that after the war
"peace, when it comes, will not be peace, a real peace which is
constructive, creative [but] a stunted peace, no more than
non-belligerence, which at any moment, when any new constellation
of forces arises, is liable to turn into war.
"And when this hollow peace is achieved, how then do you think
you'll be able to combat 'the spirit of militarism' when the
leaders of the extreme nationalism will find it easy to convince
the young that this kind of spirit is essential for the survival of
the country? The battles will cease, but will suspicions cease?
Will there be an end to the thirst for vengeance? Won't we be
compelled, and I mean really compelled, to maintain a posture of
vigilance for ever, without being able to breathe? Won't this
unceasing effort occupy the most talented members of our
Looking at the terrible cost of the conflict in human lives, Buber,
it seems, was more far-sighted and understood the nature of events
more deeply than many of the political pragmatists who scorned him
as being merely an unrealistic visionary.
A Concept Rejected
The binational concept was never put into practice because its
protagonists were always a minority within the Zionist movement and
because it was generally rejected by the Arab national movement. As
regards the latter, in Aaron Cohen's book Israel and the Arab
World, he details a number of discussions and clarifications during
the period of the Mandate between Jewish and Arab personalities,
without concrete results. (One of the participants, Fawzi Darwish
al-Husseini, a cousin of the Mufti, was assassinated in Jerusalem
in 1946, apparently by Arab nationalists). The Arab leadership was
not prepared for their becoming a minority in their own country.
After all, the first mandatory census taken in 1922 recorded a
population of 84,000 Jews and 661,000 Arabs in Palestine and, while
by 1947 the Jewish population was up to 700,000, the Arab
population far exceeded a million.
On the Jewish side, though, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann spoke
of "permanent parity under British tutelage" in 1936; it was David
Ben-Gurion, who, after meeting with Arab leaders in the late 1930s,
summed up the Zionist position: "We need an agreement with the
Arabs, but not in order to create peace in the country. Peace is
indeed vital for us - a country cannot be built in a state of
permanent war. But for us peace is only a means. Our aim is the
complete and absolute fulfillment of Zionism." He was referring to
Jewish statehood which was adopted as official policy in
The Principle of Equality
In a speech in 1958, Buber, now aged 80, while affirming the
factual reality of the State of Israel, referred to "the most
pernicious of all false teachings, that according to which the way
of history is determined by power alone... while faith in the
spirit is retained only as mere phraseology." Buber maintained that
"he who will truly serve the spirit must seek to make good all that
was once missed: he must seek to free once again the blocked path
to an understanding with the Arab peoples [in] a peace of genuine
cooperation" (Mendes-Flohr, 1994).
The rise and fall of Brit Shalom and binationalism, whose flicker
and demise he sees as "a handy metaphor for the wider fate of
political liberalism in the twentieth century," has been
interpreted in David Goldberg's history of Zionist thought To the
Promised Land as follows: "The significance of Brit Shalom lies in
its failure. It correctly foresaw the consequences of Zionist
policy, and while there is no proof that its approach would have
been any more successful, it can be claimed with the benefit of
hindsight that it represents the one brief genuine attempt to
bridge the chasm between Zionism's aims and recognition of the
indigenous population's rights."
It is the principle of equality which is important. After all that
has happened, in today's circumstances, it may well be that at this
particular stage in the protracted conflict, rather than the
original binational framework proposed in the 1920s, the most
effective interim application of the principle is in the two-state
solution. Equality between the peoples would be realized through
peaceful coexistence between Israel and an independent Palestinian
state, with honest negotiations over outstanding questions like the
refugee problem. This would be a necessary stage which, when
conditions are ripe, can hopefully be followed by more radical
If the proposals for a binational solution could not be implemented
before 1948, and still appear to be a vision for the future, the
principle of equality which they embody remains no less valid now
than they were then. Writing in 1926 of Jewish-Arab relations,
Buber referred to the need for the Jews "to decisively discard the
invidious feeling of superiority." The great contribution of the
binational proposal for parity since the 1920s was in its seeing
the two peoples in Palestine as equal, thereby rejecting the view
that one of the two parties has exclusive or superior rights to the
country. However much water has flown in the Jordan since then, the
acceptance of this concept remains today, as in the past, a
prerequisite for any progress toward ending the conflict.
Some of this material has appeared in the Spring 1999
issue of Cross Currents, the journal of the Association for
Religious and Intellectual Life, New Rochelle, N.Y.,
Cohen, Aaron. Israel and the Arab World. New York: Funk and
Wagnall, New York, 1970.
Goldberg, David, To the Promised Land. London: Penguin Books,
Hattis, Susan Lee. The Binational Idea in Palestine during
Mandatory Times. Haifa: Shikmona, 1970.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. A Land of Two Peoples: Martin Buber on Jews
and Arabs. Gloucester, Mass: Peter Smith, 1994.