On Israel’s 62nd birthday there is no reconciliation and no peace.
Originally posted in the Hebrew website.
After sixty-two years of the existence of the State of Israel, we must ask: is there is any chance whatsoever for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people? As things appear at the moment (and as they have appeared throughout all the years of the state’s existence), the chances are very slim indeed. One important factor is the complete hegemony of the Zionist ideology in the public consciousness. That ideology is inculcated in Israelis from their earliest years up to the end of university. It is disseminated by all the media – both public and private, from the lips of leaders, official spokespeople, and select representatives of the army, entertainment world and general public. For all practical purposes there is no way for the average Israeli to escape the influence of Zionism.
Anti-Zionist organizations try to minimize talk about Zionism, for fear of alienating themselves from the public. Many people on the Left think that there is no point in talking about Zionism. They hope that some well-meaning Zionists will make peace in the absence of any alternative. The problem is that the meaning of Zionism and its objective has always been and still is the conquest of the Land. Therefore, Zionism constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to peace with the Palestinians, to the extent that it depends on Israel alone.
The Essence of Zionism: Conquest of the Land
The conquest of the Land was not a slogan of right-wing Zionism alone, but also of left-wing and allegedly moderate Zionism. In many senses, its importance was greater for the latter than it was for general and right-wing Zionism, because it created an ideological shield: it represented Zionism as a socialist and egalitarian movement that tried with all its might to achieve cooperation and peace with the Arab population.
After all, there was the left-wing Zionism of Hashomer Hatzair which proposed a bi-national state. There was the Brit Shalom (true, a rather small group) which proposed restrictions on Jewish immigration by agreement with the other people. And after 1967 the main party in the Yishuv (Mapai-Labor) proposed a territorial compromise with the Palestinians . However, it should be recalled that Hashomer Hatzair’s support for a bi-national state during the Mandate was subject to three “small” conditions:
1) the bi-national state would come into existence only after a Jewish majority was achieved in the country;
2) the British Mandatory regime would continue for 20 more years; and
3) if the Palestinians did not agree to that, the powers would have the right to impose it on them by force.
Brit Shalom, undoubtedly the most progressive group of Zionists, proposed a regime of equality between Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate, when Jews constituted about 12 per cent of the population of the country. They also agreed to limitations on Jewish immigration once the Jews achieved demographic parity with the Arabs. Because of their positions (which the Arabs, of course, could not accept), they were condemned within the Yishuv, including by Hashomer Hatzair, as traitors to Zionism. And in any case they were a minority within a minority of the Jewish public.
But the main function of left-wing Zionism was to convince the progressive-liberal-socialist part of the public that Zionism was a just ideology, and that Israel was surrounded by enemies not willing to recognize that fact. In the face of such “rejection-ism,” Israel had to defend itself. This approach succeeded beyond expectation. And that is evidently one of the reasons why even the liberal public in this country feels it has no choice but to reconcile itself to 62 years of conquest. The Israel public would not even dream of demonstrating against a slaughter along the lines of the Cast Lead operation in Gaza.
The Zionism of Buber
One of the gurus of so-called moderate and humanist Zionism, who exercised a profound influence on the Zionist Left, was Martin Buber. His approach, which is discussed below, reveals the essence of that Zionism, and reveals perhaps more about it than he himself intended. In a book by Ehud ben-Ezer published in 1986 and based, inter aliya, on Buber’s conversations and writings, Buber tell the following story: “They say that one day Nordau came to Herzl in a fright and cried: ‘I heard that there are Arab inhabitants in Palestine. If this is true, justice is not on our side.’ If these remarks are true, this statement reveals a marvelous naivety. Life by its very nature is bound up with iniquity. Anaximander even thought, apparently, that the very fact of our personal existence signifies injustice against ‘universal beings,’ and that we owe penance to all other creatures. In any case there is no life without the destruction of life. If we observe carefully, we will see that at every given moment everyone is robbing ‘living space’ from someone else.” Therefore, Buber rationalizes, “in the period of our settlement enterprise, which was in effect a conquest by peaceful means, the best among us did not intend to remain innocent in their own eyes in that war for our existence, since we came to ensure a place for our own coming generations, we were forced to reduce the space for the future generations of the Arab people.” 
Presumably any civilized person would be shocked upon reading those words that were spoken by Buber, who had the aura of a great humanist. At the core, one can even detect here signs of fascism – that is to say, the rationalization of injustice by the strong against the weak.
Buber also provides a philosophical rationalization for force and injustice! After all, if indeed “life, by its very essence, involves injustice,” then nobody is right and nobody is wrong. In general, Buber is describing a human jungle in which “there is no life without the destruction of life”!
Buber does not stop at generalities, but gets very specific. After all, he is responding to the claim that this country was not empty when the Jews began to settle here. He points out that every moment everyone is robbing someone else of their “living space.” And lest there be any doubt whatsoever who he is talking about, he adds that “we were forced to reduce the space for the future generations of the Arab people.” But he elevates the Zionist enterprise above all else when he calls for “the best among us” not to remain “innocent in their own eyes” in this war for our national existence. He is evidently addressing the not insignificant numbers of Israelis who could not accept the Nakba (the eviction of 700,000 Arabs during the 1948 war) with equanimity. Buber also repeats the widespread self-righteous Zionist claim of “conquest by peaceful means.” It is as if he had never heard of the Nakba.
This story reveals a double phenomenon: even at the dawn of its day, the Zionists knew that Zangwill’s tale about the land being empty of inhabitants was groundless. But above all, Buber’s words clarify the essence of Zionism: the conquest of the Land. And his words about the conquest of “living space” are chilling indeed. Did Buber not know that he was using a Nazi ideological expression?
Buber’s words directly raise the question suggested by the title of this article: is peace or reconciliation with the Palestinians possible at all? After all, it is “the denial of living space from the future generations of Palestinians” that we are talking about here.
Buber – and for this we owe him a debt of gratitude – did not evade the central problem of Zionism, which is: the imperative to conquer the Land. Indeed Zionist ideology would have no meaning without the conquest of the Land. All the issues in the debates about Zionism and Jewish history that have preoccupied and still preoccupy so many people – are the Jews a people or a religious community, can they be truly absorbed into countries outside of Israel, did God bequeath the land to them, etc., etc., including discourse on the Holocaust – boil down in the end to a discussion of the conquest of the Land. There is no serious debate with the Palestinians about Jewish history – whichever version, and I doubt that this history interests them. There is only one subject at the heart of the conflict: the coming of the Jews to Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century, their ultimate conquest of the land, and the expulsion of most of the Palestinians in 1948.
But Buber was not alone. The founders and early leaders of Mapai (the Labor Party) who came to Palestine a few years before and after the First World War never hid their intentions. Berl Katznelson, probably the most revered labor leader of all, said, in 1927: . “The Zionist enterprise is an enterprise of conquests.” And in the same breathe added: “It is not by chance that I use military terms when speaking of settlements.” In 1922 Ben Gurion had already said the same thing: “We are conquerors of the land facing an iron wall, and we have to break through it.”
Benny Morris the historian was also raised in the tradition of moderate Zionism. He was a “post-Zionist” who did a great deal to expose the injustices of the conquest and expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. One can not accuse him of evading the basic problems of Zionism – the conquest of the country by the Jews and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land.
In an interview with Ari Shavit, which provoked a storm at the time, Morris declared: “There would have been no Jewish state without the uprooting of those 700,000 Palestinians … and so it was necessary to uproot them … to clear the hinterland and to clear the border areas.” He also stated that “there are circumstances in history in which there is justification for ethnic cleansing.” And he then added: “Not to have completed the transfer (in 1948 by Ben-Gurion) was a mistake.”
Morris does not stop with the past, but also reflects on the future: “If Israel faces a situation of existential threat as in 1948, it could be that it will be forced to act as it acted then.” And at the end, in a less tactful way than that of Buber, but with the same meaning, he says with simplicity: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
Another example of an undaunted peace-loving member of the Zionist Left is Ze’ev Sternhell, who also endorses the conquest of the Land. Accordingly he wrote: “The conquest of the land up to 1948 was necessary and vital, and so it was just, because it was necessary for the realization the right of the Jews to independence and self-determination.” (Where we got the right to determine that the Jews were entitled to self-determination and authorized to expel the residents of the country he does not tell us.)
Realization of the imperative to conquer the Land, or to establish control over it, was the basic objective of every Zionist: from the Right to the Left, from Herzl and Nordau, Jabotinsky and Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Begin and from Martin Buber all the way to Ze’ev Sternhell.
But no pretext in the world can justify the expulsion of a people from its native land. That is Zionism’s original sin against the Palestinian people, and no philosopher like Buber or historian like Morris or Sternhell can explain this away.
There is not a single Palestinian who would agree to peace and reconciliation with Israel without, at least, an end to the Occupation of 1967 and a solution to the refugee problem. And even such a solution is a huge concession on the part of the Palestinians.
The Israeli public is not willing to choose peace and reconciliation on that basis – not even the most moderate among them. Their Zionist faith prevents them from taking responsibility for the refugee problem. And as for the return of the lands that were occupied in 1967, they rely on their governments to find ways to avoid doing that, just as they have done in the past sixty-two years. The sad conclusion is that, to the extent that it depends on Israel the chances for peace are very small. It only remains to add that in the long run the continuation of the status quo is of great danger to Israel itself.
1. Martin Buber, quoted in Unease in Zion. Ed., Ehud Ben Ezer. Am Oved. Tel Aviv 1986. pp.61-2 (Hebrew).
*Translated by George Malent