Eighty-five years ago, a small group of German-Jewish academics from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem came together to create an alternative to mainstream Zionism. They felt that the political brand of Herzlian Zionism had become too nationalistic and was quickly alienating Jew from Arab in British mandated Palestine.
Their remedy was a highly intellectual movement called Brit Shalom (Hebrew for Covenant of Peace), an attempt to model a framework for Jewish-Arab coexistence in one land. The founders, including such Judaic Studies luminaries as philosopher Martin Buber, kabbalah researcher Gershom Scholem and Hebrew University president Judah Leon Magnes, advocated complete civic equality between Jews and Arabs under British rule with cultural exchange between both autonomous groups.
‘The idea of separation is unrealistic; it simply doesn’t work’
Founded in 1926 and inspired by the cultural Zionism championed by Asher Ginsberg (Ahad Ha’am), Brit Shalom never grew beyond 100 members. By 1933, as hostilities between the two national groups in the land intensified, Brit Shalom had almost completely disappeared. New recruits in the 1930s and 1940s like Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt did little to salvage the movement. No alliance with Arab movements was ever forged.
Today, disillusioned by the Oslo peace process and the concept of a two-state solution, a small number of activists have relaunched Brit Shalom under the banner “Brit Shalom 2012.”
In a discussion session held at a downtown Jerusalem art gallery, over cold bottles of Goldstar beer, the organizers earlier this week advanced a six-point plan centered around the idea of a regional confederation, with full political and individual rights for members of both nations, “irrespective of whether they belong to the minority or the majority group.”
“Separation [into two states] is a disaster,” declared Ronen Eidelman, one of the founders. “We don’t want to give up on Judaism and Zionism, despite all of the terrible crimes that were, and still are being, committed by it.”
As in 1926, the ideals are lofty, highly intellectual and meticulously articulated. As in 1926, Arabs, Sephardi Jews and Orthodox Jews are largely absent from the debate.
“The idea of separation is unrealistic; it simply doesn’t work,” claimed Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, a Jewish History professor at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba who researched the movement’s writings and clearly identifies with its message today. “Talk of separation creates antagonism. It highlights the differences rather than the commonalities.”
Raz-Krakotzkin says that paradoxically, the mainstream Zionist attempt to separate Jews from Arabs in the land of Israel has resulted in the fragmentation of the Jewish community itself.
“The attempt to be European, to completely identify ourselves with the West against the East, has separated us from ourselves,” he said.
Raz-Karkotzkin admits that the original movement was not able to captivate the Jewish community of Palestine in the early 20th century, but hopes that something has changed in Israeli society since.
“Today the two-state idea is in crisis. Most people understand that it’s no longer possible. In addition, Jewish existence itself is in crisis. There’s a sense that our society has become a walled ghetto, armed with nuclear weapons, constantly experiencing a sense of catastrophe. We must find ourselves a vision.”
‘The deep questions of identity facing Israeli society – those of the Jewish character of the state and our so-called political independence – will not be resolved by creating two states’
Brit Shalom highlights the Jewish element of its program. Its founders speak repeatedly of a sense of cultural disorientation, of lost values among Israeli Jews. Some people in the audience are clearly uncomfortable with the incessant treatment of the term “Judaism.”
“What about secularism?” asked one woman, annoyed. “I haven’t heard that term used here even once!”
Motty Fogel is one of the few religious representatives on the discussion panel. He grew up in the small settlement of Neve Tzuf, northwest of Ramallah, and lost his brother, sister-in-law and their three children in a terrorist attack at the settlement of Itamar in March 2011. In a scathing criticism of the Zionist left, Fogel claims that in their defense of the two-state solution, many in Israel focus on imagined problems while ignoring the real ones.
“The deep questions of identity facing Israeli society — those of the Jewish character of the state and our so-called political independence — will not be resolved by creating two states,” said Fogel. The Israeli left, he adds, tends to disregard the practical concerns of Israeli citizens such as security; the rise of religious fundamentalism on both sides; and the deep economic cleavages between Jews and Arabs, while focusing on the “imagined” issues.
Fogel is unapologetic about the absence of Arabs in the debate.
“I want to engage in an internal Jewish debate on our existence here within a joint framework,” he said.
Brit Shalom implicitly accepts the fact that Jews will become a minority within the bi-national state envisioned by it. But Raz-Krakotzkin of Ben-Gurion University does not seem terribly troubled by that notion.
“Can Jewish society continue living in the Middle East? I’ll tell you the truth – I don’t know,” he said. “But just like [Gershom] Scholem said 80 years ago, I think it’s better to be on the right side of the barricades because the dangers exist in any case.”