Cri de Coeur

Lachrymose Reflections on Israeli-Palestinian Relations

My cry is not a mere rhetorical gesture. It is deeply and painfully felt.  Jewish dignity is on the line — as is the dignity of the Palestinians.

The recent eruption of violence between Israel and Palestinians has exposed a tenuous fault line of the Zionist project. Reaching back to the very beginning of Zionist settlement, the relations with the native Arab population of Palestine were fraught with ethical and political ambiguity. Upon his first visit to Ottoman Palestine in 1891, Ahad Ha-Am — the spiritus rector of Zionism as a movement for the cultural and spiritual renewal of the Jewish people — penned a scathing critique of the fledgling Zionist settlement projects: “Truth from Erezt Israel.” He found these projects to be poorly planned and managed, and thus beholden to venal land speculators and primed by a disgraceful dependence on philanthropy. Hence, he bemoaned that “even the most sublime idea can be emptied of any integrity when molested by such hands.”  In voicing this lament, he made a parenthetical observation, touching upon what in time would be known in Zionist discourse as the Arab Question. With piercing prescience, he warned, “If the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not yield their place.” To obviate such a regrettable conflict, he urged the Zionist pioneers to free themselves from the self-justifying delusion that “the Arabs are all desert savages like donkeys who neither see nor understand what goes on around them. But this a big mistake.”

Despite this dire prognosis, Ahad Ha’am deemed the problem, as Alan Dowry has noted, “simply in terms of behaving decently and humanely toward the local population.  He failed to see it as a political problem.  In this respect, he did not differ from the Zionist leadership.”[1] By and large, they did not view, or perhaps refused to see the Arabs of Palestine as a political entity.  Accordingly, they turned to the Ottoman authorities and later to the administrators of British Mandate of Palestine to address any conflict the Zionist project had with the local Arab population. They thus not only circumvented Palestinian leadership, but, in effect, also avoided negotiations with the Palestinians and the prospect of compromising Zionist political aspirations. Moreover, it was held that the Arabs would ultimately be appeased by the material and social benefits of the “advanced” European civilization that the Zionists would bring to Palestine.

The patronizing attitude implicit in this view is poignantly illustrated by a report of a tour that Martin Buber made some twenty-five years after Ahad Ha’am’s initial visit of the Zionist settlements in Eretz Israel. At one newly established kibbutz, Buber queried his host whether he had qualms about the dozens of Palestinian tenant farmers and their families who were evicted with the purchase of the land on which the kibbutz was founded from a wealthy Arab landowner living in Beirut. In response, Buber’s host took him to the local cemetery, pointing to many graves of Palestinian children, some as young as six years old. “Our children,” he defiantly exclaimed, “will grow to healthy adulthood.”   

In stark contrast to the sanctimonious reflexes of Buber’s kibbutz host, the venerated Nestor of the Zionist Right, Ze’ev Jabotinsky called for a sober acknowledgement of the brute political realities posed by the Arab Question. At an emergency meeting of the Zionist executive held in the wake of the Jaffa riots of May 1921, resulting in the death of 47 Jews and 48 Arabs, Jabotinsky declared:

“Today the Jews constitute a minority in [Palestine]; in another twenty years they could very well be the vast majority. If we were Arabs, we would not agree to this either. And the Arabs are good Zionists too, like us. The country is full of Arab memories. I do not believe that it is possible to bridge the gap between us and the Arabs by words, gifts and bribery. I have been accused of attaching too much importance to the Arab national movement. [Some say] I admire this movement unduly. But the movement exists.”  

Political realism, Jabonitsky concluded, calls for Realpolitik, a politics of national self-interest, guided by the ethic of sacro egoismo: the view that the egotistic pursuit of the interests one’s own group, even if it entails the disregard of the existential reality of another group and the abuse of its human and political rights, is “sacred” and hence ethically justified. In the face of Arab-Palestinian nationalism, political realism dictated a steadfast strategy of “either us or them.”  In a testimony before the British Peel Commission of 1936 investigating the cause of unrest between Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine, Jabotinsky characterized the conflict as one of Arab appetite versus the starvation threatening the Jews of Europe. Accordingly, the Zionist cause overrides the interests of the Arabs of Palestine. With the looming horror of the Shoah, this perspective would determine the overarching political narrative of Zionism.

As the novelist Robert Musil observed, only inveterate criminals do not need a philosophy to justify their crimes. The rescue of European Jewry would justify the pursuit of Jewish statehood regardless of British and Arab opposition. This objective would perforce override “extraneous” ethical considerations.

To be sure, there were voices within the Jewish and Zionist community that found Zionist Realpolitik to be misguided. The wounds afflicted on the Arabs would not only fester and erupt with a pestilential rage but also further poison the Zionist project from within. Buber, for one, called for a Greater Realism, “a more comprehending, a more penetrating realism, the realism of a greater reality.” Renouncing a politics driven by cunning, calculated violence, egotistical self-assertion, and the othering of the other as an incorrigible adversary, the politics of a greater realism forges a path toward mutual trust and accommodation. The path so disclosed is not apparent, or willfully disregarded by the so-called political realists. This path, in the first instance, is illuminated by acknowledging, as Emmanuel Levinas beseeches us, the face of the other[2] - the human face of the other in the fullness of her existential reality. To see the face of the other requires the courage and ethical resolve to discard the lens of ideology, fear, and a single absorption in one’s own story and woe.

The revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg proudly declared that she had no special room in her heart for Jewish suffering. But one can, of course, have room in one’s heart for both Jewish and Palestinian suffering. For Buber, in reaching out to the other, one must listen empathetically to his or her story, and include it within one’s own. Dialogue is not self-negation, but rather an expansion of one’s self-understanding by embracing the voice — the hunger if you will of the other who by force of circumstance is one’s neighbor. If we are to heed the biblical injunction to love one’s neighbors, one is not merely to live next to them, for it would but perpetuate an indifference to their story and perhaps the fear that their story would threaten one’s own story. To love one’s neighbors is to live with them, to forge bonds of mutual trust and sow the seeds of mutual accommodation that respects one another’s story, narrating both in a dialogue between each other’s story relating an existential reality, rife as it may be with pain. Dialogue so conceived, however, is not an exchange of respective litanies of anguish, which in the case of Jewish-Palestinian relations might take on the hue of an accusatory debate.  It is rather an attentive listening to the grievances of the other and doing so with a magnanimous heart.  

Palestinian grievances indisputably outweigh those of the Zionists. One need but cite Moshe Dayan, named Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense of Forces soon after the founding of the State of Israel:

“We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs and we are building here a Hebrew, a Jewish state; instead of the Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the names of those villages, and I do not blame you because these villages no longer exist. There is not a single Jewish settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab Village.”

The Palestinian plight is marked by the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from more than 450 villages and towns in what was to become the Jewish state.  In a recently surfaced uncensored passage of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s diary, he summarized a conversation with one of his ministers: “We have to ‘pester’ [the refugees] relentlessly. …We need to pester and motivate the refugees in the south to move westwards”; most actually moved eastward to the Gaza Strip, then under the control of Egypt.[3] From the city of Jaffa alone over 60,000 Arabs were driven from their homes under the calculated assault of Jewish armed forces, most of whom found refuge in the Gaza Strip. Only 3,800 Arabs remained in Jaffa, which was soon annexed to Tel Aviv. By December 1948, a quarter of a million Palestinian refugees gathered in the tiny sliver of 25 miles in length and between 3.7 and 7.5 miles wide; today Palestinian refugees and their descendants constitute 70% of the Gaza Strip’s population. c. 1.4 million.

In the early 1950s the Palestinians mounted-cross border raids from the Gaza Strip into Israel. In a moment of candor, General Moshe Dayan remarked that one should not be surprised that Palestinian refugees peering across the border and noting that Jews were tilling the fields that had been theirs for generation would seek revenge.  Any understanding of the cause of the Palestinian marauders —known as fedayean in Arabic, hailed by Palestinians as “freedom fighter,” as “terrorists” by Israelis — did not yield sympathy for the cause of the refugees, however. On the contrary. The military operations of the fedayean played into the strategic net cast by Dayan to keep the refugees at bay: “Israel must invent danger, and to do this it must adopt a strategy of provocation and revenge.”

Consequent to the Six Day War of 1967, two and a half million Palestinians in the West Bank came under Israel’s rule. One may quibble whether Israeli occupation is to be properly characterized as apartheid. In fact, it may even be worse than South Africa’s former policy of racial separation. In creating autonomous territorial zones for the Black population, the South Africans accepted responsibility to support their educational, medical, and social services. This is not the case for the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank. Hence, during the recent epidemic the Israeli government opted to offer to give its sizable surplus of Covid-19 vaccines to prospective political allies in Africa and South America — and even contemplated selling it to a luxury cruise company — rather than share the vaccines with the desperate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.  In July 1980 the Israeli parliament passed legislation which effectively annexed East Jerusalem with its more than 300,000 Arabs, who were thereby granted the special status of Israeli residency, but not citizenship.  They may request citizenship on an individual basis, the request subject to a long administrative process (requiring the applicant to prove East Jerusalem to be one’s “center of life,” show fluency in Hebrew (sic), and approval of the Israeli security authorities). In effect, in Jerusalem there are two legal systems, one for Arabs and another for Jews (who are granted Israeli citizenship as an inalienable right). The legal inequality between the Jewish and Arab residents of Jerusalem has come to the fore with the flare up of tensions between Jews and Arabs in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, which together with aggressive Israeli police action during Ramadan on the plaza of the al-Aqsa Mosque served to spark Hamas’s nigh-two-week barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip on Israel, and Israel’s relentless counterattack.

Prior to the war of 1948, Sheik Jarrah had a mixed population of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Ensuing to the war, the Jewish population fled to West Jerusalem, where they received homes of Arabs who fled to Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem. In what may be considered quid qua pro, Arab refugees who were driven from neighborhoods conquered by Israeli armed forces in Western Jerusalem were housed in the homes of the former Jewish residents of Sheik Jarrah. But here’s the rub, with the unification of Jerusalem, Jewish organizations claim the right in the name of the people of Israel to the property formerly owned by Jews in Sheik Jarrah. Nota bene: Their claim is not based on the property rights of individuals and the heirs who prior to 1948 had lived in these dwellings but rather as self-appointed representatives of the nation of Israel. But should Arabs whose families have lived in Sheik Jarrah for over seventy years wish to reclaim their homes in Western Jerusalem, they cannot. For according to the Absentees’ Property Law enacted by the Israeli parliament in 1950, in effect, their right of ownership was annulled.

In an article published shortly after the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948, Martin Buber held that the founding of the modern state “confronts Judaism with the gravest crisis in its history.”  For, “even should the spiritual wealth of the People of Israel residing in its own land greatly increase, it does not necessarily follow that from this wealth will flower new life for Judaism. For if we properly comprehend the uniqueness of Judaism, then it has but one content and purpose: a divine commandment that stands above the existence of the people as a people. … The Lord expects that Israel should live a life of justice before itself and the world.”  Hence, “the people of Israel are called upon not only to build just institutions but even more demandingly just relations between itself and other peoples.” Alas, “Israel now seems to believe that, as a state, it has been granted the right and indeed the duty, like other modern states, to see in the demands dictated by transient interests, that is, as understood by its leaders, to be the decisive and indeed the ultimate demand. The divine demand seems to have disappeared.” The Hebrew Bible reports that when the people and its leaders would stumble in the realization of this overarching commandment, there were prophets who would reproach “the people and its rulers and remind them  whenever the interest of the moment, that is, what seemed at the moment to be the collective interest, was opposed to the unchanging will the of the Lord, to the will of justice.” Turning to the citizens of the nascent State of Israel, Buber reminded them that above all we are “the children of Amos.”[4] 

The prophets exemplify the supreme virtue of a critical solidarity with one’s people. They exhort us to be ever alert to the inherent foibles of a myopic vision of sacro egoismo that contorts the biblical commandment to pursue justice by limiting its focus to the calculus of national self-interest. On the eve of the Fourteenth World Zionist Congress in August 1925, Robert Weltsch published an editorial in the prestigious German Zionist weekly, Jüdische Rundschau that voiced such a prophetic admonition:[5]

“We may be a people without a home, but, alas, there is not a country without a people. … Palestine has an existing population of 700,000, a people who have lived there for centuries and rightfully consider this country as their fatherland and homeland. That is a fact which we must take into account. Palestine will always be inhabited by two peoples, the Jewish and the Arab. …Palestine will only prosper if a relationship of mutual trust is established between the two peoples. Such a relationship can only be established if those who are newcomers — and such we are — arrive with the honest and sincere determination to live together with [the Palestinians] on the basis of mutual respect and full consideration of all their human and national rights. …The realization of Zionism is unthinkable if we do not succeed in integrating our movement into the ever-stronger nationalist wakening of the neighboring Asian peoples.”

Weltsch concluded his editorial with a clarion warning that resonates with an uncanny contemporary immediacy:

“World public opinion cannot forget the existence of a large native population in Palestine; the growing sympathy with the [Palestinian Arab] aspirations toward national self-determination will make Zionism unpopular in many circles, not out of anti-Jewish feelings but out of consideration for the natural rights of the Arabs.”


[1] Alan Dowty, “Much Ado about Little. Ahad Ha’am’s ‘Truth from Eretz Israel,’ Zionism, and the Arabs,” Israel Studies, vol. 5, no. 3 (Fall 2000): 158.

[2] Levinas himself was reluctant to apply this principle to the Palestinians. Indeed, he was hesitant to criticize Israeli policies, at least in public. Founding of the State of Israel in the shadow of the Shoah, was pivotal to his identity as a Jew. Israel was thus a “shameful exception (Annabel Herzog). This position is perhaps typical of many Jewish public figures in the Diaspora. In Israel citizenship allows us critical latitude. Indeed, to voice our ethical and political  concerns is our civic responsibility. As Michel Foucault would say, “fearless speech” is our duty as citizens. See Annabel Herzog, Levinas’s Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020).

[3] Ofer Aderet, “Ben-Gurion’s Uncensored Diary Revealed: ‘Pester and Motivate the Refugees to Move Westward.’” Ha-Aretz, March 9, 2021.

[4] Buber, “The Children of Amos” (April 1949), trans. from the Hebrew in A Land of Two Peoples. Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs, edited with commentary, with a New Preface, by P. Mendes-Flohr, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 253-258.

[5] Robert Weltsch, “Zum XIV. Zionistenkongress. Worum es geht?“ Jüdische Rundschau, 30, no. 64/65 (Berlin, 14 August 1925):549f.

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2 thoughts on “Cri de Coeur

  1. It is agonizing to think that Israel is founded on an ethos that disregards the demands of justice as they were voiced by Amos and the other prophets. I have been waiting seventy years for Israeli public opinion to recognize these demands. But it seems that the trauma of the Holocaust has kept Israelis permanently living as if it were still 1938–as if there were no difference between the Palestinian people and the fascists of Europe. It seems that they are caught in a nightmare so powerful that they cannot awaken, heal their wounds, and resume their full humanity.

  2. This is one of the most profound comments on the current moment and its origins, and deserves to be very widely circulated. I feel grateful to have this to send to relatives with whom it seems I can no longer speak, and am feeling hopeful that they will actually consider the contextualization here offered, given Mendes-Flohr’s deep legitimacy…
    Thank you, thank you, for what you have offered here, Paul Mendes-Flohr.

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