Brit Shalom: A Covenant of Peace

A little-known Zionist group that struggled for a peaceful solution to the Arab Question.

Brit Shalom–literally “Covenant of Peace”–was a group active in Palestine from 1925 to 1933, whose members subscribed to a unique combination of socialism, Zionism, and Judaism. The group focused primarily on Jewish-Arab relations, considering the achievement of an agreement with the Palestinian Arabs to be a moral and political necessity for the realization of Zionism. It was a lightning rod in its day, attracting fierce opposition from the more dominant Labor and Revisionist Zionists, some of whom considered Brit Shalom members to be traitors.

Because it was the main force convincing Jews to move to Palestine, the Labor movement of the time tended to downplay the conflict with the Arabs in the region. Labor officials claimed there was no broad-based Arab resistance to Zionism, and that appearances to the contrary were deceiving. Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his militant Revisionist movement believed the opposite–that there was likely to be serious Arab resistance to Zionist activities, and that a fight was inevitable. Brit Shalom represented a truly original third stream among the many rivulets and tributaries of Zionist thought on this “Arab question.”

The Birth of Brit Shalom

The founders and supporters of Brit Shalom were mostly Central European intellectuals, among whom were some real luminaries of 20th century scholarship: Martin Buber, the theologian and philosopher of dialogue; Judah Magnes, the founder of the Hebrew University; Gershom Scholem, the pioneer of the modern study of Kabbalah. They conceived of themselves less as a political party than as a “study circle” that hoped to contribute to a national discussion on the relationship of the Palestinian Arabs to the Yishuv–the pre-State Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Brit Shalom’s founding charter–written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic–announced that the organization’s goal was “to arrive at an understanding between Jews and Arabs as to the form of their mutual social relations in Palestine on the basis of absolute political equality of two culturally autonomous peoples, and to determine the lines of their co-operation for the development of the country.”

Consistent with these goals, the members of the group founded a newspaper, She’ifoteinu, wrote editorials in other Zionist papers, funded Arabic classes for Jews in Palestine, and made public speeches decrying what they saw as national chauvinism and imperialist tendencies emerging within the Zionist movement.

Idealists and Realists

Many Brit Shalom members had already given great thought to nationalism, being veterans of passionate debates about European nationalisms during and after World War I. Several members viewed Jewish nationalism as a unique form of cultural development that didn’t need sovereignty in a nation-state and the attainment of a numerical majority.

Rather, they believed that Jewish nationalism embodied the mission of the Jewish people–that is, to serve as a light unto the nations by observing the Bible’s prophetic imperative to do justice, and thus creating a model society. For Brit Shalom, Arab resistance to Zionism thus posed not only a practical but a moral problem for Jews. It would not be possible to create an attractive model society if that society were to be engaged in perpetual conflict.

To meet this challenge, Brit Shalom proposed less dependence upon official British imperial sponsorship. Instead, in order to gain Arab trust, they suggested that the Jewish Yishuv align itself with the native Arab population–even if that meant temporarily slowing immigration or land purchases. In return, Brit Shalom hoped that when Palestine gained independence from Britain, Arabs and Jews would be able to coexist in the land, without regard for the numerical ratio of one population to the other.

In 1925, Arabs outnumbered Jews in Palestine by a ten-to-one ratio. Contrary to what Brit Shalom advocated, most Zionists believed that massive and immediate Jewish immigration was necessary in order to achieve the “national home” the Jews had been promised by the British in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Labor leaders like Ben-Gurion and Weizmann looked on Brit Shalom’s efforts respectfully, but skeptically, not believing that the Arabs in Palestine would be willing to live in peace with the Jews settling the land. Many rank-and-file Labor and Revisionist activists took greater offense at Brit Shalom’s proposals, and argued that such policies would simply eventuate in one more Arab state, though perhaps one that granted Jews minority rights. Buber responded in religious terms:  “God does not sign promissory notes. But blessed be the man who lends himself to God without any bill of exchange!” In other words, Buber argued, it is best to act justly–rather than with force–and trust that God would reward the Yishuv with peace.

Alienated from Left and Right

Brit Shalom never attracted a large following. And the response of Brit Shalom to the Arab riots of 1929, in which over 100 Jews were killed and hundreds more wounded, did not improve the organization’s popularity. Brit Shalom suggested that the violence become an occasion for soul-searching and intimated that Zionism bore some responsibility for provoking the riots.

1929 proved to be a turning point in Jewish-Arab relations. Much of the Yishuv was thereafter drawn to the words of Jabotinsky, increasingly seeing the Arabs as an implacable enemy. Some members of Brit Shalom, sensing that the tide of opinion was against them, left the group to join the Labor mainstream; others abandoned the Zionist movement entirely and emigrated from Palestine to the United States.

With the rise of Hitler in 1933, the need for Jewish immigration became more urgent. There was infighting and dissension within Brit Shalom about what direction the group should take under the challenging new circumstances, and its members split apart and formed other groups, among which were Ichud (Unity) and the League for Jewish-Arab Rapprochement, which were more explicitly political parties that argued for a bi-national solution.

The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 put an end to such agitation, and marked the failure of this movement’s vision that Zionism could be based on bi-national equality rather than numerical Jewish majority. Today, Brit Shalom is mostly forgotten, though occasionally invoked by the anti-Zionist Israeli far left, who look to it for precedent and inspiration. Israel’s intellectual right, in addition, sometimes blames a Hebrew University coterie descended from Buber and Magnes for the spread of “post-Zionism” in Israel during the 1990s.

However, one might ask whether the “utopian idealism” of Brit Shalom, which sought to avoid endless war between a Zionist fortress state and disenfranchised Arabs, was really less realistic than the Realpolitik of Labor and Revisionism, who believed military solutions were necessary. After 60 years, neither of these dominant paths has had much success in creating a safe and secure Israel. Perhaps the memory of Brit Shalom can point to the unrealized potential of the prophetic ethical imperative in Israeli politics.

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