Clash of Nationalisms

Arabs in Zionist thought.

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"We tend to believe abroad that all Arabs are desert barbarians, an asinine people who does not see or understand what is going on around them. This is a cardinal mistake.... The Arabs, and especially the city dwellers, understand very well what we want and what we do in the country...

"But when the day will come in which the life of our people in the Land of Israel will develop to such a degree that they will push aside the local population by little or by much, then it will not easily give up its place." ("Truth from the Land of Israel," The Complete Writings of Ahad Ha-am, 1946, p. 29.)

Palestinian Nationalism

As a distinct national entity and movement, the Palestinian community went through a process of historic gestation from the 1920s and continuing through 1967. Palestinian national identity emerged as a reaction against the British Mandate and the growth of the Yishuv. Local Arab violence that began as sporadic mob actions in 1920 and 1921 was transformed into organized political and military action in the Arab revolts of 1929 and 1936-1939.

Israel's War of Independence, and the exodus of approximately 700,000 Palestinians, not only remains a central problem of the continuing conflict, but further cemented a shared sense of Palestinian history, memory, and suffering central to the formation of a national movement.

During the British Mandate, several schools of thought developed regarding Jewish-Arab relations within the Zionist movement. The positions of three figures are crucial: Martin Buber, Zev Jabotinsky, and David Ben Gurion.


Although Buber only immigrated to the Land in 1939 at the age of 59, he spent an enormous portion of his adult life committed to Zionism. In Buber's conception, a Zionism that aspired to create a Jewish version of Albania or even of Switzerland fell short of the Jewish people's religious-political mission in the world.

In his mind, a Zionism that embraced the realpolitik principle that all means justify the ends betrayed the Jewish challenge--to build a society that embodied in its political behavior and policy the prophetic concern with justice and peace.

Buber--and a number of key Central European Zionist activists and intellectuals, including Shmuel Hugo Bergman, Gershom Scholem, and Henrietta Szold--participated in political organizations like Brit Shalom and the Ichud, which worked toward Jewish-Arab rapprochement. Zionism would succeed, they argued, only if it would find a way to reconcile the equally legitimate claims of both Jews and Arabs to some form of national self-determination in the Land of Israel.

Their insistence on an equality of national rights led them to support voluntary Jewish limits on immigration as a tactic to build trust with the Arabs, and the establishment of a bi-national state where both groups would find national-cultural expression through a sharing of political power.

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Scott Copeland

Scott Copeland is an Israeli educator and travel guide. He serves as the program coordinator for the Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.