The main current of Zionism has always nourished itself on the illusions that the Jews were “a people without a land” returning to “a land without a people.” But there was from the beginning of the movement another Zionism that was prepared, from the deepest ethical motives, to face up to the reality that Palestine was not an empty land but contained another and kindred people. They were a lonely handful then, and they are a lonelier one now, when the pendulum of power has swung to the far right. Perhaps never more than now has this Other Zionism seemed more like a voice in the political wilderness, but the time may be coming when more and more Israelis and Jews will wish these voices had been heard, and when their message will take on renewed life and meaning if there is to be peace and Israel is to survive.
In their time, the spokesmen for this Other Zionism were not obscure and peripheral figures, but among the most resplendent names in the history of the Return. They were among the greatest of the thinkers and the pioneers who prepared the way for the reestablishment of Israel. One of them, Ahad Ha Am, was the foremost philosopher to take part in the rebirth of Hebrew as a living language in our time. Among these Other Zionists was his disciple, the San Francisco–born American rabbi Judah L. Magnes, who emigrated to Palestine in 1922. His monumental achievement was in establishing the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1925. He served as its president until his death in 1948.
Ahad Ha Am, a Russian Jewish intellectual, played a role in obtaining the Balfour Declaration, by which the British government pledged itself in 1917 to establish in Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people.” Ahad Ha Am was also one of the few in the Zionist movement who stressed the parallel obligation expressed in the Declaration “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Ahad Ha Am called himself a “cultural Zionist.” He wanted the political aims of Zionism limited, as his biography in the Encyclopaedia Judaica expresses it, by “consideration for the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs.” This was a note rarely if ever struck by the spokesmen for mainline Zionism. These regarded the pledge to the Palestinian Arabs as a kind of British imperialist trick and insisted on reading the Balfour Declaration as a promise not to create a Jewish national home in Palestine but to turn all Palestine into a Jewish state.
Four years after the Balfour Declaration was promulgated, Ahad Ha Am expanded his views on it in a preface to the Berlin edition of his book At the Cross Ways. He wrote then that the historical right of the Jewish people to a national home in Palestine “does not invalidate the right of the rest of the land’s inhabitants.” He recognized that they have “a genuine right to the land due to generations of residence and work upon it.” For them too, Ahad Ha Am went on, “this country is a national home and they have the right to develop their national potentialities to the uttermost.” He felt that this “makes Palestine into a common possession of different peoples.”
Ahad Ha Am died in 1927. But his younger American disciple, Magnes, followed in his footsteps. He made a lifelong effort to bring Arabs and Jews together, and to work for a binational state in which the national rights and aspirations of both peoples would be safeguarded by fundamental constitutional guarantees. In such a state the constitution, regardless of which was at any time in the majority, would recognize two nations within the one state, with full rights to cultural autonomy, fostered by two official languages, Arabic and Hebrew.
The considerations that led Magnes all his life to espouse this view were movingly set forth in his address opening the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for its 1929–30 academic year. This old address reads with fresh meaning and pathos in the wake of the South Lebanese invasion and the use by the Israeli army of cluster bombs against the civilian population. “One of the greatest cultural duties of the Jewish people,” Magnes said then, “is the attempt to enter the Promised Land, not by means of conquest as Joshua, but through peaceful and cultural means, through hard work, sacrifice, love, and with a decision not to do anything which cannot be justified before the world conscience.”
From an essay published in the September 1978 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The complete essay — along with the magazine’s entire 164-year archive — is available online at harpers.org/fromthearchive.