Beyond the Boundaries of “The Land of the Deer”: R. Binyamin between Jewish and Arab Geographies, and the Critique of the Zionist-Colonial Connection
Avi-ram Tzoreff’s article, published in Issue 82 (Summer 2020) of the Jerusalem Quarterly, revisits the writings and ideas of Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, an observant orthodox Jew, author, essayist, and anti-colonial Zionist, also known as Reb Binyamin (1880–1957) who believed in Arab-Jewish Partnership in and beyond Palestine.
Reb Binyamin was a founding member of Brit Shalom (covenant of peace), an organization that supported the idea of bi-nationalism, and he remained faithful to his advocacy for the equal rights of Jews and Arabs even after 1948. Binyamin was born in Zborow in Habsburg Galicia, moved to Berlin in 1900, where he studied at the Agricultural University of Berlin (Königliche Landwirtschaftliche Hochschule zu Berlin). In 1906, he moved to London and migrated to Palestine the next year. Growing up in the multinational Habsburg Empire, Reb Binyamin seems to have gravitated toward understandings of local civic partnership as a basis for identification in Ottoman Palestine during this period. These notions emphasized Ottoman citizenship, alongside other local and collective attachments, as a shared point of identification for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This was especially useful for those Ottoman-Palestinian Jews, both Ashkenazi and Sephardi, who self-identified as “children of the land” (bnei Haaretz or abna’ al-balad). In an article published in June 1930, Muhammad Roshan Akhtar, the editor of the English edition of the Palestinian newspaper Filastin, called for the establishment of an Arab federation, considering Jews to be an integral part of a political community whose territory sprawled “from Basra to Jaffa.” Akhtar’s article was met with an enthusiastic response from Reb Binyamin who considered the area between Basra and Jaffa as a basis for the anti-colonial unification of the Arab lands – as a basis for a different thinking about Jewish existence in Palestine and the Middle East. He foresaw an existence of Jews throughout the whole region, where the old Middle Eastern Jewish communities would play an important role.
In his article, Avi-ram focuses on Reb Binyamin’s spatial perception, on the importance he saw in his identification with the anti-colonial struggle in the region, and on the affinities between this orientation and the attitudes held by Palestinian intellectuals and political activists. It also examines the theological perception of Eretz Yisrael and the “lands that are adjacent to it” that lay at the foundations of Reb Binyamin’s thinking.
The full text of his article and the other contributions of the Special Issue “Palestine from Above: Surveillance, Cartography and Control (Part II)”, guest edited by Yazid Anani (EUME Fellow 2012/13) can be downloaded from the Jerusalem Quarterly’s website here.
Avi-ram Tzoreff teaches in the Department of Jewish History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He wrote this article while he was a post-doctoral fellow at EUME (Europe in the Middle East–the Middle East in Europe), a research program of the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin, in the academic year 2017/2018.
An interview with Avi-ram on “Provincializing European Jewry: R. Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad and Ottoman Modernity” on the TRAFO blog can be read here. His Berliner Seminar talk on “Desacralizing the Nation State: R. Binyamin, Bi-Nationalism in Palestine and the Critique of Zionist Secular Discourse” is also available to listen to here.