“A Suggestion for a Different Existence in Israel-Palestine” – Eastwards: R. Binyamin, Binationalism and Counter-Zionism
Avi-Ram Tzoreff in conversation with Georges Khalil
Avi-ram Tzoreff is a post-doctoral fellow of the Polonsky Academy at the Van-Leer Jerusalem Institute and teaches in the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University and in the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sapir College . 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 2018/2019.
Georges Khalil: Dear Avi-ram, your book “Kedma Mizraha: R. Binyamin, Binationalism and Counter-Zionism” (Jerusalem 2023) has been published recently by the Zalman Shazar Center in Hebrew. Who was R. Benyamin? And what questions intrigued you when you started your research on his life and thought?
Avi-Ram Tzoreff: Yehoshua Radler-Feldman, known by his pseudonym R. Binyamin (1880-1957) was a Galician-born, observant Jew, a prominent figure in modern Hebrew literature and journalism, and, although a committed Zionist himself, a sharp critic of the Zionist settler-colonial repertoire of perceptions and practices. He was one of the prominent figures in the movements that called for the establishment of a joint Jewish-Arab political framework during the British mandatory period and criticized the Zionist alliance with and reliance on the British colonial authorities. He also turned against the secular Zionist notion of an exclusive sovereign that reclaimed Biblical Jewish existence in Palestine, while he adhered to traditional Jewish notions of existence in Palestine, Eretz Yisrael, which enabled him to explore the notion of binational existence. Following the establishment of the state of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba, he founded the journal Ner, which served to voice the demand for the return of the Palestinian refugees, and where various representatives of those Palestinians who remained inside the state of Israel (48 Palestinians) published their articles as well.
I was born in 1988, a year after the outbreak of the first Intifada, and grew up in a family that identified politically with the very narrow stream of left-wing religious-Zionism, usually related to the Meimad party. This approach was characterized mainly by its resistance to the radical religious Zionist right-wing of Gush Emunim, that was responsible for the ongoing Israeli colonial expansion in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. As opposed to the new settlers, which they considered religious ‘fundamentalists’, Meimad was distinguished by a ‘liberal’ and ‘decent’ (maybe bourgeois) notion of Jewish religion. The latter suited the contemporary political general tendencies among Israeli society during the 90’s, which were reflected in the quest for a Jewish-Palestinian agreement and partition that was expressed in the Oslo accords.
The years of my youth coincided with the second Intifada, when these tendencies from my childhood years lost their appeal among Jewish Israelis. Here, the weaknesses of Meimad became clear, since it remained in the limited and unimportant social arena of religious Zionism, between so-called radical fundamentalists and liberals. Meimad did not articulate any broader critique of Zionism as a whole and therefore failed to recognize the ways in which right-wing religious Zionism persisted the same violent notions of colonization and displacement that were integral parts of hegemonic secular Zionist discourse, related today as the Zionist center-left.
While I became more and more interested in Jewish-Arab binationalism, and as an observant Jew myself, I was not equipped with the language to articulate this political horizon. It was during this period that I became acquainted with the figure of R. Binyamin, in whom I found the political language that I was looking for. As opposed to Meimad’s liberal, privatized notion of religion, this was an approach that considered traditional Jewish collective existence as a basis for a broad political critique of Zionist separatist negation of Jewish-Arab binational existence and its settler-colonial practices. At the same time, it was attempting to draw the lines of the possibility of a non-colonial Jewish existence in Palestine, embedded in the history and geography of the entire Middle East and directly linked to the return of Palestinian refugees.
Georges: Thank you Avi-ram, we have started to discuss the idea of a review of your book before the recent and ongoing horrific atrocities, and both wonder about the meaning of scholarship in these times. The search for a language that connects rather than divides is certainly a meaningful way to look forward. So let me ask about Galicia, the context in which R. Binyamin came of age as a man of letters and faith, as a Zionist who believed in Palestinian/Arab-Jewish partnership. What are the experiences and resources he drew upon? What made his ideas of Zionism, and of Binationalism different from that of other members of Brit Shalom (the Covenant for Peace) such as Martin Buber, Hugo Bergman, Judah Magnes, Gershom Scholem, or Hans Kohn? And what were the central categories in which he thought?
Avi-ram: R. Binyamin grew up in the eastern part of the Habsburg province of Galicia, a multinational space that took shape under Habsburg rule as a kind of skein of political loyalties that allowed for the parallel existence of different centers of identification – the imperial, the regional Galician, and the collective – side by side, without presupposing the negation of the other. Galician Jews shared a regional national triangle alongside Poles and Ruthenians. This depiction does not aim to formulate an idyllic description of the multinational Galician reality, within which power relations of various kinds existed – mainly between the Polish nobility and the Ruthenian peasantry, while Jews frequently played the role of intermediaries. My argument is that the imperial structure, in contrast to the structure of the nation states, was not based on a concept of an imaginary overlap between territory, citizenship and nationality. Therefore, it enabled the parallel existence of various poles and directions of identification. These characteristics where similar to indigenous Jewish experience in late Ottoman Palestine, which also emphasized the parallel existence of the notion of Ottomanism as a civic form of identification alongside Arabic and the Arab space as lingual and regional forms of identification and the Jewish national existence. These similarities between the Habsburg Galician existence and the Ottoman Palestinian one, played a major role in R. Binyamin’s articulation of Binationalism.
Gershom Scholem, Hugo Bergman and Hans Kohn composed what became known as the ‘radical circle’ in Brit Shalom. The way in which R. Binyamin differed from this circle – alongside many similarities of course – related to three major issues. Firstly, while the circle’s members, as part of the fascination with the Orient that was identified with ‘authenticity’, drew the Orient or Pan-Asianism as a basis for a political framework of resistance, and rejected Islam as a framework that might play a role in the establishment of such a framework. From R. Binyamin’s perspective, however, it was pan-Semitism, which was explained as an expression of the religious and cultural affinity between Judaism and Islam that formed the basis for the formation of a cooperation in these struggles.
The second point relates to R. Binyamin’s identification with the ‘Herzlian’ notion of Zionism – that is, the understanding of Zionism as a movement whose main goal was the mass rescue of persecuted Jews from Europe. The circle’s members saw Zionism primarily as a movement of cultural renaissance and therefore sketched a horizon of a relatively limited Jewish center in Palestine. While the latter were among those who were commonly regarded as radicals, R. Binyamin’s radicalism stemmed directly from his commitment to seeing the Zionist movement as a movement aimed at solving the question of the Jews in Europe. For R. Benyamin, the question of Jews in Europe required the formation of a different spatial consciousness that broke through the colonial borders and the domains of mandatory Palestine, where a large number of Jews could live throughout the Middle East region, while at the same time preventing expulsions and displacements. This regional framework emerged from familiarity with the post-Ottoman Arab spatial consciousness, which saw in the space that was torn apart by the colonial forces a single spatial entity to claim for its renewed establishment, and differed naturally from the dominant Zionist approach that sought Jewish majority and exclusive sovereignty in the limited colonial framework of mandatory Palestine.
R. Binyamin was unique in his consistent adherence to Binationalism before and also after the establishment of the State of Israel and the Palestinian Nakba, which was expressed in his activity as the editor of the journal Ner, that called for the return of the Palestinian refugees and criticized the discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens, which he referred to directly as ‘apartheid’ (Some of the Palestinian political representatives such as the lawyer Elias Koussa or the MK Rostum Bastuni were among the contributors to the journal). Another former companion whose consistency was expressed in the demand for the return of the refugees was Hans Kohn. However, Kohn raised this demand as an American Jew – he left Palestine and the Zionist movement in 1934 – attempting to prevent the support of American Jewry to the State of Israel. He did so while at the same time being one of the prominent figures in the articulation of the American Cold War, framing the US as the leader of the free world. R. Binyamin’s critique was that of someone who remained in Palestine and became responsible for the Palestinian refugees’ situation. He manifested this attitude in his approach regarding the blocs’ struggle of the Cold War. As opposed to Kohn, R. Binyamin turned against both the US and the Soviet Union, and saw in the Bandung committee of 1955 (which is usually seen as the beginning of the non-aligned movement) and in “active neutrality” the correct approach in order to possibly prevent a “third world war”.
Georges: If I understand you correctly, R. Binyamin has been a Zionist who believed that Jews in Europe could be rescued from the questions Europeans posed on their belief, life and existence in Palestine and the Middle East in general. He did not romanticize the East in Orientalist terms, and his worldview and notions of a Jewish collectivity in Palestine and elsewhere has been shaped by the conditions and experiences of fractured sovereignty and imperial diversity in the Habsburg-Galician contexts. How do you flesh out his ideas and actions in your book? Which of his categories or concepts and arguments you find most relevant? I remember that in one of your talks you mentioned the notion of “children of the land” that sounds very familiar in Arabic. How does R. Binyamin relate Jewish thought and experience to that of people in the Ottoman Empire in general and that of Palestinians in particular? In which intellectual circles did he dwell in Palestine – and after 1948 in Israel?
Avi-ram: As you have correctly mentioned, R. Binyamin’s experience in multinational Habsburg Galicia where national identities were emphasized along with local and imperial loyalties made him familiar with the local identity of “the children of the land” (Bnei Haaretz / Abnaa al-Balad) that developed in Ottoman Palestine and served as a center of identification for Jews and Arabs alike. This experience served as a basis for his formulation of a different approach to indigenousness and a different theological-political understanding of Jewish existence in Eretz Yisrael. The dominant voices in the Zionist movement based their imagination of the land on the denial of the actual land and its subjugation to their image of an ancient Biblical land, a perspective that maintains close affinities with the Christian millenarian imagination of the missionary societies and the understandings of archaeological societies operating in Palestine of history and biblical antiquity. R. Binyamin, on the other hand, referred to traditional notions of Jewish existence in Eretz Yisrael, in which existence in the land and in the holy places is not set in terms of a progressive history that begins with antiquity but is situated in relation to other existing local traditions, and to the idea of a future that grows out of the land and its children, which is rooted in and gives validity to the political situation of shared existence. Apart from this, and as a reflection of his identification with the Arab anti-colonial spatial imagination, for example as suggested by the Muslim Indian editor of the English version of the journal Filastin, Muhammad Roshan Akhtar, who suggested that Jews should become an integral part of an Arab federation in the space between Basra and Jaffa, a frame which R. Binyamin adopted, he also crystallized an alternative regional theology. According to this perception, the holiness of the land expands to the neighbouring countries, and the proximity of the land to Eretz Yisrael is important. Therefore, he thought that one cannot compare the status of Jewish existence in Iraq, for example, to that in the US, since Iraq forms a spatial and regional continuum with Palestine. According to his understanding, in order to fulfil Zionist aspiration for a mass rescue, Zionism must give up its aspiration for a limited sovereignty in mandatory Palestine and instead scatter the Jews throughout the Arab lands. Furthermore, Zionism, in his opinion, should rather try to achieve equal collective and individual rights within a broader, larger Arab state, based also on a broader theological understanding of Jewish existence in Eretz Yisrael and the lands close to it.
R. Binyamin was an interesting figure also due to the various intellectual circles in which he dwelled. As I have already mentioned, he was a prominent member of the binational movement, but he also was a central figure among religious Zionists as well as in non-Zionist orthodox circles, for example as the editor of the journal Ha-hed, that was oriented towards an observant Jewish readership. He was also an important literary critic and important figure in the circles of Modern Hebrew literature. Another circle in which he engaged in, was the one of indigenous Sephardi intellectuals. He also voiced a critical approach regarding intra-Jewish ethno-class discrimination in the Yishuv.
From 1948 onwards, he became more engaged in those limited circles that raised the demand for the cancellation of Israeli military rule and the demand of the return of the refugees – that were identified mainly with some members of the Israeli left-wing party Mapam and the Israeli Communist Party, Maki, but also with some of the independent Palestinian representatives in Israel, such as Elias Koussa, a lawyer and Palestinian politician from Haifa, which I mentioned, or George Hakim, the Melkite-Greek Catholic Bishop of Haifa, Akko, Nazareth and all Galilee.
Georges: So R. Binyamin thought of Jewish times and existence in the land of Israel, in open ways, not in exclusive terms of history, possession or sovereignty but in terms of being, of relation, proximity, and perhaps justice. The Habsburgian and Ottoman empires he inhabited have passed away and left behind legacies of violence and relations. Jews who lived in the countries close to Palestine or the land of Israel left or were expelled from their lands towards the end of R. Binyamin’s life, and new regimes of borders, communication and mobility create different notions of proximity and distance. How and to which current historiographical and political debates within Israel does your book connect, how is it received among your colleagues in the historical field?
Avi-ram: I think that R. Binyamin’s adherence to the concept of Binationalism within the Israeli nation-state opens up the horizon of this concept, that is its potential to criticize current Israeli policies and serve as a basis to draw a different political horizon, of a shared Jewish-Arab existence in Israel-Palestine that does not depend on a colonial power structure. R. Binyamin’s call for the return of the refugees, his critique of the second-class citizenship of Palestinians in Israel during the years of the military rule, and the connections he drew between these issues and Israel’s position within the global political arena, have remained the major issues regarding the future of the two nations in Israel-Palestine to this very day. The discussion of the Binational movements in mandatory Palestine, mainly during the 20’s, cannot be considered marginal in the historiography of Zionism or in Israel’s Middle East Studies, since Binational movements are often referred to as manifestations of a so-called Zionist interest in a shared Jewish-Arab existence in Palestine, while blurring these movements’ oppositional attitude, as well as their limitations. Recently, even mainstream Zionist approaches were represented as negating the political framework of the nation-state, while totally ignoring their adherence to the settler-colonial repertoire, which had to say a lot about their conceptualization of nationalism. Therefore, it is not surprising that R. Binyamin, and mainly his clear attitudes after 1948 did not receive this scholarly attention. My book, of course, approaches this question from the opposite angle, explicitly pointing to the need to discuss the question of nationalism and the nation-state as part of the discussion of the Zionist settler-colonial repertoire, Palestinian history, and the global history of colonialism and anti-colonial movements.
We are having this conversation in a bleeding moment, in one of the peaks of violence in the history of Israel-Palestine. The mass massacre of Israeli civilians in their homes by Hamas on October 7 after the breaching of the Gaza Strip walls and the massive, brutal and violent counter-mass massacre of civilians in Gaza by the Israeli can be considered as clear evidence of the inability to fulfill R. Binyamin’s Binational vision. Between the Israeli refusal and killing of unarmed Palestinian protesters from Gaza who tried to exercise their right of return five years ago, in the return marches of 2018, as well as the fulfillment of Israel’s most terrifying nightmares about the possibility of return by Hamas, there seems to be no more room for R. Binyamin’s stance. In the face of Israeli calls for a new “war of independence”, and Palestinian fears of a second Nakba, a second displacement, R. Binyamin’s call to welcome the Palestinian returnees and the rights of Palestinian citizens can be seen as an act of justice that offers the opportunity to get out of the already 75-year-old revenge trap. Against the return to the common, familiar answers, to the understanding of an armed, fortified Israel as the only guarantee for the security of the Jews, R. Binyamin’s articulation of the constant “fear of the coming rounds” – to use his own phrase in 1956, can be seen as a proposal for a different existence in Israel-Palestine.
Georges: I was thinking of asking you one or two more questions, for example how your re-reading of Jewish history and thought might relate to the contemporary discussions, research and engagement of scholars in the proximity of Palestine/Israel with their/our historical legacies in search for an open, inclusive and just society.
Avi-ram: Hugo Bergmann, one of R. Binyamin’s friends in the Brit Shalom group argued that “This is God’s grace for his people, Yisrael, that its homeland is a homeland of two peoples”. Once examined within the context of the post-WWI global political order that was manifested in the rise of nation-states in the territories of the Habsburg Empire, the creation of mandates and the expansion of the colonial regimes of Britain and France into areas of the Ottoman Empire, Binationalism can be thought of as an alternative for the problems embedded within this structure. The emergence of the post-WWI order of nation-states and the implementation of the right of national self-determination mainly in Eastern Europe occurred in parallel to two additional processes. The first was the denial of the very right of self-determination to national groups subjected to European colonial rule—groups who had hoped that the revaluation of that right would lead to their liberation from the yoke of foreign rule. The second process was the rise of the question of minorities, because the political framework of the nation-state created a new foundation in which the balance of power in the state was linked to the relations between the national majority and the minorities. Binationalism, as it was formulated in mandatory Palestine, challenges both the denial of the right of self-determination from the colonized and the majoritarian logic of the nation-state. It creates a place for various collective national rights to materialize within a single civic framework, and dismantles the direct connection between nation and state and the imagined connection between ethnicity and territory. It is this kind of way in which the memory of Jewish collective existence in fin-de-siecle Habsburg and Ottoman empires might contribute to the critical analysis of the prevailing global order that seems to break up in front of our eyes.
Georges: Thank you very much Avi-ram for this conversation in terrible and painful times. I hope we will follow-up on some of the questions and issues you raised sometime soon.
 One of the historians who is identified with the historiographic school I have mentioned, has recently published an article about “the death of the binational paradigm”: Shumsky, Dmitry, It’s Time to Bury the Suicidal Notion of a Binational State for Israel-Palestine, in: Haaretz, November 17, 2023.
About the Author
Georges Khalil is Managing Director at the Forum Transregionale Studien and forms part of the TRAFO Blog’s Editorial Team.
A text by Avi-ram entitled “Beyond the Boundaries of ‘The Land of the Deer’: R. Binyamin between Jewish and Arab Geographies, and the Critique of the Zionist-Colonial Connection” can be found here. 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.
Citation: “A suggestion for a different existence in Israel-Palestine”. Eastwards: R. Binyamin, Binationalism and Counter-Zionism, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.11.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/49558
Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2023, 29. November). “A Suggestion for a Different Existence in Israel-Palestine” – Eastwards: R. Binyamin, Binationalism and Counter-Zionism. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/ut8d