We have hosted a number of college-age tour groups over the past month, mostly in the context of the Birthright program. They come to us for a half-day seminar on the Arab citizens of Israel historical background, discussion of issues, and an encounter with some local Arab Israelis. Recently we decided that it was time to upgrade our standard introductory lecture, which summarizes, in about 30 minutes, the entire history of Jewish-gentile relations in Eretz Yisrael since the Bible. It occurred to us that it might be interesting to liven up the program by exploring in depth the public debate over the original plan to partition Palestine, proposed by the Peel Commission in 1937. It turned out to be pretty easy to find texts representing the various points of view. Then we simply printed them on posters, placed them around the sides of the room, and asked the participants to find the position with which they identified and stand there. In the ensuing discussion, in which they explained and defended their choices, we were able to clarify the key issues, give some insight into the dilemma facing the Jews of Palestine and of the rest of the world; and a good time was had by all.
What was amazing to the students and to us, as we prepared the activity was the familiarity of the words we found; here are a few brief excerpts:
Just as it is impossible to change the boundaries of morning and evening, thus it is impossible to change the boundaries of the land as defined in the Torah. [Rabbi Yechiel Michael Tukachinsky]
The choice lies between a Jewish minority in the whole of Palestine or a compact Jewish State in a part. [Haim Weizman]
having a major people and a minor people in a State of various nationalities is reactionary. The progressive conception is parity among the peoples of [a] multi-national State. [Martin Buber and Judah Magnes]
If it is unjust to the Arabs to impose a Jewish state on the whole of Palestine, it is equally unjust to impose it in any part of the country. [The Arab Office (1946)]
It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It would be possible to remove the identifying details from each of the texts from which these quotations were taken, and send them as op-ed pieces to an Israeli newspaper today - and no one would guess that they were written almost 70 years ago.
We are still debating partition. The Zionist Orthodox are [still] leading the opposition. We have not been able to reach consensus over what is more important the state or the land, over which utopian vision shall guide us a biblical monarchy in divinely ordained borders, or a modern secular democracy. The painful clash today over the Gaza disengagement plan is merely the next chapter in this ongoing debate; and it appears unlikely that this will be the end of the discussion.
I think that the only position that has softened over the years may be that of the Arabs while they rejected partition with one voice in 1937 (and in 1948, by force of arms), today many perhaps most have accepted it. As long as their position was one of absolute negation, our own internal division was interesting, but not very important. Now, however, the ball is in our court. We need to decide what we are doing here. It seems that after 2,000 years of dreaming of redemption, we are no longer sure what it will look like.