By Uri Avnery
I was awakened from deep sleep by the noise. There was a commotion outside, which was getting louder by the minute. The shout of excited people. An eruption of joy. I stuck my nose outside the door of my Haifa hotel room. I was told enthusiastically that the United Nations General Assembly had just decided to partition the country. I went back into my room and closed the door behind me. I had no desire to join the celebrations.
November 29, 1947 — a day that changed our lives forever.
At this historic moment, how could I feel lonely, alienated and most of all — sad?
I was sad because I love all of this country — Nablus and Hebron no less than Tel-Aviv and Rosh-Pina. I was sad because I knew that blood, much blood, would be shed. But it was mainly a question of my political outlook. I was 24 years old. Two years before, I and a group of friends had set up a political-ideological group that aroused intense anger in the Yishuv (the Hebrew population in Palestine). Our ideas, which provoked a very strong reaction, were regarded as a dangerous heresy.
The “Young Palestine Circle” (“Eretz-Yisrael Hatz’ira” in Hebrew) published occasional issues of a magazine called “ba-Ma’avak” (“In the Struggle”), and was therefore generally known as “the ba-Ma’avak Group”) advocating a revolutionary new ideology, whose main points were:
* We, the young generation that had grown up in this country, were a new nation. Our language and culture meant we should be called the Hebrew Nation.
* Zionism gave birth to this nation, and had thereby fulfilled its mission. From here on, Zionism has no further role to play.
* The new Hebrew nation is indeed a part of the Jewish people — as the new Australian nation, for example, is a part of the Anglo-Saxon people — but has a separate identity, its own interests and a new culture.
* The Hebrew nation belongs to the country, and is a natural ally of the Arab national movement. Both national movements are rooted in the country and its history, from the ancient Semitic civilization to the present.
* The new Hebrew nation does not belong to Europe and the “West”, but to awakening Asia and the Semitic Region — a term we invented in order to distance ourselves from the European-colonial term “Middle East”.
* The new Hebrew nation must integrate itself in the region, as a full and equal partner.
With this world view, we naturally opposed the partition of the country.
Two months before the UN partition resolution, in September 1947, I published a pamphlet called “War or Peace in the Semitic Region”, in which I proposed a completely different plan: that the Hebrew national movement and the Palestinian-Arab national movement combine into one single national movement and establish a joint state in the whole of Palestine, based on the love of the country (patriotism, in the real sense).
This was far from the “bi-national” idea, which had important adherents in those days. I never believed in this. Our vision was based on the creation of a new, joint nation, with a Hebrew and an Arab component.
The moment the UN resolution was adopted, it was clear that our world had changed completely, that an era had come to an end and a new epoch had begun, both in the life of the country and also in the life of every one of us.
I am proud of my ability to adapt rapidly to extreme changes. The first time I had to do this was when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and my life changed abruptly and completely. I was then nine years old, and everything that had happened before was dead for me. I started a new life in Palestine. On November 29, 1947, it was happening again — to me and to all of us.
As the well-known saying has it, one can make an omelette from eggs, but not eggs from an omelette. Banal, perhaps, but how very true.
The moment the Hebrew-Arab war started, the possibility that the two nations would live together in one state expired. Wars change reality.
I joined the “Haganah Battalions”, the forerunner of the IDF. As a soldier in the special commando unit that was later called “Samson’s Foxes”, I saw the war as it was — bitter, cruel, inhuman. First we faced the Palestinian fighters, later the fighters of the wider Arab world. I passed through dozens of Arab villages, many abandoned in the storm of battle, many others whose inhabitants were driven out after being occupied.
It was an ethnic war. In the first months, no Arabs were left behind our lines, no Jews were left behind the Arab lines. Both sides committed many atrocities. In the beginning of the war, we saw the pictures of the heads of our comrades paraded on stakes through the Old City of Jerusalem. We saw the massacre committed by the Irgun and the Stern Group in Deir Yassin. We knew that if we were captured, we would be slaughtered, and the Arab fighters knew they could expect the same.
The longer the war dragged on, the more I became convinced of the reality of the Palestinian nation, with which we must make peace at the end of the war, a peace based on partnership between the two peoples.
While the war was still going on, I expressed this view in a number of articles that were published at the time in Haaretz. Immediately after the fighting was over, when I was still in uniform convalescing from my wounds, I started meeting with two young Arabs (both of whom were later elected to the Knesset) in order to plan a common path. I could not have imagined that 60 years later this effort would still not be over.
Nowadays, the idea appears here and there of turning the omelette back into the egg, of dismantling the State of Israel and the State-of-Palestine-to-be, and establishing a single state, as we sang at that time: “from the sea to the desert”.
This is presented as a fresh new idea, but it is actually an attempt to turn the wheel back and to bring back to life an idea that is irrevocably obsolete. In human history, that just does not happen. What has been forged in blood and fire in wars and intifadas, — the State of Israel and the Palestinian national movement — will not just disappear. After a war, states can achieve peace and partnership, like Germany and France, but they do not merge into one state.
The ideas of the “Ba-Ma’avak group” were indeed revolutionary and bold — but could they have been put into practice? Looking back, it is clear to me that the “Joint State” idea was already unrealistic when we brought it up. Perhaps it would have been possible one or two generations earlier. But by the middle of the 40s, the situation of the two peoples had changed decisively. There was no escaping from the partition of the country.
I believe that we were right in our historical approach: that we must identify with the region we are living in, cooperate with the Arab national movement and enter into a partnership with the Palestinian nation. As long as we see ourselves as a part of Europe and/or the USA, we are not able to achieve peace. And certainly not if we consider ourselves soldiers in a crusade against the Islamic civilisation and the Arab peoples. As we said then, before the partition resolution: the Palestinian people exists. Even after 60 years, in which they have suffered catastrophes which few other peoples have ever experienced, the Palestinian people clings to its country with unparalleled fortitude. True, the dream of living together in one state is dead, and will not come to life again. But I have no doubt that after the Palestinian state comes into being, the two states will find ways to live together in close partnership. The walls will be thrown down, the fences will be dismantled, the border will be opened, and the reality of the common country will overcome all obstacles. The flags of the country — the two flags of the two states — will indeed wave side by side.
The UN resolution of November 29, 1947, was one of the most intelligent in the annals of that organisation. As one who strenuously opposed it, I recognise its wisdom.
-Uri Avnery is an Israeli writer and a peace activist; he served three terms in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), and is the founder of Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc)