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Son of the Cypresses
By Meron Benvenisti
University of California Press
Born in Jerusalem in 1934, Meron Benvenisti is a "founders' son." His father, David Benvenisti, fulfilled his Zionist aspirations by immigrating to Palestine from Salonika in 1913 at 16. He studied at a teachers' seminary and served in the Jewish Legion of the British army. Later, as a member of the Hagana, he was devoted to patriotic goals.
David Benvenisti, an Israel Prize winner, was a teacher for 60 years. He organized the Ramblers' Society devoted to hiking to learn the land. To this end, he wrote textbooks and guides, emphasizing nationalist values. Benvenisti's mother came to Palestine from Eastern Europe in 1924 at 24. She studied nursing and worked as a school and public health nurse until she died at 96.
Brought up in this ardently Zionist home, Meron Benvenisti, journalist, author and deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978, now questions what has happened in Israel. He says that the settlers have devastated the land and the entire country has become an "ecological disaster" and an "environmental nightmare." He has been accused of "delayed filial rebellion" because he has reluctantly come to believe that the Zionist dream is "dangerously flawed."
Challenges to the Zionist ethos when it comes to equity and to use of natural resources are intensified by the fact that the Palestinians, who constitute 40 percent of the total population, only control 8% of the water resources and 11% of the land. Also, he points out that Palestinian per capita income is 10% of that of the Israelis. These figures raise serious questions about the viability of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. According to Benvenisti, there are "cracks in the edifice of Zionist mythology."
With this beginning, Benvenisti goes on to an in-depth exploration of what has been happening in Israel and especially, the "blood-drenched Israeli-Palestinian struggle."
He criticizes Israel's settlement policy, asserting that it has made the situation "irreversible." He was accused of being an "Israel-basher" who, despite his "purest Zionist pedigree," deserves contempt. The most controversial position he espouses is his support for a binational state rather than a two-state solution. Benvenisti favorably cites a controversial article by Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books that "put forth several arguments in favor of a binational state." He disparages Leon Weiseltier's harsh critique of this position, asserting that it is typical of the "emotional level" of the debate.
According to Benvenisti, "Binationalism is an unintended and lamentable consequence." He insists that it is a possible solution to the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To give legitimacy to his view, he cites several models of successful binational states - Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Cyprus.
Moreover, he points out that Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, first president of Hebrew University, were advocates of a binational state "as the embodiment of lofty ethical values and as the sole means of preventing a never-ending blood feud between Arabs and Jews."
In a poignant epilogue, Benvenisti claims that "the Zionist idea was wrongheaded from the outset. It did not take into account the presence - of another national group." The situation makes him a "sad and pessimistic person, beset by a profound sense of brokenness." He states that "it has not been easy for me to bid farewell to my father's dream of a Jewish nation-state." These statements underline the degree to which this book is a cry from the heart that cannot be ignored.
Surely, lack of hope characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma, but the yearning for something new to emerge and for peace to be somehow achieved can fend off complete pessimism.
Benvenisti's approach, powerfully presented here and flawed as it may be, cannot be ignored. Despair and destructive behavior can only perpetuate the cycle.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.