The Myth of Palestine as “A Land Without People”


In recent months, celebrations have been taking place commemorating the 103th anniversary of Zionism. Of the First Zionist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland in August 1897, Theodor Herzl, who organized the meeting, declared: “If I were to summarize the Basel Congress in a few words…I would say this: in Basel, I have founded the Jewish state.”

At the same time that such celebrations have proceeded, the Middle East peace process has been sharply challenged both by an Israeli government which appears committed not to the Oslo accords but to maintaining control of the occupied territories, and by militant Islamic groups which share this opposition to a peace agreement which, inevitably, must involve compromise on both sides.

What few have done is review the first causes of the problem the world has grappled with for more than half a century. In the history of Zionism itself such causes can be found, particularly in the fact that the early Zionists, as they promoted the slogan, “A land without people for the people without a land,” completely overlooked the fact that the land in question was already populated and was hardly “empty.”

In his important biography of Herzl, The Labyrinth of Exile: A Life Of Theodor Herzl (Farrar, Straus, Giroux), Ernst Pawel notes that, “His attitude toward the indigenous population was one of benign indifference at best. He never questioned the popular view of colonialism as a mission of mercy that brought the blessings of civilization to stone-age savages…He fully believed that the Palestine Arabs would welcome the Jews with open arms; after all, they only stood to gain from the material and technological progress imported by the Jews.”

Herzl committed these views to paper in a famous exchange of letters. Yussef Ziah el-Khaldi, a former mayor of Jerusalem who represented the city in the Ottoman parliament, wrote to the chief rabbi of France, Zadok Kahn, saying that he fully recognized the Jews’ historic claims to Palestine and could appreciate the beauty of Herzl’s dreams. The reality, however, was that “Palestine is now an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, but what is even more serious, it is inhabited by people other than Israelites.” The letter was passed on to Herzl, who responded that the Jews “have long since lost the taste for war. They are a peace-loving people, happy to be left in peace…You see another difficulty in the existence of a non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would want to expel them? Their well-being and individual prosperity will increase as we bring in our own.”

“The most fertile areas of our country are occupied by Arabs…”

As the Zionist enterprise proceeded, Herzl was highly unrealistic about the political realities. When he learned that the sultan of Turkey believed that the Mosque of Omar must forever remain in Muslim hands and would never surrender Jerusalem, Herzl believed that this was hardly a major obstacle. “We’ll simply extraterritorialize Jerusalem,” he said, “which will then belong to nobody and yet to everybody, the holy place common to the adherents of all faiths. The great condominium of culture and morality.”

Ernst Pawel writes: “In his indifference to alien customs and his contempt for non-Europeans, Herzl was hopelessly typical of his class and generation–a sightseer not only unwilling to look below the surface but convinced that there was nothing worth looking for.”

In fact, Herzl had every reason to understand the Arab population of Palestine, their numbers and their point of view. Prior to the Second Zionist Congress, he sent the student leader Leo Motzkin on a tour of Palestine. One passage in his report includes this statement: “Completely accurate statistics about the number of inhabitants do not presently exist. One must admit that the density of the population does not give the visitor much cause for cheer. In whole stretches throughout the land one constantly comes across large Arab villages, and it is an established fact that the most fertile areas of our country are occupied by Arabs…” (Protocol of the Second Zionist Congress, Pg. 103).

There is, of course, a great irony in referring to “our” country when discussing a land already inhabited by others. When Herzl himself visited Palestine, he seemed to ignore the local residents almost completely. Ernst Pawel writes: “The account of this visionary’s journey through both past and future is notable for one conspicuous blind spot. As Amos Elan has pointed out, the trip…took him through at least a dozen Arab villages, and in Jaffa itself, Jews formed only 10 percent–some 3,000–of the total population. Yet not once does he refer to the natives in his notes, nor do they ever seem to figure in his later reflections. In overlooking, in refusing to acknowledge their presence–and hence their humanity–he both followed and reinforced a trend that was to have tragic consequences for Jews and Arabs like.”

Concern for Palestinians

From the earliest days of Jewish settlement in Palestine, many Jews who were sympathetic to the creation of one form or another of a Jewish “homeland” were concerned about the rights of the present inhabitants of Palestine, rights which they saw being either ignored or violated.

Ahad Ha’am, the respected Russian Jewish writer and philosopher, refused from the beginning to ignore the presence of Arabs in Palestine. He paid his first visit to the new Jewish settlements in Palestine in 1891. In his essay, The Truth From the Land of Israel, he says that it is an illusion to think of Palestine as an empty country: “We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, a non-cultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which lies fallow…”

The behavior of Jewish settlers toward the Arabs disturbed him. They had not learned from experience as a minority within a wider population, but reacted with the cruelty of slaves who had suddenly become kings, treating their neighbors with contempt. The Arabs, he wrote, understood very well what Zionist intentions were in the country and “if the time should come when the lives of our people in Palestine should develop to the extent that, to a smaller or greater degree they usurp the place of the local population, the latter will not yield easily…We have to treat the local population with love and respect, justly and rightly. And what do our brethren in the land of Israel do? Exactly the opposite! Slaves they were in the country of exile, and suddenly they find themselves in a boundless and anarchic freedom, as is always the case with a slave that has become king; and they behave toward the Arabs with hostility and cruelty.”

Jewish ethics were the heart and soul of Ahad Ha’am’s brand of nationalism, and to the end of his life he denounced any compromise with political expediency. In 1913, protesting against a Jewish boycott of Arab labor, he wrote to a friend: “…I can’t put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to humans of another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: If this is so now, what will our relations to the others be like if, at the end of time, we shall really achieve power in Eretz Israel? And if this be the Messiah, I do not wish to see his coming.”

In 1922, young Jewish zealots killed an Arab boy. This brought a cry of rage from Ahad Ha’am. “Jews and blood–are there two greater opposites than these?” he asked in a letter to the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz. “Is this the goal for which our ancestors longed and for which they suffered all those tribulations? Is this the dream of the return to Zion which our people dreamt of for thousands of years; that we should come to Zion to pollute its soil with the spilling of innocent blood?”

Ahad Ha’am was hardly alone in voicing such misgivings about the emerging Zionist enterprise. In an article published in Ha-Shiloah in 1907, Yitzhak Epstein, a Russian-born teacher who had settled in Palestine in 1886, voiced an anxiety that was brushed aside by Zionist contemporaries but came back to haunt. He wrote: “Among the grave questions raised by the concept of our people’s renaissance on its own soil there is one which is more weighty than all of the others put together. This is the question of our relations with the Arabs. This question, on the correct solution of which our own national aspirations depend, has not been forgotten, but rather has remained completely hidden from the Zionists, and its true form found almost no mention in the literature of our movement.”

Epstein criticized the settlers’ attitude toward the Arabs and challenged the Zionist leadership who played at international politics “while the question of the resident people, the [country’s] workers and actual owners, has not yet been raised, either in practice or theory.” It was a serious error to minimize the loyalty of “a strong, resolute and zealous” people to Palestine: “While we harbor fierce sentiments toward the land of our fathers, we forget that the nation now living there is also endowed with a sensitive heart and loving soul. The Arab, like other men, is strongly attached to his homeland.”

Yosef Luria, a Romanian-born journalist and teacher who settled in Palestine in 1907, wrote in Ha-Olam in 1911: “During all the years of our labor in Palestine we completely forgot that there were Arabs in the country. The Arabs have been ‘discovered’ only during the past few years. We regarded all European nations as opponents of our settlement, but failed to pay heed to one people–the people residing in this country and attached to it.”

“Here was a tragic dilemma of Jewish need against Palestinian rights.”

In his book Israelis: Founders and Sons, Israeli author Amos Elon discusses the lack of realism about the Palestinian population on the part of the early Zionists: “There are few things as egocentric as a revivalist movement. For decades the Zionist leaders moved in a strange twilight zone seeing the Arabs and the same time not seeing them. Their attitude was a combination of blind spots and naiveté, of wishful thinking, paternalistic benevolence, and that ignorance which was often a factor in international events and sometimes their cause. It may very well be that without this ignorance most Zionist leaders would not have ventured on their task in the first place.”

In 1925, under the leadership of Arthur Ruppin, an association called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) was established in Palestine and proposed binationalism as the proper solution to the conflict between Zionists and Arabs, two peoples claiming the same land. In their credo, issued in Jerusalem in 1927, Brit Shalom said it was intent on creating in Palestine “a binational state, in which the two peoples will enjoy totally equal rights as befits the two elements shaping the country’s destiny, irrespective of which of the two is numerically superior at any given time.” Its spokesmen included such figures as Robert Weltach, editor of Judische Rundschau, the journal of the German Zionist Movement, Jacob Thon, from the settlement department of the Jewish Agency, Judah Magnes, chancellor and first president of the Hebrew University, and such university faculty members as Martin Buber, Hugo Germann, Ernst Simon and Gershon Scholem. For these men, Zionism was a moral crusade or it was nothing.

Brit Shalom’s leader, Arthur Ruppin, was saddened by the growing disparity between universal moral values and narrow Jewish nationalism. “What continually worries me,” he wrote, “is the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Palestine…the two peoples have become more estranged in their thinking. Neither has any understanding of the other, and yet I have no doubt that Zionism will end in catastrophe if we do not succeed in finding a common platform.”

What Zionists were doing, he argued, “has no equal in history. The aim is to bring the Jews as a second nation into a country which already is settled as a nation–and fulfill this through peaceful means. History has seen such penetration by one nation into a strange land only by conquest, but it has never occurred that a nation will fully agree that another nation should come and demand full equality of rights and national autonomy at its side.”

In his book, The Controversy of Zion, Geoffrey Wheatcroft discusses the attitude of the early Zionists toward the indigenous Arab population of Palestine: “Max Nordau had supposedly discovered the ‘Arab question,’ and told Herzl that they were committing an injustice. But it was not true that the early Zionists had been ignorant of the existence of an Arab population in Palestine. They had merely, in one way or another, wished it away. Moses Hess had hoped for an independent Arab Syria and Egypt on either side of his Jewish commonwealth. Herzl had vaguely hoped that the Arabs would welcome a Jewish state for the material benefits it would bring. Not only were these Zionist Europeans of the age of imperialism, they supposed, without formulating the thought, that the Arabs were malleable and quite without national consciousness.”

In To the Promised Land: A History of Zionist Thought, Rabbi David Goldberg, senior rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue of London and a leading spokesman for progressive Judaism in the United Kingdom and Europe, writes that, “The practical demands of creating an autonomous Jewish society in Palestine ready for eventual statehood took precedence over theoretical ruminations about coexistence with the Arab majority. At the time of the serious riots in 1929, there was no Arab department in the Jewish Agency, nor was any Arab-language newspaper published by the Zionists. With rare exceptions, Zionist analysis of the Arab problem was reactive–a response to specific outbreaks of Arab hostility–rather than part of any strategy. Since the moral justification for Zionism was never questioned, even by those Jewish thinkers sympathetic to the indigenous population, proposals for an accommodation with the Arabs invariably proceeded from the assumption that in time, given adequate guarantees, they would accept the Zionist entity in their midst; failing that, superior Zionist organization, technology and morale would prevail in any conflict between the two peoples.”

In the end, Brit Shalom’s Arthur Ruppin lamented that, “I think I shall not be able to continue working with the Zionist movement if Zionism does not acquire a new theoretical foundation. Herzl’s conception of the Jewish state was possible only because he ignored the existence of the Arabs…It has become clear how difficult it is to realize Zionism while constantly adapting it to ethical demands. Has Zionism in fact deteriorated to pointless chauvinism?”

More realistic, perhaps, was the assessment of the militant Zionist Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, who was sympathetic to the extreme nationalism he saw emerging in Eastern Europe, even on the part of the anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalist Schevenko, whom he praised for his nationalist spirit, despite “explosions of wild fury against the Poles, the Jews and other neighbors.” Jabotinsky was under no illusions about a “land without people,” and recognized that, in the long run, Zionism must displace the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine.

Jabotinsky understood the Arab objections to Zionism, but his goal was the achievement of a Jewish state, not the pursuit of some humanitarian ideal. He declared: “We cannot promise any reward either to the Arabs of Palestine or to Arabs abroad. A voluntary agreement is unattainable, and thus those who regard an accord with the Arabs as a condition sine qua non of Zionism must admit to themselves today that this condition cannot be attained hence we must eschew Zionism. We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can develop under the protection of a force which is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”

The promotion of Jewish nationalism, David Goldberg argues, “meant the propagation of myths which became enshrined in Zionist ideology.” One of these myths was that the Jews “were one nation.” In fact, he declares, “The Jews were not, and are not.” What they share is not nationality but “religious identity…It was fidelity to the teachings and practices of their religion, Judaism” that provided common ground to Jews from Europe, the Middle East and other parts of the world.

A more dangerous Zionist myth, he concludes, “was fostered to justify the Zionist enterprise: that the return to the barren and sparsely populated Jewish homeland was being undertaken by enlightened bearers of Western culture to the backward Orient. Zionism never recovered from the shock of finding in Palestine a large Arab population that had lived on the land for centuries and was indifferent to the benefits of colonization. Zionism had to adjust its rationale: it was Palestine by ‘historic right’ (whatever that may mean, and a strange proof of divine sanction to be advanced by secular nationalists); it was morally justified as an answer to pressing Jewish needs; Zionists came not as colonizers but as co-partners in building the country…None of those vindications is satisfactory or has withstood the evidence of events…Surveying the course of the Zionist-Arab conflict, the most forbearing moral judgment one can pass on it is that here was a tragic dilemma of Jewish need against Palestinian rights; a just solution being impossible, only the most generous restitution to the dispossessed could begin to compensate for the injustice done to them…”

Those who are commemorating Zionism’s 100th anniversary would do well to consider the essential flaw in the thinking of those who embarked upon the creation of a new state in a land already populated by others. While some Jews continued to live in Palestine since their original entrance circa 1000 B.C., in contemporary times the Jewish population at the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 was a mere 7 percent of the 700,000 inhabitants.

While both Israelis and Arabs must grapple with the reality of today, and an honorable compromise appears to be desired by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, it is important that history not be forgotten or distorted. A meaningful and productive future can hardly be built upon anything but a proper understanding of the past.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.