Zionism’s Original Sin: Ignoring the Fact That Palestine Was Fully Populated


View of the City of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives in 1753. (PHOTO BY FINE ART IMAGES/HERITAGE IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES).

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2021, pp. 12-13, 21

Israel and Judaism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

AS THE WORLD is increasingly focusing its attention upon Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem and its continuing violation of the rights of Palestinians, there is a growing realization that Zionism is guilty of an original sin—namely ignoring the fact that Palestine was fully populated when the Zionist enterprise began.

From the beginning, Zionism was a minority movement among Jews. It was created, notes Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper, by “…Jews with little knowledge of Palestine and its people, who launched a movement of Jewish return to its ancestral homeland…after a national absence of 2,000 years…In their eyes the Arabs of Palestine were mere background…Palestine was, as the famous Zionist phrase put it, ‘a land without people for a people without land.’ The European Zionists knew the land was peopled, but to them the Arabs did not amount to ‘a people.’”

From the very start of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Zionist leaders were quite open in making it clear that they wanted to remove the country’s indigenous population. In 1914, Moshe Sharett, a future Israeli prime minister, declared, “We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from a people inhabiting it, that governs it by virtue of its language and savage culture…If we seek to look upon our land, the Land of Israel, as ours alone and we allow a partner into our estate—all context and meaning will be lost to our enterprise.”

Even earlier, in 1899, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, a former mayor of Jerusalem, alarmed by the Zionist call to transform Palestine into a Jewish state, wrote a letter aimed at Theodor Herzl, the leading Zionist of the 19th century. He pointed out that Palestine had an indigenous population that would not easily accept their displacement. He warned of the perils ahead, ending his note, “In the name of God, leave Palestine alone.”

In his book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi, al-Khalidi’s grandnephew and professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, notes that in Herzl’s response to Yusuf Diya, the Zionist leader assured him that the arrival of European Jews in Palestine would improve life for the indigenous inhabitants because of Jewish “intelligence” and financial acumen. He declared, “no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.”

Herzl’s response, notes Khalidi, concealed Zionism’s real intentions: “With the smug self-assurance so common to 19th century Europeans, Herzl offered the preposterous inducement that the occupation, and ultimately the usurpation of their land by strangers would benefit the people of that country. Herzl’s thinking…appears to have been based on the assumption that the Arabs could ultimately be bribed or fooled into ignoring what the Zionist movement actually intended for Palestine.”

In his biography of Herzl, The Labyrinth of Exile, Ernst Pawel notes that the Zionist leader did not practice Judaism or believe in God. Indeed, he once considered mass conversion to Christianity the best resolution of the Jewish “problem.” He regularly denigrated Judaism and in one letter declared, “Just think what the Jews have suffered over the past 2,000 years for the sake of this fantasy of theirs.”

Pawel shows that Herzl had every reason to understand the Arab population of Palestine (their numbers and their point of view). Prior to the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, he sent the young Zionist activist Leo Motzkin on a tour of Palestine. One passage in his report, Pawel declares, “deserves the special attention it failed to receive at the time.” In that passage, Motzkin reported: “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)

Ernst Pawel points to the irony of referring to “our country” when discussing a land already inhabited by others. When Herzl himself visited Palestine in 1898, he seemed to ignore the local inhabitants almost completely. Pawel points out that, “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 alike.”

Unlike his fellow Zionists who persisted in fantasizing about “a land without people for the people without a land,” Ahad Ha’am, the Russian Jewish writer and philosopher, refused from the very beginning to ignore the presence of Arabs in Palestine. Ha’am 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.”

Jewish ethics were the heart and soul of Ha’am’s philosophy 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 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 1923, Albert Einstein toured Palestine. He believed that Jewish settlers should be fair to their Arab neighbors and on Nov. 25, 1929, he wrote to Chaim Weizmann: “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us.” Later, in January 1946, testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Einstein was asked whether, in his view, refugee settlement in Palestine demanded a Jewish state. He replied: “The state idea is not according to my heart. I cannot understand why it is needed. It is connected with narrow-mindedness and economic obstacles. I believe that it is bad. I have always been against it.” He lamented that the concept of a Jewish commonwealth was “an imitation of Europe, the end of which was brought about by nationalism.”

A small number of thoughtful and sensitive Zionists sought a policy of reconciliation with the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. 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 respected figures as Judah Magnes, chancellor and first president of the Hebrew University, and such university faculty members as Martin Buber, Hugo Bergmann, Ernst Simon and Gershom 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 are doing, he argued, “has no equivalent in history. The aim is to bring 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.”

There is, of course, great irony in seeing those who have been mistreated respond by mistreating others, who had no part in their own misfortune.

As the world is increasingly focusing its attention upon Israel’s treatment of Palestine’s indigenous population, often comparing it to South Africa’s treatment of its indigenous black population, with the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem using the term “apartheid” to characterize it, it is clear that Zionism’s history is catching up with it. More and more observers, including increasing numbers of Jews and many Israelis as well, are coming to agree that Zionism’s original sin was ignoring the fact that Palestine was fully populated. The Palestinians are being forced to pay an extraordinary price for misdeeds committed by others. Clearly, the time has come for a redress of these legitimate grievances.

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.


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