An old anti-Zionist argument has recently been reasserted by one of the mildest critics, Ari Shavit. In his book My Promised Land, Shavit promotes the thesis that the ultimate source of the trouble between Israelis and Palestinians is a grand illusion which was and is at the core of Zionism. Zionists are said to have believed that Jews were a people without a land, and that Palestine was a land without a people, and hence it provided the perfect place for the erection of a Jewish homeland. Shavit, like others before him, debunk this assumption by pointing out that Arabs already occupied the land. Hence, Zionism required that they be driven out, oppressed, or killed to make room for the new settlers.
I knew that the thesis was deeply flawed but was reluctant to give voice to my criticisms because they were based on personal observations. I then realized that there is strong statistical data to support my observations.
Hence, these lines.
First, a brief account of what I saw and experienced (rather than divined from trying to read between the lines of historical documents). Then – the statistical evidence.
I was born as a Jewish child in Germany in 1929. In 1935, as the Nazi influence grew, my family escaped, joining four other families of the same background to form a new settlement in Palestine in 1936. They named it Kfar Shmaryahu (next to Herzliya). The five families occupied 600 dunams (approx. 150 acres), cleared the rocks, drilled a well and paved a road before erecting a bunch of modest homes and farming the land. All this was done on previously unoccupied land – land that was lying fallow next to an Arab village called Sidna Ali. (The land next to my parents’ home, between Kfar Shmaryahu and that of Rishpon, was occasionally used by wandering Beduin for grazing, but the area on which Kfar Shmaryahu was erected was not even used in this way).
THE RELATIONSHIP between my parents’ village and Sidna Ali varied over the years, ranging from comfortable to tense. However, as far as I recall no shots were fired, and most assuredly, no one was driven off their land or out of their homes. Those who lived unmolested in Sidna Ali until 1948 left at that point. We were told that they took with them keys to our homes that they somehow acquired and had agreed among themselves who would get which of our homes after the weak and newborn Israel was defeated by the seven Arab militaries that attacked Israel.
I never saw any evidence that supports this tale. However, I know firsthand that the people of Sidna Ali were not driven out by any Israeli forces. (A photo from 1946, shows me posting a call for peaceful coexistence on the walls of a well next to Sidna Ali).
I was reluctant to draw any conclusions from this experience because it was personal and local, until I realized that there was clear evidence to show that there was plenty of room in Palestine for Jews and Arabs. Here is what the data show: At the end of 1946, just before the United Nations declaration that led to foundation of Israel, there were 1,267,037 Arabs and 543,000 Jews in Palestine. By the end of 2012 there were 1,647,200 Arabs in Israel (and nearly six million Jews). That is, since 1946 many more Jews and Arabs have found a home in this blessed land.
Shavit makes it sounds like Palestine was a small home that was taken, that there was no room at the inn. Actually it was more like a motel which had plenty of empty rooms, although surely some were taken. True, some Arabs were driven out – and a similar number of Jews were driven out of Arab lands.
And way too many died at the hands of each other.
But the tragic reason for these developments is not, the data unmistakably show, that there was not enough room for both people. Moreover, even now, anyone with an open mind flying over Israel will see vast unoccupied areas.
Some of them are in the south (the Negev) which one may argue has an uninviting climate. However, it is rather similar to that of Nevada and Arizona.
And there are many other under-populated areas, for instance along the Jordan Valley.
True, some particular pieces of real estate have been much contested for a variety of reasons ranging from religious symbolism to a matter of national prestige and historical precedent. However, overall, anybody who argues that Palestine was occupied – and hence could not accommodate the Jews, fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, the pogroms in Russia or tensions in Arab lands, is ignoring basic facts.
Shavit feels he knows why the first generation of Zionists did not realize that the land was already taken, was occupied by Arabs. His argument is so simplistic it would make a first-year psychology student blush. He maintains that the Jews escaping Nazi Germany were so anxious to find a place to make their home, finding all other doors locked, that they suppressed what they witnessed – the Arab natives. My observation is much more straightforward.
In 1936, my parents and others saw large parts of the land that were lying fallow, uncultivated, and not settled; they believed that there was no reason why they could not share the land with the Arabs, and they did hope that Jews and Arabs could all live in peace together.
If both Jews and Arabs can forgo exclusive claims to the land and arguments that one people or the other are in place because of some gross historical misunderstanding or psychological distortion – they will realize that there is ample room for both people, to live next to each other, with each other, in peace.
The writer is a university professor and professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. He is also the author of many books, including Hot Spots and The Moral Dimension.