Terra Incognita: Anti-Zionism’s straw man

The Western champions of a return of the Jews to Israel are said to have ignored the local inhabitants.

The bookstores are adorned with new titles seeking to address the “origins” of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Amy Marcus is one and Ronald Florence’s Lawrence and Aaronsohn: The Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict is another. The newest edition is The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Jonathan Schneer.
In a review of it, the prolific Israeli author/journalist Tom Segev writes “the Arabs were as invisible to the early Zionists as Africans had been to Boers in South Africa, or Indians to the French and English colonists in North America.”
The idea that Zionists viewed the Land of Israel as a “land without a people” has been described as one of Zionism’s “foundation myths.” The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and numerous others frequently refer to this notion to falsify and simplify the origins of Zionism.
Edward Said infamously shortened the phrase to “a land without people” to imply that Zionists actually believed there were no people in Ottoman Palestine.
Rashid Khalidi, who inherited Said’s imprimatur as the American-Palestinian scholar who explains the conflict to the West, wrote: “In the early days of the Zionist movement, many of its European supporters – and others – believed that Palestine was empty and sparsely cultivated.”
However it has now been realized that the Zionists themselves almost never used the term “land without a people.”
Ze’ev Sternhell, a critic of Israel, wrote “contrary to the claim that is often made, Zionism was not blind to the presence of Arabs in Palestine.”
Diana Muir, in an expert essay in Middle East Quarterly, fully examined “one of the most oft-cited phrases in the literature of Zionism – and perhaps also the most problematic. Anti-Zionists cite the phrase as a perfect encapsulation of the fundamental injustice of Zionism.”
She showed that it was first coined by Church of Scotland clergyman Alexander Kieth.The notion that the phrase was often used by Christian “restorationists” and rarely if ever by Jews has now morphed into a new myth.
The best evidence for the new thinking is a recent column by James Carroll in the Boston Globe and The New York Times. He writes that “the Holy Land was to be the place of a dream rescue from the horror of the trenches. That the dream was unreal, of course, is why it did not include the Arabs who already lived in Palestine. It was a 19th century British Christian restorationist who coined the mistaken and still fateful phrase ‘a land without a people for a people without a land.’” THAT ZIONISM is now turned into a British-American- Christian plot is no surprise. It is part of the larger process by which everything Israeli and Jewish is turned into something Western, at a time when everything Western and Christian is considered particularly heinous. The Western champions of a return of the Jews to Israel are said to have ignored the local inhabitants.
But there seems little evidence for this.
Laurence Oliphant, a Christian Zionist and member of Parliament was also a resident of Haifa in the 1880s and a keen observer of the local geography, which included the few Arabs then living in Haifa and the surrounding coastal areas. It is true he had little concern for the local population, proposing at one point a canal to link Aqaba to Haifa via the Dead Sea that would, according to his calculations, submerge Tiberias, Jericho, Beit She’an and “a few small villages.” He wrote in Haifa or Life in Modern Palestine that “Tiberias contains a population of over three thousand, chiefly Jews, and a Latin and Greek monastery.”
He was not ignorant of the local Arabs, but noted “the villages here are small, few and far between, and there is room for a large population; but the most tempting land of all is the tract between Umm el-Fahm and the sea.” He was critical of the Arab gentry “who are the bloodsuckers of the fellahin.”
William E. Blackstone, America’s foremost Christian Zionist at the turn of the century, came as a pilgrim to Palestine in 1888. He did not keep a diary but later wrote: “It is a territory of at least 10,000 square miles, with only 600,000 population. There is room there for two or three million people.”
The earl of Shaftesbury, a British Christian Zionist of the 19th century, was involved with numerous like-minded others in creating the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. This organization was singlehandedly responsible for producing the first truly accurate maps of the country and extensive multivolume memoirs which recorded hundreds of villages in Palestine’s rural hinterland. Far from creating the image of a country without people, it provides the most important source from the 19th century on rural Arab life. Their work, however, also shows the degree to which some of the country was sparsely populated, barren and desolate.
There is an attempt today to create a straw man of Zionism where Zionists and their Christian European backers are said to have created a mythological Palestine free of people to justify imperialism and expulsion of the local inhabitants. That claim is then easily challenged by the anti-Zionist saying “there were Arabs and they were ignored.”
When it was shown that Zionists themselves didn’t think this way the claim was more easily placed on the shoulders of “nefarious Christian Zionists and imperial powers.”
In fact, all the parties concerned were aware of the Arabs; they simply felt there was room for other cultural groups. Oddly, the same people in the West who have such a hatred for Zionism and its Jewish immigrants are all champions of immigration and multiculturalism in their home countries. By stealing Zion from the Zionists and claiming only a Christian pedigree for it, they not only rely on a false argument but deprive Zionism of its genuine character expressed by Theodor Herzl’s injunction: “the Promised Land, where it is right for us to have hooked noses, black or red beards and bandy legs without being despised.”
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.