The 1907 writings of one traveller to Palestine vividly describe the roots of the region's enmity
Thursday May 29 2008
The 60th anniversary of the state of Israel provoked a slew of media coverage, predominantly focused on the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict. As a consequence of the 1948 war of independence (for Arabs the nakba, or catastrophe), up to 750,000 Palestinians were dispossessed. Their continuing homelessness, so the standard version goes, has been the cause of all subsequent wars, Arab terrorism, Israeli incursions and civilian casualties.
That is grim enough, but unfortunately the root of the enmity goes back even further, to the first small-scale Zionist immigration to Palestine in the 1880s. The fact is that never in history has one people willingly invited another into its territory. The unresolved dilemma at the heart of Zionism has been how to respond to that unpalatable truth and reach an accommodation with the native Arab population.
While Jewish pioneers were few, it could be evaded. Writing in 1907, when there were about 10,000 settlers, Isaac Epstein, a Russian-born teacher who had come to Palestine in 1886, called attitudes towards the Arabs "the hidden question". He criticised the leaders of the Zionist movement who engaged in politics while ignoring that "there resides in our treasured land an entire people which has clung to it for hundreds of years ... The Arab, like all other men, is strongly attached to his homeland".
Epstein, like so many of his background, was a disciple of Achad Ha'am - "One of the People", the pen name of Asher Ginsberg - the intellectual doyen of Russian Jewry and mentor to a galaxy of talented younger admirers. He was, wrote the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, the star around which the lesser planets revolved. He was also the bitter rival and implacable critic of Theodor Herzl, the feted crowd-pleaser who announced after his starring role at the first Zionist Congress in 1897: "At Basel I founded the Jewish state." Ha'am noted, "At Basel I sat solitary among my friends, like a mourner at a wedding feast."
In 1891, Ha'am had made his first visit to the Jewish settlements in Palestine. It resulted in an important essay, The Truth from the Land of Israel. What distinguished his report from the gushing accounts of other Jewish visitors was the sober realism with which he noted the many problems. High among them was the existence of an indigenous population. "We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, an uncultivated 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."
Ha'am makes short work of the argument that lesser breeds can be duped about Zionist intentions and bought off with the benefits of colonialism. "The Arab, like all Semites, has a sharp mind and is full of cunning ... [They] understand very well what we want and what we do in the country, but ... at present they do not see any danger for themselves or their future in what we are doing and therefore are trying to turn to their advantage these new guests ... But when the day will come in which the life of our people in the Land of Israel will develop to such a degree that they will push aside the local population by little or by much, then it will not easily give up its place."
In contrast, Herzl has the Arab spokesman in his utopian novel Altneuland (Old-new land) proclaim that Jewish settlement had been a blessing. Landowners have gained from higher prices, peasants from regular employment and welfare benefits. "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them? They live with us as brothers, why should we not love them?"
Ha'am has no truck with such wishful thinking. The behaviour of settlers disturbed him. They had not learned from experience as a minority, but, like a slave who has become king, "behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, infringe upon their boundaries, hit them shamefully without reason, and even brag about it". The Arab did indeed respect strength, but only when the other side used it justly. When his opponent's actions were unjust and oppressive, then "he may keep his anger to himself for a time ... but in the long run he will prove to be vengeful and full of retribution". Prophetic words.
In 1913, after a correspondent had complained of the contemptuous attitude of settlers and the Zionist Organisation's Palestine Office, Ha'am wrote back, "When I realise that our brethren may be morally capable of treating another people in this fashion and of crudely abusing what is sacred to them, then I cannot but reflect: if such is the situation now, how shall we treat others if one day we actually become the rulers of Palestine?"
·Dr David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi of The Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London