May 15, 2008
History disproves myth that founding Zionists were naive
We are often told, mostly by anti-Israel propagandists, that the early Zionists' attitude toward the indigenous Arab population in Palestine was laden with ignorance, naivete, denial, contempt, abuse and outright oppression. Afif Safieh, the PLO representative to the United States, tells audiences on campus after campus: "[Palestinians] have suffered three successive denials -- a denial of their mere physical existence, a denial of their national rights and, the most morally disturbing, a denied recognition of their pain and suffering."|
The slogans "Land without a people to a people without land" and "Palestinians? Who?" continue to be quoted today by enemies of coexistence as a proof of those alleged denials and of Zionism's ingrained and irredeemable disrespect for Arabs, both as people and as a nation.
This is sheer nonsense.
On Israel's 60th birthday, it is time we set the record straight: The Zionist movement may have erred in many ways, but contempt, naivete and denial were not among its errors.
I'm looking at my "History of Zionism" bookshelf, and I find it loaded with books and pamphlets, apparently unavailable in English, which record a history of understanding, respect and persistent attempts at reaching mutual recognition with the Arabs of Palestine since the beginning of the 20th century.
Here are a few shiny gems from this dusty bookshelf:
Ben-Gurion and Our Arab Brethren
During World War I, David Ben-Gurion, who would become the first prime minister of Israel, spent three years in New York, from 1915 to 1918, having been exiled from Palestine "for conspiring against Ottoman rule."
He spent most of this time organizing (with Y. Ben Zvi) the He-Halutz youth movement, but, as he was also an ardent scholar and historian, he also found time to conduct research at the public library and published an interesting treatise "on the origin of the Falahin," in the summer of 1917, a few months before the Balfour Declaration.
In this treatise, Ben-Gurion advances an elaborate cultural-demographic theory that the Falahin (the Arab peasants in Eretz Israel), are none others than our lost brethren -- descendants of Jews who remained in Eretz Israel after the Roman expulsion and were forcibly converted to Islam after the Muslim conquest (638 AD). In Ben-Gurion's words:
The greater majority and main structures of the Muslim Falahin in Western Erez Israel present to us one racial strand and a whole ethnic unit, and there is no doubt that much Jewish blood flows in their veins -- the blood of those Jewish farmers, "lay persons," who chose in the travesty of times to abandon their faith in order to remain on their land.To the best of my knowledge, Ben-Gurion's theory was proven wrong. DNA analysis shows indigenous Palestinians to be the likely descendants of Arab tribesmen that migrated north from the Arabian (now Saudi) Peninsula in the wake of the conquering Muslim armies. Ben-Gurion's theory, nevertheless, shows a genuine attempt to hypothesize an ancestral kinship with the Arab population in order to bridge cultural and religious gaps, and thus prepare an atmosphere of trust.
If this is not respect, what is?
If this is not an outreach, nothing is.
Ben-Gurion and Palestinian Rights
In 1918, Israel Zangwill, author of the influential novel "Children of the Ghetto" (1892) and an on-off Zionist, wrote an article suggesting that the Arabs should be persuaded to "trek" (i.e., to be "transferred") from Palestine. Ben-Gurion was quick to react and distance the Zionist movement from any such notion. In an article published that year in the Yiddish newspaper Yiddishe Kemper (titled "The Rights of the Jews and Others in Eretz Israel") Ben-Gurion ridicules Zangwill and makes his position unequivocal:
Eretz Israel is not an empty country ... west of Jordan alone houses three quarter of a million people. On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants. Only "Ghetto Dreamers" like Zangwill can imagine that Eretz Israel will be given to the Jews with the added right of dispossessing the current inhabitants of the country. This is not the mission of Zionism. Had Zionism to aspire to inherit the place of these inhabitants -- it would be nothing but a dangerous utopia and an empty, damaging and reactionary dream....
Our next gem belongs to Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the first president of Israel and the man who played a key role in influencing the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2, 1917. In 1918, Weizmann was sent to Palestine by the British government to advise on the future development of the country. There, he met Arab and Armenian representatives and delivered the following speech in the house of the High Commissioner in Jerusalem:
And, as if contemplating postmodern complaints that Zionism, while promising Palestinians human and civil rights, denied them national rights, Weizmann wastes no time dispelling this allegation and writes:
Ben-Gurion and Palestinian Self-Determination
In November, 1930, about a year after the Arab riots that led to the Hebron massacre, Ben-Gurion delivered a keynote lecture entitled "The Foreign Policy of the Hebrew Nation" at the First Congress of Hebrew Workers. In this lecture, later published in Ben-Gurion's first book, "We and Our Neighbors" ("Anachnu U'Shcheneinu, Tel Aviv, 1931. p. 257), he makes statements that would have toppled Rabin's government ten times over.
There is in the world a principle called "the right for self-determination." We have always and everywhere been its worshipers and champions. We have defended that right for every nation, every part of a nation, and every collective of people.
Naivete? Denial? Disrespect? Hardly.
I don't believe Ben-Gurion would be prepared to make such bold statements today, given what we know about Hamas' charter and rocket terror. I am sure, however, that the Middle East would look substantially different today had one Arab leader, any time in the past 75 years, had the courage to reciprocate Ben-Gurion's offer with as generous a recognition of Jewish self-determination.
Jabotinsky and the Sobering Days Before the Holocaust
The next pearl belongs to Zev Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion's main rival, and by far the most militant Zionist leader of that time.
Jabotinsky garnered a reputation as an advocate of a tough, "iron-wall" approach toward the Arabs. Yet even he expressed respect for Arab nationalism, and explained, even identified with, Arabs' fears of reciprocating Ben-Gurion's offer.
I chose to translate several excerpts from this article because they dispel not only the myth of Zionist denial and naivete, but also the myth of Arabs' fear of dispossession by Jewish immigrants. Here is what Jabotinsky says in his book "A Hebrew State" ("Medina Ivrit," Tel Aviv, 1937, pps. 71-79), published a few months after the break-out of the Arab Riots of 1936-1939 (which one UCLA historian glorifies as "The Great Arab Revolt").
So much for Zionists' naivete, denial and disrespect. Now to the core of the Arab objection to the Zionist plan.
Many of us still think in full honesty that a terrible misunderstanding has occurred, that the Arabs did not understand us, and that this is the reason why they oppose us; but if only we could explain to them how benevolent our intentions, they would stretch their hands back to us. This is a mistake that has been proven so again and again. I will bring one such incident.The Arab's argument is rather compelling, but Jabotinsky confronts them with an equally compelling moral dilemma:
In this historical week of Israel's 60th birthday, it is most fitting that we remind ourselves of the principles of reciprocity and mutual respect on which the state of Israel was founded.
May those principles light our path today, and may Israel's adversaries be blessed with a faint semblance of these principles.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation (www.danielpearl.org) named after his son. He and his wife, Ruth, are editors of "I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl" (Jewish Light, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award. This week, Pearl is debating the Israel-Arab issue with Palestinian-born George Bisharat, on LA Times Dustup.
Judea Pearl is the 2008 winner of Benjamin Franklin Medal in Computers and Cognitive Science, a special award of Philadelphia's Franklin Institute
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