Jewish Journal

History disproves myth that founding Zionists were naive

by Judea Pearl

Posted on May. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Zev Jabotinsky

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....

"Not to take from others -- but to build the ruins. No rights on our past -- but on our future. Not the preservation of historic inheritance -- but the creation of new national assets -- this is the core claim and right of the Hebrew nation in its country.

(Reprinted in "Anachnu U'Shcheneinu," 1931, p. 31.)

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:

With heartfelt admiration and great interest, we are viewing today the current war of liberation conducted by the ancient Arabic nation.

We see how the scattered Arab forces are being united under the good will of Western governments and other peace-loving nations, and how, from the mist of war there emerge new and immense political possibilities. We see again the formation of a strong and united Arab political body, freshly renovated and aiming to renovate the great tradition of Arab science and literature that are so close to our heart.

This kinship found its glorious expression particularly in the Spanish period of the Hebrew-Arabic development, when our greatest authors wrote and thought in the Arabic language, as well as in Hebrew.

(Translated from Weizmann's book "Dvarim," vol. 1 Tel Aviv, 1936, p. 99.)

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:

If indeed there is among the Arabs a national movement, we must relate to it with the utmost seriousness.... The Arabs are concerned about two issues:

1. The Jews will soon come in their millions and conquer the country and chase out the Arabs... Responsible Zionists never said and never wished such things.

2. There is no place in Eretz Israel for a large number of inhabitants. This is total ignorance. It is enough to notice what is happening now in Tunis, Tangier and California to realize that there is a vast space here for a great work of many Jews, without touching even one Arab.

(Haaretz, Dec. 15, 1919, Reprinted in Dvarim, vol 1 1936, p. 129.)

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.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the Arab people in Eretz Israel have this right. And this right is not limited by or conditional upon the result of its influence on us and our interests. We ought not to diminish the Arabs' freedom for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission.

The entire moral core encapsulated in the Zionist idea is the notion that a nation -- every nation -- is its own purpose and not a tool for the purposes of other nations. And in the same way that we want the Jewish people to be master of its own affairs, capable of determining its historical destiny without being dependent on the will -- even good will -- of other nations, so too we must seek for the Arabs.

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").

There is no point talking about the possibility that the Arabs in Eretz Israel would consent to the Zionist plan while we are a minority here. I express it with such confidence not because I enjoy disappointing decent people but, simply, to save them disappointments: All these decent people, except those blind from birth, have understood already that this is something that is utterly illogical -- to obtain the Arabs' consent and goodwill to turn Eretz Israel from an Arabic country to a country with Jewish minority.

Every indigenous people, regardless of whether it is primitive or advanced, views its country as a national home and aspires to be and remain its sole and eternal landlord; it does not voluntarily agree to accommodate, not only new landlords, but even new partners or new participants. And our most misleading argument would be to rely on the fact that our agricultural settlements bring them economical advantages. Though this is an undisputed truth, there is no nation in the world that sold its national aspirations for bread and butter

(pps. 73-74)

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.

Several years ago, when the late N. Sokolov visited Eretz Israel, and he was one of the most moderate and diplomatic Zionists at that time, he delivered an elaborate speech on this misunderstanding. He explained clearly how mistaken Arabs are in thinking that we wish to steal their property or dispossess them or oppress them.

"We do not even want to have a Jewish government, we want merely a government representing the League of Nations." Sokolov's speech received an immediate response in the main editorial of the Arab newspaper, Carmel, the content of which I convey here from memory:

"The Zionists" -- so wrote the Arab editor -- "are tormenting their nerves unnecessarily."

There is no misunderstanding here whatsoever.

The Arabs never doubted that the potential absorption capacity of Eretz Israel is enormous and, therefore, that it is possible to settle here enough Jews without dispossessing or constraining even a single Arab. It is obvious that "this is all" the Zionists want. But it is also obvious that this is precisely what the Arabs do not want; for, then, the Jews will turn into a majority and, from the nature of things, a Jewish government will be established, and the fate of the Arab minority will depend on Jewish good will; Jews know perfectly well what minority existence is like.

There is no misunderstanding here whatsoever.

The Arab's argument is rather compelling, but Jabotinsky confronts them with an equally compelling moral dilemma:

Whoever thinks that our arguments [for Jewish immigration] are immoral, I would beg him to address the following question: If this [Jewish immigration] is immoral, what should the Jewish people do?.... Our planet is no longer blessed with uninhabited islands. Take any oasis in any desert, it is already taken by the native who inhabits that place from time immemorial and rejects the coming of new settlers that will become a majority, or just come in great numbers.

In short -- if there is a homeless nation in the world, its very yearning for a homeland is immoral.

The homeless must forever remain homeless; all the land in the universe has already been dividedâ??that's it. These are the conclusions of 'morality'.... This sort of morality has a place among cannibals, not in the civilized world. The land belongs not to those who have too much land, but to those who have none. If we appropriate one parcel of land from the owners of mega-estates and give it to an exiled nation -- it is a just deed.

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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