Blood and Sand

A revisionist Israeli historian revisits his country’s origins.

by David Remnick May 5, 2008

Villagers leaving Al Faluja and Iraq al-Manshiya, on April 9, 1949. The area became the site of the Israeli town Qiryat Gat.

Villagers leaving Al Faluja and Iraq al-Manshiya, on April 9, 1949. The area became the site of the Israeli town Qiryat Gat.

For thirteen centuries, between 1200 B.C. and the second century A.D., the Jews lived in, and often ruled, the land of Israel. The population was clustered mainly in Judaea, Samaria, and Galilee. The Jews’ dominion was long but not eternal. The Romans invaded and, after suppressing revolts in A.D. 66-73 and 132-135, killed or expelled much of the Jewish population and renamed the land Palaestina, for the Philistines who had lived along the southern seacoast. After the conquest, some Jews stayed behind, and the faith of the Hebrews remained a religio licita, a tolerated religion, throughout the Roman Empire.

By the nineteenth century, Palestine had been ruled by Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Arabs, Christian Crusaders, and Ottoman Turks. When Mark Twain visited in 1867, his imagination soaked with the Biblical imagery of milk and honey, he discovered to his surprise “a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land . . . desolate and unlovely.” Jericho was “accursed,” Jerusalem “a pauper village.” Twain’s passages on Palestine in “The Innocents Abroad” have, over the decades, been exploited by propagandists to echo Lord Shaftesbury’s notion that, before the return of the Jews to Zion, Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land. Twain and Shaftesbury, as it turned out, were hardly alone in failing to recognize a substantial Arab population in the Judaean hills and beyond.

And yet nineteenth-century Palestine certainly was desolate and impoverished. The population in 1881 consisted of four hundred and fifty thousand Palestinian Arabs and twenty-five thousand Jews, nearly all of them ultra-Orthodox non-nationalists living in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, and Tiberias. Palestine, despite its importance to the three monotheistic religions, was a political backwater. The Ottomans divided the land into sanjaks, or districts, which were ruled from Constantinople, Damascus, and Beirut. It was at this time, however, that European Jews—poor, mainly secular, and feeling the onset of an intensified anti-Semitism in their countries of origin—began to emigrate to Palestine. This was the First Aliyah, or ascent. Most European Jewish emigrants headed to North America and Great Britain, but some, in small numbers at first, sailed to Palestine. The local Ottoman bureaucrats were strapped for cash, and the new arrivals had little problem obtaining entry rights, agricultural plots, and building permits. This was colonialism not by conquering armies but by persistent real-estate transactions—and, when necessary, baksheesh.

The plans of the early Jewish settlers were unambiguous, even if they seemed, at the time, wholly incredible. As one early Zionist, Ze’ev Dubnow, wrote to his brother Simon, “The ultimate goal . . . is, in time, to take over the Land of Israel and to restore to the Jews the political independence they have been deprived of for these two thousand years. . . . The Jews will yet arise and, arms in hand (if need be), declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland.”

In the midst of this first wave of immigration, Zionism found its chief tribune, dreamer, and theorist in Theodor Herzl. A mediocre playwright and the Paris correspondent for a liberal Viennese daily newspaper, Neue Freie Presse, Herzl witnessed the Dreyfus trial in 1894 and the appalling anti-Jewish demonstrations that followed. In the four-volume “History of Anti-Semitism,” Léon Poliakov writes that in the last decades before the First World War it was “hard to determine whether the French Jews or the German Jews were the more fervently patriotic.” But Herzl concluded that if anti-Semitism was as pervasive in the capitals of the European Enlightenment as it was in tsarist Russia there was no hope for assimilation. He was thoroughly secular and had no real Jewish learning. He spoke neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. (Indeed, the pathos of his conversion to Zionism lay in his devotion both to Vienna and to German culture, and in the degree to which events in Europe would, with the rise of the Third Reich, surpass his darkest predictions.)

When Herzl published “Der Judenstaat” (“The Jewish State”), in 1896, the book seemed to most readers as utopian as Bacon’s “New Atlantis.” As portrayed in Amos Elon’s wonderful 1975 biography, Herzl was an almost comically quixotic figure—the bearded café intellectual with his historical dreams travelling the world, trying (and failing) to win financial support from the Rothschilds and political support from the Kaiser and the Ottoman sultan. And yet the Zionist movement, with Herzl at its center, took hold, and in 1897, at the First Zionist Congress, in Basel, Switzerland, a motley collection of Jewish intellectuals and political activists voted to establish a Heimstätte, a “publicly and legally secured home,” for the Jews in Palestine. Although the delegates surely had a sovereign state in mind, they were careful in these early days not to use such terms, so as not to alarm the Gentiles or offend any Jewish grandees who might eventually decide to fund their project.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Palestinian Arabs identified themselves not as a unified people but as subjects of the Ottoman Empire and of the greater community of Islam; their local identities were tied to their villages, clans, and families. Resistance to the earliest wave of Jewish immigration was apparent, but it was polite compared to what came later. In 1899, the mayor of Jerusalem, Yusuf Dia al-Khalidi, wrote to Zadok Kahn, the chief rabbi of France, saying that the Zionist idea was in theory “natural, fine, and just. . . . Who can challenge the rights of the Jews to Palestine? Good lord, historically it is really your country.” But, like other Palestinian notables, he opposed Jewish immigration, because the land was inhabited and resistance would inevitably follow. “In the name of God, let Palestine be left in peace,” Khalidi wrote. Rabbi Kahn passed the letter on to Herzl, who blithely wrote to Khalidi to reassure him that the Zionists, with their wealth, their skills, and their education, would build an economy to benefit both Arab and Jew.

“Blood and Sand” continues
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