October 22, 2019

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….


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: