Saturday, November 5, 2011

Making Deserts Bloom 1

"Impelled by this historic and traditional attachment, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establsh themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent decades they returned in their masses. Pioneers, ma'pilim (immigrants coming to Eretz-Israel in defiance of restrictive legislation) and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood." (The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, May 14, 1948, paragraph 3)

OK, that's the hype. But what about the reality?

Here's the first in an occasional series of telling quotes from Fifty Years in Palestine (1948) by the truly remarkable Frances E. Newton (1871-1955) (NB: The Plain of Esdraelon is in Palestine's lower Galilee):

"To speak of Esdraelon as a [historical] battlefield does not tell the whole of its story. It must not be thought of only as an arena of conflict and death, for its fertile earth has provided life-giving sustenance throughout the ages to thrifty cultivators. It has always been the harvest field and granary of Palestine. In proof of this let me give an extract from the letters sent to Blackwood's Magazine by Lawrence Oliphant, an Englishman who lived towards the end of the last century for many years in the village of Daliet al Carmel.

"'Readers will be surprised to learn that almost every acre of the plain of Esdraelon is at the moment in the highest state of cultivation, and that it is perfectly safe to ride across it unarmed in any direction, as I can testify. It looks today like a huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned mounds rising from it like islands, and it presents one the most striking pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to conceive'. The writer goes on to tell of the ownership of the Plain: 'Nearly the whole of it is divided between two great proprietors, the Sultan himself, and the Sursucks, the richest bankers in Syria who are resident in Beyrout. Some idea of the amount of grain harvested from this portion of land belonging to the bankers may be gathered from the fact that Mr Sursuck himself told me that the cost of transporting his last year's crop to Haifa and Acre (a few miles distant) amounted to $50,000'.

"When it is understood that the cost of transport in those days would amount to only a few shillings a day for the hire of man and beast and, further, that it was only the tithe, not the whole, of the wheat which belonged to Sursuck, some idea of the immense amount of the crop can be gathered. The description above might have been given by myself in 1914. Every yard of the great plain was under cultivation by Arab peasants who lived in Nazareth or in the surrounding hills. At harvest time their homes would be denuded of men who went ahead to start the work of reaping. Shortly after the women would follow. The scene in the plain was that of a hive of human bees, humming with industry with hundreds of families camped along the sheaves till all were transported to the safety of the village threshing-floors.

"In vivid contrast to the above I take the following example from Zionist literature: 'When this historic spot was visited in 1920 by Sir Herbert Samuel, first High Commissioner for Palestine, he found that 'four or five squalid Arab villages, long distances apart from one another, could be seen on the summits of low hills here and there. The rest of the country was uninhabited. There was not a house, not a tree. Along the branches of the Hedjaz railway an occasional train stopped at a deserted station. A greater part of the soil was in the ownership of absentee landlords. The river Kishon, which flows through the valley, and the many springs which feed it from the hillsides, had been allowed to form a series of swamps and marshes, and as a consequence the country was infested with malaria. Besides, public security had been so bad under the former regime that any settled agriculture was in any case almost impossible'.

"Without wishing to throw doubt on this account of what the first High Commissioner saw, I venture to think he may have been wearing Crook's lenses at the time. It was but natural that in 1920 the Plain should appear deserted and desolate; how could it be anything else when every able-bodied Arab peasant had been conscripted into the Turkish army? As for 'settled agriculture' the Plain was, as has been seen, a harvest field, and not a kitchen garden. Public security was not insecure until the advent of Jewish cement-built villages whose occupants carried firearms with which to attack Arab peasants at work ploughing their soil, as they had done for generations past. This happened in one instance which I will tell of later. The Jews had acquired the title of large tracts of the Plain by means of negotiations with the absentee landlords mentioned by Lawrence Oliphant just before the war broke out in 1914, but they had not acquired possession by means of the legal transfer, and they resorted to force." (pp 96-98)

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