"Many, perhaps even most of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark... but in full view of so many people who simply chose not to look and not to question." (Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan)
What is euphemistically described as the 'Middle East conflict' or the 'Palestine problem', perhaps the greatest colonial running-sore of modern times, began as an act of wilful blindness. Consider the following line of thought:
"Reading [Theodor Herzl's declarations], the reader may be conscious of a remarkable anomoly in them. If Herzl's fundamental thesis was that persecuted or unenfranchised Jews should get away from their false environment and found a State where they would be by themselves and so be the equals of any men, if this was what Herzl meant, how then could he come to consider Palestine as a spot where such a State could be founded? It was a territory where the Jews could not be self-secure, for the Arabs were already living there in hundreds of thousands. How could Herzl fix his eyes on Palestine then, where the conditions for his Sinn Fein 'ourselves alone' State were unobtainable?"
This obvious question - 'What about the Palestinian Arabs?' - so beautifully framed by British author and journalist J.M.N. Jeffries (1880-1960) in his 1939 book Palestine: The Reality, goes direct to the fatal flaw at the heart of political Zionism.
"The question may well be asked. But it would be difficult for Zionism to provide an answer to it. Nothing is more significant of the character of the Zionist movement than the fact that in those crucial days of last century it never paid the least attention to the Arabs who peopled the country upon which all its efforts were directed. Not a lift of a Zionist eyebrow seems to have been wasted upon an Arab form.
"The sincere Mr Stein is one of the few Zionist writers who seems conscious of this shortcoming. He does what he can to rectify it. 'When Herzl', he explains, 'had spoken of a Charter' (from the Sultan) 'he had not, needless to say, contemplated any eviction of the Arabs of Palestine in favour of the Jews. He was, to judge from his Congress addresses, hardly aware that Palestine had settled inhabitants, and he had, in perfect good faith, omitted the Arabs from his calculations'.
"Was there ever anything more extraordinary than this? Vast plans are made engaging the destinies of a multitude of people, yet the man who engenders these plans never takes the essential first step of surveying the land where he proposes to carry them out. Nor apparently do any of his associates suggest it to him. There might be no Arabs in the world for all the difference it makes to him or to his associates.
"Year by year Zionist congresses are summoned, and from their platforms and in the corridors of the assembly speakers discourse incessantly about themselves, about champions and about opponents of the cause within the ranks of Jewry, about the dove-tailing of ill-fitting factors in their programme, about their hopes and their fears of Gentile help, about their own culture and their own need for spiritual expansion. Without doubt these were reasonable and respectable topics. When however were they put aside to consider the existence of inhabitants in the land which the Congress members proposed to acquire? When indeed? Was a single day's session of a single Congress devoted to the discussion of the understanding which must be reached with the people of Palestine? Not one.
"Herzl's own situation is the most extraordinary of all. He justly becomes celebrated. He goes about the world spreading his gospel. He interviews monarchs and chiefs-of-government. Strange interviews they must have been, for he is closeted with the Sultan, the ruler of Palestine, yet comes away without news that Palestine has a population. He interviews the Pope and talks with him of the custody of the Holy Places, but never learns of the Christian inhabitants who frequent them. He even visits Palestine, but seems to find nobody there but his fellow-Jews. Arabs apparently vanish before him as in their own Arabian nights. The Arabic tongue at the moment of utterance is transmuted magically into Hebrew or Yiddish or German!
"But it is when we turn from Herzl to his associate leaders, and still more when we consider the action of the chiefs of Zionism who immediately succeeded him, that his plea of not having perceived the Arabs cannot be entertained. We are given to understand that this blankness of view persisted for some 6 or 7 years. Mr Stein, writing of the period round 1905, says that 'it was now coming to be realized that Palestine was not empty'. Herzl had died after the Sixth Congress, in 1904, and his death marks a demarcation.
"I cannot see how it can be held that for 6 years a great number of admittedly intelligent educated men remained ignorant of the presence of the Arabs. If they did remain so ignorant, theirs was as bad a case of culpable ignorance as can be imagined, and they cannot be allowed to profit by it. But I do not believe in this ignorance, and I maintain that the-half-and-half prolongation of it which was kept up till the War, and to all intents was resumed afterwards (as will be seen when the Balfour Declaration is analysed), altogether discredits the leaders of the Zionist cause as well as their friends in our own Cabinet.
"There were 19 Jewish colonies established in Palestine before the year 1900. The colonies of Rishon-le-Zion, Zichron Jacob and Rosh Pinah had been founded in the early 'eighties, and housed thousands of Jews who had fled from Russia. The international Jewish Colonization Association, founded by Baron Hirsch in 1891, was busy in 1900 reorganizing these colonies, which had been over-subsidized by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The Choveve Zion or 'Lovers of Zion' organization, established in Russia, but with committees in Vienna, Berlin, New York, Paris and London, had been engaged in Jewish settlement for 6 years. The 'Jewish Colonial Trust' had been founded and registered in England to collect funds for use in Palestine and had received a quartrer of a million pounds in its first year. The Jewish 'National Fund', created to acquire land in Palestine, was founded in 1901. In Jerusalem there were many thousands of Jews, and also in Jaffa.
"All these trusts and colonies and the people who inhabited them were in regular and continuous communication with Jewish bodies and persons throughout Europe and America. Many of the Jews of Jerusalem were subsidized by pious co-religionists, so that they alone were responsible for a network of correspondence between Palestine an innumerable synagogues and congregations everywhere. The Choveve Zion and the secular associations necessarilly were drawn into association with the Zionist Organization and with the Zionist Congresses. At Basle and at the succeeding Congresses there was infinite discussion about the colonies.
"In a hundred ways the conditions prevailing in Palestine and the existence of the Arabs and the varying ways in which the Arabs reacted to existing colonies and to the promise of more colonies must have been known to all Zionists.
"The only conclusion then, and it is a conclusion forced on the observer, is that if Zionism was unaware of the Arabs it was because most Zionists perceived an obstacle in the Arabs and did not want to be aware of them. The Zionist leaders, and the more prominent of their followers, obsessed with the absurd notion that Palestine had always been the patrimony of the Jews, did not intend to be aware of anything which conflicted with this. To have made approaches to the Arab population, and to have discussed at any length the bar which that population presented or might present to the accomplishment of their plans, would have to disconfess the plea upon which those plans were based. It would have disclosed to most of the non-Jewish world, and indeed to a good part of the Jewish world, that there was a factor in existence which upset the whole formula of Jewish ownership.
"I do not say that all of the leading Zionists viewed the matter quite in this fashion. Some of them will have thought about the Arabs in a careless, indifferent way. They will have considered them as nobodies who would disappear presently, decamping from the soil after a little money had been spent or by some other almost natural sequence. They would vanish like the mist before the sun of Zion.
"Those who thought like this wasted no time in discussing persons of such little import as the Arabs. As far as they themselves were concerned the Sultan of Turkey was the temporary population of Palestine. Of him they did talk, and with him they dealt, if unsuccessfully.
"But most of the principal figures of Zionism must lie under the imputation of not having desired to perceive the Arabs. Their attention had been called to them by one man at least who belonged to their own number, Achad Ha'am. Achad Ha'am was the pen-name of Asher Ginsberg, whose essays and treatises became the literary focus of all Jews who opposed the establishment of a Jewish State. His patent disinterestedness and his altruism marked him out amidst his contemporaries. He declared that the political Zionists, that is to say those who worked for a Jewish State, were ruining the cause. 'Judaism', wrote he in 1897, 'needs at present but little. It needs, not an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favourable to its development; a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance in every branch of culture, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature'.
"Achad Ha'am protested even some years before the Basle Conference against the Zionist wilful or casual exclusion of the Arabs. It was folly, he said, to treat them as wild men of the desert who could not see what was going on around them. At the Basle Conference he sat 'solitary amid his friends, like a mourner at a wedding-feast', and wrote afterwards of 'the complete absurdity of Herzl's statesmanship, aimed inexorably at a Jewish state in Palestine'. Twenty-three years later, in 1920, he wrote, 'From the very beginning we have always ignored the Arab people'." (pp 39-43)