"In essence, Palestine was 'empty' because it could be easily emptied of its population." (M. Shahid Alam, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism, 2009, p 77)
Israeli historian, Tom Segev, is coming to Australia as a guest of Monash University's Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation.
The Australian's Middle East correspondent, John Lyons, has written a welcome profile of Segev, which focuses on a matter which has rarely, if ever, disturbed the complacent Zionist orthodoxy of Murdoch's Australian flagship: the primacy of mythology, ideology and indoctrination over the historical record in Israel, particularly in relation to the Palestinian Nakba of 1948.
Lyons writes that Segev "is one the 'New Historians' from the 1980s when Israel released its first wave of archival documents. 'You could take out a document and say, 'Wow, this is not how we learnt it at school. It was less heroic, less noble than we had learnt at school. Until then we had no history, we had mythology, we had ideology and we had a lot of indoctrination.' Children were taught that when Israel was established in 1948 it had been empty - it was a land without people for a people without land. These historians demolished that myth with documents showing almost half the Arabs who left were forced out, many violently." (Israeli widows reveal the reality of land built on myths, 11/8/12)*
This kind of plain-speaking, of course, is like a red rag to a bull for those who've made it their business to patrol ms media discourse on the subject of Palestine/Israel lest it deviate in any way from Israel's official line, that is from Israeli mythology and ideology. Hence the following letter from Tzvi Fleischer of the Australia-Israel Review, published in The Australian on August 14:
"John Lyon's article on historian Tom Segev... made the absurd claim that before the 'new' historians such as Segev, Israeli 'children were taught that when Israel was established in 1948 it had been empty - it was a land without people for a people without land'. This is not true. There has certainly been criticism of past Israeli curriculums for having paid insufficient attention to the 1948 Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian plight generally, but students were never taught that the land was completely empty. Indeed, the line about 'a land without people for a people without' has nothing to do with the 1948 refugees. It is the core of a twisted criticism of the whole Zionist movement from 1895 onward by Edward Said and his followers. The misrepresentation is two-fold. First, while there was a slogan used by a small part of the Zionist movement for a few years after 1900 that spoke of 'a land without a people for a people without a land', this is materially different from 'a land without people'. The early Zionists were aware that Palestine had Arab inhabitants but noted they were not considered a separate nationality or people at that time."
To interrupt Fleischer's letter here and draw out his meaning:
What he's saying is that the early political Zionists were certainly aware of the existence of Arabs in Palestine but believed that, unlike the Jews, they did not rate as 'a people'. They saw them, if you will, as generic Arabs, equally at home in other parts of the Middle East where Arabic was spoken and Islam practised. In other words, they were eminently portable, or transferable (to adapt the Zionist buzzword 'transfer' - in use in back rooms whenever Palestine's pre-state Zionists met to discuss their 'Arab problem').
On the other hand, these same Zionists took very seriously indeed the idea that Jews were 'a people', at a time when being part of a people, separate from other people, seemed so terribly important. With religion, including Judaism, generally on the skids at the time, and tribalism and nationalism all the go, these Jewish nationalists conned themselves, and the rest of the world, into believing that being a Jew meant so much more than just being the adherent, to a lesser or greater degree, of the Jewish faith. It meant, they believed, belonging to 'a people' who had once had a glorious past in the land of Palestine, which was cruelly terminated by the Romans, and were now living in doleful 'exile' outside Palestine (or the the Land of Israel as they preferred to call it), a state of affairs which could only be relieved by the reconstitution of ancient Israel in today's Palestine.
Mind you, some of them, and they were all European Jews you'll note, really had to wrestle with the idea of finding a common identity with non-European, Arab, Jews, so concerned were they with matters of pedigree:
"The Jaffa colonists outclass the Halukah Jerusalemites as a shire stallion would a worn-out coster's pony. The Yemenites are for the most part undersized and rather poor-spirited natives. They are not racially Jews. They are black, long-headed, hybrid Arabs." (Palestine Reclaimed: Letters from a Jewish Officer in Palestine, Redcliffe N. Salaman, 1920, p 28) [Italics in the original.]
If the concept of 'a people' has more than a touch of arbitrariness and artificiality about it, how much more so that of concocting a people out of a religion? The simple fact is that anybody today who can't bring himself to acknowledge (and celebrate) our hybridity has a problem with reality. And so, for Zionist true believers in such bunkum, whether they be the first Zionists or the likes of Fleischer today, to pose as authorities on who is or who is not worthy of the designation 'a people' is rich indeed, and to be honest, entirely misses the point.
Whether the Arabs of Palestine, especially the majority fellahin, regarded themselves as 'a people' or not, they had been rooted in the land of Palestine for centuries and had prior occupancy of it. The simple fact of the Palestinian Arab's native title to Palestine may not be quite as entertaining as Zionist mythology, but at the end of the day it is one of those basic moral and legal principles we reject at our peril. Upholding it means, quite simply, that Palestine was, still is, and always will be the land of the Arabs who lived there (and in some parts, against incredible odds, still do).
Returning to the rest of Fleischer's letter:
"But for those dedicated to Israel's destruction, such as Said, it is more convenient to dishonestly rewrite the slogan to pretend that the 'racist' Zionists declared Palestinians were not people. Moreover, to characterise Zionist and Israeli history on the basis of this single slogan, employed by a few Zionists for only a few years more than 100 years ago, is to indulge in the crudest form of propaganda."
Fleischer should be careful of accusing others of dishonesty. If he had any respect for its converse, he'd acknowledge that the early Zionists, whether they used the 'land without people' slogan or not, acted as if it were true:
"The fact of an overwhelming indigenous Arab majority confronted the Zionists with an imposing ethical problem, which for the most part they chose not to acknowledge. The earlier Zionist writings almost entirely ignored the Arab issue, forwarding the idea of a Jewish national revival in Palestine without regard to the reality that an exclusively Jewish state would entail the expulsion of the existing population. What reference there was to the Palestinian Arabs was generally derogatory and detached, denying their claim to the land and status as a people. The dehumanized image of the Palestinians which the Zionists developed and propagated was instrumental in displacing the moral issue and establishing an aura of legal justification around Zionist goals and activity." (The Zionist Mind: The Origins & Development of Zionist Thought, Alan R. Taylor, 1974, p 48)**
A more ethical (and therefore marginal) Zionist, Judah Magnes, speaking of Palestine's Arab population, warned in 1930 that '[t]he fact is that they are here in their overwhelming numbers in this part of the world, and whereas it may have been in accord with Israelitic needs in the time of Joshua to conquer the land and maintain their position in it with the sword, that is not in accord with the desire of plain Jews or with the long ethical tradition of Judaism..." (The Zionist Idea: A Historical Analysis & Reader, Arthur Hertzberg, 1997, p 449)
Another, the armchair Joshua and ideological father of today's dominant Likud strain of Zionism, Vladimir Jabotinsky, recognised the Arab claim to Palestine, but only to dismiss it by asserting (in 1937) that, although "there is no question of ousting the Arabs," they had better get used to the idea of being a minority in the coming Jewish state because their claim on Palestine "is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation." (ibid, p 562)
Needless to say, those actual Joshuas who followed, the Ben-Gurions and the Begins, having the advantage of a Zionist army, trained and armed over the previous decades for the coming confrontation with Palestine's indigenous Arab majority, had no qualms whatever about "ousting the Arabs," and transforming them, in Zionist parlance, into 'absentees', a term that sits cosily with the old 'land without people' slogan.
Finally, here's a most interesting response to Fleischer, published the next day, 15 August:
"Tzvi Fleischer claims history is being dishonestly misrepresented on the basis of a 'single slogan' used by a few Zionists for only 'a few years more than 100 years ago'. In 1935, my husband (then a teenager, now deceased) spent 6 months in a training camp for German Jews being prepared to work on kibbutzim in Palestine. He was told the land of Palestine was empty except for a few nomadic Arabs down in the desert. Similar 'indoctrination' (my husband's word for the training) must have been practised on Australian Jewish youth in that period, as I've heard older Australians born and educated here reciting similar untruths. Funnily enough, another slogan I've heard recalled implicitly admits the land was already occupied and farmed: 'Yard by yard, goat by goat'." (Robyn Walton, Toorak, Vic)
[*Segev, author of One Palestine, Complete: Jews & Arabs Under the British Mandate (2000), 1967: Israel, the War & the Year that Transformed the Middle East (2006), and other books, also made the following points in Lyons' report:
1) "Demographically, the Arab population and the ultra-orthodox population in Israel are growing. What that means is that the Zionist element is becoming weaker. In Jerusalem now, in first grade, a majority of children are either Arab or ultra-orthodox. This means Israel is rapidly losing on the front of being Jewish and democratic."
2) "Israel is still trying to project the 'fiction' that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is temporary. 'It is almost 50 years on since we took the territories. The official policy of the Israeli government is a two-state solution but I don't think that the present government actually believes in a two-state solution'... Politically it was 'very clever' of Netanyahu to publicly commit to a two-state solution. 'it enabled him to play for time'..."]
[**For JMN Jeffries' commentary on Zionism's wilful blindness, see my 7/11/11 post None So Blind.]