Let’s start discussing the elephant in the room: how Zionism thought about the Arabs living in Palestine. “Who came first?” I get asked a lot on Birthright trips. “Who was here first? Was it the Arabs or the Jews?” From the very beginning the early Zionist leaders were well aware of the Arabs living in Palestine, and each of the various branches of our Zionist tree had a different viewpoint.
By the turn of the twentieth century, there were around 500,000 Arabs living in the area of Palestine. But it wasn’t a Palestinian state, or even an Arab state. It was a territory of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire, and lacked defined borders. The Arabs weren’t in control, the Turks were, and Christians, Jews, and Muslims generally managed their communities with a great deal of autonomy.
Jews have had a continuous presence in Palestine going back 3,000 years. But the last time we had control over the territory (before Israel in 1948) was in the first century BCE, just prior to the Romans. Even after the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE Jews remained the majority population for several hundred years. Then came the Christians, then the Muslims, but there were still always Jews living in the region.
European Jews started immigrating to Palestine en masse with the First Aliyah, beginning in 1882, which brought in a net of around 15,000 by 1903. By the early 1900s there were around
55,000 Jews living in Palestine. They legally bought land from the Ottoman government, or from Arab land owners, and mostly settled along the Mediterranean coast, or inland in the Jezreel and Jordan valleys. But the land was generally swampy and filled with malarial mosquitos, so not good for farming. It was very tough living, and thousands of Jews ended up leaving.
This influx of Jews to Palestine marked the beginning of relations with the local Arabs. The Arabs were not universally thrilled to welcome these new Jewish settlers, but there wasn’t yet an Arab national movement like Zionism. So relations between the two communities wasn’t necessarily negative.
Since 1516 Palestine was administered as a territory of the Ottoman Empire. It was under Turkish, not Arab, control, though the Ottomans, too, were Muslim.
Why do we always talk about 2,000 years, as in “the creation of Israel in 1948 ended two thousand years of Jewish exile?” What we mean by this 2,000 number is not that there were no Jews in Palestine since ancient times, but that the Jews hadn’t been sovereign there since then.
NAMES TO KNOW
The different Zionist tree branches responded to the Arabs in different ways:
Herzl and the Political Zionists: they were so focused on building the Jewish state that they looked past the Arabs who were already living there. Herzl thought that the creation of the Jewish state was going to bring such a high level of modernity and prosperity and political freedom and culture, that the Arab population would welcome the Jews with open arms, and there would be no conflict between the two.
Ahad Ha’Am and the Cultural Zionists: Ha’Am was prescient about the coming Arab-Jewish conflict, warning the Zionists to be very careful in their dealings with the Arabs. He described the settlers’ dealings with the Arabs as unjust and cruel, hostile and contemptuous. He appealed to Jewish teachings about what happens when a former slave becomes king: the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
AD Gordon and the Labor Zionists: AD Gordon saw the Arabs through the ideals of the Torah around protecting the stranger in your midst. He felt that the Jews’ treatment of the Arabs would be crucial to the success of the coming Jewish homeland. He therefore advocated policies to accommodate the native Arabs as much as possible. For instance, every new Jewish settlement should allocate adjacent plots of land specifically for the Arabs.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
Jews are indigenous to the Land of Israel, tracing their lineage back thousands of years. But the Arabs who were living in Palestine at this time were, while not indigenous, certainly native. There were perhaps around 500,000 Arabs then living in Palestine, which was a part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire.
In Hebrew the word “aliyah” means “to ascend,” or to “go up”. In ancient times, one made aliyah to literally walk up the stairs to the Temple in Jerusalem. Today aliyah has come to symbolize the idea that immigrating to Eretz Yisrael is an act of raising up one’s soul, of fulfilling a spiritual need.
It may seem like a fine distinction, but the semantic difference between whether Zionism was colonialism or colonization is important. Zionism wasn’t about imperial exploitation, economic gain, or political power on behalf of a European empire. The Zionists were doing the opposite — escaping the European powers. They were coming not as colonialists but to instead settle permanently in the region and develop a new state there. To colonize the land in a project of national renewal.