A popular misconception in the West is that Arabs and Jews have been daggers drawn for centuries. The Palestinian problem is seen as only the latest manifestation of an age-old antipathy. But the Arabs have lived in peace with the Jews for generations, as Semitic peoples of the same ‘father Abraham’. The persecution has come from Christian Europe.
As far back as the Crusades, the Abbe of Cluny observed: ‘What is the good of going to the end of the world, at great loss in men and money, to fight the Saracens, when we tolerate among us other infidels a thousand times more guilty towards Christ than the Mohammedans?’The other infidels he meant were, of course, the Jews.
Noam Chomsky, himself a Jew, has written a stinging introduction to Rosemary Sayigh’s book, saying: ‘It is difficult not to be appalled when Western politicians and intellectuals explain their backing for Israel’s policies in terms of ‘moral obligation’, as if the sins of the Nazis and their predecessors, or of the Americans who closed the doors to refugees from Hitler’s horrors, require the sacrifice of the Palestinians … Somehow the Palestinian peasants were never able to appreciate their moral responsibility to expiate the sins of the Christian Europe.’
What Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries does is to show how the Zionist movement succeeded in transferring Jewish statelessness onto the Arabs of Palestine without the absurdity of the situation outraging the world. It points out some of the semantic tricks by which politicians made the Palestinians mysteriously and conveniently ‘disappear’ - for example, Nordau’s slogan, ‘A land without a people, for a people without a land’, or the British recognition of the indigenous Palestinians only as ‘the non-Jewish communities’.
Rosemary Sayigh also recreates through detailed example and interview the complex community life of the peasants, rich in human contact although materially poor; for instance, through an ancient form of collective tenure land held by village families was reapportioned at regular intervals, so that all qualities of land were equally re-distributed. Rights to grazing, wood and water were also communally organised. So, though all were poor, no-one was destitute.
Sayigh argues that the self-sufficiency of each village, with its cluster of long-established families, meant that there was no habit of large-scale interdependent organisation, no political consciousness. They were easy targets for what she sees as the ‘organised violence’ of the Zionists, backed by Western military strength. Their rootedness in their land (they touch it, smell it, know it piece by piece, stone by stone) added to their incredulity at the idea that the Zionists intended not to share but to take over their land. Even when they fled in terror across the borders, it was never meant to be forever. ‘We locked our door and kept the key, expecting to return.’ It is this determination to regroup their dispersed families and return to their land that has kept them fuelled, ‘a fire under ashes’, all these years.
In contrast she presents the diary of Joseph Waits, an officer in charge of Zionist colonization: ‘Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country … There is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here … not one village, not one tribe, should be left.’
The new Zionists’ own origins were Western; they were ‘white settlers’ forming an outpost of Western Civilisation among the ‘backward’ Arabs. Less and less were they Jews forming a religious state - their initial justification for claiming territory They were Israelis forming a nation state.
Sayigh does not conceal her anger at what she sees as imperialist arrogance. Nor does she apologise for the sympathy she feels for the Palestinian peasant, betrayed, she feels, by other Arab regimes and even by his own intelligentsia. Indeed, subjectivity is partly the point, for the book is directed at readers who know the Palestinian problem as an issue, but not as a concrete situation that three million people live daily. She assumes a knowledge of the political history of the period and liberally peppers her text with Arabic terminology. Looking up the copious notes and glossaries can be distracting and the general points she makes are sometimes blurred by detail.
But it is intended to be a people’s history and it does give a taste of what it must be like to flee across the desert land in high summer, to be despised camp refugees, to become politicised the hard way, eventually seeing armed struggle as the only way left to regain self-respect and hope of return. One brief, chilling quotation is all there is space for: ‘About 14,000 destitutes are ranged on terrace upon terrace under the olive trees - a tree to a family - and are forced to consume the bark and bum the living wood that has meant a livelihood for generations.’