issue 199 - September 1989
Chasing the dangerous
dream of Zion
The Jews were being persecuted. They needed a home and
they got one. So what went wrong? Danny Rubenstein tells the
tragic tale of a 90-year conflict over the land of Palestine.
TV viewers all over the world have witnessed clashes between Israeli soldiers and Arab demonstrators. The Palestinian popular uprising, the intifada, has produced some shocking images. But it is just the latest development in a conflict which started when the first Zionists arrived in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century. The struggle is over land, and it grew out of the Jews' longing for a safe home.
Jewish people as a whole were landless for almost 2.000 years after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. They lived scattered around the Mediterranean until the Middle Ages when they gradually moved northward to Europe, especially to Eastern Europe. Faced with the traditional anti-semitism of the Christian world, which saw them as 'the killers of Christ', Jews concentrated in closed, isolated ghettos where they lived conservatively. This isolation further fuelled anti-Jewish feeling.
Pogroms and persecution
Only in the nineteenth century did European attitudes towards Jews start to change. Greater education and a more liberal social climate allowed some Jews to leave the ghettos and assimilate into modern national states. But new anti-semitic movements were also emerging - more aggressive than in the past. Murders and rapes escalated in Eastern Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: four million Jews fled to Western Europe and America. A new movement was born a nationalist awakening called Zionism.
For thousands of years, Jews had dreamed of returning to the land they called Zion which they spoke of in their prayers. It was a religious aspiration. But the burgeoning anti-semitism gave birth to a new vision. Zionism translated the religious dream into a nationalistic movement which claimed that the only solution to the Jewish question was for Jews to have a land of their own where they could establish a state. After much debate Palestine became the designated place - an area in the East which had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I. Spurred by the dream of a new Jewish society, tens of thousands of Zionist pioneers left the ghettos and went to Palestine.
There were two main groups. One, inspired by Tolstoy, aimed merely to return Jewish people (who were mainly merchants and peddlers) to the soil and transform them into workers and farmers. But the second group had a broader vision. Spearheaded by Socialist Zionists, they wanted to abolish all private property and hired labour: 'Everyone will give according to his ability and take according to his needs'. From the 1900s they started setting up Kibbutzim (communal farms).
Young and romantic
Most of those who subscribed to the Zionist ideal were so absorbed in their spiritual vision that they did not realize that there were already people living in Palestine. Many believed the region was almost entirely desert. Some were shocked to discover half a million Arabs living in the new homeland. 'The Zionists have lied to us. The country is inhabited by Arabs. And as the same country cannot be the homeland of two different peoples, the lovers of Zion must leave and seek another homeland,' wrote one of the earliest settlers, Izhar Smilansky. Other settlers romanticized that Arabs were like the ancient Israelites must have been. They dressed like them and imitated their ways, expecting that the Arabs would be converted to the 'grand socialist plan'. It was a naive notion which failed to take account of Arab aspirations.
In fact the Arabs were poor peasants who came from traditional societies. They regarded themselves as part of the wider Arab population which could be found from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. Centuries of occupation had accustomed them to accepting immigrants. Some had initially welcomed the settlers and taught them how to farm the rugged new environment. But as more Zionists arrived, pressure on the land increased. Gradually the Arabs became marginalized. The Zionist aim of self-sufficiency and their insistence on returning to 'Hebrew Labour' cut them off from the Arab communities and had disastrous effects. It began a process of economic, political and psychological self-segregation against which the Arabs were forced to defend themselves.
Meanwhile Britain was moving in, exacerbating the situation. There had been a British presence since the mid-nineteenth century. This was initially because the region was strategically important: it offered a land route to India - the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire. And with the building of the Suez Canal it also provided the main sea route.
Then there was oil. Cars were soon to come into fashion and there were abundant oil supplies in Iraq. The British established themselves firmly in Egypt. And their interests in Palestine grew.
Carving out empires
By the end of the First World War the Ottoman Empire, which for centuries had dominated this area, had been destroyed. Britain and France carved the region up between them. Arab governments were established under British control in Egypt, Iraq and Transjordan (roughly present-day Jordan). Syria and Lebanon were supervised by France. And Palestine was placed under British mandate by the League of Nations. In the period between the two world wars, new Arab states were founded and gradually gained their independence.
From the beginning of the 1920s Arabs began expressing anger with the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour declared Palestine to be the 'national home' for Jews - effectively giving away a land that was not his to give. Violent demonstrations by the Arabs against the Jews and the British exploded in 1921, 1929 and 1933. They climaxed in the half-organized rebellion of 1936-39 which was partially funded by other Arab countries. It was to no avail. Jews continued coming.
As anti-semitism grew in the West, Jewish immigrants poured in from Poland, Germany and later Austria and Czechoslovakia. With the outbreak of World War II the Jews numbered about half a million. Like people jumping from a burning building they inadvertently crushed the innocent people below them - the Arabs.
By the end of the Second World War, the horrible fate of European Jews became clear: six million slaughtered by the Nazi death machine. Many survivors tried to come to Palestine. But under Arab pressure the British mandate blocked their route. Jewish underground organizations attacked the British. And in 1947 the United Nations proposed partitioning the country into two states Arab and Jewish. The Palestinian Arabs refused, unable to accept the injustice of surrendering their homeland.
Blasting the British
Jewish terrorist attacks on the British increased and, as a military battle started between Arab and Jewish militias, the British began to withdraw. On May 15, 1948 the last British soldier left the country and Ben Gurion announced the establishment of an independent Jewish State - Israel. Almost overnight one third of the population had taken over two thirds of the domain.
Armies invaded from five Arab states Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Ostensibly their aim was to help the Palestinians and smash Israel. But in reality each country was more interested in securing its own interests. King Abdullah of Jordan wanted Palestine for himself while King Farouk of Egypt was anxious to make his country the centre of the Arab world. The Israelis won the 1948 war and a ceasefire was established under United Nations supervision. It was a bitter blow for the Palestinians.
Around 725,000 Palestinians had fled or been driven from their homes by the Jews. One refugee recalls: 'It was 1948. The war between the Israelis and Palestinians began near my village, Beit Nabata, close to what is now Ben Gitrion airport. One day we heard that the leader of the Palestinian army had been killed. Next there was a massacre at Deir Yassin. We were scared. Then the Jews reached our village. They collected alt the men who were young to middle-aged and put them in the courtyard of the mosque and shot them. The planes threw bombs on our village. The people were terrified. We were farmers. Everything was in the farm we couldn't leave. But we had to.'
Most Palestinians found refuge in two parts of Palestine which were under Arab control at the time - the Gaza Strip where an Egyptian military regime was set up, and the West Bank which was annexed to Jordan. Other refugees were scattered in Lebanon, Syria and even Iraq and Saudi Arabia. They were living in camps, dreaming of returning to their homes and waiting to be rescued by their Arab comrades. The defeat of the Arab armies in 1948 filled them with despair.
The State of Israel developed rapidly Around one and a half million Jews came mini the first few years. Some were Holocaust survivors: many were Jew's from Arab countries like Morocco. Yemen and Iraq. They settled the land from which the Arabs had been expelled. Because of their diverse cultural backgrounds few' shared the idealism of the early pioneers. Some hated Palestinians.
The conflict worsened as the major European countries and the US tightened their grip over the region in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not only was the region oil-rich, with strategic transit points to the Fast, like the Suez canal, it was also close to the southern border of the Soviet Union.
Israel thus became an important ally for the West, while the new and revolutionary Arab regimes - headed by Jamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt - signed friendship and aid agreements with the USSR. Three wars subsequently exploded in 1956, 1967 and 1973. with the West supporting Israel and the Soviet Union supplying arms as well as political and economic aid to the Arab states.
During the six-day war in 1967 Israel captured the West Bank. the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights from surrounding Arab countries. It established a military government in Gaza and the West Bank, taking control of about one and a half million Palestinian Arabs - one third of whom were refugees from the 1948 war.
The Palestinians suffered a further blow in 1978 when President Anwar Sadat of Egypt - the strongest of all the Arab States - signed a peace treaty with Israel. The Palestinians felt utterly betrayed and isolated. And in 1982 when Israel attacked the Lebanon, destroying the bases of Palestinian organizations, not a single regular Arab army came to their support.
Today the pressure for land in Israel and the territories is more acute than ever. The Palestinian population has swollen. Children have grown up in squalid refugee camps witnessing the constant abuse of civil rights. As Israeli repression became more unbearable, the refugees realized that no-one would help them unless they helped themselves. And this realization, coupled with the frustration and desperation of living in appalling conditions, has led to the intifada.
This has put the Israeli army under pressure. It no longer has control over the West Bank and Gaza. It cannot maintain a constant presence in 500 towns, neighbourhoods, villages and refugee camps. Where there are no troops, Palestinian flags fly, the walls are covered with graffiti and popular marches are held.
The conflict is also taking a devastating toll on the Israeli State. Tourism has plummeted. Emigration now exceeds immigration. The country is experiencing economic stagnation, not least because vast resources are poured into the military. Cultural life too has been affected. The best intellectuals, engineers and artists go to the army. The movies are 90 per cent propaganda.
Israel is a sick country. And it can only cure itself by giving Palestinians their rights: a state of their own. Only then will Israelis regain their self-respect.
Danny Rubenstein is a journalist for Davar newspaper in Israel.
1 A History of the Jews Ancient and Modern, Ilan Halevi. Zed Books, 1987.
2 Op Cit.