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Israel and Palestine:
A Common Historical Narrative
©2018, The Israel Palestine Project
All rights reserved
Note: Although A Common Historical Narrative is complete, the document undergoes continuous refinement through ongoing stylistic and scholarly review. Text on this page may be changed from time to time as a result of this process.
Chapter 2 - Early Jewish immigration, the birth of Zionism, and impacts on the indigenous population
The lives of most nineteenth century European Jews were challenging. Never truly accepted, they lived on the margins of society, relentlessly targeted through discrimination and exclusion. While some achieved a measure of assimilation, others lived in perpetual fear of cycles of virulent anti-Semitism and fierce “pogroms” (organized acts of persecution and expulsion), especially in the Russian Empire and other Eastern European countries. For some, the solution was emigration and many eventually departed for America. Others began to dream of safety and security in a land or country of their own. Although not the only possibility considered, Palestine was the most appealing destination for many Jews, because of their enduring belief in the historical presence of Jewish life in the Holy Land prior to the Roman occupation.
The organization Hovevei Zion (the Lovers of Zion) was started in 1881 in a number of Russian cities as a response to ongoing persecution. This group (and others like it) promoted immigration and settlement in the Holy Land. The first wave of Russian-Jewish immigrants (50,000 to 60,000) arrived in Palestine between 1882 and 1903. Not all remained: Approximately half left Eretz Yisrael before the end of this period. They began purchasing land – because of limited funds, often poor and swampy – from Arab owners.
A second wave of immigration began in 1905 as a response to a number of extensive and violent pogroms in Russia and the Ukraine, and 40,000 more settlers arrived in Palestine, of whom, as noted by historian Ran Aaronsohn, “. . . fewer than half were more or less permanently absorbed in Eretz Yisrael.” This wave of immigrants, many of them young and idealistic, was imbued with the fervour of creating a socialist society. They characterized themselves as pioneers and were intent on creating, in the Holy Land, a new way for Jews to live.
As a political movement, Zionism was born at the first Zionist Congress, held in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. Zionism was influenced by political trends, perceived idealistically, sweeping through Europe in the late 19th Century, including nationalism, socialism and colonialism. As it developed, Zionism increasingly focused on gaining support for the creation of a Jewish homeland from the great world powers.
After the first Zionist Congress, the rabbis of Vienna decided to explore the ideas that Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, had expounded at that Congress and in his book, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State). Two representatives went on a fact-finding mission to Palestine and sent a cable home: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” This attempt to alert the political leaders to the stark reality of an Arab population already living on the land was largely ignored. While subsequent Zionist Congresses explored the possibility of creating a Jewish homeland in other parts of the world such as Argentina and even the U.S. state of Texas, none of these explorations bore fruit and the focus on settlement in Palestine continued.
Over this time, a famous saying of the Zionist movement arose: “A land without a people for a people without a land". This saying was repeated with such fervour that it grew into an enduring myth: many settlers, upon their first arrival in the Holy Land, were surprised to find the land inhabited by Arab people, a land with a vibrant culture replete with fields and orchards carefully tended and well-cultivated. Most of the Palestinian people the newcomers encountered lived in and tilled fields and gardens in hundreds of cities, towns and villages that dotted the Holy Land. The export of agricultural products to Europe, particularly oranges, was common (Arab landowners had created the Jaffa orange groves and, by the 1860’s, Jaffa oranges were famous throughout Europe) and non-agricultural industry was also developing.
The Zionist settlers purchased land from absentee land owners, mostly in the valleys and coastal regions where there were few, if any, Arab small landholding farmers (known as “Fellaheen”). Palestinian tenant farmers living on the lands were displaced. During this period, conflict between the Zionists and the Arab Palestinian population intensified. In response, leading Zionist bodies adopted policies and took actions to improve relations by providing compensation for tenants and reaching out to the young Arab Palestinian national movement. By 1929, the British, noting the rise of landlessness among Palestinians and the resultant increase in tensions, enacted legislation to protect the rights of the tenant farmers evicted by sales from large landowners. Yet, through all of this time, many Palestinians and immigrant Jews lived side-by-side as amicable neighbours.
While the political leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine were aware of the large numbers of Arab peoples already present, their focus was on meeting the needs of arriving Jewish settlers. As an outcome of this focus, they ended up adopting policies that conflicted with the needs and interests of the indigenous population. This outcome was not intentional: it was felt that the benefits of a successful, prosperous Jewish society would accrue to all, Arab and Jew alike. Indeed, Palestinians did benefit from the development associated with the Yishuv (as the new Jewish community was termed) and the later British Mandate, although it is not certain which had the greater impact. However, the net effect was the exclusion of native Palestinians from the economic benefits the Jewish settlers were bringing to the land.
The clashes that planted the seeds for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred in the first difficult encounters between the indigenous peoples and the zealous newcomers. Confrontation became increasingly common during the first decades of the twentieth century, with parallel experiences of separation, resentment and rejection. Palestinians voiced their fears about possible loss of their land and way of life through the media of the day and other venues. From 1891 on, voices of protest were raised to an unresponsive Ottoman government and were later directed to the British government. Nothing seemed to stem the tide of ever more settlers arriving. The two peoples were separated by culture, religion, education and world view. They didn’t have a common language to speak with each other about the grave conflict growing daily in their midst. Violent eruptions began to break out sporadically – a sign, perhaps, of what was to come.
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