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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 3 - Aliya: The evolution of Zionism, Jewish immigration, and early impacts on indigenous Palestinians
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 religious Jews in particular (while many others wished to immigrate to a more modern world due to their ideological convictions) because of the historical presence of Jewish life in the Holy Land prior to the Roman occupation and its religious and national significance.
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) that arrived in Palestine between 1882 and 1903 is referred to historically in Zionism as the first Aliya (Hebrew for “ascent”). Once arrived, they began purchasing land from Arab owners although, due to limited funds, the land was sometimes poor and swampy. Not all remained: approximately half left Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, before the end of this period (see Note 6).
A second wave of immigration began in 1905 (the second Aliya) 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 fewer than half were more or less permanently absorbed in Eretz Yisrael" (see Note 7). 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 kind of Jewish existence.
As a political movement, Zionism was born at the first Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Zionism was influenced by political trends of modernism, perceived idealistically, sweeping through Europe in the late 19th Century, including nationalism, secularism, socialism and colonialism. As it developed, Zionism increasingly focused on gaining support for the creation of a Jewish homeland from the great world powers.
Although not historically proven, a story is sometimes quoted and told that 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). While subsequent Zionist Congresses explored the possibility of creating a Jewish homeland in other parts of the world (Argentina, Uganda, even 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", based on the popular and literary impressions of Palestine as being a barren and empty land, suited to be given to a landless people. These impressions were based on the writings of famous travellers such as the American author Mark Twain, that described Palestine in this way in his widely-read 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad. 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 already 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 and where they developed the terrace system of irrigation. The export of agricultural products to Europe was common, particularly oranges (see Note 8). Arab landowners had created the orange groves of Jaffa and, by the 1860’s, Jaffa oranges were famous throughout Europe. Non-agricultural industry was also developing.
The Zionist settlers purchased land from absentee landowners, mostly in the valleys and coastal regions where there were few, if any, Arab small landholding farmers (known as “Fellaheen”). In contrast to Ottoman right-of-land usage, which was diffuse but not less extensive, and following European land ownership law with the absolute right of private ownership, Palestinian tenant farmers living on these lands were evicted.
During this period, conflict between the Zionists and the Arab Palestinian population intensified, the result of accelerating evictions of tenant farmers as Jewish land purchases increased. 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 (see Note 9). 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 this time, some 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 adopted policies that conflicted with the needs and interests of the indigenous population. During the earlier period of immigration, and the strong socialist orientation of the settlers, 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.
As development continued and living conditions improved, Arab immigrants were drawn to Palestine, attracted by the opportunity for a better life. However, claims that Arab immigration swelled the Palestinian population significantly during the rapid rise in the period of 1930-1945 (e.g., as asserted by Joan Peters in the 1984 book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab–Jewish Conflict over Palestine) have been discredited by Israeli and Palestinian scholars alike as having no substantive basis (see Note 10).
The clashes that planted the seeds for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurred in the first difficult encounters between the indigenous peoples and the zealous among the 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 worldview. They didn’t have a common language to speak with each other about the grave conflict growing daily in their midst, and even the small population of Arabic-speaking Jews who had lived in the land for centuries were marginalized and forgotten. Violent eruptions began to break out sporadically – a sign, perhaps, of what was to come.
6. Ran Aaronsohn , in Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue, ed. Paul Scham, Walid Salem, Benjamin Pogrund, Left Coast Press, 2005, p. 62.
7. Ibid, p. 64.
8. Adel Manna, in Shared Histories, p. 25.
9. Ran Aaronsohn, in Shared Histories, p. 65.
10. Gilbar, Gad. “Megamot ba-hitpathut ha-demografit shel ha-Falastinim, 1870–1987” (Trends in the Demographic Development of the Palestinians, 1870–1987), in Hatenuah ha-leumit ha-Falastinit: Me-imut le-hashalamh? (The Palestinian National Movement: From Confrontation to Reconciliation?), ed. Moshe Maʻoz and B.Z. Kedar (Tel Aviv: The Ministry of Defense, 1996). Gilbar, an Israeli scholar relying on an abundance of British and Zionist sources, proves convincingly that immigration since the 19th Century was responsible only up to a tenth of the number of Arabs in Palestine at the eve of 1948, with the remainder a result of natural growth. More detailed information on this analysis, including references to work by Roberto Bachi, Fred Gottheil, Yehoshua Porath, Edward Said, Christopher Hitchens, and Norman Finkelstein, is included in Notes in the full Narrative.
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