Graffiti On History's Walls
IN THE ARAB WORLD, Zionism is portrayed not as the Jewish response to a history of anti-Semitism in a world that culminated in the Holocaust but as a hyperaggressive variant of colonialism. But since this new anti-Semitism manifests itself so clearly now as political rejection of the Jewish state, it is worth examining the historical record for a moment. Fact: The majority of Jews came to Israel in the late 19th century and early 20th century not as conquering Europeans backed by a national army and treasury but as the wretched of the earth in search of respite from ceaseless persecution. They were not wealthy; they were young, poor, and desperate. The notion that the traditional position of the Arabs in Palestine was jeopardized by Jewish settlements is belied by another fact: that when the Jews arrived, Palestine was a sparsely populated, poorly cultivated, and wildly neglected land of sandy deserts and malarial marshes. Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad, described it as a "desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds--a silent, mournful expanse. . . . We never saw a human being on the whole route. There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country."
Even people unsympathetic to the Zionist cause believed that Jewish immigrants had improved the condition of Palestinian Arabs. Consider the words of Sharif Hussein, the guardian of the Islamic holy places in Arabia, in 1918: "One of the most amazing things until recent times was that the Palestinian used to leave his country, wandering the high seas in every direction. His native soil could not retain a hold on him, though his ancestors had lived on it for 1,000 years. At the same time, we have seen the Jews from foreign countries streaming to Palestine. . . . They knew that the country was for its original sons. The return of these exiles to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually [to be] an experimental school for their brethren." Hussein understood then, as so many refuse to see now, that the regeneration of Palestine and the growth of its population came only after the Jews returned in significant numbers. As Winston Churchill, then the British colonial secretary, pointed out: "The land was not being taken away from the Arabs. The Arabs sold land to Jews only if they chose to do so."
The hope was that the Arabs would accept Israelis as their neighbors and, finally, recognize them as such. That hope died aborning. Even war, that grim final arbiter of international relations, has made no difference. The Arabs resisted from the outset a Jewish presence in the region. They expanded their war against Israel into an attack on the very idea of Israel. Zionism, the Jewish claim to a land of their own, was declared racist because the Arabs said it deprived them of their land. They substituted the homeless Palestinian for the homeless Jew. The Arabs, having rendered the Palestinians homeless by refusing to accept partition in 1948 and having kept many of the Palestinians who fled the battle homeless in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan by refusing to resettle them in their lands, now blame this homelessness on the Jews. They have consistently charged that it was the Jews who had driven the Arabs out of Palestine. But as the eminent Arabist Bernard Lewis has written, "the great majority, like countless millions of refugees elsewhere, left their homes amid the confusion of and panic of invasion and war--one more unhappy part of the vast movement of population which occurred in the aftermath of World War II."