Latest update: April 23rd, 2012
If the UN should decide to recognize a “State of Palestine” in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people it would endorse a bizarre irony.
Because Palestinian national identity borrows so extensively from Jewish and Zionist sources as to virtually constitute historical plagiarism.
“Palestine” emerged as an abbreviation of “Syria Palaestina.” The name was imposed by Roman conquerors to obliterate the connection of Jews to their land after the Bar Kochba rebellion collapsed in 135 CE. During four hundred years of Ottoman rule, Arabs considered it to be part of Syria-Palestine, not a separate entity. A remote and neglected imperial province, it was loosely administered from Beirut or Damascus.
Modern conceptions of “Palestine” began to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century once the Holy Land, as it became known to European visitors, entered Western consciousness.
The veil began to lift after Edinburgh-born artist David Roberts followed the trail of the ancient Israelites from Egypt through the Sinai wilderness to the promised land in 1838-39. During his journey into the past Roberts sketched the lithographs that filled The Holy Land (1842), his magnificent three-volume collection that for modern critics defines the Orientalist vision of intrusive Westerners.
“If God spares me in life and health,” Roberts wrote in his journal, “I expect to bring home with me the most interesting collection of sketches that has ever left the East.” With their riveting ancient city gates, walls, tombs, churches, mosques, barren wilderness landscape, and the exotic local inhabitants, his lithographs remain unrivaled romantic depictions of sacred memory.
A year after The Holy Land appeared, another Scotsman, Rev. Alexander Keith, published his own book about the land of Israel. Keith had also traveled to the Holy Land in 1839; there he came to believe that Christians should bring to fulfillment the biblical prophecy that Jews would return to their ancient homeland.
His book, The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob, included a phrase that has reverberated ever since. The Jews, he wrote, are “a people without a country; even as their own land is in a great measure, a country without a people.” Slightly altered by the book reviewer for a Scottish Free Church magazine, it became the iconic phrase: “A land without a people and a people without a land.”
Rev. Keith’s words were reiterated several years later in a letter from Lord Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley-Cooper) to Lord Palmerston, the British foreign minister. Anthony-Cooper pondered the future of “Greater Syria” (as the land of the ancient Israelites was then commonly identified) after the Crimean War. He rephrased Keith’s description as “a country without a nation” needing “a nation without a country.” He wondered: “Is there such a thing?” before answering his own question affirmatively: “the ancient and rightful lords of the soil, the Jews!”
Rev. Keith’s phrase continued to recur in the writings of Christian Zionists, especially once pogroms erupted in Russia during the 1880s. Evangelist William Blackstone, concerned over the plight of Russian Jews, referred to an “astonishing anomaly – a land without a people, and a people without a land.” In 1897 John Lawson Stoddard published a travel guide exhorting Jews: “You are a people without a country; there is a country without a people . Go back, go back to the land of Abraham.”
An American visitor to Palestine chose different words to describe the barrenness of the land for literary posterity. In The Innocents Abroad (1881), Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) described Palestine as “a desolate country . We never saw a human being on the whole route . There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”
Curiously, Rev. Keith’s persistent phrase rarely appeared in Zionist speeches or writings. A conspicuous exception was Israel Zangwill, who wrote in the New Liberal Review (1901) that “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.”
Ironically, Zangwill soon turned away from Zionism and came to the United States where, in flight from Judaism, he wrote “The Melting Pot,” the strikingly successful play that celebrated the alluring prospect of assimilation for Jewish immigrants in their new “goldene medina.”
On the eve of World War I, Chaim Weizmann, destined to become the first president of the State of Israel, said: “There is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country. What else is necessary, then, than to fit the gem into the ring, to unite this people with this country?”
But few other Zionists seem to have used the phrase, preferring to refer more succinctly to the “Jewish national home.”
Official visitors documented the barrenness, stagnation and decay in the land. A British Royal Commission reported in 1913: “The area was underpopulated and remained economically stagnant until the arrival of the first Zionist pioneers in the 1880′s.”
It was “Jewish development of the country,” the commissioners noted, that had attracted “large numbers of other immigrants – both Jewish and Arab.”
* * * * *
Even during the British Mandatory period following World War I, local Arabs demonstrated little awareness of a distinctive Palestinian identity. As historian Diana Muir writes (in her careful scrutiny of “land without a people” mythology), they “neither perceived Palestine as a distinct country, nor Palestinians as a people.” Testifying before the British Peel Commission in 1937, Syrian leader Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi asserted: “There is no such country as Palestine . Our country was for centuries part of Syria. ‘Palestine’ is alien to us. It is the Zionists who introduced it.”
Two years later Walter Clay Lowdermilk, assistant chief of the United States Soil Conservation Service, arrived in Palestine for three months of intensive field study. A dedicated land conservationist, he discovered the consequences of centuries of neglect, exploitation, and waste until the first wave of Zionists arrived to settle and rebuild the land. His careful analysis was entitled Palestine, Land of Promise, a promise conspicuously unfulfilled by its Arab inhabitants.
“Like the Children of Israel” during their exodus, Lowdermilk wrote – and like Roberts nearly a century earlier – he journeyed from Egypt through the Sinai desert to Palestine. Traveling throughout the land, he covered nearly 2,500 miles by car. Along the way he discovered “Jewish settlers who fled to Palestine from the hatreds and persecutions of Europe” confronting the despoliation and desolation caused by centuries of neglect from “backward native populations.” British officials, he learned, had little success encouraging local Arabs to plant trees, even with donated seedlings. Progress was impeded, Lowdermilk concluded, “by the temperament of the people and their fatalistic philosophy.”
But a “semi-feudal economy” was being reversed by Zionist land reclamation and industrial development, which had a “beneficent effect” on the local Arab population. The “thoroughgoing [Zionist] effort to restore the ancient fertility of the long-neglected soil,” by applying “the principles of co-operation and soil conservation to the old Land of Israel,” offered the “most remarkable” example of restoration that Lowdermilk had witnessed in his extensive travels through twenty-four countries.
Even “rural Palestine,” Lowdermilk concluded, “is becoming less and less like Trans Jordan, Syria and Iraq and more like Denmark, Holland, and parts of the United States” (notably Southern California). Indeed, Zionist land development had exerted a magnetic pull on Arabs from Iraq, Syria, Trans-Jordan and the Arabian Desert, who came to Palestine in search of a better life (and eventually becoming “Palestinians”). But he cautioned that “Arab rule in Palestine would … put an abrupt end to the reclamation work now being carried on so splendidly” by the Zionists.
No less significant than the problem of land devastation was the striking absence of Palestinian national coherence; then, and for years afterward. Palestinian “identity” was a mix of Ottoman, Arab, Islamic, Christian, European, and local Palestinian influences. In their politics, social structure, land tenure and political and ideological trends Palestinian Arabs identified with Greater Syria and “the larger Arab people.”
Even Columbia history professor Rashid Khalidi, an expert on Palestinian identity, has recognized that before World War I “Palestine” did not exist. During the Mandatory era internal Palestinian politics were dysfunctional. Leaders did not lead, nor could they mobilize public support or establish a Palestinian “state structure” or “representative institutions.”
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti and recognized Palestinian leader, fled during the Arab revolt that began in 1936. Arriving in Nazi Germany in 1941, he achieved subsequent notoriety as Hitler’s favorite Arab collaborator.
Shortly before the State of Israel was born, Arab historian Philip Hitti conceded: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.” By 1948, Khalidi concludes, Palestinians had “lost agency” – to the nascent Jewish state, neighboring Arab states, and international bodies. As late as 1964, when the PLO was founded (largely by Arab states to control their Palestinian brethren), “the very idea of ‘Palestine,’” he suggests, “appeared to be in a grave, and perhaps in a terminal state.”
Indeed, a Palestinian people with a distinctive identity and consciousness did not begin to emerge until the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six-Day war. Why was it, wondered Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, “that on June 4th 1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian . We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of a sudden we were Palestinians.”
With a fragile national identity, in a land that had never been inhabited by a (previously non-existent) “Palestinian” people, West Bank Jordanian Arabs would soon become known as Palestinians.
Even Zuhair Muhsin, PLO military commander and member of the Executive Council, acknowledged: “There are no differences between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. We are all part of one nation … the existence of a separate Palestinian identity serves only tactical purposes.” The vision of a Palestinian state, he conceded, was merely “a new tool in the continuing battle against Israel.”
That is hardly a recipe for nation building, but it may help to explain why Palestinians have plundered Jewish history to define themselves while engaging in persistent efforts to delegitimize Israel. A continuing theme in this campaign has been a twisted version (perhaps not unintentional) of Rev. Keith’s aphorism about a land without a people for a people without a land – to which he added, in his Conclusion, a sharp reference to “those few” who “have but a slight hold on the land that is not theirs.”
The distortion came from Edward Said, the renowned Columbia University literary scholar and passionate Palestinian advocate in exile who served in its National Council (the legislative body of the Palestine Liberation Organization). In The Question of Palestine (1979), Said wrote (erroneously) that Zionists had viewed Palestine as a land “without people.” Altering Rev. Keith’s observation by changing “a people” to “people,” he invested the phrase with new meaning that inspired loyal acolytes to condemn Zionist “racism” and moral blindness, feeding the malevolent desire for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
Ironically, Said imaginatively constructed his own “Palestinian” identity. Born during a brief family sojourn in Jerusalem to a Lebanese mother and Egyptian father (holding American citizenship), his boyhood was spent amid wealth and comfort in Cairo – until he moved to the United States as a teen-ager. Yet in his memoir Out of Place (1999), Said fondly recalled the “Jerusalem” boyhood (in Cairo) that molded his “Palestinian” identity.
* * * * *
What is most striking about Palestinian identity is its derivation from, and sustained grounding in, Jewish sources. Like other Middle Eastern Muslims, Palestinians claim Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his servant Hagar, as the ancestral link to “their” patriarch Abraham. They have adopted the biblical Canaanites, displaced according to the biblical narrative by the conquering Israelites, as their own victimized ancestral people. Their insistent claim of a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees mirrors more than a century of Zionist yearning; it also emulates the Law of Return passed by the Knesset (1950) assuring to every Jew the right to immigrate to Israel.
In a grotesque inversion, Palestinian teen-agers have compared themselves to Anne Frank, suffering from the “Holocaust” that Israelis have inflicted on them. In this mendacious historical travesty Palestinians have become the new “Jews,” victimized by Israeli “Nazis.” A year ago the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza was designed to replicate the rickety refugee ships, most famously the Exodus, that tried to bring desperate Jews to Palestine before and after World War II. It succeeded in casting the Israeli navy in the role of the malevolent British military forces that had turned Jewish refugees away from their promised land.
Recently an Israeli Arab Member of the Knesset (how many Jews are members of Arab parliaments?) introduced a bill to deny government funding to any group refusing to recognize that Israeli independence was a nakba (catastrophe) for Palestinians. Any resemblance between “nakba denial” and Holocaust denial is, of course, purely intentional (and surely preposterous).
But a people without its own national history must relentlessly plunder Jewish sources to persuade a gullible world audience that Palestinian victims are the rightful inheritors of Jewish traditions and land. So the Palestinians, in a fitting expropriation, cast themselves as Jacob, stealing Esau’s birthright.
By now, Palestinians have updated the world’s 2,000-year-old “lethal obsession” with Jews. Like the ancient Romans, they seek to obliterate the Jewish name and historical presence from the biblical homeland. The Palestinian usurpation of Jewish identity is now widely applauded by nations that indifferently witnessed the annihilation of European Jewry. Gullible allies (including Jews) in trendy intellectual, academic and media circles have made the very idea of a Jewish state anathema.
To be sure, there already is a Palestinian state – in Jordan (part of Mandatory “Palestine” until the partition of 1922), with a majority Palestinian population.
There is another de facto Palestinian state in the Hamas fiefdom of Gaza.
Still another Palestinian state, wrapping itself in the mantle of Jewish history in the biblical Jewish homeland, would climax a brazen pattern of national identity theft – and confront the State of Israel with lethal danger.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author, most recently, of “Brothers at War: Israel and the Tragedy of the Altalena,” published in May by Quid Pro Books.
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