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September 4, 2015 / 20 Elul, 5775
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Inventing ‘Palestine’


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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.”

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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.

About the Author: Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Jewish State/Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy,” to be published next month by Quid Pro Books.


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