Photo Credit: Indiana University Press

Title: Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine
By Alan Dowty
Published by Indiana University Press



The rigorous research and scholarly perspective of Alan Dowty’s Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine shines a light on issues of the Arab-Israel conflict that others have overlooked. Dowty convincingly demonstrates that from its inception, there were unique deep-seated issues embedded in the Zionist return to the land in the 1880’s that were bound to lead to conflict. The book focuses on the misconceptions, ignorance, arrogance and false narratives of the Chovavei Zion/early Zionists, and claims that these lay at the bedrock of the conflict. After his thorough examination of these issues and their context, Dowty goes so far as to suggest that “Given these points of departure, it is hard to see how the conflict could have evolved much differently… The die was cast.”

Were the issues as insurmountable and implacable as Dowty claims? Dowty himself acknowledges that new layers and sources of tension exacerbated the situation over time. The claim that these later developments are ancillary is difficult to test. Moreover, Dowty’s fully developed presentation of a Zionist pioneer false narrative is not replicated in his analysis of the anti-Zionist side. The misconceptions and false narratives of the Arab side that played a significant role in forging the conflict, and that remain at its core until this day, are noted but not given the type of attention that the Zionist narrative receives.

The book opens with a general survey of the Land of Israel on the eve of Zionism’s formation and quickly turns to focus on local Arab, Muslim and Ottoman antipathy towards Europeans. This antipathy was rooted in a long history of political and religious conflicts. This did not bode well for the Zionist pioneers emigrating from Eastern Europe. To make matters worse, these Jewish emigrants clung to their European identity. For a number of reasons, including Ottoman resistance, most new Jewish arrivals sought protection under European consuls rather than Ottoman citizenship. Beyond these political affiliations, the early pioneers’ self-perception was European, and they looked down upon the local Arabs and Arab culture. And so, through their political and cultural positioning, they reinforced local suspicions that viewed these European newcomers as trespassers.

Dowty points out that the Zionist pioneers did not and perhaps could not see the local antipathy towards their project. Believing that the local Arab culture was backward and that they were the harbingers of progress, they were sure their endeavors would ultimately be embraced. In their minds the antagonism toward their new communities was based in conflicting notions of property and cultural misunderstandings. They did not perceive that they were fundamentally seen as illegitimate interlopers. Surely resistance would be temporary and eventually friendly relations would be established. They thought that their resolute and tough responses to initial Arab hostilities would produce a respect amongst their neighbors that would ultimately forge amicable relations.

Dowty is right to note that the failure of the pioneers to acknowledge local Muslim/Arab hostility towards Europeans compromised their analysis of their relations with their neighbors. The notion that material prosperity would overcome all resistance to the Zionist project was misguided and overly simplistic. Yet, the Arab response to Zionism was also multifaceted. In fact, there have long been factions in the Arab world that did embrace Zionism because of political, economic and other benefits they saw in it. Frequently these elements were suppressed violently by their political opponents. One might interpret recent regional developments as a partial vindication of early Zionist perceptions.

Moreover, Dowty acknowledges that the conflict intensified at certain times in response to historical circumstances unrelated to the European origins of the Zionist movement. For example, the anti-Zionist rhetoric intensified dramatically after the Young Turk revolution and the emergence of the Arab nationalist movement in its wake. These sorts of developments play such a significant role in exacerbating incipient tensions, one is hard pressed to imagine what would have happened in the absence of these factors that fanned the flames. Perhaps the tension over Europeanism was part of a perfect storm but not a sufficient factor by itself.

If so, it seems that this storm included Arab miscalculations regarding Jewish collective self-perception, capabilities and ties to the land. Dowty quotes Rudi Al-Khalidi saying, “We do not owe anything to the Jews. The Jews were not here when we conquered the country”; Amzi Bey saying, “The political domination of the Jews in the country belongs to the realm of childish dreams”; and Rashid Rida referring to Jews as “the poor of the weakest of peoples.” This later example provides an example of the anti-Semitic thread that runs through a significant amount of Arab and Muslim resistance to Zionism from its earliest manifestations until today. Other examples in the book include conspiracy theories, permission to “steal from Jews,” and a depiction of Jews as “thieves and swindlers.” The problematic anti-Zionist narrative that the abhorrent Jews have no legitimate claim to the land and that they will never be able to firmly establish sovereignty seems as significant a factor in the conflict as the Zionist pioneer narrative and self-perception.

The questions and criticisms I have raised here are not meant to take away from the importance of this work. Its revelations and insights are crucial for understanding the conflict’s origins and the ongoing tensions. Those who wish to reflect seriously upon where we have gone wrong and how we might move forward with greater sensitivity and insight will be well served by reading this volume carefully and thoroughly.


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Ross Singer is a member of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa. Formerly a congregational rabbi in North America, today he works as an educator, tour guide, and translator.