by Wayne Chien
There have been many times in history where conflicts between various groups have been deemed irreconcilable and unending due to the intractable nature of the conflict. Many, like the American Civil War or The Palestinian War of 1947-48, can be considered existential conflicts, as a defeat for a particular side would cause the demise of the entire nation. In Palestine, the day after the British Mandate ended, the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, declared itself to be an independent state. This was immediately followed by several Arab nations declaring war on Israel, under the assumption that the state of Israel was an illegitimate outpost of Western colonialism in the heart of the Arab world. This essay will attempt to show the irreconcilable differences between the State of Israel and the Arab Middle East through an examination of Zionist writings, as well as Ari Shavit’s retrospective account in his book My Promised Land, argues that these differences made the conflict between Israel and its neighbors inevitable.
The conflict between the Israelis and the Arabs of the Palestine region can be traced to the creation of Zionist thought and its implementation. Zionism can be best described as a sort of “returning home” movement for the diaspora Jews living in the world after being defeated and expelled from Palestine by the Romans circa 135 C.E. (1) The Jewish people migrated and settled around Europe and parts of Asia; however, they were almost always treated as second class citizens or worse, with waves of anti-Semitism rising periodically. In the late 1800s, a wave of anti-Semitism hit Europe in the form of pogroms against Jewish shtetls in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia. This was only one of many events occurred, and lead to the flowering of Zionist thinking.
The pogroms in Russia were mainly caused by false accusations leveled against the Jewish community after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. (2) The Russian government believed that placing the blame on the Jews would channel people’s attention away from the country’s economic problems. This lead to the Kishinev Pogrom, which saw 49 Jews killed and the destruction of multiple Jewish communities. The Kishinev Pogrom was unique in the fact that, although Jews have been persecuted throughout their history, no comparable level of state-sponsored violence experienced in Europe since the Spanish Inquisition. (3) This would eventually lead to high levels of migration to Palestine and cultivate a new attitude towards the existential need for Jews to establish their own state.
Before the Kishinev Pogrom, Jews in the West were targeted after the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish captain was accused of selling military secrets to Germany. Although Dreyfus would later be acquitted, Zionists such as Theodore Hertzl saw the event as proof of a virulent anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe. Thus, the Dreyfus affair drove his efforts to establish a Jewish state. (4) The idea was to “normalize” the Jewish people by giving them a state of their own and thereby eliminate the arguments that Jews were perpetual aliens in other people’s lands.
The first settlements in Palestine were undertaken by pioneers from the Russian Empire and Romania, who eventually received support from sponsors such as Lord Rothschild. Herbert Bentwich, Ari Shavit’s grandfather, was another early sponsor of Zionist settlement. The Zionist pioneers shared the common principle of Zionism, which was the establishment of a sanctuary for the diaspora of persecuted Jews, but they did not attempt to rapidly transform the land like the Labor Zionists that came after them. They stayed at vineyards owned by Lord Rothschild, where hired Arab labourers completed most of the work. (5) This relationship between Jews and Arabs during this time was relatively peaceful, as the Jewish settlers provided a source of income for local Arabs. (6) However, this would change, as the ultimate goal of settling the vast diaspora of Jews started to threaten the existence of Arabs in Palestine, especially as the Labor Zionism of the Second Aliyah would endanger the agricultural relationship between the Jews and Arabs.
Labor Zionism and the establishment of the kibbutz would eventually lead to the disintegrating relationship between Arabs and Jews; however, the relationship was fairly amicable and beneficial to begin with. The kibbutz is a small farm in Israel, created by the Labor Zionists in an attempt to regrow the land from desert to forest. The first people to live in the kibbutz were idealists, believing that they could create a socialist community based on Jewish unity. Ein Harod, one of the first kibbutzim created, was rapidly transformed by the Labor Zionists, who drained the marshes in the Valley of Harod to produce arable and malaria-free land. This made the land much more attractive to live in; however, it would soon become a source of conflict between the local Arabs and the Jewish settlers, as now there was something real and tangible to fight for in the form of higher quality land and an increase in Jewish migration and agriculture. (7) Moreover, the pioneers of the kibbutzim intended to do their own labor, which left Arab workers unemployed and resentful of people whom they now see not as potential employers, but as intruders.
From the establishment of Ein Harod to the death of Dreyfus in 1935, the Jews and Arabs both benefited from agricultural and technological advancements undertaken in Palestine. Shavit tells the story of the Rehovot Orange Groves, which were extremely profitable and put Jewish produce on the world stage. The Jews had bought the land owned by Arab landlords and compensated the fellahin, agricultural laborers in the Middle East, living there with either cash or land grants. (8) The Labor Zionists at this time did not have the numbers to harvest the oranges by themselves, so they still employed Arab laborers; however, their ideology of Jewish cultivation of the land in anticipation of creating a productive Jewish settlement composed of Jewish labourers left the Arab inhabitants bereft of land they considered theirs. The relative peacefulness of Palestine at this time was still built on unstable ground, as Jews in Rehovot were starting to notice the widespread intolerance of Jews in Europe and a need to complete their Zionist vision, while the Arabs are beginning to become weary of the ever-increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants.
Both the Jews and Arabs began acting on their mutual distrust of the others’ goals. The Arabs organized nationalist cells that targeted Jews living in Palestine, while the Jewish community began illegally importing munitions for the Haganah, the Jewish Self-Defence Organization. (9) The roots of a prolonged Arab-Jewish conflict would culminate in April 1936, as Arab and Jewish communities began carrying out tit-for-tat attacks on each other, which were completely different than the sporadic attacks the Jewish community experienced before this period. These attacks reflected the animosity and distrust between the two communities; however, both of them reflected a greater existential threat that was their common denominator. The Jews were afraid that their new country would be overrun by the large Arab populations bordering them, while the Arabs in Palestine began to form a national identity in reaction to the Jewish one. In 1939, the Arab insurgencies became more organized, as did the Haganah, which ultimately led to the seemingly unending violence seen throughout the history of Israel.
The inevitability of the conflict becomes more clear when considering the ethos of Zionism. Although Zionists such as Herzl believed that a peaceful state inhabited by both the Jews and Arabs was possible, the early Zionists, captivated by their romantic mission of returning to the Promised Land, were less capable of acknowledging complexities of creating a Jewish state.
Unlike the romantic Zionist leaders before him, Ze’ev Jabotinsky had no illusions about the role of Arabs in the new Jewish state. Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionism called for not only the settlement of Jews in Palestine but the rapid transformation of the land into a primarily Jewish state.
The Jewish majority in Eretz Yisra’el: What then is, practically speaking, a Jewish “State”? When can it truly be said that our country has ceased to be “Palestine” and become Eretz Yisra’el? Only then, when there will be more Jews than non- Jews; for the first condition of a national state is national majority. . . . (10)
Zionists did not want to remain a minority after the Jewish return to their homeland like they had been in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and the United States. Jabotinsky understood the Jewish need to become a majority in their new country of Israel, and the need to address the Arab question.
In 1937, Jabotinsky submitted evidence to the House of Lords in the UK for both the need for a Jewish state and for massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, regardless of current Arab settlement at the time. His evidence implies peace would be achieved due to the bettering of the Arabs economic status under a Jewish state, but does not hide his intention of making Arabs a minority. (11) Jabotinsky’s attitude can be seen as colonialist in nature; however, his justification still comes from the Zionist theme of trying to provide Jews sanctuary in an increasingly anti-Semitic world.
The existential necessity for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine is what ultimately makes the conflict between the Jews and Arabs inevitable. Though there were instances of relative peace, as seen in Ari Shavit’s depictions of life before 1937, the irrevocable differences between the desires of the Jewish state and the Arabs create a situation where conflict cannot be avoided. The settlement of the Jewish diaspora must mean some relocation of Arabs, which was unacceptable to the growing Palestinian national movement that was reacting to the Zionist movement.
Jabotinski’s and Herzl’s theories of economic development promoting peace between the Jews and Arabs also turned out to be untrue. They believed that Jewish settlement would improve the lives of both ethnic groups; however, as the land in Palestine became more valuable, the fighting over resources became zero-sum, as gains on one side were seen as stolen by the other side. As such, the Zionist project of statehood for the Jewish people who would redeem their ancient homeland by working the land themselves was bound to cause conflict with the current inhabitants, who resented the effort to convert them into a landless minority. Even if the Zionists had been more sensitive and tactful toward their Arab neighbors, Shavit suggests, they could not have altered the basic conflict between Zionist settlers and the Arab inhabitants of the region they were inevitably displacing. (12)
The displacement of Jews first occured after The Palestinian War of 1947-48, as the war caused an influx of refugees that had recently had their homes destroyed. After the war, many of Israel’s Arab neighbors started to pass anti-Zionist laws, which in the spring of 1951 caused over 15,000 Jews to flee from Iraq each month. (13) Shavit describes how the Israeli government bulldozed and confiscated Palestinian land to accommodate new Jewish immigration. He describes how there is widespread denial about the Palestinian tragedy, even as the Arabic names of the cities change.
Asud becomes Ashdod, Aqir becomes Ekron, Bashit becomes Aseret, Daniel becomes Daniel, Gizmu becomes Gazmu, Hadita becomes Hadid. The Arab City of Lydda is now the new immigrants’ city of Lydda. A dozen towns and hundreds of villages and thousands of sites receive new identities. An enormous refugee rehabilitation project is carried out in the homes and fields of others who are now refugees themselves. (14)
Israel as a country could not have survived if it did not undertake this displacement of the Arabs. As Jabotinsky stated, the Jews needed to have a majority country, as this was simply not possible if the state did not conquer lands inhabited by Arabs. The goal of Zionism, a majority Jewish state that would support the entire diaspora of persecuted Jews, cannot coexist with the limited resources of Palestine, thus making conflict inevitable.
Dowty, Alan. Israel – Palestine. Cambridge: Polity, 2017.
Shavit, Ari. My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2018.
Thompson, Bruce “Origins of Zionism “ University of California at Santa Cruz, (September 30, 2019)
Thompson, Bruce “Labor Zionism and the Second Aliyah“ University of California at Santa Cruz, (October 4, 2019)
Thompson, Bruce “Varieties of Zionism“ University of California at Santa Cruz, (October 2, 2019) Troy, Gil, and Anatolij Ščaranskij. The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland – Then, Now, Tomorrow. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018.
- Bruce Thompson, “Origins of Zionism”, University of California at Santa Cruz (September 30, 2019)
- Alan Dowty, Israel-Palestine, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2005) pp.31-35
- Bruce Thompson, “Labor Zionism and the Second Aliyah”, University of California at Santa Cruz (October 4, 2019)
- Bruce Thompson, “Varieties of Zionism”, University of California at Santa Cruz (October 2, 2019)
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.6-11
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.51-52
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.42-47
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.53-56
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.59-62
- Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “The Fundamentals of the Betarian Viewpoint (1934)” in The Zionist Ideas ed. Gil Troy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018) pp.68-71
- Ze’ev Jabotinsky, “Evidence Submitted to the Palestine Royal Commission (1937)” in The Zionist Ideas ed. Gil Troy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2018) pp.71-72
- Bruce Thompson, “Labor Zionism and the Second Aliyah”, University of California at Santa Cruz (October 4, 2019)
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.147-151
- Ari Shavit. My Promised Land, (New York, Spiegel & Grau 2013) pp.161