Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part II Classical Zionism until 1920

If Palestinian nationalism is the national movement of the Palestinian people for self-determination and sovereignty in Palestine, the debate is not whether its exists or emerged, but whether it preexisted Zionism, it emerged in opposition to the Zionist enterprise and/or it first expressed itself as part of Arab nationalism and the drive for Arab self-determination in the aftermath of Zionism. There is no question that a resistance movement to Zionism existed in Palestine in 1920. The question is over its character, its source and its impact. Khalidi argued that “Palestinian identity, much like Zionism, emerged in response to many stimuli, and at almost the same time as did modern political Zionism…this identity included love of country, a desire to improve society, religious attachment to Palestine, and opposition to European control.”

Rashid Khalidi, a historian with an excellent reputation, recognizes that Western residents in Palestine, including the British Consul, were using Palestini to refer to the local population in the last half of the nineteenth century. The term only became self-referential at the beginning of the twentieth century and grew in part as a response to Jewish nationalism. But only in part. For it was also a response in major part in the nationalist movement that grew out of local loyalties versus pan-Arabic ones, with a vision of a Palestinian nation somewhere in between these two opposing tendencies. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, local patriotism, likely the strongest sentiment, could not be depicted as political nation-state nationalism. However, “national sentiment from a love of country and loyalties to family and locale” shifted in the twentieth century to “a thoroughly modern form of nationalism.”

The roots of modern Zionism were different. Instead of a pull between local allegiance and pan-Arab nationalism, modern Jewish nationalism had deep historical roots, reinvigorated by current tribulations, and resting largely in messianic beliefs about the Jewish people. (See Abba Hillel Silver (1927) A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel; hence Theodore Herzl’s novel was called Altneuland.)

  1. The ancient loss of national independence and accompanying deprivations;
  2. The Jewish will to live as a rehabilitated people in a national home; and
  3. A religious faith in an historical covenant and divine justice.

Altneuland, however, should have been called Neuland,for the novel ignored both the deep messianic history of the Jewish people and, therefore, of modern Zionism, but also the rich Arab culture of the educated classes of Arabs in Palestine, such as that of the Khalidi family.

Instead, for Herzl, as well as for others like Mark Twain who spent time traversing the land, Palestine was a desolate place – poverty abounded and “naked children played in the dirty alleys.”. However, instead of turning a desert into an agricultural paradise, in Herzl’s telling the story of what he envisioned, Palestine evolved into a cosmopolitan outpost of Western civilization “freed from filth, noise and vile odors.” But it was also a story of ethnic as well as physical cleansing. Villages disappeared. As in Herzl’s proposed charter between the World Zionist Organization and the Ottoman sultan, as lands were acquired for Jewish resettlement and development, the local inhabitants were also resettled in other Arab lands outside Palestine, except for a small remnant to preserve local colour.

Jewish historical culture was also cleansed. German, not Hebrew, would be the language of the land. The Torah was forgotten in favour of a syllabus of the writings and works of the West. Palestine was a place, not for resettlement of the impoverished Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, but for the unemployed educated class of alienated professionals and intellectuals in Vienna.[1]  

The local Jewish population was very small. At the time that Leon Pinsker became head of the newly formed Hibbat Zion (“lovers of Zion”) in 1882, later the Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon, to promote immigration and create agricultural settlements in Palestine, the Arab Muslim population of Palestine was 450,000, or 530,000 if the 80,000 Arab Christians (13.5%) are included. There were 60,000 Jews; there had been at least ten times that number living in Palestine under Emperor Claudius. With less than 600,000 people, Palestine was, relatively, an empty land. Forty years later when the objectives of Zionism were endorsed by the League of Nations in 1922, the non-Jewish population was 725,000 and the number of Jews, though they had increased to 80,000, still represented only 10% of the population. (Khalidi argues that Jews were only 6% of the population at the time the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed.)

The nineteenth century witnessed a significant migration of both non-Jews and Jews to Palestine to enhance the 280,000 population there at the beginning of the century in 1800 when 7,000 Jews (2.5%) lived in the country:

  • Egyptians because of famine, drought and plagues and to escape forced labour and military conscription
  • More Egyptians settled in Palestine at the end of the Second Egyptian-Ottoman War (1842) when Egyptian soldiers deserted with the defeat of Egypt and settled in Jaffa and 19 villages in the south
  • Arab Berbers moved there from Algeria to Safed in 1860
  • Arabs from what is now Jordan (an estimated 6,000) also arrived in 1860
  • Turks when they finished their service in Palestine settled there
  • Following the conquest of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878, Bosniaks, not wishing to live under Christian rule, began a migration flow to Palestine.

These migratory movements are not in the book. For the core of the narrative is the continuity of Palestinian Arabs living in Palestine, their intellectual and cultural accomplishments, and their historical foresight. Rashid Khalidi starts his narrative with Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, the child of a very long list of Islamic scholars, his own great-great-great uncle, but one unlike his forbears who obtained a broad and Western education. He became a functionary in the Ottoman Empire and even served briefly in the short-lived Ottoman parliament established in 1876, He earned the enmity of the Sultan for supporting parliamentary prerogatives over executive power. He was multilingual and became an accomplished scholar.

In other words, when the birth rates and death rates were in alignment in the nineteenth century, the population grew mainly by migration, including the population of Jews.[2] However, Khalidi stressed that the modernist revolution in the economy, politics and in the realm of ideas had already shifted, birth/death ratios. The rates of live births were slowly improving; death rates were in decline. On the other hand, famine as a result of WWI, exacerbated by a plague of locusts, devastated the existing population of Greater Syria. Conscription of young men into the Turkish army pushed the population into decline as a half million in Greater Syria died during this period. It is estimated that Palestine’s population declined by 6% during the war.

None of this entailed a population movement that displaced any of the local population or had any intention of replacing the occupants of the land.  Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon was not a movement supported by any imperial power. But neither was Ḥovevei Ẕiyyon a nationalist movement; it was a typical immigration promotional movement. Between 1909 and the outbreak of WWI, tracts of land had been purchased and 40,000 Jews arrived and settled in Palestine. Only 18 of the 52 new colonies were Zionist ones. However, Khalidi is really not interested in how the local Jewish population, the non-Zionist migration and the Zionist one interacted and eventually merged. Instead, he omits the non-Zionist migration, or identifies it as a proto-Zionist one, and argues that this migration provoked friction with the local population, presumably including the relatively large population of indigenous Jews in Jerusalem and Safed. But why did friction exist when most of the movement was of non-Zionist Jews?

With the emergence of political Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century, the character of that settlement changed. The motivations of Jewish migrants shifted, and, more importantly, the motivations of those promoting that resettlement differed. While arguing that Jewish in-migration would benefit the local population, early Zionist writers, including Theodore Herzl, envisioned that much of the local population, those who were poorer, would or would need to be displaced. As Khalidi quotes Herzl, it would be necessary to “spirit the country’s poor population discreetly across the border.” “The poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” As the narrative moves forward, discretion and circumspection drop by the boards, and expulsion and replacement become the inherent aims of Zionism.

That is where Khalidi starts his story of the interaction of Arabs and Jews, with Yusuf Diya’s worldly knowledge, his specific knowledge of early Zionist writings and of the pogroms that Jews suffered from in Europe at the very end of the nineteenth century. There is no story of whether Yusuf Diya interacted with the Jews in Palestine. There is no story of his knowledge of non-Zionist migration. From the narrative told, the tale begins with Yusuf Diya’s encounter with the enemy, with political Zionism. Only Zionists are not caricatured as an enemy by Yusuf Diya. Zionism was in principle “natural, beautiful and just.” “Who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country,” Yusuf Diya wrote Herzl.

Herzl had argued that Jewish immigration would benefit the indigenous population of Palestine even as it was to be dismantled by Zionism. But the argument that this process of resettlement of Palestine land by settlers “would benefit the people of that society” was incompatible with the need to dismantle that same indigenous population. Khalidi reconciles that contradiction by insisting that the claims of beneficence were false fronts to cover the real intent, displacement. Religion was another false face. And Yusuf Diya warned of the danger of implementing the Zionist project of a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. The project would sew dissension among Christians, Muslims and Jews. The project would inflame the status and security Jews had purportedly always enjoyed in the Ottoman Empire. “The brutal force of circumstances had to be taken into account,” specifically, that the indigenous population would never accept being superseded.

Go settle somewhere else. Go found your Jewish state in another territory, implying go displace another indigenous population. If the Zionists were, in his own words, returning to the land in which their nation was founded, if any resettlement would displease the local population anywhere if the aim was to create a Jewish sovereign state, does not “the brutal force of circumstances” dictate that Palestine was the only place the effort could and should be made and that the clash between the locals and the settlers was inevitable. But was it? Khalidi argued that Herzl’s claim that Jewish acumen and investments would improve the lot of the locals was a ruse rather than examined as a real possibility. For Khalidi, the conflict was always between colonial settlers and the resistance of a population that refused to be displaced.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky acknowledged and recognized that there would of necessity be resistance by the local population. “Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.” For Khalidi, this made Jabotinsky more honest and direct than Herzl or Ben Gurion. But none of these ideas had any effects on the ground until the Balfour Declaration and its adoption by the League of Nations after the war, though in intellectual circles, war between the Jews and the Arabs had already broken out. Najib Nasser was editor of the rabidly anti-Zionist Haifa newspaper, al-Karmil.

The Balfour Declaration then “launched a full-blown colonial conflict, a century long assault on the Palestinian people, aimed at fostering an exclusivist ‘national home’ at their expense. Khalidi’s great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, however, in anticipation of this conflict between two peoples protested that, “Palestine would be turned into a national home for them (Zionists).” “The denial of an authentic, independent Palestinian identity is of a piece with Herzl’s colonialist views on the alleged benefits of Zionism to the indigenous population, and constitutes a crucial element in the erasure of their national rights and peoplehood by the Balfour Declaration and its sequels.”


[1] Rashid’s son, a philosopher who once taught at my university, York, has argued that Altneuland was written to win the support of Christian “Zionists. Cf. “Utopian Zionism or Zionist proselytism? A Reading of Herzl’s Altneuland,” Journal of Palestine Studies XXX:4, Summer 2001.

[2] This does not mean that the gross exaggerations of Joan Peter’s 1984 tome, From Time Immemorial, about the overwhelming settlement of Arabs from other areas, have any merit. Khalidi is correct in dismissing the work as an unsound historical source.

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