North Africa, West Asia

Zionist attitudes towards the Arabs: 1902 until today

This is an attempt to survey Zionist attitudes towards the Middle Eastern population, in the midst of which a state for the Jewish people was established.

Efraim Perlmutter
16 December 2014

Nationalist ideas began to crystalize among the Jews perhaps a half-century or more before the Arabs, but until World War II neither Arab nor Jewish nationalism could garner unanimous support among the world’s Jewish or Arab population. In both camps, there were competing notions about what constituted the group and which identity it should be based on.

One element of one sector of the Jewish people will be examined here: the Zionists. The reader should be advised that many differing opinions have been expressed by many more individuals. Even though I present what I think are ideas representative of mainstream Zionists at the time, in reality far less than one percent of the historical material will be cited.

The earliest writers expressing the idea of the establishment of a Jewish national state, in one form or another, were not Zionists but rather socialists (Moses Hess), Rabbis (Judah Alkalai), modernizers (Leon Pinsker), Assimilated Jews (Benjamin Disraeli) and Christians (London Jews’ Society) among many others.

One common factor underlying all of these early proto-Zionist writings is the absence of any thought about the contemporary residents of the territory upon which the Jewish nation would be constituted. This situation was changed by Theodore Herzl, who in the popular mind is identified as the father of Zionism.

In 1896 Herzl published “The Jewish State”, where he proposed the establishment of a Jewish State as a solution to the problems arising out of the denial of human and civil rights to the Jews of the world. Following the “tradition”, contemporary residents were not considered. However, this changed in 1902, when - after visiting what later became the Palestine Mandate - Herzl wrote “Alt-neuland” which was his vision of what the future Jewish state would look like.

As a literary device in this utopian novel, all but one issue had been settled. The burning issue of what role non-Jews, including Arab residents, would have in the new state. In Herzl’s vision, Arab landowners would willingly sell their land in order to invest in modern agriculture and industry. The end result would be that they, and the peasants who worked their land, would be far better off as a consequence of the Jews’ arrival.

Ironically, the issue being contested in Herzl’s imagined state of the role of non-Jews in the newly established Society of Jews, is quite similar to the issue being debated in Israel today with regards to legislation defining Israel as a Jewish state. In Herzl’s vision the issue was resolved by Israel being the state for the Jewish people and of all of its citizens, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Though Herzl’s utopian vision was heavily criticized by many contemporary Zionists, his view of Arabs being won over through material means remained dominant in Zionist thinking until the mid-1930s. However, several notable Zionist figures took exception to this idea.

Portrait of Ahad Ha'am,

Portrait of Ahad Ha'am, Unknown/Wilicommons. Some rights reserved. The first was Asher Ginsberg, more widely known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am. He proposed establishing not a state in the formal sense, but a series of intellectual enterprises that would work towards the spiritual revival of the Jewish people. He was very critical of Jewish attitudes towards, and the treatment of, Arabs in the Jewish agricultural colonies that had been founded before and after the first Zionist Congress. He had written scathingly about it and some of his writings are still quoted in Arab propaganda today.

Nevertheless, the general idea that improving the condition of Arabs would eventually bring them around to the Zionist point of view remained dominant in Zionist thinking. This was particularly the case among socialist Zionists, who held most leadership positions until 1977. Familiar with Marxism and other socialist theorists, they placed a great deal of emphasis on the role of economic factors on people’s thinking.

Another exception to the general Zionist view of the Arabs came from the Zionist right, formulated most famously in Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s essay “The Iron Wall” (1923). Jabotinsky was far from a socialist and as a consequence did not share the faith in the power of economics that was held by Zionists on the left.

Instead, he stressed the power of nationalism and recognized the existence of nationalist sentiments among the Arabs. His proposal was to encourage the British to defend the Zionist enterprise from Arab nationalism and to construct a Jewish state behind a British iron wall so strong that Arab nationalism would recognize the reality and, out of practical and national considerations, would establish normal non-hostile relations with the Jewish state.

Jabotinsky and his revisionist followers contested but they never gained leadership of the Zionist movement. However, as the relationship with both the British and the Arabs deteriorated, the Zionist left lost its faith in the power of economics and the Revisionists lost confidence in the British to fulfil their obligations to the Zionist movement.

In the end it was the Zionist left which established a serious military response to Arab nationalist attacks and it was Jabotinsy’s Revisionists who chose to engage with the British in armed resistance.

The Middle East is nothing but a factory mass-producing irony. What is most ironic, however, is that Jabotinsky’s ideas - as expressed in “The Iron Wall” - have been adopted by today’s Palestinian leadership and other Middle Eastern political leaders who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism, but for practical reasons, find common political ground and advantage in recognizing and dealing with the State of Israel.

The Zionist cultural elite, during the period after World War I, became enamored with Arab culture. At the Tel Aviv Art Museum a few years ago, Jews were shown working in agriculture wearing traditional Middle Eastern clothing in an exhibit of motifs employed in Zionist posters and advertisements. This was shown in the work of Jewish artists of the time.

This all changed in the late 1930’s when the Arab Rebellion (1936-1939) led to a great deal of disillusionment throughout the Zionist movement about the possibility of reconciliation with the Arabs. From then on Jewish workers in JNF posters wore shorts, shirts with rolled up sleeves and Tembel hats.

Moreover, World War II and the Holocaust had a profound effect on the Zionist Movement and on the world’s Jewish community. There was a corresponding symbiosis in the attitude of Zionists towards Arabs.

In many respects the Holocaust, and the lack of response to it by allies, was a terrible confirmation of early Zionist ideologues. One consequence was that Zionism gained mainstream support among the world’s Jews, including those who were not Zionists themselves. Another consequence was that Arabs, in Zionist view, took the role of Jewish oppressors on from the Nazis, which goes all the way back to the Amalekites of the bible.

Arab leadership played an important role in this process by publicly threatening the destruction and expulsion of Palestine’s Jews. This was prior to the establishment of the Israeli State. These statements might have previously been considered examples of Middle Eastern hyperbole. However, by making such statements only two years after the Holocaust, Arab leadership provided all the necessary proof to the Zionists, and many other Jews, that they intended to complete Hitler’s task of genocide. It made no difference, whether it was true or not.

The threats of the Holocaust and the Arabs changed the Zionist view of Arabs in two fundamental ways. First, it dashed all hope of peace, even to those Zionists who were actively seeking an accommodation between the two peoples. Second, and even more central to the subject of this essay, the Arabs became symbols of the historic oppressors.

Between 1948 and 1973, when Israeli Jews fought against the Arabs in several military engagements, they were triumphant not only against their contemporary Arab enemies, but triumphant over Jewish history as well.

To understand this one has to remember that Jewish history, by and large, is a narrative of repeated persecutions, massacres and dispersions over two millennia. That particular narrative was decisively ended in 1948.

One might think that sympathy supposedly displayed as a consequence of Jewish suffering would be a desirable consequence. However, all the sympathy in the world falls very short of making up for the accompanying pain, both physical and psychological.

In the case of the latter, the self-image of the eternally persecuted was not particularly attractive to Jews themselves. As a consequence, defeating the Arabs had great therapeutic effect on the Jewish psyche. The Zionist image of the Arab, as a symbol for all the historic enemies, bolstered by Arab verbal and political behavior, shaped Israeli attitudes towards the Arabs from 1948 until Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in November 1977.

One final element in the Israeli perception of Arabs remains to be described. During the first few months of the first Palestinian Intifada the Israeli image of Palestinian nationalism changed from viewing it as an anti-Israel propaganda tool, to a new but real nationalism that had to be accommodated if there was to be peace between Arabs and Jews.

Until that point, other than in Jabotinky’s Iron Wall essay, anti-Zionist Arab nationalism was seen as a product of Arab economic social elites attempt to use anti-Zionist fervor as a means to maintain their positions of power. A great deal of Arab political behavior served to confirm this image in Zionist perception. In short, perhaps Arab nationalism, and certainly Palestinian nationalism, were fraudulent constructs of the enemy to justify hatred for the Jewish state. After the first few months of the Intifada, Palestinian/Arab nationalism was seen as being far more real and therefore more legitimate than ever before.

To conclude, today the Israeli perception of the Arab can be that of a partner, fanatic, traditional enemy, duped by a corrupt leadership or acting out of a frustrated national desire; all very much depending on how the Arabs choose to portray themselves combined with the psychological baggage that Jews carry as a consequence of historical experiences.

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