A Lesson for Seth Rogen (and All Jews) on Early Zionists and Arabs
Seth Rogen’s interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, and his heartbreaking confession about how he was “fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life,” have sent many of us to wondering who his teachers were. In particular, his now famous: “they never tell you that ‘Oh, by the way, there were people there,'” has alerted us to a possible deficiency in Jewish education.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe for a second that Rogen was actually told Eretz Israel had no people there. He simply knew how delighted his host and audience would be to hear this intriguing fantasy of naïve, misinformed Jews migrating to a land they made-believe to be empty. So, as a professional “Jewish storyteller,” he delivered the bounty.
What the podcast does reveal, unfortunately, is that the general public, including some sloppily informed show hosts, can still fall for the century-old myth about Zionists believing Eretz Israel to be empty of people. Evidently, the true story of what early Zionists knew about the Arab population in Eretz Israel and how they planned to coexist and collaborate with that population, has not taken firm roots in public consciousness.
A research project that I undertook in 2008, sifting through the Hebrew and Yiddish press of 1917-1937, brings that story to public view. It describes two endogenous national movements claiming ownership of the same piece of land — one aspiring for co-ownership and coexistence, the other adamant on sole ownership and exclusive existence. I reprint this story below, partly to counter Rogen’s fantasies, and partly in the hope of seeing this chapter of Jewish history become part of American education:
Many Arab officials and Israeli “New Historians” describe early Zionist attitudes toward the Arab population of Palestine as dismissive or arrogant. Books and pamphlets from the time tell a different story.
Ben-Gurion: Our Arab Brethren
During World War I, Israel’s future first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, spent three years in New York, exiled from Palestine “for conspiring against Ottoman rule.” He devoted most of his time to organizing the He-Halutz youth movement with Yitzhak Ben Zvi, but he also published, a few months before issuance of the Balfour Declaration, an interesting treatise: “On the Origin of the Falahin,” (“Leverur Motsa Ha’Falahim,” Luach Achiezer, New York, 1917, pp. 118-27, reprinted in Anachnu U’Shcheneinu (Tel Aviv: Davar. 1931), pp. 13-25) the Arab peasants in Palestine. In this work, Ben-Gurion, the scholar and historian, argued that the falahin are descendants of Jews who remained in Palestine after the Roman expulsion and who later converted to Islam:
The logical, self-evident conclusion of all the above is as follows: The agricultural community that the Arabs found in Eretz Israel in the 7th century was none other than the Hebrew farmers that remained on their land despite all the persecution and oppression of the Roman and Byzantine emperors. Some of them accepted Christianity, at least on the surface, but many held on to their ancestral faith and occasionally revolted against their Christian oppressors. After the Arab conquest, the Arabic language and Muslim religion spread gradually among the countrymen. In his essay “Ancient Names in Palestine and Syria in Our Times,” Dr. George Kampmeyer proves, based on historico-linguistic analysis, that for a certain period of time, both Aramaic and Arabic were in use and only slowly did the former give way to the latter.
The greater majority and main structures of the Muslim falahin in western Eretz Israel present to us one racial strand and a whole ethnic unit, and there is no doubt that much Jewish blood flows in their veins — the blood of those Jewish farmers, “lay persons,” who chose in the travesty of times to abandon their faith in order to remain on their land.
Ben-Gurion’s theory may not withstand modern DNA analysis, but his essay reveals a genuine attempt to establish an ancestral kinship with the Arab population and to bridge cultural and religious divides.
Ben-Gurion: Palestinian Arab Rights
In 1918, Israel Zangwill, an on-again, off-again member of the Zionist movement and author of the influential novel Children of the Ghetto, wrote an article suggesting that the Arabs should be persuaded to “trek” from Palestine. Ben-Gurion was quick to distance the Zionist movement from any such notion. In an article published that year in the Yiddish-language newspaper Yiddishe Kemper, Ben-Gurion ridiculed Zangwill:
Eretz Israel is not an empty country. … West of Jordan alone houses three quarters of a million people. On no account must we injure the rights of the inhabitants. Only “Ghetto Dreamers” like Zangwill can imagine that Eretz Israel will be given to the Jews with the added right of dispossessing the current inhabitants of the country. This is not the mission of Zionism. Had Zionism to aspire to inherit the place of these inhabitants — it would be nothing but a dangerous utopia and an empty, damaging and reactionary dream. … Not to take from others — but to build the ruins. [We claim] no rights on our past — but on our future. Not the preservation of historic inheritance — but the creation of new national assets — this is the core claim and right of the Hebrew nation in its country.
Weizmann: Arab Glory and Arab Rights
In 1918, the British government sent Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), the future first president of Israel and a key player behind the Balfour Declaration, to Palestine to advise on the future development of the country. There, he met with Arab and Armenian representatives and delivered the following speech in the house of the High Commissioner in Jerusalem:
With heartfelt admiration and great interest we are viewing today the current war of liberation conducted by the ancient Arabic nation. We see how the scattered Arab forces are being united under the good will of Western governments and other peace-loving nations, and how from the mist of war there emerge new and immense political possibilities. We see again the formation of a strong and united Arab political body, freshly renovated and aiming to renovate the great tradition of Arab science and literature that are so close to our heart. This kinship found its glorious expression particularly in the Spanish period of the Hebrew-Arabic development when our greatest authors wrote and thought in the Arabic language, as well as in Hebrew. (Chaim Weizmann, Devarim, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Mizpah Publishers, 1936), p. 99.)
Perhaps anticipating future criticism that Zionism, while promising Palestinians human and civil rights, denied them national rights, Weizmann wrote in the newspaper Ha’aretz:
If indeed there is among the Arabs a national movement, we must relate to it with the utmost seriousness. … The Arabs are concerned about two issues: 1. The Jews will soon come in their millions and conquer the country and chase out the Arabs. … Responsible Zionists never said and never wished such things. 2. There is no place in Eretz Israel for a large number of inhabitants. This is total ignorance. It is enough to notice what is happening now in Tunis, Tangier, and California to realize that there is a vast space here for a great work of many Jews, without touching even one Arab. (Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), Dec. 15, 1919, as reprinted in Devarim, vol. 1, p. 129.)
Ben-Gurion: Palestinian Self-Determination
In November 1930, about a year after the Arab riots that led to the Hebron massacre, Ben-Gurion addressed the First Congress of Hebrew Workers and delivered a lecture entitled “The Foreign Policy of the Hebrew Nation.” In this lecture, later published in Ben-Gurion’s first book, We and Our Neighbors, he not only acknowledged the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs but also recognized Arab self-determination as an inalienable right, regardless of its impact on the Zionist plan. (Anachnu U’Shcheneinu, p. 257.)
There is in the world a principle called “the right for self-determination.” We have always and everywhere been its worshipers and champions. We have defended that right for every nation, every part of a nation, and every collective of people. There is no doubt whatsoever that the Arab people in Eretz Israel have this right. And this right is not limited by or conditional upon the result of its influence on us and our interests. We ought not to diminish the Arabs’ freedom for self-determination for fear that it would present difficulties to our own mission. The entire moral core encapsulated in the Zionist idea is the notion that a nation — every nation — is its own purpose and not a tool for the purposes of other nations. And in the same way that we want the Jewish people to be master of its own affairs, capable of determining its historical destiny without being dependent on the will — even good will — of other nations, so, too, we must seek for the Arabs. …
The characteristic feature of a political movement is its ability to rally the masses behind it. In this sense, there is no doubt that we are witnessing a political movement. And we should not dismiss it, our way should not be through the [British] government. …
We should not attempt to turn the Arabs into Zionists. I do not see why an Arab need be a Zionist. But we must explain to him what Zionism is, what it aspires to achieve, on what it rests, what its power and promises are and what its attitude is toward the Arabs in this land and the Arab nation in our neighborhood. It is imperative that the Arab knows that we have not come here to dispossess him, to subjugate him, or to worsen his condition. The Arab must know that Zionism is not an accidental, temporary phenomenon but a historical imperative, that it relies on the needs and strength of the entire Jewish nation, and that it is impossible to dismiss or silence it. …
In much the same way that we need to educate the Arab public to understand our interest, so also we need to educate our public to understand the Arabs and work toward decent neighborly relations … mutual recognition is prerequisite to mutual understanding.
The total Arab rejection of his overtures, followed by the bloody riots of 1936-39, eroded Ben-Gurion’s confidence in achieving Arab understanding through education and cooperation. It remains an interesting exercise, though, to imagine what the Middle East would be like today had Arab leadership reciprocated with some recognition, however mild, of the Jewish right to self-determination.
Jabotinsky before the Holocaust
Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion’s rival, garnered a reputation as an advocate of an “iron wall” approach toward the Arabs. Yet, even he expressed respect for Arab nationalism and explained Arab fears of reciprocating Ben-Gurion’s offer. Not only does Jabotinsky’s article “The Arabs of Eretz Israel” (“Arviyey Eretz Yisrael,” in Medina Ivrit (Tel Aviv: T. Kopp, 1937) dispel the myth of Zionist denial and naïveté, but it also disproves the popular notion that Arabs feared dispossession by Jewish immigrants:
There is no point talking about the possibility that the Arabs in Eretz Israel would consent to the Zionist plan while we are a minority here. I express it with such confidence not because I enjoy disappointing decent people but, simply, to save them disappointments: All these decent people, except those blind from birth, have understood already that this is something that is utterly illogical — to obtain the Arabs’ consent and goodwill to turn Eretz Israel from an Arabic country to a country with Jewish majority.
Every indigenous people, regardless of whether it is primitive or advanced, views its country as a national home and aspires to be and remain its sole and eternal landlord; it does not voluntarily agree to accommodate, not only new landlords, but even new partners or new participants. And our most misleading argument would be if we rely on the fact that our agricultural settlements bring them economical advantages; though this is an undisputed truth, there is no nation in the world that sold its national aspirations for bread and butter.
Many of us still think in full honesty that a terrible misunderstanding has occurred, that the Arabs did not understand us, and that this is the reason why they oppose us; but if only we could explain to them how benevolent our intentions, they would stretch their hands back to us. This is a mistake that has been proven so again and again. I will bring one such incident. Several years ago, when the late Nahum Sokolov visited Eretz Israel, and he was one of the most moderate and diplomatic Zionists at that time, he delivered an elaborate speech on this misunderstanding. He explained clearly how mistaken Arabs are in thinking that we wish to steal their property or dispossess them or oppress them. “We do not even want to have a Jewish government; we want merely a government representing the League of Nations.” Sokolov’s speech received an immediate response in the main editorial of the Arab newspaper Carmel, the content of which I convey here from memory:
“The Zionists” — so wrote the Arab editor — “are tormenting their nerves unnecessarily. There is no misunderstanding here whatsoever. The Arabs never doubted that the potential absorption capacity of Eretz Israel is enormous and, therefore, that it is possible to settle here enough Jews without dispossessing or constraining even a single Arab. It is obvious that ‘this is all’ the Zionists want. But it is also obvious that this is precisely what the Arabs do not want; for, then, the Jews will turn into a majority and, from the nature of things, a Jewish government will be established and the fate of the Arab minority will depend on Jewish good will; Jews know perfectly well what minority existence is like. There is no misunderstanding here whatsoever.”
The Arab editor’s argument is rather compelling, but Jabotinsky confronts it with a moral dilemma that is no less compelling:
Whoever thinks that our arguments [for Jewish immigration] are immoral, I would beg him to address the following question: If this [Jewish immigration] is immoral, what should the Jewish people do? …
Our planet is no longer blessed with uninhabited islands. Take any oasis in any desert, it is already taken by the native who inhabits that place from time immemorial and rejects the coming of new settlers that will become a majority, or just come in great numbers. In short — if there is a homeless nation in the world, its very yearning for a homeland is immoral. The homeless must forever remain homeless; all the land in the universe has already been divided — that’s it. These are the conclusions of “morality.” …
This sort of morality has a place among cannibals, not in the civilized world. The land belongs not to those who have too much land but to those who have none. If we appropriate one parcel of land from the owners of mega-estates and give it to an exiled nation — it is a just deed.
New Historians often cite anecdotal and secondhand evidence or diary entries lacking in context that depict an exaggerated, hostile attitude of early Zionist leaders toward the Arabs. In contrast, the quotations cited above were articulated in prominent and open public forums and published widely for Hebrew readers in Palestine and the Diaspora. It is these quotations, therefore, that are true representations of the dominant attitude of the Yishuv, the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. They were annunciated broadly with the aim of shaping public opinion, educational norms, and cultural molds, which no doubt contributed to the culture of accommodation that governs the Israeli mindset today.
Judea Pearl is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. With his wife, Ruth, he co-edited, I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Light, 2004), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Middle East Forum’s Middle East Quarterly.