An Agony Foretold: Bitter Roots, Bitter Fruits in the Middle East

Long before the Nabka, long before the Holocaust, the present-day agony in Israel and Palestine had already taken root. The ineradicable core of the conflict is brutally simple: the attempt by one people to take another people's land. In this respect, the turmoil in the Middle East is just another chapter in one of the world's oldest stories, for human beings have always been about the bloody business of conquest, dispossession and domination. The United States, for example, was built on this ancient principle. Its settling was cast largely in the same terms as those used later by the Zionists in Palestine: the claiming and cultivation of a land that was essentially empty -- save for a few savages who could only benefit from the imposition of a superior civilization. (And if they couldn't, so much the worse for them.)

The nascent Americans were fortunate, of course; they land they took was far less populated than it had been not long before. Large swathes of the native populations had been decimated by waves of epidemics, most sparked by contact with the earliest European explorers in the 16th century. By the time that large-scale settlement began in the 17th and 18th centuries, vast regions of North America had been emptied of its population, whole tribes had had been wiped out, and most others left enfeebled, their social, cultural and demographic shattered. Even so, there were still millions of Indians left in the "New World," and it took centuries of war and deceit before they were finally driven off all of the lands that the Europeans wanted.

The Zionist movement was less fortunate in this respect. In relative terms, the Arab population of Palestine was  much more numerous and more intact than the Indian tribes of North America. And the specifically Jewish character of the settlement project meant the number of settlers would always be small; it could not draw upon all the peoples of the world, as in North America, and thus would never overwhelm the natives by sheer weight of numbers. Indeed, the opposite is true: the demographic environment in Palestine is entirely in the natives' favor -- a stark fact, and a stark fear that underlies much of the brutality and harshness of present-day Israeli policy.

But as we said, this is an old story: people want someone's land; those in current possession of that land -- which their ancestors might well have taken from someone else at some point -- try to hold on to their land. Conflict is inevitable -- and entirely predictable, although the land-grabbers often delude themselves about the ease -- and nobility -- of their quest.

As Rabbi David Goldberg pointed out in an important article in the Guardian recently, the dangers and difficulties of imposing one's people on another people's land were painfully obvious to many Jewish thinkers in the early years of the Zionist movement. Goldberg unearths a forgotten history, and forgotten warnings from one of the leading opponents of Zionism, Achad Ha'am, the Hebrew pen name of Ahser Ginsberg, "the intellectual doyen of Russian Jewry and mentor to a galaxy of talented younger admirers. He was also the bitter rival and implacable critic of Theodor Herzl, who announced after his starring role at the first Zionist Congress in 1897: 'At Basel I founded the Jewish state.' Ha'am noted, 'At Basel I sat solitary among my friends, like a mourner at a wedding feast.'" Goldberg takes up the story:

In 1891, Ha'am had made his first visit to the Jewish settlements in Palestine. It resulted in an important essay, The Truth from the Land of Israel. What distinguished his report from the gushing accounts of other Jewish visitors was the sober realism with which he noted the many problems. High among them was the existence of an indigenous population. "We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, an uncultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which lies fallow."

Ha'am makes short work of the argument that lesser breeds can be duped about Zionist intentions and bought off with the benefits of colonialism. "The Arab, like all Semites, has a sharp mind and is full of cunning ... [They] understand very well what we want and what we do in the country, but ... at present they do not see any danger for themselves or their future in what we are doing and therefore are trying to turn to their advantage these new guests ... But when the day will come in which the life of our people in the Land of Israel will develop to such a degree that they will push aside the local population by little or by much, then it will not easily give up its place."

In contrast, Herzl has the Arab spokesman in his utopian novel Altneuland (Old-new land) proclaim that Jewish settlement had been a blessing. Landowners have gained from higher prices, peasants from regular employment and welfare benefits. "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them? They live with us as brothers, why should we not love them?"

Ha'am has no truck with such wishful thinking. The behaviour of settlers disturbed him. They had not learned from experience as a minority, but, like a slave who has become king, "behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, infringe upon their boundaries, hit them shamefully without reason, and even brag about it". The Arab did indeed respect strength, but only when the other side used it justly. When his opponent's actions were unjust and oppressive, then "he may keep his anger to himself for a time ... but in the long run he will prove to be vengeful and full of retribution". Prophetic words.

In 1913, after a correspondent had complained of the contemptuous attitude of settlers and the Zionist Organisation's Palestine Office, Ha'am wrote back, "When I realise that our brethren may be morally capable of treating another people in this fashion and of crudely abusing what is sacred to them, then I cannot but reflect: if such is the situation now, how shall we treat others if one day we actually become the rulers of Palestine?"

Now we know. But as Goldberg shows, those who want to know -- those who want to deal with reality and not with dreams and prejudice -- can see from the very beginning the bitter fruits that conquest and domination will bear.