The Dispossessor's Dilemma

He bought land for the Zionist movement, and expelled the Arabs who lived on it. But he also foresaw the approaching Jewish-Arab confrontation and preached for reconciliation. Like his movement, Haim Kalvarisky was a man with many contradictions.

Unfortunately for the memory of Haim Margaliot Kalvarisky (1868-1947) - who purchased land in the Galilee during the pre-state era on behalf of the Jewish Colonization Association - discussion of his life recently moved from the culture section of the newspapers to the courtroom. Kalvarisky's family decided to sue author Alon Hilu for allegedly distorting their relative's character in his 2008 novel "Ahuzat Dajani" ("La Maison Dajani"). The dispute between the Kalvariskys and Hilu naturally raises some fundamental questions about the degree of license a writer may take in historical fiction; it also, however, offers an opportunity to rescue from oblivion a historical figure that has been somewhat forgotten, and not by accident.

Kalvarisky was born in Poland in 1867 and came to Eretz Israel in 1895. An agronomist by training, he spent many years managing agricultural communities in the Galilee. It was part of his job to buy land from local Arab residents to develop Jewish settlement there, but various sources - documents and memoirs, many of them found at the Central Zionist Archives - clearly indicate that he was always genuinely and profoundly ambivalent about the Zionist Movement's relationship with the Arabs. In 1919 he became the movement's primary liaison with the Arab leadership and even founded the "Arab National Society," which was funded by the Zionist movement and meant to counterbalance the activities of the so-called Muslim-Christian societies that opposed the movement during the early years of British rule in Palestine.

Eventually Kalvarisky became one of the main activists of the organization Brit Shalom, which advocated promotion of understanding between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

In the Palestinian collective memory, Kalvarisky is perceived as a Zionist agent who persuaded, and sometimes even bribed, Arabs to sell their lands to the Jews. By contrast, his figure has all but faded from the Zionist collective memory, perhaps because of his later involvement in Brit Shalom. But the binary distinction between "Zionist collaborator" and a man who refuses to abide by Zionist ideology is too simplistic, and it does not do justice to the complex figure of Kalvarisky, who was conscious from a young age of the developing national tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

In 1919, at the invitation of the Hashemite Prince Faisal, Kalvarisky presented a plan for a Jewish-Arab agreement to the General Syrian Congress. The plan contained some seemingly contradictory points. In the first section, Kalvarisky declares that, "Palestine is the homeland of all its citizens: Muslims, Christians and Jews are all citizens with equal rights."

The second section accepts the spirit of the Balfour Declaration and recognizes Palestine as the national home of the Jewish people, which needs territory in order to realize its national cultural aspirations. However, Kalvarisky continues, no single religion should have predominance in Palestine, and the members of all faiths must have equal standing and not suffer any discrimination on religious grounds. According to his concept, Jewish immigration to Palestine was not to be restricted, because both Jewish capital and the Jewish labor force were beneficial to the land - and to its inhabitants (Central Zionist Archives document A113/1).

Adopted in principle by the Syrian Congress, Kalvarisky's plan reflects the internal contradictions with which he dealt. On the one hand, he accepted the spirit of the Balfour Declaration; on the other, he called for equality for all of Palestine's inhabitants. Yet Kalvarisky himself does not seem to have thought that his plan was self-contradictory. When he presented it to the Zionist interim committee [the pre-state Jewish community's temporary committee of representatives] in June 1919, he argued that, "Jewish-Arab agreement does not require us to give up any part of our basic program. Eretz Israel should be our national home, Hebrew should be recognized as the language of the land, along with Arabic ... Jewish immigration and settlement shall be given complete freedom ... And at the same time, we must not ignore the needs of our neighbors. Because we must not build our national home over the destruction of others. If we follow this rule - that we should not do to the Arabs here what we do not want the gentiles to do to us in the Diaspora - I am sure that agreement with the Arabs can become a fact, and a blessing for us" (CZA 8777/J1, pgs. 108-109).

The 'Arab question'

The clearest expression of Kalvarisky's ambivalence about his role in the Zionist movement can be found in the early moments of that same committee meeting. Opening it on a personal note, Kalvarisky explained what his own personal history contributed to his awareness of the "Arab question": "The question of the Arabs was revealed to me in all its seriousness as soon as I made my first purchase of land here, when I first had to confront dispossessing Arab inhabitants of their land in order to allow our brothers to settle there ... I saw then how attached the Bedouin is to his land. During the 25 years of my colonizing work, I dispossessed many Arabs of their land, and you understand that this work - to dispossess people of land that they, and perhaps their ancestors, were born on - is not at all an easy thing, especially when the dispossessor does not view the dispossessed as a flock of sheep, but rather as people, with a heart and a soul.

"I had to perform the dispossession, because the Yishuv [the pre-state Jewish community] required it of me, but I always tried to conduct this operation in an easy and comfortable way, so that the dispossessed would not feel it so strongly ... I also tried not to have the dispossessed leave the land empty-handed, and to make sure that the effendis - who were always the procurers, the middlemen between seller and buyer - did not steal from them ... From the moment I first began the work here, I came into contact with the Arabs and with the Arab question" (CZA 8777/J1, pgs. 104-105).

These lines may well be an example of the famous Israeli maxim of "shooting and weeping," and yet one cannot ignore Kalvarisky's courage in using the word "dispossession": a strong, unambiguous term within the context of the debate over the Zionist purchase of land.

Against the human backdrop of the Zionist leadership in the early days of Jewish settlement in Palestine, Kalvarisky's figure emerges as especially fascinating. It joins others, such as those of Jaffa journalists and activists Nissim Malul and Shimon Moyal, who worked for the Zionist movement but also spoke out strongly against its treatment of the Arabs and unwillingness to acknowledge the "Arab question." Kalvarisky's writings, letters and speeches repeatedly attest to his ambivalence toward his own enterprise - immoral acts vis-a-vis the Arabs, but also a national mission. His view of this issue, as naive as it might seem, remains highly relevant to many of the dilemmas with which Israeli society must now grapple.