When Zionism Was an Arab Cause

The theory that the Arabs missed out on what was good for them is not any more true than the theory that the Zionists missed the chance to realize their dream without a war.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Isaiah Friedman focused most of his professional work as a historian on eight fateful years: 1915-1922. Now 91, Friedman, a professor emeritus of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, knows every person and every intrigue, every scheme and every document that led to the formation of the modern Middle East, including the establishment of the State of Israel. He also knows generations of scholars and waves of contradictory theories, and remains adamant: The century-old conflict over the Land of Israel was not inevitable.

The Magnes Press has just published a Hebrew edition of his last book, "British Pan-Arab Policy 1915-1922: A Critical Appraisal" (originally published in 2009 by Transaction Publishers ), in which Friedman recasts an age-old Zionist thesis: the Palestinian fellahin - in other words, most of the country's Arabs - welcomed the settlement of the Zionists. Their interests were even similar to those of the Zionists.

In August 1921, an Arab delegation from Palestine arrived in London, led by Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husseini, who at that time was considered the head of an aristocratic clan. The high commissioner of Palestine, Herbert Samuel, thought that the delegation's visit would make it possible for an understanding to be reached between the Arabs and Jews in the land. But that, Friedman writes, was a devastating mistake: In actuality the Arabs had come to London to demand that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 be rescinded, and the British were unable to budge them from their position.

Samuel comes across in this book as an incomparably naive man. According to Friedman, he didn't realize that the Arabs were acting under the influence of British officers who opposed their own government's pro-Zionist policy. This was indeed an era that was filled with treacherous scheming and deceitful intrigue. A gallery rich in colorful figures like Lawrence of Arabia riveted some of the finest scholars and writers to this story, and the fundamental questions of the period got lost more than once in the realms of the imagination and romance. One of the questions is: What did the country's Arabs actually want?

Friedman contends that most of the Arabs in the country did not respond to the Palestinian national movement; the popular uprising that its operatives were hoping to bring about in 1920, to add the land to the area under Emir Faisal's rule, simply did not come to pass. The Christians among them were afraid of pan-Islamic rule. The Bedouin and fellahin in the south of the country in fact opposed Faisal.

In the wake of the 1920 riots in Jerusalem, the sheikhs of 82 villages around that city and Jaffa issued a statement protesting the demonstrations against the Jews. They claimed to represent 70 percent of the population and expressed allegiance to the British. Among other things, they stated that they did not see any danger in the Zionist settlement. The leaders of the Druze village Daliat al-Carmel, southeast of Haifa, stated that the settlement by Jews would bring great benefit to everyone in the land.

Similar cables were dispatched in 1922 to the British colonial secretary, in opposition to the activity of the Arab delegation in London. Dozens of Arab notables, and hundreds of sheikhs and mukhtars expressed support for Jewish immigration, "because they will lead the country in the way of commercial and industrial progress," according to one of those cables. Here, then, Friedman maintains, the Palestinian delegation did not represent the people. And contrary to British assessments, Arab-Zionist tensions did not increase: Until 1929 Palestine remained quiet.

The theory that Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel would constitute a blessing for its Arab population has always accompanied the Zionist movement. But considering the treatment by the farmers of the First Aliyah (the wave of immigration from 1882-1903 ) of their Arab laborers, and the demand by members of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914 ) that Arab labor be replaced with "Hebrew labor" - this theory was belied from the start. Even in the most liberal of Zionist plans, the Arabs were called upon to forgo national sovereignty, at least in part of the country, and to make do with equal rights as citizens of a Jewish state.

According to Friedman, it looks like the "delivery costs" of the Arab telegrams in support of Zionism were covered by the World Zionist Organization. But the files of the Zionist Archive also chronicle many efforts by Zionist "Arabists" to obtain Arab declarations of support in return for actual bribes. As such, there is an irony in the choice of words that the translator of the book from English into Hebrew, Emanuel Lotem, uses for the activity of Col. Frederick Kisch, one of the early Zionist activists in the country: "Kisch acquired many friends among the Arab notables and procured their trust." That is precisely what he did.

That activity is well documented today. The theory that the Arabs missed out on what was good for them is not any more true than the theory that the Zionists missed the chance to realize their dream without a war. Only good folks like Judah L. Magnes believed in that. From this standpoint there is something lovely about Friedman's book having been published by the imprint that bears Magnes' name.



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