Opinion |

Should Palestinians 'Return' to Judaism?

'They belong to our people': Why Israel's founders believed Palestinians were originally Jews, and how this discredited theory could offer hope for reconciliation today

Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi
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A woman stands before the Dome of the Rock holding an umbrella adorned with Palestinian keffiyeh patterns, during the last Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Jerusalem, June 8, 2018
A woman stands before the Dome of the Rock holding an umbrella adorned with Palestinian keffiyeh patterns, during the last Friday prayers of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Jerusalem, June 8, 2018Credit: HAZEM BADER/AFP
Seraj Assi
Seraj Assi

With the Knesset's legal counsel banning a bill to define Israel as a "state of all its citizens," to ensure the defense of "Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people," and with a Knesset committee, tasked with drafting the controversial 'Jewish Nation-State Bill,' ditching the word "democracy" to describe the state's core aspirations, perhaps Palestinians want to consider an alternative proposal laid down by the early Zionists: Converting back to Judaism.

The story is over a century old. In 1915, during their brief exile in New York, two young men, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, set out to write a historical survey of the Jewish yishuv in Palestine. The result was a monumental volume on the history of Eretz Israel from the destruction of the Second Temple down to the present.

Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula arrive to take part in the new state's Declaration of Independence. Tel Aviv, May 20, 1948Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

"Eretz Israel in the Past and Present" covered a wide canvas of nearly 500 pages, a bibliographical list of 200 references, and a massive glossary of Arabic words. The book, published by the Poale Zion Palestine Committee, first appeared in Yiddish in 1918. It was originally written in Hebrew, and translated into Yiddish to reach a wilder Jewish-American public. It enjoyed a wide reception in the Diaspora. Tens of thousands of copies were sold, and new editions were printed over the following years.

The Zionist authors of "Eretz Israel" believed that Palestinians were the modern descendants of the ancient Jews.

Drawing on countless historical and ethnographic sources, the young Zionist leaders wrote: "The Arabs of Palestine are none but those ancient Jews who were forced to convert to the religion of Arab Bedouin, who had conquered the land in the seventh century." The Arabs of Palestine, they asserted, were hidden converts in whose veins ran Jewish blood.

Curiously, and to defend their eccentric theory, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi would go on defending Islam on strictly theological terms. For it is thanks to the relative tolerance of Islam, they contended, that Palestinians were eventually tempted into conversion.

Their narrative rested on an unorthodox theory of cultural assimilation. To the young Zionist authors, the Arabization of Jews in Palestine "unfolded with special ease." The secret, they agreed, lay in "the democratic character of Islam," where "the doctrine of the prophet of Mecca proved far closer to Jewish hearts than the doctrine of the prophet of Nazareth."

Thanks to the assimilative and egalitarian nature of Islam, they further attested, Jews adopted the faith of the new rulers in a way that would have been unimaginable under Christian or Roman rulers.

That the Zionist authors, to prove their point, drew on an unorthodox approval of the Islamic doctrine only testifies, ironically so, to the predominance of the secularist vision of early Zionism over the orthodox elements of the Old Yishuv. To translate their words into today’s parlance, Arabs and Zionists, Muslims and Jews, are all citizens of one land, be it Palestine, Eretz Israel, or the Jewish State of Israel.

The council head of the West Bank town of Aqaba, Sami Sadeq, sits in front of a mural depicting pre-1948 PalestineCredit: \ Alex Levac

After refuting prevalent claims that the Palestinians were the descendants of the ancient Canaanites, or the Romans, or the Greeks, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi came to the following conclusion: The Palestinians, being the descendants of the ancient Hebrews, were the true natives of the land, and hence represented an ideal autochthonous model for Jewish newcomers in Palestine.

In other words, the young Zionist leaders believed that Jews and Arabs were made of the same ethnic and national clay: "To doubt that Arabs of Palestine were Jews," they concluded, "is to doubt the very existence of Jews in Palestine."

The theory on the Jewish origin of the Arabs of Palestine, which gained popularity in Zionist circles in Europe and Palestine in the first quarter of the century, was not the sole invention of Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi. It had been a decade in the making, and had its origin in the writings of Ber Borochov, one of the founders of Labor Zionism.

Writing against the backdrop of the Uganda Controversy in 1905, Borochov declared: "The local population of Palestine is closer to the Jews in racial composition than any other people," and hence "it is highly feasible to assume that they are the direct descendants of the remnants of the Jewish agricultural community, together with a very high mixture of Arab blood. For it is known that the Bedouin Arabs, as proud conquerors, mingled very little with the masses in the countries they conquered."

Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948. Credit: Corbis

Echoing Barochov, Ahad Ha’am, founder of Cultural Zionism, noted in 1912: "After we become established as a cultural force in the country in the spirit of Judaism, the Arabs may possibly become assimilated among us, for they are the natives of this land since long ago and quite possibly, some of them belong to our people."

Over the following decades, the theory of the Jewish descent of Palestinians lost none of its force. In 1927, Ben-Zvi would further develop it in a monumental volume devoted to tracing the remnants of the ancient Jewish yishuv in Palestine.

Two years later, amid mounting ethnic conflict between Arabs and Jews, Ben-Zvi would only slightly modify his opinion, stating that, "it would be mistaken to think that all the Arabs of Palestine are descendants of the ancient Jews, but it can be said of most of them, or their core."

In the same period, the theory was echoed by other Zionist pioneers, notably Israel Belkind, who reclaimed it in an ethnographic tract on "The Arabs of Palestine." Like Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi before him, Belkind believed in the close historical and racial ties between the ancient Jews and the Arabs of his day.

During the British Mandate, the theory would enjoy limited popularity in Zionist circles, thanks to growing nationalist sentiments in Palestine. Its implications, however, never fully vanished.

In fact, the theory, although nearly erased from Zionist historiography, would survive in the Hebrew literature and popular imagination of that period. Even in the late 1930s, when it seemed that the theory was completely swept under the rubric of nationalist propaganda, Zionist writer Yosef Meyuhas could still proclaim that, "if you came across the Arabs of Palestine and learned their customs and ways of life, you would find a striking resemblance to those of the ancient Jews."

Policemen separate Israelis and Palestinians at Damascus gate, Jerusalem Day, May 8, 2013.Credit: AFP

In retrospect, the theory of the Jewish origin of the Arabs of Palestine was inseparably linked to Zionist demographic concerns at the time, namely, its desire to establish a Jewish majority in Palestine.

The theory aimed to solve the so-called Arab problem – in which Zionists were faced with the unsettling truth of demographic imbalance between Arabs and Jews in Palestine – through their assimilation with the Jewish population by dint of racial affinity between the two people. This perhaps explains the theory’s allure for many Zionists in this early period when, by the time "Eretz Israel" was published, Jews amounted to a mere 8 percent of the total population.

While the product of historical imagination, the theory still has a shred of political allure, and especially for today’s politics.

For perhaps Arabs and Jews were not fated to represent two separate and discrete entities that existed from time immemorial, and are not inevitably doomed to be forever locked into two distinct historical trajectories. Perhaps tolerance is a magic formula after all, not only for historical reconstruction, but also for historical reconciliation.

The theory of the Jewish origin of modern-day Palestinians is nearly forgotten today, but it messages still resonates across the land: Israel, or Palestine, is a state for all its citizens.

Seraj Assi is the author of the recently published The History and Politics of the Bedouin: Reimaging Nomadism in Modern Palestine (Routledge Studies on the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 2018). Twitter: @Serajeas

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