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In Israel, a Picture Is Really Worth a Thousand Words

Yaron London
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Yosef Weitz on the job as director of the land department at the JNF, a scene included in the documentary 'Blue Box.'
Yosef Weitz on the job as director of the land department at the JNF, a scene included in the documentary 'Blue Box.'Credit: Daniel Miller / Courtesy of Yes Docu and Docaviv
Yaron London

Odeh Bisharat wrote an op-ed in Haaretz's regarding a photograph taken from “Blue Box,” Michal Weits’ excellent documentary about her great-grandfather, Yosef Weitz, “the redeemer of the land” and head of the Jewish National Fund, which covered the country with forests.

The photograph depicts Weitz standing on a plot of empty land, map in hand, and pointing ahead. There are two men in suits standing next to him. Bisharat draws our attention to the fact that behind the man to Weitz’s left, we see a partial outline of a man in a kaffiyeh – an Arab headdress – and the headband worn around it. There is also the outline, nearly completely hidden, of someone standing behind the tall Weitz himself.

Bisharat’s intuition is that it’s a woman. The caption of the photograph reads, “Yosef Weitz while acquiring land. 1940s.” The subhead of the piece is “I look at the picture of Yosef Weitz, the father of the population transfer plan, and wonder what went through his head when he sealed the fate of whole villages.” Sentences with similar content appear within the op-ed itself: “A supreme force, in the person of an obsessive agent, destroys the lives of hundreds of thousands of people...”

The piece fascinated me because it demonstrates how the photograph we see is influenced by our preconceived set of worldviews. For example, it’s clear to Bisharat that behind the gentlemen in suits are two Arab farmers, a man and a woman, who are being forced to sell their meager land to the Jews, or even tenant farmers who are being expelled from their land by a despot without a conscience. It reminds him of the village of Malul near Nazareth, from which Bisharat's own parents were expelled in 1948.

He looks at the photograph and sees the essence of the Palestinian catastrophe caused by the acquisition of the land of Palestine by the Jews. It’s a heart-rending thought free of dependence on the facts, but my own impressions of the photo, as a Jew with roots in Zionism, were also influenced by my own memories.

Initially I was drawn to the date, which is more or less the beginning of World War II, when my Zionist grandmother and grandfather were murdered by their Lithuanian neighbors. I thought of Yosef Weitz as a pioneer who was buying a foothold of land for the Jewish people. In the photo, I saw barren land and Arabs who were agreeing to a good deal: cash in exchange for bad land. I don’t know who the gentlemen in the suits standing alongside Weitz are. It’s possible that one of them was the representative of the effendi, the property owner who was selling the land.

Then I looked at the facts. From Bisharat’s op-ed, one may get the impression that the acquisition of Arab land and the expulsion of the peasant farmers from it are the source of the Palestinian catastrophe. It should be noted that by 1947, Jews had acquired only 5.7 percent of the territory of the western Land of Israel, out of a total 28 million dunams (7 million acres) of land. Privately-owned Palestinian land constituted roughly 48 percent of the territory, with the remaining 46 percent comprised of state-owned land.

The Peel Commission, the British royal commission of inquiry convened in 1936, which we have been taught was unfair to the Jews, agreed with the Jewish claim that most of the land that the Jews purchased was not cultivated. A few of the many sellers of land were from well-connected Palestinian families who were prominent in their opposition to the Zionist movement, but didn’t withstand the temptation of a good deal.

Among the sellers there were members of the Husseini, Alami and Nashashibi families. The owners of the most considerable expanses of land lived in Beirut, most notably members of the Sursock family, Christian Arab tycoons who had received huge tracts of land in the Land of Israel in exchange for loans to the court of the Ottoman sultan.

Between 1910 and 1925, members of that family sold nearly half a million dunams in the Jezreel and Zebulun valleys. According to a Peel Commission report, as a result of the largest land transaction, 8,730 members of tenant farming families were removed from their land. Some of them were paid compensation, even though the law placed responsibility for evicting them upon the sellers. Even based on the most expansive calculations, Yosef Weitz could not have indirectly destroyed “the lives of hundreds of people.”

With regard to Malul, the village from which Bisharat’s parents were expelled, I found a document submitted to Britain’s 1929 Shaw Commission by Salim Farah, the son of the mayor of Nazareth, stating that in 1923, Nagib and Albert Sursock sold 16,000 dunams of land for 47,000 pounds sterling and among the territory sold was land that belonged to Malul, on which Moshav Nahalal was built. Nevertheless, the residents of Malul were not exiled as a result of that land sale, but rather in the course of battles in the Galilee in 1948 against the Syrian army of Fawzi al-Qawuqji. A military base was built on part of the village land, and part was transferred to Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh.

Weitz wasn’t “the father of the population transfer plan” because the idea of exiling hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the territory designated for the Jewish state was thought up by the fathers of Zionism well before the 1917 Balfour Declaration. Nearly every important Zionist leader on the right and on the left, from the first to the last, debated the transfer idea, and many supported it, but in general, they envisioned transfer by consent, the payment of compensation and planning for the integration of the refugees in their new places of residence.

The mass relocation of populations to resolve territorial disputes was not rare in the years that followed World War II and I therefore assume that a man like Weitz, who was an ardent Zionist, wasn’t racked by thoughts of uprooting of Palestinians and forcing them elsewhere. I have a vague feeling that had the Arabs won the war in 1948, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, would not have even had tribulations over a similar decision.

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