Read The Idea of Israel Online

Authors: Ilan Pappe

The Idea of Israel (4 page)

This well-known and efficiently proven narrative reconstructed Zionism as a national movement that brought modernisation and progress to a primitive Palestine. It ‘made the desert bloom’, rebuilt
the Land’s ruined cities, and introduced modern agriculture and industry to the benefit of Arabs and Jews alike. The resistance to Zionism resulted from a combination of Islamic fanaticism and pro-Arab British colonialism, along with local traditions of political violence. Against all odds, and despite cruel resistance, Zionism remained loyal to humanist precepts and unrelentingly stretched its hand to its Arab neighbours, who kept rejecting it.

No less extraordinary in this narrative is the story of how the Zionists succeeded in the miraculous establishment of a state in the face of a hostile Arab world. It was a state that, notwithstanding an objective shortage of space and means, absorbed a million Jews who had been expelled from the Arab world and offered them progress and integration into the only democracy in the Middle East. It was a defensive state, which tried to contain the ever-increasing hostility of the Arabs and the apathy of the world. It was a generous state, which ingathered Jews from more than a hundred diasporas and made of them a single new Jewish people. It was a moral and just movement of redemption that, unfortunately, found other people residing in its homeland but nevertheless offered them a share in a better future, which they foolishly rejected. That last bit comes in a second version, in which the country was empty when Zionism arrived so that the reaction of the inhabitants diminishes as a factor.

This second claim was presented in the book
From Time Immemorial
, by Joan Peters, a CBS documentary producer who was initially part of Jimmy Carter’s team on the Middle East but then joined the new conservative camp. At first the book was a best seller in the United States and was promoted by the Israeli embassy, but its premise was so absurd that professional historians in Israel disavowed the book, demanding somewhat more sophistication in the construction of the Zionist claim that Palestine belongs to the Jewish people To them, Peters’s simplistic denial that there had barely been any Arabs in Palestine before the arrival of the Zionists was little more than a fable.
On the other hand, the more sophisticated version – still being argued today, in
Palestine Betrayed
, by Efraim Karsh – is that there were indeed Palestinians residing in Palestine, but their leadership betrayed them by not allowing them
to benefit from the numerous advantages brought by the Zionist movement.

The Objective Cartographer

Among the many ways this narrative has been conveyed, domestically and externally, is through maps and atlases. In Israel, the production of elegant atlases, divided into historical periods from biblical times to the present day, is a big industry. Usually maps are associated with the conveyance of strictly geographical information. For some time, however, they have also conveyed biases and agendas above and beyond the graphic, schematic representation of nature. Like the more classical natural atlases, the historical ones are a popular medium for communication, easily understood and appreciated regardless of language or previous knowledge. As D. F. Merriam noted in 1996, a map is a snapshot of an idea – in the present case, the idea of Israel.
Already in the late 1980s geographers had begun to doubt the presumption that maps were authentic or scientific representations of natural reality, but were hesitant to say this aloud. But historians have since become increasingly aware of the subjectivity of cartographic representations, as is evident in a statement by the cartographer J. B. Harely:

[W]e often tend to work from the premise that mappers engage in an unquestionably ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ form of knowledge creation. Of course, cartographers believe they have to say this to remain credible but historians do not have that obligation.

In the case of Israel, this cartographic presentation was also transmitted outside the country. The best known among these is the
Atlas of the Arab–Israeli Conflict
, the most recent editions of which have been prepared by one of Britain’s leading modern historians and the renowned biographer of Winston Churchill, Sir Martin Gilbert.
This atlas is now in its tenth edition. Not surprisingly, a work that sketches the history of such an eventful process must be revised every
now and then. Forty years have passed since the publication of the first edition, and indeed each new edition included new maps of misery and violence. But whichever edition one chooses to consult, it is immediately evident that an atlas conveys not only a reality but also how that reality is perceived.

Atlas of the Arab–Israeli Conflict
grants unequivocal scholarly legitimacy to the classical Zionist historiographical version of the conflict, while the Palestinian perspective is reduced to mere propaganda, despite the wish expressed in the preface to present fairly ‘the views of those involved’.

A few examples of the annotated maps in this atlas will suffice to show the ideological bent of the ostensibly neutral cartographic representation. The myth of the empty land for the landless people is re-created vividly in the first three maps. The first one shows the presence of the Jews in Palestine prior to the Arab conquest. Fair enough, one may say, as this demonstrates the romantic Zionist claim to Palestine. One would also expect at least one map informing us about the presence of the Arabs in Abbasid, Mameluke, Seljuk, or Ottoman Palestine, but there is nothing of the sort. The second map presents a picture of the Jews in Palestine during those same periods of Islamic history, when they constituted less than 1 per cent of the population. The third map concerns Jewish immigration (or in the words of the atlas, settlement) of 1880–1914.

The maps delineating and describing the clashes of 1920 and 1929 are categorised as showing the violent Arab attacks against the Jews during the first decade of the Mandate. No mention is made of the Zionist contribution to, and in some cases initiation of, these attacks. Thus, one will find neither Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s provocation that led to the 1920 riots in Jerusalem nor an indication that the 1929 eruption in Palestine was also directed against Britain’s pro-Zionist policy there.

Needless to say, Gilbert does not call the Arab Revolt of 1936–39 by its proper name but rather prefers the term ‘Arab campaign’ (that is, a campaign against the Jews). The running commentary (presented in small boxes on the margins of each map) tells us of three years of endless killing of Jews and British soldiers. The Palestinian
view of this revolt is strikingly absent. The revolt was, after all, the first national Palestinian attempt to overcome clannish and sectarian cleavages in a torn traditional society. It was a rare instance of unity, generated by the belated awakening of Palestinian leaders to the dangers that faced their community from increased Jewish immigration to Palestine. Despite its failure, the Arab Revolt served as a model for the Palestinian uprising of 1987.
In Gilbert’s atlas, the maps of the revolt form a trail of anti-Jewish bloodshed and nothing more. Yet according to ‘conservative’ estimates in the Survey of Palestine, prepared soon after the end of the Second World War, about 2,500 Arabs were killed by the British military and police during the rebellion, while the same source puts the numbers of British killed during the conflict (excluding 1937, where breakdowns are not given) at 143 and the number of Jews at 429.

This atlas goes on to reproduce the classical Zionist view of the 1948 war, which is described at length below. The same approach to cartographic representation appears in many American and Israeli atlases. From the 1990s onwards, however, these representations were countered, first by the dedicated research of Salman Abu-Sitta and soon also by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), an NGO founded in Jerusalem in 1987. Abu-Sitta produced several huge atlases covering Palestinian history in general and that of 1948 in particular.

In sum, the ‘Zionist’ atlases clearly show the same position that the historians documented with archives and testimonies – that the land was empty until Zionism arrived. They offer scholarly proof for the first half of the famous Zionist maxim that it was a movement of people without land coming to a land without people. But of course the people were there on the land, and neither the knowledge producers of Israel nor the philosophers who held forth on the idea of Israel could ignore them. And yet they were ignored, and simultaneously depicted in such a way as to justify, a priori and in hindsight, the denial of their existence and their rights as native people of the land.


The Alien Who Became a Terrorist: The Palestinian in Zionist Thought

To most people Palestinians are visible principally as fighters, terrorists, and lawless pariahs. Say the word ‘terror’ and a man wearing a keffiyeh and mask and carrying a
immediately leaps before one’s eyes. To a degree, the image of a helpless, miserable-looking refugee has been replaced by this menacing one as the veritable icon of ‘Palestinian’.

– Edward Saïd,
After the Last Sky
, 1998

n January 2012, Israeli television proudly broadcast a co-production titled
The History of Terror –
a joint venture of the Israeli and France 2 TV, and informed by the work of Israeli and French scholars. Tracing the trajectory of modern terrorism in the world, they detected clear roots in Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), the Cuban revolution and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), all of which, in the programme’s parlance, displayed ‘murderous ideologies’ that had since tainted world history. The final segment in this series focused on Hamas and the Arab Spring as a chapter not yet completed.

Much of Israeli media and academia have characterised the Palestinian resistance movement as a key factor in the global history of terrorism. The role of the academics was to validate this depiction
with ‘scientific’ research that both recorded acts of Palestinian violence and proved the applicability of theoretical definitions of terrorism to these acts. Israeli politicians and the media fully accepted this portrayal, although during the period of the brief, failed Oslo Accords it was toned down.

These images of the Palestinians are deeply rooted in Zionist history and go back to the period of the Second Aliyah, at the very beginning of the twentieth century (1904–14). For these settlers, the Palestinians were either not there or, when they were, appeared as aliens who should not have been there. The participants in the Second Aliyah numbered between 20,000 and 40,000 and came mainly from Russia (it should be noted that they constituted only 4 per cent of the Jews who left Russia at the time). It was not a success story. The vast majority of them (some 90 per cent) left quickly, mainly for the United States. At the end of the day, then, this core group was a few thousand strong. But they were achievers: they expelled the Palestinian workforce from the old Jewish colonies –
Kibbush Ha’avoda
(conquest of labour), they called it – and lay the foundations for the future state.

Most of them encountered the Palestinians for the first time under similar circumstances. The encounters began on the Jaffa shore, then while they laboured alongside Palestinians in the more established Zionist colonies or in the towns. Once they realised that indeed the natives were there, they decided, as all settlers do, to build gated communities and strive for an exclusionary labour market and economy. This inevitably required a paramilitary force to guard the enclaves. The British Mandatory authorities quickly recognised this separateness and legalised it within the Mandatory state.

The new arrivals were compulsive diarists and letter writers – they did not miss a single mosquito bite and, in true shtetl style, did not stop complaining. The first anti-Arab entries were written while they were still being hosted by the Palestinians as they made their way to the old colonies or in the towns of Palestine. The complaints stemmed from the settlers’ formative experiences, which arose during their search for labour and subsistence – a universal predicament, whether they went to the Zionist colonies or tried
their luck in the Palestinian towns. In order to survive, they needed to work shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian farmers or labourers, and through this intimate contact, even the most ignorant and defiant settlers realised that Palestine was in fact an Arab country, with an Arab human landscape. It was a process of recognition of an unpleasant reality, intertwined with early thoughts of how to change it. The subsequent production of knowledge in Israel – and in particular the assigned attributes of the Palestinians in what we are calling here ‘the Idea of Israel’ – was strongly influenced by these first impressions.

When one leading activist of the Second Aliyah resorted to a medical metaphor by describing the Palestinian workers and farmers as
Beit Mihush
(an infested hotbed of pain), he could then immediately conjure up exclusive Jewish labour as the panacea. In many letters, Hebrew workers appear as the healthy blood that would immunise the nation from rottenness and death.
One letter refers to the idiocy of allowing Arabs to work with Jews, and recalls an old Jewish story of a stupid man who resuscitated a dead lion that devoured him.

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