Read The Idea of Israel Online

Authors: Ilan Pappe

The Idea of Israel (5 page)

With regard to the land of Palestine, the settlers talked about it as a
nechar
, a foreign land, or worse, as
yam nechar
, a sea of foreignness and alienation. References to Palestine as barren land were accompanied by descriptions of the Palestinians as savages roaming this wilderness. These references appear in their diaries or in angry letters lamenting that the homeland had become a
shemama
, a desert.
6
Wherever there were Palestinians, there was a sense of barrenness, which caused some of the settlers to rethink the settlement venture and contemplate a return from, as one of them put it, this ‘land of nothingness’, because the empty land was full of strangers – ‘people who were stranger to us than the Russian or Polish peasant’, so that ‘we have nothing in common with the majority of the people living here’.
7

True, if you came from Europe, Palestine was objectively foreign. But ideologically it looked foreign because of the foreigners who were living in it, endowing the place with an alien character. And these people were not simply aliens; they were aggressive aliens, and
in the terms of this narrative, the aggression was directed at the Jews from the first encounter.

Like all foreigners, the Jewish settlers sailed first to Alexandria, took a ferry to Jaffa, and were taken ashore by small boats. This mundane arrival at the shore appears in the settlers’ statements as aggressive and alien treatment:
‘Aravim Hetikifu Ottanu’ –
‘the Arabs assaulted us’ – is the phrase used to describe the simple act of Palestinian boys helping settlers to small boats on the way to Jaffa;
8
they shouted because the waves were high and asked for baksheesh because this was how they managed to live. But in the settlers’ narrative they were assailants. Noise, presumably a normal feature of life in the Jewish townships of Eastern Europe, becomes menacing when produced by Palestinian women wailing in the traditional salute of joy to the sailors returning safely home. For the settlers this was the behaviour of savages, ‘with fiery eyes and a strange garrotted language’.
9
Whether the topic is their language, their dress or their animals, reports back to Europe concerning the Palestinians were all about unpleasantness and weirdness.

Alienation and discomfort caused by the presence of Arabs in Palestine was not the only troubling aspect of the Zionists’ first encounter with the locals. Another source of aggravation and bewilderment was the demographic fabric of some of the old Jewish colonies. One of the leading figures of this wave of immigration, a man named Yona Hurewitz, wrote in his diary how disgusted he was to find out that some of the houses in Hadera were occupied by Arabs.
10
In the jewel of the Zionist crown, Rishon LeZion, Natan Hofshi (whose family name, meaning ‘free person’, was invented on arrival) reported back home to Poland how appalled he was to see many Arab men, women and children crossing through the colony.
‘Nehradeti’
(I was flabbergasted), he commented, and suggested, ‘Maybe it was a terrible mistake and this was a foreign country?’ In a later writing he noted that once ‘the Arabs were not allowed to pass [through Rishon LeZion] it became home’.
11

The presence of Palestinians in or near Jewish colonies is often referred to as
Kalon
(shame) which is accentuated by the
laag
(contempt) and
buz
(scorn) shown by the Arabs, who according to this
depiction somehow understood how pathetic the situation was. The settlers remembered being called
Masakin
(the poor ones). In their eyes, it was absurd that Palestinians were allowed to guard the property of the early settlers.
12

The solution for
Kalon
was
kavod
(honour). At the time, the early Zionist Orientalists were explaining how to manipulate the centrality of honour in ‘Arab culture’ for the sake of the project’s success. Again and again, Zionist settlers behaved as a people who had been insulted – either objectively in the form of a physical attack, but more often simply by the very presence of Palestinians in Palestine. One interesting aspect of this quest for honour was the reported continual competition with Palestinian workers on production. In addition, the Zionist settlers instituted retaliation for ‘theft’, which was how they characterised the rural tradition of cultivating state land, a practice that was legal under Ottoman law. Picking fruit from roadside orchards became an act of robbery only after Zionism took over the land. The words
shoded
(robber) and
rozeach
(murderer) were flung about with ease when Palestinians involved in such acts were described.
13
After 1948 these terms would be replaced with ‘terrorist’ and ‘saboteur’.

But even the most violent encounter and the even more violent discourse about the local inhabitants could not erase the settlers’ need to learn from them how to shepherd, farm, and survive. Very soon the ‘Arab way of cultivating and dressing and behaving’ was presented as a necessary initial evil that had to be abandoned as quickly as possible. This became the principal declared mission of the Second Aliyah.
14

Although the appropriation of local habits in order to get rid of the locals was regarded as an indispensable but temporary evil, sometimes that evil was prolonged to assist with the Zionist project. Such was the idea conceived by someone named Arthur Ruppin, who proposed that they build a
madafa
, the traditional guest tent or hall, for settling with local notables the final transition of land from absentee landlords to Zionist hands. The notables represented the tenants of the land, and had to be convinced to expel the tenants so as to allow actual Zionist settlement of the land that had been
purchased.
15
Cleansing the land of its farmers and tenants was done at first through meeting in the Zionist
madafa
and then by force of eviction in Mandatory times. The ‘good’ Palestinians were those who came to the
madafa
and allowed themselves to be evicted. Those who refused were branded robbers and murderers. Even Palestinians with whom the settlers sometimes shared ownership of horses or long hours of guard duty were transformed into villains once they refused eviction.
16
Later on, wherever Israelis would control the lives of Palestinians, such a refusal to collaborate would be the ultimate proof for Palestinian choice of the terrorist option as a way of life.

Urban Palestine, especially the town of Jaffa, triggered a different sort of impression. As David Ben-Gurion and others, reported, the town had ‘a large number of Christians’.
17
They were educated, they were nationalist, and they more or less grasped what Zionism was all about. They were impertinent and overly assertive.
18
One settler, Israel Kadishman, asserted that ‘our wits’, and not only power, would be needed to combat the Arabs of Jaffa.
19
Jaffa symbolised everything the members of the Second Aliyah dreaded and detested. In 1967, Jenin; in 1987, Nablus; in 2000, Hebron; in 2008, Gaza; in 2011, Nazareth – all would be similarly depicted as hubs of self-assertive, nationalist Palestinian sentiment and hotbeds of terrorist activity.

The Palestinians, whether rural or urban, disappointed twice – first, by simply being there, and second, by being ungrateful. In a bizarre way, there was very little the Second Aliyah did for the Palestinians, whereas one could at least say that the first wave of immigrants had offered employment, albeit of an exploitative sort. Yet the sense was that the Palestinians were ungrateful.

Faint-hearted humanist views were not permitted. When a Second Aliyah activist, Yossef Rabinowitch found himself indulging in what he called ‘a moment of weakness’ and was charmed momentarily by the beauty of an Arab village and the sound of a shepherd’s flute, he had to remind himself that ‘these were foreigners on the homeland’.
20
The need to exclude the Palestinians in order to make Palestine a safe haven for the Jews is the strongest and most frequent message coming
from the voices of the Second Aliyah. Yosef Aharonowitz was one of the more zealous fighters against the employment of Palestinians, whom he defined as ‘this evil’ (
hara hazeh
): ‘We are only few and if they uprise against us this is our end.’ He also says, however, that here and there he met decent farmers but knew they were potentially
‘raa hola’
(malignant evil).
21

During the years of military rule, the phrase
‘raa hola’
was used often in discussions about the future of the Palestinians in Israel. At that time, the possibility of expelling them was seriously considered as an alternative to the emergency regime of British Mandatory regulations, which until 1967 robbed them of most basic human and civil rights.
22

The metaphor of the Palestinians as a disease that had to be cured continued to feature in the official discourse in the 1970s. ‘A cancer in the heart of the nation’ was a common reference and was commonly and wrongly associated with the Koenig Report. Yisrael Koenig was the most senior Ministry of the Interior official for Israel’s northern regions, where half of the population was Palestinian. He was asked by the first Rabin government (1974–77) to offer a strategy to advance the Judaisation of the region, given its demographic realities. Although Koenig was associated with the cancer reference, he was not the one who coined it. Nonetheless, his report, though less insulting in its language, recommended a series of draconian measures against the Palestinians. As in the diaries of the Second Aliyah, the Koenig Report treated the Palestinians as a disease that threatened to kill a healthy body.
23

The experience of alienation – both in the sense of feeling alien in the Arab world and depicting the Arabs as hostile aliens – became more institutionalised after 1967 through discriminatory legislation, governmental policies, and official conduct. At the same time, Palestinians were also becoming a subject of academic inquiry. Following the 1967 war, the production of knowledge within Israel about the Palestinians was primarily a project of ‘know thy enemy’ and of military intelligence gathering. For that reason, both Israeli academics and Israeli media commonly used the term ‘terrorism’ when referring to any kind of Palestinian political, social and cultural
activity. ‘Palestinian terrorism’ was depicted as having been present from the very beginning of the Zionist project in Palestine and still being there when academic research into it began in earnest. This characterisation was so comprehensive and airtight that it assigned almost every chapter in Palestinian history to the domain of ‘terrorism’ and absolved hardly any of the organisations and personalities that made up the Palestinian national movement from the accusation of being terrorists. The government, academia, the media, the army, and the NGOs of civil society all took part in constructing the negative image of the Palestinians.

Historicising Palestinian Terrorism, 1882–2009

With its fusion of ideological commitment and empirical research, traditional Zionist historiography assumed that Palestinian resistance to a Zionist presence in Palestine was tantamount to terrorism. Hence, Israeli historians industriously recorded such acts of resistance from very early on and laid them on a timeline of exponential escalation. The Zionist reaction to this evil was poetically captured in the title of a book by one of Israel’s leading historians, Anita Shapira – the
Sword of the Dove
24

in other words, a reluctant use of force against increasing Palestinian terrorism. Or, as the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is quoted as saying, ‘We will never forgive the Arabs for what they forced us to do to them’.
25

The source of this violence and its escalation is never clearly articulated. As we shall see, enigmatic violence, which spread from nowhere and for no good reason, was a major theme in discussing Arab and Palestinian actions in 1948, and is evident in both scholarly historical works and cinematic representations of the war. The recurring assertion was that Palestinian terrorism had no proper motive or explanation and yet it grew in numbers, its cruelty increased, and it arrived in ever-swelling waves. It is extremely difficult to find a discussion that proposes any Zionist action as a possible explanation for Palestinian violence. In the tradition of empiricism without analysis in the service of ideology, Palestinian terrorism came out of
the blue – in the land without people against the landless people who returned to redeem it.

When Palestinian violence against Zionism became a scholarly area of inquiry, historians started to search for the very first victims of that violence. As recorded in many sources, the earliest victim was a rabbi who arrived in 1811 for a religious pilgrimage. He was in fact killed in a feud over building materials in Jerusalem in 1851, but was later Zionised by mainstream historiography and is listed as victim number one at a memorial for victims of terror, located in Tel Aviv near the headquarters of the Mossad. As Benedict Anderson remarked (and as mentioned above), national movements can safely nationalise the dead, since the deceased cannot challenge the collective identity imposed on them by the living.

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