What Zionism has meant for Palestinians
“If there are other inhabitants there, they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land. We have a greater and nobler ideal than preserving several hundred thousands of Arab fellahin.”
Menahem Ussishkin, chair of Jewish National Fund, 1930.
There is a lot of discussion about Zionism at the moment: how to define it, what it means to be anti-Zionist and whether that equates to antisemitism, and so on. But there has been a notable, and instructive, absence in these debates: an understanding of what Zionism has meant for Palestinians.
Let us first consider some definitions of Zionism that have been suggested recently.
On BBC Radio 4 earlier this month, senior journalist at The Guardian Jonathan Freedland defined a Zionist as someone who is “no more or no less than somebody who supports the existence of a Jewish home in Palestine”, before clarifying that he specifically meant a “Jewish state in Palestine”. For Times columnist David Aaronovitch, “Zionism is just support for the idea of a Jewish state.”
Meanwhile, a proposed change in the Labour party’s rules being advocated by the Jewish Labour Movement states: “Zionism is no single concept other than the basic expression of the national identity of the Jewish people, a right to which all people are entitled.”
According to the head of pro-Israel lobby group BICOM, James Sorene, “Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Elsewhere, BICOM was pithier: Zionism is “a movement for the national self-determination and liberation of Jews.”
Note how many of these definitions are explicitly and assertively simple: “no more or no less”, “just”, “no single concept other than”. In other words, do not ask any further questions. Don’t complicate things. And above all, don’t mention the Palestinians.
Take an article published by the BBC in the last 24 hours on ‘What’s the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism?’ While the piece reflects a variety of opinions, even references to Palestinians (let alone quoting one) are few and far between.
The best it gets is this: “Some anti-Zionists say Zionism itself is a racist ideology, because of how, in their view, the Palestinian people have been treated by the Israeli state.” But there is a complete lack of specifics. How are Palestinians treated by the Israeli state?
Or take this item by BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat, which attempts to define terms such as antisemitism and Zionism. “After the Holocaust, Jewish people were allocated land to settle on. They considered the region of Israel their homeland. However, many of the Arab people who were already living in Palestine and the surrounding areas found it unfair.”
What did they find ‘unfair’? The Palestinians’ objections are unexplained, and thus appear irrational, or even prejudiced.
So let us recall some basic history. In 1897, when the first Zionist Congress was held in Basle, the population of Palestine was approximately 96 percent Arab and 4 percent Jewish. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Jews were still less than 10 per cent of Palestine’s population.
Thus while Zionism may have been conceived of as a movement for Jewish self-determination – and as we’ve seen, that is certainly how it is presented today – in Palestine itself, the creation of a Jewish state directly contradicted the principles of self-determination.
Zionist activists knew that, of course. The Zionist Organisation in London, in the early days of the British Mandate, said the ‘problem’ with democracy is that it
too commonly means majority rule without regard to diversities of types or stages of civilisation or differences of quality…if the crude arithmetical conception of democracy were to be applied now or at some early stage in the future to Palestinian conditions, the majority that would rule would be the Arab majority.
Even by 1947, after waves of Jewish immigration, Palestinian Arabs still constituted two-thirds of Palestine’s population. That same year, a senior U.S. State Department official warned that plans to create a Jewish state in Palestine “ignore such principles as self-determination and majority rule.”
There was thus only one way of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine; removing the land’s non-Jewish inhabitants. In 1947-’49, around 85-90 percent of Palestinians who lived in what became Israel were expelled. Four out of five Palestinian communities were ethnically cleansed.
The Palestinians describe this as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe.
These Palestinian refugees, from thriving cities, towns, and villages, were expelled, and prevented from returning – by force, and by legislation. Their lands and properties were expropriated. Refugees who attempted to go home were shot dead.
This is all historical fact, though many continue to deny it. But more disturbingly, some accept what happened – but believe it was worth it.
Winston Churchill thought so, even ahead of time. In 1937, he told the Palestine Royal Commission: “I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race… has come in and taken their place.”
Not many people will put it like that these days. But consider the words of Jonathan Freedland, who accepts the “reality” of the Nakba, but believes Israel should “defend it all the same”. For Freedland, creating a Jewish state in Palestine “was a moral necessity even if…it was bought at a horribly high moral price.”
The price, of course, was paid by the Palestinians, and is still being paid. As one Palestinian student wrote in The New York Times recently, his “relatives…did not deserve to be expelled from their homes”, and “nor do any of the Palestinians who are still being uprooted because of Israeli government policies.”
For the Palestinians, Zionism has meant dispossession, exile, colonisation, and apartheid. The absence of these facts from current discussions therefore mirrors the violent ‘disappearing’ of Palestinians that, in the words of one Israeli historian “lay at the heart of the Zionist dream, and was also a necessary condition of its realization.”
Published first by Middle East Monitor.