Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Once Upon A Time In Zion

And there were the Jews: indigenous Jews, wearing a tarbush and a wide, voluminous cloak, in their facial type strongly resembling the Arabs; Jews from Poland and Russia, who seemed to carry with them so much of the smallness and narrowness of their past lives in Europe that it was surprising to think they claimed to be of the same stock as the proud Jew from Morocco or Tunisia in his white burnus. But although the European Jews were so obviously out of all harmony with the picture that surrounded them, it was they who set the tone of Jewish life and politics and thus seemed to be responsible for the almost visible friction between Jews and Arabs.

What did the average European know of the Arabs in those days? Practically nothing. When he came to the Near East he brought with him some romantic and erroneous notions; and if he was well intentioned and intellectually honest, he had to admit that he had no idea at all about the Arabs. I too, before I came to Palestine, had never thought of it as an Arab land. I had of course, vaguely known that ‘some’ Arabs lived there, but I imagined them to be only nomads in desert tents and idyllic oasis dwellers. Because most of what I had read about Palestine in earlier days had been written by Zionists – who naturally only had their own problems in view – I had not realised that the towns also were full of Arabs – that, in fact, in 1922 there lived in Palestine nearly five Arabs to every Jew, and that, therefore, it was an Arab country to a far higher degree, than a country of Jews.

When I remarked on this to Mr. Ussyshkin, chairman of the Zionist Committee of Action, whom I met during that time, I had the impression that the Zionists were not inclined to give much consideration to the fact of Arab majority; nor did they seem to attribute any real importance to the Arabs’ opposition to Zionism. Mr. Ussyshkin’s response showed nothing but contempt for the Arabs:

There is no real Arab movement here against us; that is, no movement with roots in the people. All that you regard as opposition is in reality nothing but the shouting of a few disgruntled agitators. It will collapse of itself within a few months or at most a few years.’

This argument was far from satisfactory to me. From the very beginning, I had a feeling that the whole idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine was artificial, and, what was worse, that it threatened to transfer all the complications and insoluble problems of European life into a country which might have remained happier without them. The Jews were not really coming to it as one returns to one’s homeland; they were rather bent on making it into a homeland conceived on European patterns and with European aims.

In short, they were strangers within the gates. And so I did not find anything wrong in the Arabs’ determined resistance to the idea of a Jewish homeland in their midst; on the contrary, I immediately realised that it was the Arabs’ who were being imposed upon and were rightly defending themselves against such an imposition.

In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised the Jews a ‘national home’ in Palestine, I saw a cruel political manoeuvre designed to foster the old principle, common to all colonial powers, of ‘divide and rule’. In the case of Palestine, this principle was the more flagrant as in 1916 the British had promised the then ruler of Mecca, Sharif Husayn, as a price for his help against the Turks, an independent Arab state which was to comprise all countries between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf. They not only broke their promise a year later by concluding with France the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement (which established French Dominion over Syria and Lebanon) but also, by implication, excluded Palestine from the obligations they had assumed with regard to the Arabs.

Although of Jewish origin myself, I conceived from the outset a strong objection to Zionism. Apart from my personal sympathy for the Arabs, I considered it immoral that immigrants, assisted by a foreign Great Power, should come from abroad with the avowed intention of attaining to majority in the country and thus to dispossess the people whose country it had been since time immemorial. Consequently, I was inclined to take the side of the Arabs whenever the Jewish-Arab question was brought up – which, of course, happened very often. This attitude of mine was beyond the comprehension of practically all the Jews with whom I came into contact during those months.

They could not understand what I saw in the Arabs who, according to them, were no more than a mass of backward people whom they looked upon with a feeling not much different from that of the European settlers in Central Africa. They were not in the least interested in what the Arabs thought; almost none of them took pains to learn Arabic; and everyone accepted without question the dictum that Palestine was the rightful heritage of the Jews.

I can still remember a brief discussion I had on this score with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the undisputed leader of the Zionist movement. He had come on one of his periodic visits to Palestine (his permanent residence was, I believe, in London), and I met him in the house of a Jewish friend. One could not but be impressed by the boundless energy of this man – an energy that manifested itself even in his bodily movements, in the long, springy stride with which he paced up and down the room – and by the power of intellect revealed in the broad forehead and the penetrating glance of his eyes.

He was talking of the financial difficulties which were besetting the dream of a Jewish National Home, and the insufficient response to this dream among people abroad; and I had the disturbing impression that even he, like most of the other Zionists, was inclined to transfer the moral responsibility for all that was happening in Palestine to the ‘outside world’. This impelled me to break through the deferential hush with which all the other people present were listening to him, and to ask:

‘And what about the Arabs?’

I must have committed a faux pas by thus brining a jarring note into the conversation, for Dr. Weizmann turned his face slowly toward me, put down the cup he had been holding in his hand, and repeated my question:

‘What about the Arabs…?’

‘Well – how can you ever hope to make Palestine your homeland in the face of the vehement opposition of the Arabs who, after all, are in the majority in this country?’

The Zionist leader shrugged his shoulders and answered drily:
‘We expect they won’t be in a majority after a few years.’

‘Perhaps so. You have been dealing with this problem for years and must know the situation better than I do. But quite apart from the political difficulties which Arab opposition may or may not put in your way – does not the moral aspect of the question ever bother you? Don’t you think that it is wrong on your part to displace the people who have always lived in this country?’.

‘But it is our country,’ replied Dr. Weizmann, raising his eyebrows. ‘We are doing no more than taking back what we have been wrongly deprived of’.

‘But you have been away from Palestine for nearly two thousand years! Before that you had ruled this country, and hardly ever the whole of it, for less than five hundred years. Don’t you think the Arabs could, with equal justification, demand Spain for themselves – for, after all, they held sway in Spain for nearly seven hundred years and lost it entirely only five hundred years ago?’

Dr. Weizmann became visibly impatient: ‘Nonsense. The Arabs had only conquered Spain; it had never been their original homeland, and so it was only right that in the end they were driven out by the Spainards.’

‘Forgive me,’ I retorted, ‘but it seems to me that there is some historical oversight here. After all, the Hebrews also came as conquerors to Palestine. Long before them there were many other Semitic and non-Semitic tribes settled here – the Amorites, the Edomites, the Philistines, the Moabites, the Hittites. Those tribes continued living here even in the days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They continued living here after the Romans drove our ancestors away. They are living here today. The Arabs who settled in Syria and Palestine after their conquest in the seventh century were always only a small minority of the population; the rest of what we describe today as Palestinian or Syrian “Arabs” are in reality only the Arabianized, original inhabitants of the country. Some of them became Muslims in the course of the centuries, others remained Christians; the Muslims naturally inter-married with their co-religionists from Arabia. But can you deny that the bulkof those people in Palestine, who speak Arabic, whether Muslims or Christians, are direct-line descendants of the original inhabitants: original in the sense of having lived in this country centuries before Hebrews came to it?’

Dr. Weizmann smiled politely at my outburst and turned the conversation to other topics…

I had many friends in Palestine, both Jews and Arabs… But not all Jews living in Palestine at that time were Zionists. Some of them had come there not in pursuit of a political aim, but out of a religious longing for the Holy Land and its Biblical associations. To this group belonged my Dutch friend Jacob de Haan, [who] had formerly taught law at one of the leading universities in Holland and was now special correspondent of the Amsterdam Handels-blad and the London Daily Express. A man of deep religious convictions – as ‘orthodox’ as any Jew of Eastern Europe – he did not approve of the idea of Zionism, for he believed that the return of his people to the Promised Land had to await the coming of the Messiah.

‘We Jews’, he said to me on more than one occasion, ‘were driven away from the Holy Land and scattered all over the world because we had fallen short of the task God had conferred upon us. We had been chosen by Him to preach His Word, but in our stubborn pride we began to believe that He had made us a “chosen nation” for our own sakes – and thus we betrayed Him. Now nothing remains for us but to repent and to cleanse our hearts; and when we become worthy once again to be the hearers of His Message, He will send a Messiah to lead His servants back to the Promised Land…’

‘But,’ I asked, ‘does not this Messianic idea underlie the Zionist movement as well? You know that I do not approve of it: but is it not a natural desire of every people to have a national home of its own?’

Dr. de Haan looked at me quizzically: ‘Do you think that history is but a series of accidents? I don’t. It was not without a purpose that God made us lose our land and dispersed us; but the Zionists do not want to admit this to themselves. They suffer from the same spiritual blindness that caused our downfall. The two thousand years of Jewish exile and unhappiness have taught them nothing. Instead of making an attempt to understand the innermost causes of our unhappiness, they now try to circumvent it, as it were, by building a “national home” on foundations provided by Western power politics; and in the process of building a national home, they are committing the crime of depriving another people of its home.’
~ 'Road to Makkah' by Leopold Weiss aka Muhammad Asad (1900 - 1992) 

Judaism condemns Zionist atrocities: Wednesday 2 June 2010, New York City.


  1. You had me at "Once..."
    Great reading.
    For some weird reason, halfway through I kept hearing this voice in my head saying "..and i was there."
    Yes it has no relevance to anything, but i'm just glad theres a voice which still speaks to me, really.

  2. "Instead of making an attempt to understand the innermost causes of our unhappiness, they now try to circumvent it...."

    Sounds EXACTLY like the 'War on Terror'. We keep hearing rhetoric about the threats to their 'freedom' and 'way of life' - yet it doesn't seem that anyone significant in the public eye is focussing on the ROOT CAUSE of the problem; the REASON why people are so upset with the U.S.

    No matter how many times the so-called 'terrorists' go on record to say WHY they are against the U.S., this key element - the causes of their anger - is just ignored, or dismissed as unimportant.

    There can be no peace without justice. It's a shame that so many people are just blind to that concept...or rather, choose to ignore it.

  3. Kaloo - If you haven't already, you should read this book. Its astounding, possible the best book I've ever read in my life. It's called Road to Makkah by Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss). It is written with such wonderful prose and he captures the true essence of Islam, which is so easy and simple and peaceful :) PS. I like your blog, just never have time to comment these days :P

    dreamlife - I think the US, like Israel are oblivious to the existence of every other nation aside from themselves - and in that way they are very selfish and egocentric (as M. Asad says in his book). They (speaking generally) are driven purely in pursuit of wealth and have lost their humanity and spirituality along the way. *sigh*