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Who Owns the Land?

Joshua Krug
September 23, 2016


by Joshua Krug

from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

IN THEODOR HERZL’S 1902 novel, Altneuland, his prototypical Arab character, Rashid Bey, asks: “Would you call a man a robber who takes nothing from you, but brings you something instead? The Jews have enriched us.” Bey embraces the progressive ideas of the Zionist settlers as they build a Jewish state in Palestine, and even admits to having never possessed a “better friend among my co-religionists than [the Jewish] David Littwak.” As made clear in this novel, Herzl expected Jews and Arabs to live in peaceful coexistence in Palestine and to derive mutual benefit from the economic and technological accomplishments resulting from Jewish immigration. One striking piece of evidence indicating Herzl’s confidence is his vision of an army that serves Jewish society only to preserve law and order.

Herzl’s dream of harmonious Arab-Jewish relations in the new Jewish society proved to be just that, a dream. But should the impending clash between Jewish and Arab nationalisms have been obvious to him in 1902? Between 1882 and 1908, how did Jewish newcomers perceive the indigenous population of Palestine, and how did the indigenous population perceive the Zionists? What undergirded subsequent shifts in perceptions?

At the end of the 19th century, Palestine remained a part of the Ottoman Empire and was essentially as it had been for centuries, with locals working as farmers, growing olives, cotton, grains, and other agricultural products. Fellahin, including tenant farmers, made up the majority of indigenous Arab society, even as some local Arabs lived in cities.

Many of these peasant families had worked the land as a cooperative, performing masha’a, or communal ownership, for generations. But in 1858, in an attempt to gain much needed tax revenues, reformist Ottoman leaders in Constantinople put into effect the Ottoman Land Code, which ultimately had a dramatic effect on landholding patterns throughout the empire. The code demanded that land be attached to a clear deed of ownership in order to ensure an easier and more direct taxation policy. In Palestine, many fellahin, who could not afford to pay these taxes, registered their lands with wealthy notables and sheikhs, most of them non-Palestinians. These paid taxes on the formerly fellahin-owned lands and became the titular owners, while the local Arab peasant laborers continued farming as if their status towards the land had not changed. Though the fellahin thought little of it at the time, they were in a bind: They could keep the land registered under their names but lose it owing to their inability to pay taxes, or register their land with a landlord who would have the discretion to sell to a third party. The fellahin chose the latter option — and that third party emerged in the form of Zionist Jews from Russia and Europe who were eager to purchase the land and begin to establish themselves in Palestine.

DURING THE 1880s, Jews had good reason to want to leave their native lands. In addition to poverty, waves of anti-Jewish pogroms plagued Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Russia. For centuries, peasants and tsarist officials alike had marginalized Jews as Christ-killers, usurers, and parasites. With the assassination of the relatively tolerant Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the Russian government scapegoated the Jews. Deadly campaigns provoked a mass emigration by the terrorized Jews from the Pale of Settlement. Although the majority left for the United States, some of the most idealistic opted for Palestine.

Palestine encompassed the Biblical land of Israel, which plays a central role in many Jews’ spiritual and religious lives. While a small number of religious Jews had maintained a presence in “the holy land,” primarily in Jerusalem, two Zionist organizations that emerged in 1881 facilitated wider Jewish emigration to Palestine: Hibbat Zion and BILU (the Palestine Pioneers). Individuals from these groups founded numerous Jewish agricultural settlements in Palestine during the First Aliyah, which brought 25,000 Jews to Palestine between 1882 and 1903.

Thousands would ultimately leave, while many others died of malaria. Their lives were physically and psychologically exhausting, as they resided in small communities, struggled to learn how to farm, and relied on the charity of wealthy Jewish philanthropists.

[caption id=“attachment_42965” align=“alignleft” width=“300”]Social Media JPG A kindergarten in Rishon Le-Zion, circa 1898.[/caption]

To the indigenous Arabs, these first Jewish settlers seemed very quaint. They did not look like the other Jews with whom the Arabs were familiar in terms of the clothing they wore, the languages they spoke (European languages and, ultimately, modern Hebrew), or their manners. The settlers’ dedication to their agricultural work surprised many Palestinians, as did their “newfangled” machinery. Arabs were amused by the settlers’ inexperience, such as when Zionist settlers at Rishon le-Zion tried to get camels to replace horses to pull carts.

Some early encounters between the Arabs and their new Jewish neighbors provoked friction. Because the khalutzim (Jewish pioneers) did not know Arabic or Arab customs, they unknowingly defied Arab practices on numerous occasions. While fellahin saw the natural pasture lands as hadha min Allah, “God-given” and communal, the Jews objected to what they perceived as the incursions of Arab shepherds and their flocks. The khalutzim feared that these acts of trespass would ruin their first crops, and as a result, many expelled the flocks forcefully or fined the flock’s owners. Arab theft from Jewish agricultural colonies also brought on other altercations (although it is important to note that Arab thieves stole from non-Jewish landowners as well, so their crimes were not necessarily aimed against Jewish settlements per se).

Tensions regarding land ownership catalyzed hostility further. Sales by absentee landlords to Jews of land that Arab fellahin regarded as their own engendered antagonism. At times, fellahin resisted efforts by Jews to take complete control of the land they now legally owned, and when Arab tenant farmers continued to cultivate it, Jews tried to oust them, leading to violence.

In 1896, because of an incident in Metulla in which Druze tenant farmers refused to leave, the Jewish Colonization Association began to provide compensation to fellahin in addition to purchasing the land from its legal owners. In some cases, however, landowners sold Jews more land than they actually owned, ultimately causing friction and violence between fellahin and Jews. This was the case at al-Yahudiya, where the first mass fellahin attack on a Jewish settlement, Petakh Tikva, occurred on March 29, 1886. Arabs from al-Yahudiya who lacked sufficient pasture were using Petakh Tikva’s grazing land. The settlers tried to end this, and as tension rose, they rounded up ten fellahin-owned mules that had been grazing on their land. Fellahin then attacked the settlement, injuring five settlers and taking all of Petakh Tikva’s cattle and mules. The next day, Ottoman authorities arrested thirty-one al-Yahudiya Arabs.

The incident’s underlying cause was the status of the land on which Petakh Tikva stood. Years earlier, al-Yahudiya fellahin had owned it. Then they lost ownership to two Arab moneylenders in Jaffa because of tax liability. The moneylenders then sold the Jewish khalutzim more of the land than they owned. The Jewish settlers at Petakh Tikva assumed that the transaction had been legitimate. And they neither spoke Arabic nor understood Arab customs.

The Petakh Tikva conflict was one among many across Palestine over issues of land ownership, grazing rights, and water resources. Yet as time passed and the khalutzim learned Arabic and Arab customs, tolerable relations prevailed. An authority on Jewish settlement affairs, Y. M. Pines, citing the custom that “the people of the country permit flocks to graze on other farmers’ fallow fields,” urged the settlers to “do likewise,” and most of them did.

In addition, local Arabs began to accept the presence of Jewish settlements and to take advantage of the Jewish need for labor. Most of the new Jewish agricultural colonies employed more than five times as many Arabs as Jews, and Arab peasant laborers received relatively good wages. Hired fellahin became a permanent characteristic of the early Jewish economy.During a visit to Palestine in 1891, cultural Zionist intellectual Ahad Ha’Am even criticized Jewish settlers for allowing shrewd Arab fellahin to “grow richer year by year” through employment on the Jewish collectives.

THE FIRST ZIONIST CONGRESS, held in Basel, Switzerland in 1897, crystallized the Zionist movement’s goal: “to create for the Jewish people a home in Eretz-Yisrael secured under public law” through a diplomatic approach, “obtaining the consent of governments.” This transformation of Zionism into a true political movement occurred contemporaneously with major changes in Arab society. Indications of an authentic Arab nationalism were gradually and quietly beginning to manifest themselves around the turn of the century. As early as 1891, the first organized act of Arab protest against Zionism had occurred, as five hundred Jerusalem Arab notables condemned Jewish immigration and alleged in their petition that “the Jews are taking all the land out of Muslim hands and taking over all the commerce and bringing arms into the country.” This petition, as well as the land disputes mentioned earlier, reflected a natural friction between the indigenous Muslim and Christian Arabs and European Jewish settlers. By the turn of the century, however, hints of an Arab nationalist ideology revealed themselves.

It was Christian Arabs who were most intent on awakening the Arab nation against the threat of Zionism. Middle-class Christian Arabs already felt marginalized in the greater Arab Muslim society. Furthermore, they were exposed to European anti-Semitism and ideas of nationalism, as many of them had studied in Europe. Christians Arabs also competed with Jewish merchants in cities across Palestine. Finally, for Christian Arabs, secular nationalism was a way to find acceptance, even as the leader of the Ottoman Empire between 1876 and 1908, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, emphasized the centrality of Islam for the empire.

Negib Azoury, representing the crystallization of nationalist sentiment within the intellectual Arab Christian community, wrote in 1905 in his Le Reveil de la Nation Arabe that “Two important phenomena of the same type and hence in conflict, which have not yet aroused attention, are strikingly evident today in Asiatic Turkey: the awakening of the Arab nation, and the hidden effort of the Jews to restore on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. These two movements are destined to fight each other persistently, until one prevails over the other.” Azoury believed that conflict was inevitable between two national movements; his vision of a pan-Arab state in the Middle East precluded the existence of a Jewish state at its center.

Non-Christian Arabs, though not yet nationalistic, also resisted Jewish immigration and settlement. After the first Zionist Congress in 1897, a Jewish Colonization Association representative, Albert Antebi, noted that the Zionists’ expression of their aim of “a home in Palestine” had soured relations between Jewish immigrants and Arabs in Palestinian towns. Also following the Congress, a Jerusalem commission of Arabs determined that the Ottoman entry restrictions were not being enforced and called for Jews settling in Palestine to have to become Ottoman subjects, loyal to the Empire. Rashid Rida, a Lebanese political writer, called on Muslims to become politically informed and to consider how the Zionists were taking “possession of your country.”

In 1904, as pogroms and anti-Semitic hostility once again swept Russia, the young pioneers of the Second Aliyah came to Palestine. This wave of immigrants formed competing political parties, founded collective agricultural settlements (kibbutzim), and established an underground military organization. While the farmers of the First Aliyah had depended on Arab labor, the new settlers advocated policies that would enable the ultimate emergence of a distinct society of Jewish farmers connected to the land. However, the policy they advocated, kibbush ha-avoda, “the conquest of labor,” did not have major ramifications for Jewish-Arab relations, as existing Jewish farmers proved reluctant to get rid of skilled fellahin laborers who accepted lower wages. The policy’s lack of success helped prompt socialist Zionists to band together to form kibbutzim.

In 1908, relations between Jews and Arabs were once again unsettled as the Young Turks’ Revolt replaced Ottoman religious authority with Turkish national authority, and inspired nationalist movements across the Ottoman Empire. In Palestine, although some of the Arab elite responded by advocating continued loyalty to the Ottomans, many endorsed a local Palestinian patriotism while others advocated a pan-Arab nationalism. Arab opposition to Zionism grew during this emergence of Arab nationalism.

Zionist goals and methods, combined with anti-Zionist propaganda — including fabricated statistics on Jewish immigration and land purchase, as well as views promulgated by the local Arab press (five of the six Palestinian Arab newspapers circulating in 1913 were under Arab Christian control) — encouraged Arab opposition to Zionism.

BEFORE 1908, Zionism on the whole had not focused extensively on the half-million Arabs living in Palestine. The Zionist slogan, coined by Israel Zangwill in 1901, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” altogether dismissed the significant Arab presence. Although virtually all Zionist leaders grasped the reality of that presence, many immigrants to Palestine were surprised to find so many Arabs there. Nevertheless, having learned the language and customs of the indigenous population, these khalutzim generally lived tolerantly alongside them, employed them, and even believed that the Arabs would ultimately be partners in ridding the region of their shared enemy, the Ottoman Empire.

The spectrum of Zionist images and perceptions of Palestine’s Arabs are represented by several of the most important Zionist leaders of the day: the integrationist Eliyahu Sappir, the cultural leader Ahad Ha’Am, the practical leader Menahem Ussishkin, the separatist leader Moshe Smilansky, and the political leader Theodor Herzl.

Sappir, aware of anti-Zionism in the Arab press, wrote a 1900 article in ha-Shiloah journal recognizing a Muslim Arab nation as “one of those nations ­— the sole nation — close to us [the Jews] and to our hearts.” Because of the Jews’ historically close relations with Islam, in contrast to their dark historical relationship with Christianity, Sappir advocated feeling “entirely at home and not as guests in [their] countries, in their language, and in their culture.” His advocacy for Jews to study Arabic culture rendered him unique in his time.

Ahad Ha’Am was one of the other few figures to identify an Arab nation. He reacted to his visit to Palestine in 1891 in his essay, “Truth from Eretz Yisrael”:

From abroad we are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all desert savages, like donkeys, who neither see nor understand what goes on around them. But this is a big mistake . . . The Arabs, and especially those in the cities, understand our deeds and our desires in Eretz Israel, but they keep quiet and pretend not to understand, since they do not see our present activities as a threat to their future . . . However, if the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not easily yield their place.

Unlike many khalutzim and Zionist leaders who regarded the Arabs as primitive, Ahad Ha’Am viewed the local Arabs as politically aware and willing to fight for the land. Foreseeing conflict as the likely outcome of Jewish attempts to attain statehood in Palestine, he advocated a Zionism based on the emergence of a Jewish spiritual center rather than a state.

Moshe Smilansky’s primary concern was the creation of a Jewish majority in the land, and he saw helping the Arabs become powerful as “a national betrayal” of Jewish interests. As he wrote in ha-Po’el ha-Tza’ir in 1907, “Let us not be too familiar with the Arab fellahim lest our children adopt their ways and learn from their ugly deeds. Let all those who are loyal to the Torah . . . keep their distance from the fellahim and their base attributes.” Despite his perceptions of the Arabs as dangerous and savage, however, Smilansky thought it important not to alienate them unnecessarily.

When Menachem Ussishkin visited Palestine in 1891, he perceived the Arabs as hostile not towards the Jews but towards Christians. Although he found the Arab-Jewish relationship a reason to be optimistic, he decried the prevalence of Arab labor in Jewish settlements as undermining the national character of a Jewish society.

Theodor Herzl, like Ussishkin, did not recognize the inevitability of the emergence of an Arab nation resistant to Jewish settlement. In Altneuland, one of the characters addresses Rashid Bey by saying, “But you are strange people, you Muslims! Do you not see them, the Jews, as strangers who have invaded your borders?” Herzl’s portrayal of Rashid Bey as a Muslim, not as an Arab, demonstrates Herzl’s cultural ignorance and his blindness to the distinctive peoplehood identity of the Arabs. In a sense, however, Herzl’s blindness was understandable, as Arab nationalism had not yet been born and its emergence was not necessarily inevitable. Herzl also believed that the “primitive” indigenous population would respond appreciatively to what he called the “progressive measures” of the Zionists. He expected the Arabs to integrate into Jewish society while maintaining elements of their authentic culture.

Relations between Zionist khalutzim and indigenous Palestinian Arabs between 1882 and 1908 influenced the course of the Middle East in ways that resonate to this day. When they first encountered one another, each regarded the other as strange or primitive. While land disputes and cultural ignorance blemished the relationship, however, Jewish immigrants learned the Arabic language and Arab customs and initially the two communities were able to truly coexist. The threat of broad violence did not seem very likely until the birth of political Zionism sent shockwaves through Arab society, and the Young Turks’ rebellion in 1908 catalyzed Arab nationalism.

In 1907, a Zionist immigrant, Yitzkhak Epstein, argued that a Jewish state could only be achieved with Arab consent because “the Arab, like all other men, is strongly attached to his homeland . . . Instead of fighting them, we should make treaties with them, a pact that would be mutually beneficial and beneficial for all humanity.” One can only speculate as to what sorts of treaties and pacts could have been negotiated had political Zionist leaders regarded the Arabs as a primary focus of their diplomacy instead of as primitive and unimportant — or if local Arabs had sought to understand the intentions of the Jewish settlers and the ways in which Arabs would fit into the khalutzim’s Jewish, democratic vision.

Carnage was far from assured at the outset of the encounter between Zionists and Arabs. So we are left with a practical question: Just what might the early history of this encounter mean for building a more peaceful future for Israel and Palestine?

Joshua Krug is a Ph.D candidate in education and Jewish studies at New York University. This article is adapted from a lengthier piece in the Yale Israel Journal.