Zionism, Israel and the Arabs

By Gilland, Bernard | Contemporary Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Zionism, Israel and the Arabs


Gilland, Bernard, Contemporary Review


AS a punishment for their revolt against Roman rule, the Jews of Palestine were massacred and the survivors expelled and dispersed over the Roman Empire in A.D. 132-135. They never renounced the hope of returning, and believed that the restoration to Palestine would be brought about by an act of God. The first to advance the idea that the Jews themselves would have to play an active part was Zvi Kalisher (1785-1877), who argued that the Messianic era must be preceded by the establishment of Jewish colonies in Palestine. Kalisher's plan of colonization led to the foundation of the agricultural school Mikveh Yisroel, near Jaffa, in 1870, and the first Jewish colony, Petah Tikvah; in 1878.

The accession of Alexander III to the throne of Russia in 1881 marked the start of a period of anti-Semitic persecution. From 1881 to 1914, over two million Jews emigrated from Russia, mainly to the United States. A few thousand emigrated to Palestine, then under Turkish rule. After a visit to Palestine in 1891, the Russian-Jewish essayist Ahad Ha-am warned that Jewish settlement in Palestine could lead to conflict with the Arabs 'when the day comes in which our presence in the land of Israel has attained such a level that the local population feels itself displaced'. In 1893, the English historian, W. E. H. Lecky, wrote that, to the Oriental Jews, 'Palestine is still the land of promise, and they still dream that it is destined to become once more a Jewish Stare'. He predicted that 'if Palestine is ever again to become a Jewish land, this will be effected only through the wealth and energy of the Western Jews, and it is not those Jews who are likely to inhabit it'.

In 1896, Theodor Herzl's book Der Judenstaat was published. In the following year, the Austrian, Herzl, founded the World Zionist Organization (WZO), the aim of which was the creation of a Jewish State. The day after the First Zionist Congress, held at Easel in 1897, Herzl wrote in his diary: 'In Basel I created the Jewish State. Were Ito say this aloud, I would be greeted by universal laughter, but perhaps five years hence, certainly fifty years hence, everyone will perceive it'. Herzl was prepared to consider other locations than Palestine for the future State. In his book he wrote: 'Argentina is one of the most richly endowed lands of the world, of enormous area, thinly peopled and with a temperate climate. The Argentine Republic would benefit greatly by ceding us a portion of its territory'. In 1903, the British government offered the Zionists 15,000 square kilometres of uninhabited territory in Uganda, which had become a British protectorate in 1894. Herzl accepted the Uganda offer, and submitted it for ratification by the WZO Congress, but it was rejected. According to Sir Ronald Storrs (Governor of Jerusalem from the end of 1917 to 1926), 'the offer would have been accepted but for a small group headed by one strong Russian with the face and the determination of Lenin himself, and with Zionism coursing in his blood'. Storrs was referring to Chaim Weizmann.

After the death of Herzl in 1904, Weizmann became the leader of the WZO. Through conversations with British politicians he won the leading statesmen over to Zionism. British forces entered Palestine in October 1917, and occupied Jerusalem on 9 December. In a letter of 2 November 1917 to Lord Rothschild (chairman of the British Zionist Federation), Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour expressed support for 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people' provided that 'nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine'. The letter has since been known as the Baffour Declaration.

Weizmann's colleague Nahum Sokolow obtained the support of the French and Italian Governments for this Declaration, thereby ensuring its acceptance by the Peace Conference at Versailles. The intention of the secret Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 (made public by the Bolsheviks in November 1917) was that Palestine be subjected to a special regime to be determined by agreement between Russia, France and Great Britain, but it was later agreed by Britain and France that Palestine would pass into British tutelage. …

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