Plenty of room at the inn
How many times have you heard that early Zionists came to a land already populated, and found the inhabitants ‘invisible’ in their European arrogance? “A land without a people for a people without a land,” they supposedly said, and then proceeded to kick out the people that they hadn’t noticed, in order to get their land.
This is the basis of the Palestinian narrative, and we hear it from their apologists as well, who love to talk about the ‘indigenous’ Palestinians and the ‘European colonialist’ Jewish ‘settlers’ that ‘dispossessed’ them.
The hidden assumption here is that there was only enough land for one people. The conflict had to be a zero-sum affair: if the Jews came in, the Arabs would have to get out.
Nobody denies that there were more Arabs than Jews living in the land when the Zionists began their immigration. But what if there was plenty of land for both peoples? What if the conflict grew out of something other than a struggle over land?
Israeli-born sociologist Amitai Etzioni was disturbed by Ari Shavit’s apparent acceptance of the zero-sum thesis in his book, My Promised Land:
I knew that a fundamental aspect of Shavit’s thesis was deeply flawed, but I was reluctant to give voice to my criticisms, because they were based on personal observations. I then realized that there is strong statistical data to support my conclusions. But first, a brief account of what I saw and experienced in the days before Israel existed as a state.
I was born as a Jewish child in Germany in 1929. In 1935, as Nazi influence grew, my family escaped, joining four other families of the same background to form a new settlement in Palestine in 1936. They named it Kfar Shmaryahu (it’s next to Herzliya). The five families occupied 600 “dunams,” [a dunam is about 1/4 acre] cleared the rocks, drilled a water well, paved a road before erecting a bunch of modest homes and farming the land. All this was done on previously unoccupied land — land that was lying fallow next to an Arab village called Sidney Alley. …
The relationship between my parents’ village and Sidney Alley varied over the years, ranging from comfortable to tense. However, as far as I recall, no shots were fired, and most assuredly, no one was driven off land or out of a home. Those who lived unmolested in Sidney Alley until 1948 left at that point. We were told that they took with them keys to our homes that they somehow acquired, and had agreed among themselves who will get which of our homes after the seven Arab militaries that attacked the weak and newborn Israel defeated it. I never saw any evidence that supports this tale, but I know firsthand that no Israeli forces drove out the people of Sidney Alley.
Because it was personal and local I was reluctant to draw any conclusions from this experience, until I realized that there was clear evidence to show that there was plenty of room in Palestine for Jews and Arabs. Here is what the data show: At the end of 1946, just before the United Nations’ declaration that led to the foundation of Israel, there were 1,267,037 Arabs and 543,000 Jews in Palestine. By the end of 2012 there were 1,647,200 Arabs in Israel (and nearly 6 million Jews). That is, the numbers of Arabs increased by nearly 400,000. Since 1946 many more Jews and Arabs found a home in this blessed land.
Shavit makes it sounds [sic] like Palestine was a small home that was taken, that there was no room at the inn. Actually it was more like a motel that had plenty of empty rooms, although surely some were taken. True, some Arabs were driven out. And way too many Arabs and Jews died at each other’s hands. But the tragic reasons for these developments is not, the data unmistakably show, that there wasn’t enough room for both peoples.
I should add that in 1880 there were far, far fewer Arabs between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, maybe 500,000 at most, and many of those came to those vilayets (provinces) of the Ottoman Empire that would be called ‘Palestine’ in the 1830s with Muhammad Ali’s invasion from Egypt. Mark Twain’s 1869 Innocents Abroad describes the land as mostly barren and underpopulated, its Arab and Jewish residents living in terrible poverty and abysmal health conditions.
Zionist development of the land created economic opportunities for Arabs, and this — combined with political strife and droughts in Syria — brought more of them. Finally, the British imported Arab workers for various projects, including building railroads, etc.
And the Zionists didn’t dispossess the Arabs. Ami Isseroff tells us that
Zionist immigrants did not displace Palestinian Arabs in mandatory Palestine. Quite the opposite, the Arab population of Palestine grew at a tremendous rate between 1922 and 1948. In 1922, at the start of the British Mandate there were some 589,000 Muslim Arabs and 71,000 Christian Arabs in Palestine, a number that is probably an overestimate. By 1945, there were well over 1.2 million Arabs in Palestine and perhaps over 1.3 million by 1948. The Arab population of Palestine had about doubled during the years of the mandate. If the Zionists were plotting and planning to evict the Arabs of Palestine, the supposed Zionist policy would have to be judged a miserable failure.
At the same time, the Jewish population grew to over 600,000. The land that had held 753,000 people in 1922, held about 1.9 million in 1948. The “full box” of Palestine turned out to have very elastic walls. As it has done elsewhere in the world, immigration to Palestine stimulated the economy and resulted in a higher standard of living for everyone. The immigration of Jews and the investment of Palestine were due directly to Zionism and its impact. …
So not only was there still room for both Jews and Arabs in 1946, but those Arabs that were there were not significantly more indigenous than the Jews. The difficulty then, as now, was that the Arab leadership would not countenance Jewish sovereignty for religious and cultural/ethnic reasons.