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Palestine: The Search for a New Golden Age

The case of Palestine, as I see it, is a unique twentieth-century political dilemma. No parallel problem has been recorded in human history, for the “culprit” in this case is the Jewish people, as embodied in the Zionist movement—a people that has been a traditional victim in history—whereas the victim is the Palestinian people, which was not a nation in its homeland, but became one when it sought shelter outside it as refugees. The Palestinian Arabs, who were merely Arabs in their country, became Palestinians once they were exiled from their homeland among their Arab brethren in other Arab lands.

If such contradictions were not sufficient to make the Palestine case one of the strangest in history, let us note, in addition, that it was, and still is, the only political issue that at one time unified the two world blocs. When Great Britain approached the United Nations at the height of the cold war in 1947 to propose the termination of the Mandate, both blocs united under the leadership of the United States and the USSR to pass the historic partition resolution. This was the first resolution in the history of the world organization to unite these countries in so fateful a case of war and peace. Such agreement recurred only in November, 1967, when both powers accepted, with all other members of the Security Council, Resolution No. 242, which called for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and justly settling the refugee problem.

The United Nations, the Security Council, the United States, and on occasion the Soviet Union are much blamed by the Arab Palestinian population for the agreement of 1947, but what both the UN and the great powers tried to achieve at that time must be seen in a wider perspective.



The occupation of Jerusalem by the Romans under Titus was the first act in a long history of what later came to be called anti-Semitism. The Western world, Christian and Muslim alike, has been grateful to the Jews or has hated them (consciously or unconsciously) because they introduced monotheism. Ironically, both those who hated the Jews and those who were grateful to them helped to create a situation that enabled Jews in all countries of the world to preserve their special entity and their subjective feeling of being aliens. Those who hated the Jews because they “killed God” refused to obey their Christ’s words on the cross when he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24), and preferred the reputed words of the Jews themselves: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).

The history of the relations between Christianity and Judaism thus became a chain of persecution and discrimination. In the name of love and tolerance Christians oppressed Jewry all over the world. In the name of Christ and his prophecy for self-sacrifice, tolerance, love for one’s enemies, and “whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jews were killed and their rights were limited in almost every society where Christianity came to power.

Under Islam, however, both Jews and Christians possessed an acknowledged right to conduct their religious rites and administer their personal affairs within what later became known as the Millet System.1 Thus Jews in Islamic states preserved their identity, developed independent religious institutions, and retained unity and a feeling of special belonging.

This distinction between the status of Jews in Islamic and Christian countries is not, however, absolute, for Jews of the Islamic world were at times persecuted, particularly during the periods of decay of Islamic civilization. Jews of the Western Christian world had known tolerance in some states at certain times, but, on the whole, Islam was more merciful toward the Jews.2 One indication of the relative understanding between Jews and Muslims is that both religions refer to the same historic period as their Golden Age, the period during which Islamic rule was extended to Spain. This Golden Age for Jews and Muslims ended in 1492, when both groups were expelled from Spain, but the relative coexistence of Muslims and Jews lasted until the advent of the twentieth century and the rise of Zionism among European Jews.

Let us note, however, that the Zionist movement, with its politico-national theme, did not succeed in arousing many Jews of Islamic countries to migrate to Palestine until the establishment of the state of Israel. No more than 20 percent of the Jews who emigrated to Palestine before 1948 came from Islamic countries. We must remember that a great number of Jews occupied sensitive positions in the political and economic spheres of many Arab countries before the establishment of Israel.

Even in the early 1960s after Jewish-Islamic relations had been poisoned with the defeat of the Arab armies in 1948, more than one Jewish minister served in a North African cabinet in spite of the feelings of disappointment and bitterness accompanying the defeat which were exploited in many cases to promote feelings of hostility toward Jewish minorities in Arab and Islamic countries. Today small and persecuted Jewish minorities live in states bordering Israel; but only in Lebanon does this minority enjoy some stability and well-being. There are also a few respected Jewish minorities living in Arab Islamic countries far from the center of dispute (e.g., in Morocco and Tunisia).

Muslim Arabs in the twentieth century have undoubtedly been more merciful toward the Jews than Christians have been in Germany, Russia, and other Western countries. The hatred and persecution of European Jews caused them to found a national movement which eventually brought injustice to both Palestinian Arabs—Muslims and Christians—and Jews of Islamic countries who were uprooted from their communities, environment, and sources of living, and thrown into a strange, transitional culture in Israel. This disruption also affected Judaism as a whole, and threatened the amicable relations of Jews with followers of the Islamic religion.


Collaborators and Patriots

Modern nationalistic ideas accompanied nineteenth-century Western imperialist expansion to the Middle East. The younger generation of the Ottoman Empire felt that this new spirit threatened their supremacy, which was based on the Millet System and on decentralization. Consequently, many called for “Turkization” of the Caliphate, imposing the Turkish language and culture upon the Arab countries and creating a centralized system of control over the previously loosely associated provinces of the empire. Arab nationalism was born as a response to this attempt to impose Turkish culture on the Middle East.

The Arab nationalist movement demanded continued decentralization in order to protect and preserve its existing cultures. New educational institutions such as the American University of Beirut and other European missionary schools enabled the secular nationalistic ideas of Europe to reach Arab youth. A high percentage of its leaders were Christian Syrians or Lebanese, or even Jews such as Jacob Sannu, the Egyptian, and Elias (Eliahu) Sassoon, who was later to become an Israeli cabinet minister and who started his public life as an editor of the Damascus paper that became the voice of Faisal’s Arab Kingdom after 1918.

Along with the subsequent disappearance of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic rule in the Middle East, the Zionist movement arose, helped by the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the British Mandate in Palestine. Locally the Zionist movement failed to enlist allies among the Muslim and Christian Arabs of Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs, on their part, also failed to establish political representation that would enable them to resist the progress of Zionism or to contain it. Thus, the history of the British Mandate in Palestine is one of thirty years of confrontation and antagonism between Arabs and Jews.

During this period the Western imperial powers gave the neighboring Arab countries a limited independence, which was to grow until the Arab leaders of Palestine became dependent on the Arab regimes. This was especially so because these regimes were always promising to achieve Arab unity, and the Palestinian Arabs especially believed in that unity.

But Arab unity was and still is an empty slogan used by those who trade in politics for self-aggrandizement, to gain popularity and political dividends. The Prime Minister of the Iraqi government, Nuri Es-Said, became a millionaire by trading in cattle with the Jews of Palestine while bragging about how he would liberate Palestine from Zionism. Similar attitudes prevailed among many other leaders in Lebanon, Syria, and Trans-Jordan who, in spite of an Arab agreement to boycott the Zionists and not sell land to them, sold their estates in Upper Galilee, Hula, Marj Ben Amer, and the coastal region to Jews. The feudal Palestinian leaders were nearly all collaborators with the Jews for personal economic and political profit.3

One exception was the Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini, a member of a prominent Jerusalem family, who in 1919 led the first Arab demonstration against Zionism in Jerusalem, in which both Jews and Arabs died. The Mufti escaped to Trans-Jordan, returning two years later to head the largest economic and religious organization in Palestine. The returning culprit was appointed by the High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, as the Mufti of Jerusalem and the director of the Muslim Wakf, a trust which controlled 12.5 percent of the agricultural land in Palestine, including thousands of dwellings and religious and educational institutions.

Haj Amin Al-Husseini’s influence in Palestine was extensive. He was able to impose his absolute authority on the Arab society in Palestine, leading armed uprisings (especially during 1936-1939) that exhausted the Palestinian Arabs and stripped their society of its best members, since those who disagreed with the Mufti were murdered by his followers.4 The Mufti eventually escaped after he acknowledged having put an end to the revolution by yielding to the interference of the heads of the Arab states who had promised that “Britain is a friend to the Arabs” and would consider the Arab requests.

The Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini was the only Palestinian leader who aspired to gain the throne (or the leadership) of an independent Palestine, whereas the other leaders collaborated with Emir Abdullah of Trans-Jordan (later King of Jordan), or with the President of the Republic of Syria, or the King of Egypt.

The Palestinian leaders in most cases had connections with feudal Arab countries and regimes, and were loyal to them. Most of them had spent much of their time in these Arab countries; they were married to women of Syrian, Lebanese, or Egyptian origin and sent their children to the more sophisticated schools of Beirut or Cairo. These leaders feared the Mufti and treated him politely, but showed no enthusiasm for taking any real part in fighting under the Mufti’s Palestinian banner. They preferred to have others fight and shed blood for them, to liberate them from the Zionist danger. A special Palestinian political entity under the Mufti did not, in their view, deserve to be fought for. Some of them believed, naïvely, that the Arab soldiers of Egypt, Syria, or Trans-Jordan would fight to liberate Palestine and then hand it over to them. In any case, there is no evidence that Palestinian Arabs had much concern about the shape the government of Arab Palestine should take after the “liberation.”

  1. 1

    A system under which the various religious communities (millets) were granted by the Ottoman Empire special rights in their courts, tax collection, and communal self-government.

  2. 2

    The Koran contains twenty-five verses calling for tolerance and respect for “people of the book” when they are friendly to Muslims.

  3. 3

    For example, El Jazairee of Algiers, Kabbanu of Syria, and Salam Sursuk Twainy and Tayan of Lebanon sold 600,000 dunnams of land to Jewish settlers in Galilee and the valleys of Jezreel and Hula. See Dr. Edward Seedhom, The Land Refugee Problem (Cairo, 1963, in Arabic).

  4. 4

    Fakhri Nashashibi accused the Mufti of having killed 292 of his followers.

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