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Mrs. Peters’s Palestine

This position was directly opposed both to the traditional religious attitude of waiting for the Messiah and to the belief in God’s miraculous intervention in history that produced such false messianic movements as Shabbetai Zevi’s. Because Zionism was predominantly a European and secular phenomenon, many Oriental Jews in the Middle East and North Africa have never felt at ease with it and have tried to derive their own sense of Jewish history and identity. In Israel, under the guidance of the former Israeli minister of education, Zevulun Hammer, they have formulated a new Zionism that belittles the ideological and political revolution of European secular Zionism and argues that Theodor Herzl and the Zionist organization had hardly any effect on Jewish history. According to this interpretation Zionism began with Abraham and has been continued by practically all the Jews who have come to the Holy Land, whether to spend their old age and be buried there, or to engage in study or in business. All these are now regarded as Zionists in Oriental Jewish religious circles.

Most historians now consider this view as in fact the opposite of Zionism, but, astonishingly, it has been adopted in its entirety in Mrs. Peters’s book without any serious discussion of its implications. What seems to have been decisive for Mrs. Peters is that the conception fits the myth of Oriental and religious Jewish history she has adopted: since in her view Oriental Jews were always persecuted, they must always have been active Zionists. For her there was no fundamental difference between, on the one hand, a prayer to return to Zion made in Wilna or Marrakesh or the messianism of Shabbetai Zevi, and, on the other, a modern movement that actively organized immigration, established youth organizations, and launched a political struggle for getting political rights in Palestine.

Much of Mrs. Peters’s book argues that at the same time that Jewish immigration to Palestine was rising, Arab immigration to the parts of Palestine where Jews had settled also increased. Therefore, in her view, the Arab claim that an indigenous Arab population was displaced by Jewish immigrants must be false, since many Arabs only arrived with the Jews. The precise demographic history of modern Palestine cannot be summed up briefly, but its main features are clear enough and they are very different from the fanciful description Mrs. Peters gives. It is true that in the middle of the nineteenth century there was neither a “Palestinian nation” nor a “Palestinian identity.” But about four hundred thousand Arabs—the great majority of whom were Muslims—lived in Palestine, which was divided by the Ottomans into three districts. Some of these people were the descendants of the pre-Islamic population that had adopted Islam and the Arabic language; others were members of Bedouin tribes, although the penetration of Bedouins was drastically curtailed after the mid-nineteenth century, when the Ottoman authorities became stronger and more efficient.

As all the research by historians and geographers of modern Palestine shows, the Arab population began to grow again in the middle of the nineteenth century. That growth resulted from a new factor: the demographic revolution. Until the 1850s there was no “natural” increase of the population, but this began to change when modern medical treatment was introduced and modern hospitals were established, both by the the Ottoman authorities and by the foreign Christian missionaries. The number of births remained steady but infant mortality decreased. This was the main reason for Arab population growth, not incursions into the country by the wandering tribes who by then had become afraid of the much more efficient Ottoman troops. Toward the end of Ottoman rule the various contemporary sources no longer lament the outbreak of widespread epidemics. This contrasts with the Arabic chronicles of previous periods in which we find horrible descriptions of recurrent epidemics—typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague—decimating the population. Under the British Mandate, with still better sanitary conditions, more hospitals, and further improvements in medical treatment, the Arab population continued to grow.

The Jews were amazed. In spite of the Jewish immigration, the natural increase of the Arabs—at least twice the rate of the Jews’—slowed down the transformation of the Jews into a majority in Palestine. To account for the delay the theory, or myth, of large-scale immigration of Arabs from the neighboring countries was proposed by Zionist writers. Mrs. Peters accepts that theory completely; she has apparently searched through documents for any statement to the effect that Arabs entered Palestine. But even if we put together all the cases she cites, one cannot escape the conclusion that most of the growth of the Palestinian Arab community resulted from a process of natural increase.

The Mandatory authorities carried out two modern censuses, in 1922 and 1931. Except for some mistakes committed in 1922 in counting the Negev Bedouins, which were corrected in 1931, the returns showed the strength of the “natural process” of increase. The figures for the last years of the mandate are based on continuous collection of data by the department of statistics. These figures showed that in 1947 there were about 1.3 million Arabs living in Palestine.

The strength of the process of natural increase was finally proved not elsewhere but in Israel itself. In 1949 there were about 150,000 Arabs in Israel within the 1949 armistice lines. To that number, one has to add the 20,000-odd refugees who returned to the state as part of the government’s scheme for the “reunion of families.” The Israeli authorities cannot be blamed, as the British “imperialists” were, for helping the Arabs enter the country. And despite the strict control of Israel’s borders, the number of Arabs living in Israel proper has more than trebled since. The rate of the Israeli Arabs’ natural increase rose sharply (between 1964 and 1966 it reached the world record of 4.5 percent a year) and brought about the remarkable increase in the size of that community. No Egyptians, Bedouins, Syrians, Bosnians, etc. were needed.

No one would doubt that some migrant workers came to Palestine from Syria and Trans-Jordan and remained there. But one has to add to this that there were migrations in the opposite direction as well. For example, a tradition developed in Hebron to go to study and work in Cairo, with the result that a permanent community of Hebronites had been living in Cairo since the fifteenth century. Trans-Jordan exported unskilled casual labor to Palestine; but before 1948 its civil service attracted a good many educated Palestinian Arabs who did not find work in Palestine itself. Demographically speaking, however, neither movement of population was significant in comparison to the decisive factor of natural increase.

Most serious students of the history of Palestine would accept that the number of Arab refugees from Israel during and after 1948 claimed by Arab and UN sources—some 600,000 to 750,000—was exaggerated. It is very easy to refute that estimate and many have already done it. Very few historians would accept the claim that all of the refugees, or even most of them, were deliberately expelled by the Israelis any more than they would accept the Israeli counterclaim that all left of their own accord. Mrs. Peters has gone to great lengths to collect the statements made by Arabs in which they admit that the Palestinian Arab refugees left Palestine because they expected Arab military victory, after which they intended to return. Nevertheless, although she admits that in sporadic instances Arabs were expelled, she ignores evidence of Israeli intentions to expel them. I would like to draw her attention to one document which proves that the Haganah did in certain circumstances have such an intention.

As historians of the 1948 war know well, the Haganah prepared in March 1948 a strategic plan (the Dalet or “fourth” plan) to deal with the imminent invasion of Palestine by the Arab countries. A major aim of the plan was to form a continuous territory joining the lands held by the Jewish settlements. The plan clearly states that if Arab villages violently opposed the Jewish attempt to gain control, their populations would be expelled. The text was first made public in Israel in 1972 as an appendix to the last volume of the semiofficial History of the Haganah.

I do not know why Mrs. Peters overlooked this important document. That the plan existed, of course, is not in itself evidence that it was carried out. Neither, however, is the admission of the Syrian leader Khalid al-Azm that the Arab countries urged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their villages until after the victory of the Arab armies final proof that the Palestinian Arabs in practice heeded that call and consequently left. Since Mrs. Peters supposedly took the trouble to read Khalid al-Azm’s Arabic memoirs, she at least should have consulted the appendix of the History of the Haganah‘s last volume.^3

Mrs. Peters puts great emphasis on the claim that during and after the 1948 war an “exchange of populations” took place. Against the Arabs who left Palestine one had to put, in her view, about the same number of Jews, most of them driven by the Arab rulers from their traditional homes in the Arab world. And indeed there is a superficial similarity between the two movements of population. But their ideological and historical significance is entirely different. From a Jewish-Zionist point of view the immigration of the Jews of the Arab countries to Israel, expelled or not, was the fulfillment of a national dream—the “ingathering of the exiles.” Since the 1930s the Jewish Agency had sent agents, teachers, and instructors to the various Arab countries in order to propagate Zionism. They organized Zionist youth movements there and illegal immigration to Palestine. Israel then made great efforts to absorb these immigrants into its national, political, social, and economic life.

For the Palestinian Arabs the flight of 1948 was completely different. It resulted in an unwanted national calamity that was accompanied by unending personal tragedies. The result was the collapse of the Palestinian community, the fragmentation of a people, and the loss of a country that had in the past been mostly Arabic-speaking and Islamic. No wonder that the Arabs look at what happened very differently. When Mrs. Peters argues, as many Israeli and pro-Israeli spokesmen once did, that all refugees should live and be rehabilitated in their new countries, the Arabs reply that all refugees should go back to their countries of origin. When, in 1976, they invited former Jewish citizens to return, they did so not only from the mistaken belief that Oriental Jews’ attachment to Israel was weak, but also from the need to refute the Israeli argument, now repeated forcefully by Mrs. Peters, that there was a symmetry between the two movements of population.

By stressing and strengthening the claim of symmetry Mrs. Peters plays, at least from an ideological point of view and certainly against her own wishes, into the hands of Arab propaganda. Many Israeli agents in such Arab countries as Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco made courageous efforts to bring about the aliyah (ascendance, the usual Hebrew word for immigration to Israel) of the Oriental Jews of Arab countries. Did this dangerous work count for nothing? Were the immigrants merely ordinary refugees and not people ascending to Zion? By attempting to equate the Arab refugees with the Jewish immigrants, Mrs. Peters, in my view, tarnishes a heroic chapter in Zionist history.

Mrs. Peters’s use of sources is very selective and tendentious, to say the least. In order to strengthen the impression that the “hidden hand” of history somehow brought about the reasonable solution of exchange of Jewish and Arab populations, Mrs. Peters evidently wanted to show that the concept had an honorable lineage. She quotes an “Arab leader” who talked of a population exchange in a leaflet distributed in Damascus in 1939, and gives his name as Mojli Amin. I challenge any reader to identify this “leader.” He is not mentioned in any of the books on Syria I know of, although I have read many. And if some wholly unimportant writer made such a statement, how can any serious importance be attached to it? But beyond that, I think that the leaflet is a fake. During the spring of 1939 internal dissent was at its most intense among the factions of the militant Palestinian Arabs, which included anti-British rebels, anti-Jewish rebels, and the “Peace Companies,” which opposed rebellion. In Damascus, where the headquarters of the rebels were located, faked leaflets were often distributed in order to add to the dissension. I suspect that this leaflet was another example of the same literary genre. If Mrs. Peters had more thoroughly investigated the files of the Arab section of the political department of the Jewish Agency, she would, I hope, have seen why the evidence she cites should be used more cautiously.

One flawed source was not enough, however. Mrs. Peters claims that “the British had proposed the exchange of ‘Arab population in Palestine’ for Jews elsewhere.” If one looks for the evidence for this claim, one suddenly realizes that “the British” are none other than William Ormsby-Gore (not yet Lord) who had privately supported the idea. It is odd to conclude from this that “the British” supported such an idea, all the more so when one recalls that when Ormsby-Gore served as British colonial secretary in charge of Palestine he never used his official position to promote that idea as such. The only exchange of populations he officially envisaged was to have been a part of the 1937 partition plan that allocated 15 percent of Palestine to the Jews and recommended that the Arabs be forcibly removed from the territory on which the proposed Jewish state would be founded.

If Mrs. Peters had spent more than “weeks” in the Public Record Office (the official British archives) or if she had read the relevant historical research she would have known that a similar offer was brought to the members of the British cabinet but rejected. We now know that between 1939 and 1941 Churchill favored a diplomatic initiative that would have included the transfer of the Palestinian Arabs to a federal Arab state under Ibn Saud. He had been convinced that such a transfer was desirable by Chaim Weizmann, who had discussed the possibility with H. St. John Philby. Churchill presented a version of Weizmann’s proposal to his colleagues on May 19, 1941. He succeeded only in provoking a hostile reaction on the part of the foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, who made his famous pro-Arab speech of May 29, 1941, in reaction to Churchill’s proposition. Several days afterward Eden’s speech was endorsed by the British cabinet. So much for the “British” origins of the concept of exchange of populations.

Of course there was no separate state called Palestine before the British Mandate and there is no need to demonstrate this at length, as Mrs. Peters tries to do. Nonetheless a large majority of Muslim Arabs inhabited the land; and the desire to keep it that way was the goal of the Arab struggle in Palestine against the Jews and the British. Of what possible significance, therefore, is Mrs. Peters’s claim that Arab domination of Palestine after its conquest by the Muslims in 635 AD lasted only twenty-two years? Was the land empty of any population? Such a vague claim is typical of many others made in the book. What is more surprising is the authority on which it is based. We are told that a statement to this effect was made in February 1919 to the Paris Peace Conference by “the Muslim chairman of the Syrian delegation.” An innocent reader would take it that this delegation was representing the Arab population of Syria, who were then struggling for independence. In fact the delegation was organized by the French as a device to oppose the nationalist struggle, and its chairman would have said anything required by his masters. Whether the Palestinian Arabs saw their identity as having local roots or whether they saw themselves more as part of the larger Arab world, they undoubtedly wanted Palestine to remain Arab. That the name of the country in Arabic, as in most other languages, is derived from the name of the Philistines does not matter to them any more than the fact that the name of Jerusalem, even in Hebrew, is derived from the Jebusees. All such terminological claims, and there are plenty of them in Mrs. Peters’s book, are worthless.

Mrs. Peters puts forward yet another familiar Zionist argument—which has the advantage of being true—that already in the nineteenth century Jews made up the majority in Jerusalem, Safed, and Tiberias. But if we say that having a majority is the key factor in determining the national character of any given town or area, why not apply this principle, the Arabs may ask, to the land as a whole?

Surprisingly enough, Mrs. Peters does just this when she implies that in 1893 the Jews were virtually the majority community in the parts of Palestine where Jews had settled. Her very tendentious reasoning on this point has already been exposed.4 What she has done, to put it briefly, is to compare the figures for non-Jews in the 1893 Ottoman census of Palestine with the estimate of the Jewish population proposed by the French geographer Vital Cuinet in 1895. She dismisses the Ottoman figures for the Jews because, she says, “the Ottoman Census apparently registered only known Ottoman subjects; since most Jews had failed to obtain Ottoman citizenship, a representative figure of the Palestinian Jewish population could not be extrapolated from the 1893 Census.”

This may sound plausible, until one discovers, first, that Cuinet’s estimates are generally considered to be unreliable, and, second, that Professor Kemal Karpat of the University of Wisconsin, whose analysis of the Ottoman census Peters relies on, does not find the census estimate of the Jewish population to be inaccurate in the way she claims. (Even with the numbers that she does arrive at, incidentally, Mrs. Peters does not make a case for a Jewish majority. Although she argues there were more Jews than Muslims or Christians—59,500 as compared to 56,000 and 38,000—there were more Muslims and Christians than Jews by her own account.)

If the Arabs had indeed been as few as Mrs. Peters claims, one wonders why the letters, official reports, diaries, and essays of the early Zionist settlers—the “Lovers of Zion”—from the last two decades of the nineteenth century were filled with references to the Arabs surrounding them everywhere in Palestine. Those writings were collected many years ago and published by Asher Druyanov.5 Republished several years ago they are now easily accessible, but apparently not for Mrs. Peters. Similarly, she has overlooked two of the most important articles by Jewish writers dealing with the Arab problem, which even around the turn of the century troubled the Jewish immigrants to Palestine. The first was written in 1891 by Ahad Ha’am, perhaps the greatest modern Jewish thinker, and was called “Truth from Palestine”; the second, called “Hidden Question,” was written in 1907 by Y. Epstein and published in Ha-Shiloah. Both writers exhorted their fellow Jews in Palestine to take seriously the large Arab population and its feelings; the Ottoman Empire might go, they wrote, but the Arabs would remain. Anyone who believes Mrs. Peters’s book would have to conclude that these distinguished writers, a philosopher and an educator with close experience of life in Palestine, had simply invented the existence of the many Arabs there.

I am reluctant to bore the reader and myself with further examples of Mrs. Peters’s highly tendentious use—or neglect—of the available source material. Much more important is her misunderstanding of basic historical processes and her failure to appreciate the central importance of natural population increase as compared to migratory movements. Readers of her book should be warned not to accept its factual claims without checking their sources. Judging by the interest that the book aroused and the prestige of some who have endorsed it, I thought it would present some new interpretation of the historical facts. I found none. Everyone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist party (the forerunner of the Herut party) would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Mrs. Peters’s book. I had mistakenly thought them long forgotten. It is a pity that they have been given new life.


Mrs. Peters’s Palestine: An Exchange March 27, 1986

  1. 4

    See, for example, the articles cited above by Farrell and the Gilmours.

  2. 5

    Ketavim le-Toldot Hibbat Zion, Vol. I (Odessa, 1919) and Vol. II (Tel Aviv, 1925). These were republished by the Institute for Zionist Research at Tel Aviv University: Vol. I, 1980–1981; Vol II, 1984–1985.

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