by Mitchell Plitnick
“It didn’t have to be this way,” writes Jim Zogby in the new preface to the reissue of his 1981 book, Palestinians, The Invisible Victims: Political Zionism and the Roots of Palestinian Dispossession.
There were, a century ago, multiple threads to the Zionist movement. On the one side, for example, there was Martin Buber’s inclusive vision of spiritual Zionism, advocating the in-gathering of the Jewish people and cooperation between them and the indigenous Arab population in Palestine and the broader region. There was also a thread of what came to be called Political Zionism that proposed a more radical and exclusivist vision that sought to displace the Arabs of Palestine. Tragically, this was the thread that won out.
This is a crucial framing of Zogby’s book. Reissued after 37 years, the book often seems like it could be talking about contemporary events. Zogby’s basic thesis is summed up in his conclusion, where he states, “The violations of [Palestinians’] basic human rights are, quite simply, a function of the political ambitions of the Political Zionist movement and the state it created. Palestinian resistance to Zionism and its dream of an exclusive Jewish state, therefore, continues.”
Zogby’s 1981 book states the Palestinian case. It is a short book and makes no pretense to an exhaustive history or a complete review of then-contemporary conditions. It offers one idea, that the exclusivist vision of Political Zionism is incompatible with a lasting peace.
An Opposition to a Specific Zionism
Zionism as a defense against anti-Semitism or a unifying force for a religious group becoming increasingly secular is perfectly legitimate. The issue is, as it has always been, the insistence by the political strain that overwhelmed all other forms of modern Jewish nationalism (some of which, like the Bund, were not Zionist) on forming a state consisting exclusively of its own people in a land that was already populated. Zionism can co-exist with others. Exclusivist Political Zionism cannot, but it also need not be the only expression of Jewish nationalism.
“The European Jewry,” Zogby writes, “who were to be the ‘bearers of this civilization were, in the words of Max Nordau (one of Zionism’s founders), ‘a people more industrious and more able even than the average European, not to speak at all of the inert Africans.’ While the founders of this movement shared with their European contemporaries a racist contempt for the rights of the peoples of Asia and Africa and had the will to establish a colony in either of these two continents, they lacked the means to accomplish this end.”
Eventually, the Zionists found the backing they needed from the British government. Here Zogby touches on the main reason for the inevitable triumph of political Zionism over the other strains. Despite the efforts of some who transcended the racism of their culture, such racism was so common, and generally so unchallenged in Europe and, therefore, among European expatriates, there was little hope for co-existence.
Despite the provision in the Balfour declaration calling for the rights of the indigenous population to be respected, Britain had no more regard for those rights than the Zionist movement. The Zionist settlement was generally supported and protected, while the Arab population was to be contained.
In fact, Zogby quotes Lord Balfour directly: “In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting its inhabitants as to their wishes…Zionism…is of far greater importance…than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who inhabit that ancient land.” It’s worth noting that figure, 700,000 Palestinians. A wiser approach by the European parties—one that envisioned a mutually beneficial future—could easily have produced a different future. There was clearly more than enough room for the Zionists to come and establish a new state without dispossessing or infringing anyone’s rights. It was only the complete disregard for the rights of the indigenous population by all the European parties that put both the Jews and Palestinians on this miserable course.
The thumbnail sketch of history that Zogby necessarily provides is still remarkable for its similarity to the history of the 1948 war as understood today. In 1981, that history was largely unknown or grossly distorted. Relying on the documentation from Israeli sources available at the time and on the work of Palestinian historian, Walid Khalidi, Zogby provides a summary that could have easily been drawn from the work of the Israeli “New Historians,” whose books would be published a few years later. When Zogby, or Khalidi before him, wrote these histories they were ignored. But when Israeli writers wrote of the same things, there was a tidal wave of interest and controversy. That in itself is telling.
Perhaps trying to address the already growing debate challenging the story of Palestine’s Arabs leaving “voluntarily” or being driven out at gunpoint, Zogby goes to some length to describe the campaign to get the Arab population to flee. Noting the infamous Deir Yassin massacre, Zogby quotes Palmach leader and future Foreign Minister of Israel Yigal Allon:
We saw a need to clean the upper Galilee and to create territorial a Jewish continuity in the entire area of the upper Galilee…We, therefore, tried a tactic…which worked miraculously well. I gathered all the Jewish Muktars, who have contact with the Arabs in different villages, and asked them to whisper in the ears of the Arabs that a great Jewish reinforcement has arrived in Galilee and that it is going to burn all of the villages of the Huleh. They should suggest to these Arabs, as their friends, to escape while there is still time. And the rumor spread in all the areas of the Huleh that it is time to flee. The flight numbered myriads. The tactic reached its goal completely.
That tactic also allowed the propagation of the myth that Palestinians left of their own accord.
Zogby quickly covers the early years of the state, with a focus on the martial law under which the Arab “citizens” of Israel were held. The 1967 war begins a new era of occupation and with it, of course, new measures to deal with the Palestinian population in both Israel and the occupied territories. Zogby traces the growing “othering” of the Palestinian population. As Israel grew stronger, the Israeli people came more and more to see the indigenous population as foreigners. It’s a familiar dynamic to Americans, or it certainly should be.
The discussion in recent years of the “demographic time bomb” is reflected here, and in the very same terms. It is remarkable that this phrase was obviously acceptable in the 1970s in liberal discourse. But it is far more disturbing that it is still acceptable in those same circles today.
The blatant and quite severe racism of casting birthrate as a threat for only one group of people cannot be overstated. While the birthrates of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families are also discussed in terms of the future makeup of Israeli society, it is never described as a potentially deadly threat that must be addressed. Palestinian babies are a security issue for Israel. Similarly today, supporters of the two-state solution worry over the “demographic bomb” while the right wing speaks of either forcible transfer or apartheid.
In 1981, Zogby concluded his short book by saying,
[Palestinians] do not need vague formulas hinting at recognition. They need to be protected and defended. Continued silence in the face of these crimes and overwhelming evidence as to the intensity of Israel’s violations and the ultimate intent of the occupation authorities, amounts to more than acquiescence. It means complicity.
In 2018, his conclusion, like so many of the details of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians described in his book, is very similar after nearly four decades.
Among governments in the West, however, little has changed. Palestinians are now increasingly recognized as a political issue with Western politicians offering support for a vague ‘two-state solution.’ But the formulas they offer are, more often than not, predicated on the need to protect Israel’s Jewish population from being swallowed up by what is referred to as the “Palestinian demographic time-bomb” that will threaten Israel’s “Jewish character.” What the West does not address are Palestinian human rights and the suffering and the humiliation they are forced to endure on a daily basis as a result of an oppressive occupation.
It is, undoubtedly, a measure of Palestinian despair and the failure of their leadership that the hope Zogby finds after all these years is in the Jewish community.
Maybe the most hopeful development to occur in recent years is the emergence in the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the West, of voices who are challenging the exclusivist idea of Political Zionism. More in line with the thinking of Buber, they are partnering with Palestinians to oppose the occupation and working to defend Palestinian human rights. Groups like B’tselem, Combatants for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, #IfNotNow, Peace Now, Breaking the Silence, Mondoweiss, and many more like them are in the vanguard of those who are demanding recognition of Palestinian humanity and a fundamentally different relationship between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.
The ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people cannot be resolved by force. That is overwhelmingly in the hands of Israel and the United States, both of which have never been more hostile to Palestinian rights. The rest of the world could make a difference, but thus far, it has not shown the political will. That is not likely to change based on geo-strategic considerations.
It will only change when human rights, universal values, and basic justice and decency can shift hearts and minds. That’s not impossible; there are many examples in history of that happening. Ultimately, however, the exclusivist version of Zionism will have to wane in favor of a Jewish national identity that does not need an exclusive state to express itself, but can live in a pluralistic, democratic society, be it a single state or two states side by side working in some form of partnership.
As Zogby concludes in his 2018 preface, “If we seek to build a secure and peaceful future for both peoples, it is imperative that we recognize that an injustice occurred and that it continues today. To challenge the narrative that denied Palestinian humanity is not anti-Semitic. It is blindness to injustice.” Acknowledging that uncomfortable history—a history that is uncomfortable not only for Israel, but for Britain, the United States, the Arab world, and others—is the only way to start on that path.