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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

July 1920


Zionist Aspirations in Palestine

by Anstruther Mackay

I

THAT the Jews, once a powerful tribe and perhaps almost a nation, should, after the lapse of so many centuries, cherish aspirations to become a modern nation with a country of their own, is both commendable and romantic. But to-day, and indeed in all ages, aspirations must be made to fit in with hard facts. I propose in this article to discuss the question from a historical and practical standpoint, without sentiment in favor of either Jew or Arab, among both of which parties I have many friends.

I do not propose to consider Jewish history anterior to the exodus from Egypt. At that time they were a collection of tribes, twelve in number, of common descent, banded together with a common purpose and under common difficulties. As such, under very able leadership, they succeeded after many wanderings in squatting, just as the Bedouin tribes do to-day, on the cultivated and cultivable lands of a part of Syria, commonly called Palestine. In those days, and until the coming of the Roman Empire, society in the Middle East was entirely tribal. The ancient Israelites, where they could, drove out the tribes they found already settled on the soil, and where they could not dispossess their enemies, -- the Philistines, for instance, -- they dwelt side by side in uneasy proximity, with a constant inter-tribal war in process, with varying fortune.

So they dwelt in the land of Canaan for some centuries with considerable success, shining in particular in literature, producing what we now know as the Old Testament, praising and perhaps exaggerating their own exploits, and reviling their neighbors.

(It is believed to-day by many savants that the Old Testament description of Solomon's Temple was written by the Jews after their return from the Captivity, with the memory of the real splendors of Babylon fresh in their minds. It is possible that the actual temple was a simple place of worship. If it had been otherwise, it is hardly possible that no remains of it would be visible to-day, seeing that the temples of Egypt, which are so much older, remain, in some cases, almost in toto.)

Soon, however, the old cohesion among the Twelve Tribes vanished. Israel fell and disappeared from the earth. Judah remained for a few years and then was scattered to the uttermost ends of the old and new world. They have since lost their Eastern characteristics, both physically and mentally. To-day the Jewish settlers in Palestine are almost universally of Teutonic or Slavonic appearance, and all trace of Semitic or Eastern origin seems to have vanished from them.

Through the ages and through their wanderings they have kept, to a large extent, their religion, and that is a wonderful feat. But to-day some say that even their religion seems doomed. The younger and more virile of the Jewish settlers in Palestine sometimes profess openly, and more often in secret, the dogmas of atheism, agnosticism, or realism.

To-day it is the Zionist portion of this remnant of Judah, which, on the statement that for three or four centuries its ancestors owned the land from which nearly two thousand years ago they were driven, claims the whole of Southern Syria, the province of Palestine. These people even go so far, on what grounds is not clear, as to claim that their boundaries run from the town of Tyre on the north to the Egyptian village of El Arish in the Desert of Sinai on the south, and also, east of the Jordan, from the plain of Ammon to the Syrian desert, formerly the country of the Moabites.

Now if this interesting remnant was claiming an uninhabited country, or one in which the law of property did not exist, it might be an interesting though hazardous experiment to let them have it, and watch the result. Any practical experiment toward the attainment of a contented Jewish people would be welcome. At present, large communities of Jews never live in perfect amity with Gentile neighbors; and it would be instructive to see whether, in a self-contained Jewish state, they could live in amity with one another. It would also give them a chance to show whether they possess the attributes of a ruling people -- a question to which the answer is, at present, largely uncertain.

But the Syrian province of Palestine, about one hundred and fifty miles long and fifty miles broad, largely mountainous and sterile, contains at present a population of more than 650,000, divided as follows: Mohammedan Arabs, 515,000; Jews, 63,000; Christian Arabs, 62,000; nomadic Bedouins, 50,000; unclassified, 5000. Of these the Mohammedans and Christians are to a man bitterly opposed to any Zionist claims, whether made by would-be rulers or by settlers. It may not be generally known, but a goodly number of the Jewish dwellers in the land are not anxious to see a large immigration into the country. This is partly due to the fear that the result of such immigration would be an overcrowding of the industrial and agricultural market; but a number of the more respectable older settlers have been disgusted by the recent arrivals in Palestine of their coreligionists, unhappy individuals from Russia and Roumania brought in under the auspices of the Zionist Commission from the cities of Southeastern Europe, and neither able nor willing to work at agriculture or fruit-farming.

The old colonists believe that what is required to help the country is the immigration of a moderate number of persons, who should be in possession of some capital to invest in agriculture, or have technical knowledge of farming; not, as proposed by the Zionist Commission, an unlimited immigration of poor and ignorant people from the cities of Europe, who, if they are unable to make a living in Western cities, would most certainly starve in an Eastern agricultural country. The presence in Palestine of such agricultural experts as the late Mr. Aaronsohn, and Mr. Moses Levine of the Jewish Farm at Ben Shamer, near Ludd, both American Jews of great talent, is of the greatest advantage to the country, and is generally acknowledged so to be by all classes of the population. The arrival of more such colonists would be welcome to all but the whole population will resist the Zionist Commission's plan of wholesale immigration of Jews into Palestine at the rate of one hundred thousand a year, until a total of three millions has been reached, which number they claim the country can support if cultivated to its utmost.

The existing Jewish colonists would protest at such an experiment; but the Mohammedan and Christian Arabs would do more than protest. They would, if able, prevent by force the wholesale flooding of their country by Jewish settlers whom they consider strangers and Europeans. (The Jew in Palestine is always called by the Arabs 'Khawaya' -- Anglice, stranger.)

Any attempt at the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, unless under the bayonets of one of the powers of the League of Nations, would undoubtedly end in a 'pogrom,' to escape from which in Europe is the Jew's main idea in coming to Syria. This hostility to the Jews is a bond of union between the Arab Moslems and the Christians, and nowhere in the East do these two denominations live in greater harmony, despite the traditional enmity between the Crescent and the Cross. (The Moslem-Christian Association was formed in 1918, with headquarters in Jaffa, to fight the policy of the Zionist Commission.)

It will be seen that, to fulfill their aspirations, the Zionists must obtain the armed assistance of one of the European powers, presumably Great Britain, or of the United States of America. To keep the peace in such a scattered and mountainous country the garrison would have to be a large one. Is the League of Nations, or any of the Western powers, willing to undertake such a task? But without such armed protection, the scheme of a Jewish state, or settlement, is bound to end in failure and disaster.


II

NOW, as the Zionist claims a historical right to the land, so also does the Arab, not content with the mere right of possession. The bulk of the Arab Moslems came into Syria with the Caliph Omar in the seventh century A.D. The Christians are still older, and are mainly descended from the converts of Constantine and Helena in the fourth century. A few of them may be descendants of the Crusaders; and in the villages around Jaffa there are a few Egyptians whose ancestors came into the country with Mohammed Ali's army as recently as ninety years ago. These latter are disliked intensely by the true Arabs.

The great families of Omari, Iagi, and Kleiri trace their descent actually from the Caliph Omar himself. The greater family of Hasseini, a member of which is to-day the enlightened Mayor of Jerusalem, traces its descent from the Prophet Mohammed himself. Throughout the thirteen hundred years during which Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, Turks, Egyptians, and yet again Turks, have ruled in Syria, these Arabs have remained in possession of the soil of the province of Palestine. Not content with this claim, they declare their descent from the ancient tribes of Canaan, -- Philistines, and the rest, -- who dwelt in the land even before the Israelites came up out of Egypt. The early Arabs married among the aborigines of the country, whom they found there at the time of their conquest. To support their claim, they point to the undoubted fact that such Philistine towns as Jimza, Ekron, Bethoron, and Gaza, mentioned in the Old Testament, exist to-day as inhabited villages under their Biblical names. The inhabitants of these ancient towns are Arab owners of the soil, who, the Zionists say, have no historical right to the land.

Certain Zionists writers in the London press have recently been making a most unfair use of the words 'Arab' and 'Bedouin.' In an article published recently it was stated that 'the Bedouin' question will in course of time settle itself, either by equitable purchase or by the Bedouin's desire for the nomadic life which he will find over the border in the Arab state.' If by these words the writer means the 50,000 nomadic Bedouins, no harm would be done and all parties would be pleased; for these Bedouins steal alike from Mohammedan, Christian, and Jew cultivators, and, except as breeders of camels and sheep, are of little use to the country. But he does not mean this. He hopes to buy out 'equitably' the half-million Mohammedan and sixty thousand Christian Arabs, who own and cultivate the soil -- a stable population living, not in Bedouin tents, but in permanent villages.

Should these landlords and farmers refuse this 'equitable' bargain, it is to be presumed that our Zionist writer, by forceful arguments to be applied by the protecting power, will arouse in them a desire for the nomadic life across the border. If the Zionists honestly believe that the land is occupied and worked by nomadic Bedouins without right of ownership, they should be informed that the Arab landowners possess title-deeds as good as, and much older than, those by which the American or English millionaire owns his palace in Fifth Avenue or Park Lane.

Agriculture is, and always will be, almost the sole industry of the country; the percentage of the three principal communities so employed is: Mohammedans sixty-nine, Christians forty-six, Jews nineteen. The Arabs, then, are the principal cultivators and the Jews are nowhere. During the last forty years, helped by the enormous financial backing, amounting to charity, of Baron de Rothschild of Paris and others, the Jewish colonists have met with fair success at fruit and vineyard culture. When they have tried growing cereals, they have failed, and at dairy-farming they have been far outdone by the Germans of Hilhelma. If these colonists, who presumably were picked men, with such financial help as they had from Europe and America, have met with such limited success, it is not likely that a large number of unskilled workers would be any more fortunate. Nor is it likely that the rich European and American Jews would be willing or able to satisfy, with their donations, the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of immigrants whom the Zionist Commission proposes to bring in. Moreover, a country cannot be run agriculturally on the culture of fruits and vines. Corn and olives are necessary for Palestine, and at the culture of these the average Mohammedan Arab is a much better man than the average European Jew.

The theory that the Jews are to come into Palestine and oust the Moslem cultivators by 'equitable purchase' or other means is in violation of principles of sound policy, and would, if accepted, arouse violent outbreaks against the Jewish minority. It would, moreover, arouse fierce Moslem hostility and fanaticism against the Western powers that permitted it. The effect of this hostility would be felt all through the Middle East, and would cause trouble in Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. To this might be ascribed by future historians the outbreak of a great war between the white and the brown races, a war into which America would without doubt be drawn.


III

THE Holy Places of Palestine are objects of reverence to the Christian peoples of the world, in particular to the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox communities. Jerusalem is the third Sacred City of the Moslems. A Jewish Palestine would bring the League of Nations, or the protecting power, into hostility with the Papacy; and, when the wave of Bolshevism has passed, with the whole of the Russian people, -- the most devout Christians in the world, -- who formerly used to come in their thousands as pilgrims annually to Jerusalem.

When in 1917 and 1918 the British army entered Palestine, it was received with acclamation and relief by the Arabs, Moslem as well as Christian, disgusted as they were by the incompetent government and oppressive methods of their former masters, the Turks. At first the British administration of the country was largely staffed by British officers lent by Egypt, men well acquainted with the Arabic language and accustomed to dealing with the Egyptian fellaheen, a people nearly akin to the Arab cultivators of Palestine. For a time all went well. The administration was just and made no discrimination between Mohammedan, Christian, and Jew. British rule was popular.

As these Anglo-Egyptian officials went back to their pre-war posts in Egypt, their places in Palestine were largely taken by officers from the army, many of them excellent men and good soldiers, but for the most part ignorant of the Arab language and the customs and feelings of the people. They were able to communicate with the Arabs only through interpreters. These latter were too often local Jews, or, if not Jews, 'Effendis' (semi-Europeanized Syrians), whose interests were by no means identical with those of the people. Only those who, possessing a knowledge of an Eastern language, have yet used an interpreter can realize how easy it is for their meaning to be perverted by one who is dishonest or incompetent.

From these causes; and the fact that, although the British officer is often unable to speak Arabic, the Zionist Jew can nearly always speak English, the Arabs now feel that the administration has fallen more and more under the influence of the Zionist Commission, which has succeeded in creating an impression among the Moslems and Christians that the Jews are all-powerful in the British Foreign Office, and that, if an officer shows himself sympathetic toward the Arabs, his removal can be secured.

A Christian from Jaffa writes as follows: 'We are already feeling that we have a government within a government. British officers cannot stand on the right side because they are afraid of being removed from their posts or ticked off.'

I do not believe that there is any cause for my correspondent's fears; but I believe him to be perfectly honest in imagining them.

The appointment of English Jews to some important posts, legal offices in particular, has been a mistake. However great the integrity of such officers, the local Jews naturally try to take advantage of their religious feelings and racial sympathies, while the mass of the population as naturally distrusts them.

At one time some of the Jewish colonists were very tactless, telling their Arab neighbors that, under the protection of England, the Jews would be given the Arab lands and the Moslems would become their servants. The bringing up, after the Armistice, of three battalions of Jewish troops, whose conduct toward the people was often very foolish, was another mistake. The result to-day is that the mass of the native population has become fanatical and anti-European. While I write, I hear that, during the last few days, a peaceful anti-Zionist demonstration has taken place in Jerusalem, in which ten thousand Moslems and Christians protested against the Zionist claims. A second similar demonstration might not be peaceful, but might easily develop into an anti-foreign rising. Then troops would have to be called in to quell it, and the result would be bloodshed. Is this to be allowed in the Holy Land?

If the Jewish state, or the national home, is not allowed to become a reality, it seems probable that the province of Palestine will either become part of the neighboring Arab state, whose capital is Damascus, or be held in trust by one of the powers, under a mandate from the League of Nations, for the benefit of the dwellers therein, and for those pilgrims of the three great religions who wish to visit its holy places. In either contingency it is probable that some Jews, as well as other Europeans, would find no difficulty in settling in the land; but neither foreign Jew nor foreign Gentile should be given any special privileges; and to entrust the Jews, who have not governed themselves for two thousand years, with any form of government of the country would be extremely unwise. Under a just government the country has fair possibilities for future development, but it will never be an Eldorado. At present it is more important that settlers should be men of technical knowledge than that they should command capital. All exploitation of the native people must be prevented. After some years of good government, it may be that the Arabs will be able to find some of the necessary capital for any big works which may be possible; or the government may wish to keep such works in its own hands. All idea of a vast immigration of European settlers must be given up. But the whole question of European penetration in the East requires careful consideration. The present nationalist anti-European movements in Egypt, Syria, Persia, and, in fact, all through the East, are founded on the Oriental fear that the Western peoples, with their more virile natures and greater energy, are pushing themselves more and more into the East and westernizing those countries -- a process most distasteful to the Oriental, albeit he himself often, to keep his head above water and to compete with the foreign settler in his country, is forced, with curses in his heart, to try to westernize himself. He often makes a sorry mess of the business.

The question of Bolshevism is outside the scope of this article, but it remains to be said that the European Jewish population of Palestine is already tainted with the tenets of that faith. The Jews of Southeastern Europe are, almost to a man, Bolsheviki. Europe and America cannot allow the possibility of a homogeneous Bolshevist state in Palestine, whence the propagandists would be in an excellent position to preach their doctrines throughout Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean coasts.


  • Return to The Controversy of Zion: An Interview with Geoffrey Wheatcroft


    Copyright © 1920 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    Originally published in
    The Atlantic Monthly, July 1920. Volume 26, no. 1 (pages 122 - 127).

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