Clash of Nationalisms

Arabs in Zionist thought.

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During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two competing national movements began to take shape: Zionism and Arab nationalism. Zionism called for some form of Jewish sovereignty in at least some part of the Land of Israel as a Jewish necessity and right. Arab nationalism saw the Arab world as a unified whole. As individual countries gained independence, they sought to balance a specific, local identity with a broader pan-Arab affiliation. 

The nascent nationalist movements were on a collision course. At the root of the conflict were complex networks of identity construction and competition over natural resources, such as territory and water, and psychic resources, such as pride, honor, and power.

Arab man living in Israel

The Zionist movement in the years prior to and continuing after Israeli independence in 1948 had to face the question: Are the Arab inhabitants of the Land of Israel a unique ethnic-national community with distinct political rights? For its part, the Arab national movement asked: Do the Jews have moral and political rights to some form of sovereignty in Palestine?

Arabs in Palestine?

Among the early Zionist thinkers, there were those who were ignorant regarding the indigenous population of Palestine. Others believed that the modernizing results of Jewish presence in Palestine would benefit the Arabs.

Amos Elon, author and veteran Israeli journalist, relates a telling anecdote about Theodor Herzl, the "father" of modern Zionism. Max Nordau, Herzl's chief lieutenant, once approached Herzl in a flurry, saying: "But there are Arabs in Palestine! I didn't know that! We are committing an injustice."

Whether or not this story is legend or history, it is fair to say that Herzl did not regard the Arab population of the Land of Israel as a significant obstacle to the fulfillment of the Zionist enterprise. In The State of the Jews, Herzl's political program for Jewish statehood, there is no mention of the Arabs. However, in his utopian novel, Altneuland, Herzl's representative Arab character, Reschid Bey, thanks the Jews for bringing European style progress and economic prosperity to the desolate and decrepit Middle East.

Other Zionist leaders echoed Herzl. They held to the faith that the Zionist movement would, in time, be welcomed by the local peoples of the Middle East as a harbinger of development and modernization.

However, other voices within the Zionist movement challenged the optimism of deterministic progress. Ahad Ha-am, Herzl's most potent critic, saw early on that Arab opposition to Zionism would not be easily assuaged. After a visit to the new Yishuv, Ahad Ha-am wrote:

"We tend to believe abroad that Palestine is nowadays almost completely deserted, an uncultivated wilderness, and anyone can come there and buy as much land as his heart desires. But in reality this is not the case. It is difficult to find anywhere in the country Arab land which lies fallow . . .

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Scott Copeland

Scott Copeland is an Israeli educator and travel guide. He serves as the program coordinator for the Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.