Herzl's Nightmare

One Land, Two Peoples


By Peter Rodgers

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Theodor Herzl’s dream of a national homeland for the Jewish people was realized when Israel declared its independence in 1948. Yet it was made possible through the deaths of millions of European Jews and at the expense of Palestinian society — a people who would never forget what they saw as a grave injustice. Herzl’s dream would prove illusory. This important new study from the former Australian ambassador to Israel shows how little the dynamics of the conflict have actually changed; how eerily reminiscent today’s antagonisms and falsehoods are of yesteryear’s; and how much today’s self-righteous intransigence — on both sides — owes to what went before.


Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel, and is a regular commentator on Middle Eastern affairs. He is also a former journalist and winner of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award for his reporting on East Timor.

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One hundred years of living painfully
Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beautify a land?
— Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad 1
Palestine, by any yardstick, is less than prime real estate. Yet to many millions — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — it is 'Holy'. Within this land of abraded mountains and gently undulating coastal plains they seek the same monotheistic God: nourishing the soil with their blood as well as their meditations, claiming a connection with it that precedes or supersedes all others. From this land they glean an explanation of what lies in the past and what will lie before them.
The land's embrace is one that some others cannot fathom. Mark Twain, a visitor in 1868, described it as hopeless, dreary, heart-broken: 'Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies'. He was equally unflattering about its inhabitants: the Arabs were a cunning, unhygienic lot; orthodox Jews specialised in self-righteousness. Later, in the early years after the First World War, a British General recorded imperiously: 'I dislike them all equally ... a beastly people. The whole lot of them is not worth a single Englishman'.
Yet, to this day, Palestine and its people hold us all in firm embrace. No matter who we are, or where we are, the contest between Jew and Palestinian for this ancient land invades our daily consciousness. Our world is hostage to a struggle between less than one five-hundredth of its entire people. Even as we believe we are beyond surprise we are beguiled into pointless optimism, or shocked by fresh atrocity. Willingly or not, wittingly or not, we are drawn to look and to judge, to cajole and to plead. Often angry with despair we watch two intelligent, gifted peoples invoke the name of the 'great realtor in the sky', as Gore Vidal aptly put it, to lay exclusive claim upon this land and blight the life of the other.
And so it has been for the past century; a century in which the mix of national sentiment and religious conviction has proved especially lethal. A century which has seen many others pass across the landscape: Turks and Germans, French and British, Americans and Russians, offering advice and flattery, bribes and deceits, looking at once both powerful and impotent. For the singular truth of Palestine — that it must accommodate two worlds in one — has been incapable of resolution. Two worlds, two names — the Land of Israel versus the Land of Palestine — and two peoples: one waving the Old Testament as proof of ownership, the other chiding, 'But we belong here'.
Sifting through this hundred years of pain we see how little the dynamics of the conflict have changed; how eerily reminiscent today's antagonisms and falsehoods are of yesteryear's, how 'modern' leadership is anything but; how much today's self-righteous intransigence owes to what went before. All of us, it is true, are captives of our pasts. For Jews and Palestinians the result has been tragic — in the true, full meaning of the term, not the shallow, misleading way in which it is often applied nowadays to nothing more unfortunate than a sporting loss.
The story of Palestine in the past century has its share of political and military and human triumphs. But too often the dominant, recurring themes are those of lies and hypocrisies, myth-making and mutual demonisation; of a determined, energetic refusal to contemplate what it must be to be the other.
This story is told here more in sorrow than anger: sorrow for the continuing evil and indignity that Palestinians and Jews inflict on one another; sorrow for the way that the memory of all that went before continues to burden their lives; sorrow that daily inhumanity is the norm. The telling of the tale means criticism of both Jew and Palestinian — not for who they are but for what they have done, and for what they continue to do. It will, no doubt, draw fire from both sides. That, sadly, is part of the twisted logic of the conflict.
For each, guilt and innocence are absolutes, with malevolent behaviour always ascribed to the other — 'your side behaves appallingly, my side does not'. So too is criticism — 'if you criticize me you declare your blind allegiance to the other'. Thus criticism of Israeli behaviour runs the gauntlet of the charge of 'anti-Semitism', while to criticise Palestinian behaviour is often cast as blind pro-Israeli 'bias'. Israelis (generally) and Palestinians (mostly) either cannot or will not acknowledge the plight of the other. All they can see is their own pain.
And on and on it goes, each side feeding off the ill-doing of the other to justify its own.
'Peace processes'have come and gone, some leaving a useful residue, others little more than new layers of hurt and thirst for revenge. No outsider has been able to provide the circuit-breaker. That should not surprise us — although so often it seems to. Peace cannot be imposed. It can only come from Jew and Palestinian. It has to occur within them and between them. It has to be driven by the level of disgust they feel about what they are doing to themselves, and to each other. It will have to challenge and to defeat the chilling logic of Auden's simple, despairing words:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
That time is not yet with us — perhaps it never will be.

Herzl's 'new' Jew versus the 'semi-savage' native
If a time comes when our people in Palestine ... push out the native inhabitants, these will not give up their place easily.
So wrote the Jewish writer Ahad Ha'am in 1891. Zionism was in its formative days and the dilemma emerging for its adherents would shape the history of the Holy Land and the globe ever after. The dilemma was two-fold: was there a local (non-Jewish) population in Palestine worthy of note; if so, how should the Zionists deal with it?
The answer to the first question should have been clear-cut. Anyone who knew anything about Palestine would have been keenly aware that, although the figures were imprecise, the country was anything but unpeopled. Ten years before Ha'am's revelatory comment, Palestine's population was some 460,000. Of these, around 400,000 were Muslim Arabs (the term Palestinian would not come into play for another generation); about 40,000 were Christian (mostly Greek Orthodox); and the remainder, Jews. Jerusalem's population was 30,000, about half of whom were Jewish.
How these figures challenge Zionism's powerful founding myth of 'a land without people for a people without a land'. There may have been a people without a land. But if there was a land without people it was certainly not Palestine.
Zionism, it is true, did not by definition mean the forced dispossession of Palestinian Arabs. 'We shall buy, buy, buy', declared Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the pioneer of modern Hebrew. And large tracts of land were purchased legally from Arab'notables', often residing comfortably in Beirut or elsewhere in the Arab world, for fledgling Jewish settlements. Such transactions enriched the notables and dispossessed many poor tenant farmers, who then found themselves competing with a growing Jewish labour movement for urban jobs. But Ben-Yehuda also made clear that deceit was afoot; that the country must be covertly, quietly conquered. 'We shall not set up committees so that the Arabs will know what we are after, we shall act like silent spies', he noted in the early 1880s.
How then did Theodor Herzl, who fathered political Zionism with his 30,000 word pamphlet, Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), deal with the question of Palestine's Arabs? Easily — he simply ignored their existence, at least in public. There is not one single reference either to 'Arabs' or 'Palestinians' in this important tract. It was as if they did not exist, a convenience that other (though not all) Zionist leaders would happily follow. 'There are few things as egocentric as a revivalist movement', the contemporary Israeli writer and scholar Amos Elon has written. Zionist leaders moved in a strange twilight zone, 'seeing the Arabs and at the same time not seeing them'.
Herzl cuts a paradoxical figure. Born in Hungary into a comfortable, middle-class family, an assimilated Jew who spoke no Yiddish, Hebrew or Russian, for most of his life he showed little interest either in Jewry or the situation in Palestine. Herzl's epiphany came during the trial in the mid-1890s of a young, Jewish French military officer, Alfred Dreyfus. Framed on treason charges, Dreyfus was sent to the notorious Devil's Island penal colony. Covering the affair as the Paris correspondent for a Vienna daily newspaper, Herzl concluded that the anti-Semitism it unleashed was unerring proof that Jews had no future as 'assimilated' minorities in European states. The logical answer, indeed the only one, was a country of their own, where Jews could enjoy a security impossible anywhere else.
The Jewish State appeared in 1896. A year later, the first Zionist Congress, held in the Swiss town of Basel, declared that Zionism's aim was to create for the Jewish people 'a home in Palestine'. After the congress, Herzl confided to his diary, 'At Basel I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today I would be answered with universal laughter. Perhaps in five years, certainly in fifty, everyone will know it.' What the comment lacked in humility it made up for in prophecy, as indeed did Herzl's foreboding about what the future held for European Jewry.
Herzl, certainly, was deeply conscious of the magnetic appeal of the Holy Land for many Jews. 'Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home', he wrote in The Jewish State. Jews had dreamt 'this kingly dream' of a state 'all through the long nights of their history. "Next year in Jerusalem" is our old phrase. It is now a question of showing that the dream can be converted into a living reality.' At first, Herzl was prepared to consider a homeland anywhere.1 His overriding concern was the day-to-day reality of European Jewish life, of the need to get Jews out of Europe, not necessarily to Palestine. Jews living in the Russian Empire's 'Pale of Settlement' faced ongoing discrimination at best and, at worst, individual and state-organised violence. Many were keen to relocate, and the rise of Zionist thinking coincided with an exodus of eastern European Jewry. Their destination, paradoxically, was not the Holy Land but the USA. By the time the miscalculations of European leaders led them to war in 1914, one-third of eastern Europe's Jews — about two million people, or one-quarter of the world's total Jewish population — had made it to America. There, they would only ever constitute a small percentage of the total population. But their impact would be profound.
Increasingly obsessed with resolving the 'Jewish question', Herzl painted a halcyon picture of the would-be state. It would have no national language; rather, a 'federation of tongues' with everyone 'preserving the language in which their thoughts are at home'. 'Theocratic tendencies' would be kept in check, with the priesthood confined to the temple. In the same way, Herzl wrote, 'we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks. Every man shall be as free and undisturbed in his faith or his disbelief as he is in his nationality.' The Promised Land would be a land of work, symbolised in its flag. 'I would suggest a white flag with seven gold stars,' Herzl commented, 'the white symbolises our pure, new life; the stars are the seven golden hours of the working day.' His 'new Jew' — whose mental muscles were already well developed through having to survive in discriminatory Europe — would now develop physical ones to make the land rich through 'labour and enterprise'. Later Zionist activists saw equally important non-agricultural uses for this new Jewish muscle. Moshe Smilansky declared in 1914: 'We are dealing here with a semi-savage people, who has extremely primitive concepts ... If he senses in you power he will submit and will hide his hatred for you.'
After the Basel Congress of 1897, the rabbis of Vienna despatched a two-man fact-finding team to Palestine. In a famous phrase the travellers reported by cable that the bride was 'beautiful but married to another man'. The thought of Palestine's affections having already been claimed had little impact on Herzl. His focus, to continue the metaphor, switched to the bride's temporal father, hence his courtship of the sultan of Turkey — the decaying Ottoman Empire being still nominally in control of the Holy Land — and his overtures to others who might influence the wedding such as Kaiser Wilhelm, the King of Italy and Pope Pius X. Rebuffed in these endeavours, Herzl turned to Britain which, in 1903, offered a patch of colonial Uganda as a Jewish homeland. This triggered a heated debate between Zionist 'territorialists', who argued that anything was better than nothing, and the 'Zionists for Zion', for whom, as the name implies, it was Palestine or nothing. Herzl eventually sided with the latter. A year after his death in 1904 the Uganda offer was formally rejected at the Seventh Zionist Congress.
As much as he ever considered Palestine's local Arabs, Herzl concluded they would be the beneficiaries of what amounted to Zionism's mission civilatrice. The new state would help to form a European rampart against Asia, 'an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism'. Zionists would form a guard of honour around the sanctuaries of Christendom, symbolising 'the solution of the Jewish Question after eighteen centuries of Jewish persecution'. Writing to the Arab notable, Yusuf Zia al-Khalidi, in 1899, Herzl argued that, rather than posing a threat to the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, the arrival of industrious, talented, well-funded Jews would benefit them materially. He pursued this theme in his later utopian novel Altneuland (Old-New Land). Set in a future Palestine (of 1923), Herzl created a world in which Zionism had brought progress and prosperity to, and cooperation with, the Arabs. Whatever the novel's literary shortcomings, its fiction was faultless.
As the fact of a substantial Arab majority in Palestine impinged on Zionist consciousness, in some eyes it heightened the need for subterfuge. But neither Zionist leaders nor the settlers making their way to the Holy Land wavered in their aims. One early settler wrote to his brother that the ultimate goal, in time, was to take over the Land of Israel and to make the Jews 'masters of their ancient homeland'. Some welcomed the opportunity to state openly and categorically what the contest was really about. For them, the Jewish tie to the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael) was paramount. The (re-)creation of Israel represented the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy and the redemption of the Jewish past. Moshe Smilansky, for example, declared that the Land of Israel either belonged to the Arabs who had settled there and then was 'lost to us', or it belonged to the Jewish people and 'our national interests come before all else'. Just in case the meaning was not clear he added, 'it is not possible for one country to serve as the homeland of two people'.
This view would be put with equal force by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, founder in the mid-1920s of the 'Revisionist' stream of Zionism. In a backhanded way this acknowledged the Arab presence with greater honesty than Herzl and his supporters had done. The Arabs might have been a 'yelling rabble dressed in savage-painted rugs' but at least they were 'a living people'. For them, Palestine would remain 'not a borderland, but their birthplace, the centre and basis of their own national existence'. Foreshadowing the approach later pursued by Ben-Gurion and still alive today, Jabotinsky's solution was to confront the Arabs until they gave up. 'As long as the Arabs preserve a gleam of hope that they will succeed in getting rid of us', he argued, 'nothing in the world can cause them to relinquish that hope.' The Arabs would yield 'only when they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers'. The tool for encouraging such acquiescence — and the emergence of moderate Arab voices with whom the Zionists could deal — would be an 'iron wall' of Jewish bayonets.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2009
Page Count
192 pages
Bold Type Books

Peter Rodgers

About the Author

Peter Rodgers is a former Australian ambassador to Israel and is now a consultant on foreign affairs, defence and trade. His commentary on Middle Eastern affairs appears regularly in the national press. He is the winner of the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year Award for his reporting on East Timor.

Learn more about this author