Ian Gilmour and David Gilmour

  • From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict by Joan Peters
    Joseph, 601 pp, £15.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 7181 2528 2

The most appealing Zionist slogan has always been ‘the land without a people, waiting for the people without a land’. What, in that case, could be more natural than for Palestine to become the land of the Jews? The trouble was that the epigram was not true: Palestine already had a people. On belatedly discovering this, Max Nordau, Herzl’s friend and follower, exclaimed to his leader: ‘we are committing an injustice.’ Much later Arthur Ruppin, who directed Zionist colonisation in the 1920s, warned ‘that Herzl’s concept of a Jewish state was only possible because he ignored the presence of the Arabs.’ Undeterred, Zionists continued to implement what in other circumstances might have been the wholly creditable objective of ruling Palestine and colonising it with Jews. Yet in the circumstances which actually existed – a country already populated with Palestinian Arabs – the building of a Jewish state involved not just brave pioneering or even ordinary imperialism but the displacement of most of the indigenous population and the subordination of the rest. The basic falsity of the slogan has remained to plague political Zionism.

Or so it has generally been believed. But now Joan Peters comes along with findings which alter, she tells us, ‘the very basis of our understanding of the Arab-Israel conflict and destroy the foundation upon which the “Palestinian” claims have rested’. She is, she says, ‘clarifying a picture jumbled for so long that it has become perhaps the most pervasively misconceived image of any political situation in the world’. Apparently, ‘the magnitude of the general ignorance’ before Ms Peters wrote her book ‘allowed history to be turned upside down.’ Her publishers concur that the book ‘will forever change the terms of the debate’. More important, these large claims have been enthusiastically endorsed by Barbara Tuchman, Saul Bellow, Lucy Dawidowicz, Arthur Goldberg and many others, and by sundry American newspapers and periodicals, including the Washington Post, Commentary and the New Republic. On the other hand, Norman Finkelstein has described the book as one ‘of the most spectacular frauds ever published on the Arab-Israeli conflict’, and in the Nation Alexander Cockburn has called it ‘From Lies Immemorial’.

Joan Peters puts forward the following case: the Jews have been in Palestine continuously, while the Palestinian Arabs have not; before the Zionist settlers arrived, Palestine was empty and arid; the British allowed illegal Arab immigrants into Palestine, which swelled the numbers of the indigenous population; the British also unlawfully removed Transjordan from the Palestinian Mandate, thereby greatly diminishing the area of ‘the Jewish National Home’; many Arabs in Palestine crowded into the Jewish settled areas, and therefore when they left they were not genuine refugees; the Jews did not displace the Arabs, it was the other way round; anyway, the Palestinian refugees were not driven out in 1948, they left of their own accord; moreover, there was an exchange of populations since Arab Jews were driven out by the Arab countries; finally, the violence in Palestine over the years was entirely the fault of the Arabs.

Peters states that it is a ‘bald fact that the Jews are indigenous people on that land who never left, but who have continuously stayed on their “Holy Land”... They never abandoned [Palestine] physically, nor did they renounce their claim to their nation – the only continuous claim that exists.’ By contrast, according to her ‘original demographic study’, Palestine had no stable Arab population. She describes the land variously as ‘virtually emptied’, ‘laid waste’, and ‘sackcloth and ashes’. ‘For centuries the non-Jewish, particularly the Muslim, peoples who did inhabit the land had been largely composed of a revolving immigrant population of diverse ethnic origins who could not possibly have constituted a substantial indigenous “Palestinian” population.’ In support of these statements, Ms Peters tells us, for example, that Sephardic Jews were ‘numerous’, that Hebrew ‘was popularly used’, and that ‘by the late 1850s Jews formed at least half of the population of Jerusalem.’ But she does not tell us how many Sephardic Jews there were, how many people used Hebrew, or how she made her calculation about Jerusalem. For evidence of the continuity of Jewish life in Palestine, Benjamin of Tudela is quoted to show that ‘whole [Jewish] “village communities of Galilee survived” the Crusaders, but his discovery that there were only 1,440 Jews in all of Palestine is not mentioned. The Reverend James Parkes is cited many times, but his evidence that the Jewish population of Jerusalem was less than a thousand in 1827, or that it formed only a third of its inhabitants by mid-century, is left out.

For all her ‘bald facts’, Peters only manages to prove what we know already: Jews have indeed been living continuously in the Holy Land, but between AD 70 and the end of the 19th century in very small numbers. Even as late as 1872, after underestimating the size of the Arab population (while multiplying the Jewish numbers by about four), she accepts that the Jews probably formed less than 10 percent of the population of the land. There has always been a Sephardic community in Palestine, but until recently it was numerically insignificant – in 1257 Nahman Gerondi found only two Jewish families in Jerusalem – and it is hard to see how its existence can be used to assert that ‘the only continuous claim [to Palestine] that exists’ is the Jewish. The author complements her embellishment of Zionist claims with derisive references to the ‘recent Arab propaganda claim of Palestine as an “Arab” country for “millennia” ’. Had anyone ever seriously made this claim, her sarcasm would be justified, given that Palestine did not become Arab until the seventh-century conquest. What the Arabs do claim, however, is that the land has been inhabited for ‘millennia’ by the ancestors of the Palestinian refugees. ‘If it is proper to “reconstitute” a Jewish state which has not existed for two thousand years,’ H.G. Wells once remarked, ‘why not go back another thousand years and reconstitute the Canaanite state? The Canaanites, unlike the Jews, are still there.’ The modern Palestinians are a people of various ethnic origins, descended from the conquerors of Palestine since early Biblical times. Their ancestors are the Canaanites and Philistines who, unlike the Jews, were never deported. They remained in Palestine (which took its name from the Philistines) and their descendants formed, and still form, the core of the indigenous population. In the seventh century, the Muhammadan Arabs brought with them their government, their language and their religion, and a majority of the inhabitants accepted all three. Palestine and its people became Arabised. Yet they remained the same people. There was little racial change in the population because the Arab conquerors were so few in number.

Peters’s often-repeated protestations that the Jews did not displace the Arabs, that ‘it was the Jews who were displaced by Arabs,’ is based on three claims: first, that Palestine was depopulated until the beginning of Jewish settlements in the late 19th century; secondly, that the growth of the Arab population was partly caused by illegal immigration; and thirdly, that the rest of the growth could not possibly have been the result of natural increase alone but was partly the consequence of Arab migration within Palestine. This case is the core of From Time Immemorial.

Peters claims on one page that Palestine was ‘uninhabited’, on others that it was ‘inhabited only sparsely ... by peoples who roamed the country’, that the land was empty and a ruin. This was not the impression of Sir Moses Montefiore, who went there in the 1830s and wrote enthusiastically of the olive groves, the vineyards, the pasture land and the fine fields of wheat and barley. Peters gets the date of this visit wrong, and does not quote what he said. As Mr Cockburn has pointed out, Peters cites the historian Makrizi to back one of her statements about mid-19th-century population movement, but, since Makrizi died in 1442, he is less than authoritative on what happened in 1860, though his findings on the migration of Tartar hordes in the Middle Ages are no doubt beyond reproach. More to the point – and in the right century – is the visit to Palestine in 1891 of the great ‘spiritual Zionist’, Ahad Ha’am. ‘Palestine,’ he wrote on his return, ‘is not an uninhabited country,’ and has room ‘for only a very small proportion of Jews’, since there was little untilled soil except for stony hills or sand dunes. The Arabs, he added, were not ‘wild men of the desert’, and he warned that ‘if in the course of time the Jewish holding in the country develops to such an extent as to encroach in some degree on the native population, the latter will not easily give up its position.’ Yet, according to Peters, ‘the majority of genuine “Arabs” ... were Arabian tribal nomads.’

For later years a cursory glance at Zionist and British official sources is enough to refute Peters’s claim that the Arabs were not displaced. ‘The facts of the land situation are that all the cultivable land in Palestine is now occupied; and no more land can be sold to the Jews without dispossessing Arab cultivators,’ the High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, wrote to George V in 1930. ‘Only in a very few places in our colonisation,’ Ben Gurion said at a Zionist Congress in 1937, ‘were we not forced to transfer the earlier residents.’ Clearly, Israel’s first Prime Minister did not think that the Palestinians were not there, or that they were nomads. At the same congress, Idelson, referring to a proposed Arab ‘evaluation’, asked why ‘the Arabs should want to abandon good lands’. ‘For the fellah,’ he added, ‘his land is not such a casual factor. He has struck deep roots in it; what force will compel him to leave it?’ Unfortunately Peters’s censorship of Zionist sources that do not suit her case is as effective as her censorship of Arab sources. In this, at least, she is impartial.

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