Saturday, January 27, 2007

A quote without a context …

When reading Nick Cohen's book I found this passage on page 76.

Said was a Palestinian and in a small way his viciousness and betrayals of principle were excusable. For the early Zionists to say that Palestine was 'a land without a people for a people without a land' was not so much to look down on Palestinians from a position of colonial superiority, as to look through them and deny their existence.

This is one of the examples in history where a quote can take on a life of its own independent of its intended meaning. It is attributed to Israel Zangwill, the novelist, radical and Zionist, although he was paraphrasing a comment from earlier in the 19th Century by Lord Shaftesbury.

Shaftesbury was the chair of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews, more commonly known as the Jew's Society. Founded in 1808, it was a curious mixture of Anglican evangelism and proto-Zionism. Zangwill picked up this quote in a particular context, his breach with mainstream Zionism over the rejection of the offer of Uganda for possible settlement by the British government in 1905. Zangwill was alarmed at the movement's determination to settle in the historic territory of Palestine and nowhere else. He had visited Palestine in 1897 and was struck by the density of its population and felt that there was little chance of peaceful co-existence with the existing population inside a Jewish state.

Zangwill's response was to form the Jewish Territorial Organisation to search for 'a land without a people for a people without a land' elsewhere in the world. Thus, the quote was not meant to be a description of Palestine but of an alternative to Palestine. What has happened is that a statement that was rooted in an affirmation of the existence of the Palestinians is now used to demonstrate their denial.

Without proper research, it is difficult to ascertain how the quote was transmitted. Certainly, it fits neatly into critiques of Zionism as colonialism and racism. Perhaps it absolved the Zionist movement of anything other than a casual ignorance of conditions in Palestine. Probably it was just too good a sound bite to be ignored. However, through constant repetition, not least by myself until I read more widely, it has not only lost its context but become an historical distortion.

Maybe too, the earlier quote was tied up in knowledge of Zangwill's later career. He returned to mainstream Zionism but still faced the reality of the existence of a Palestinian population, only this time he advocated "transfer" of the Arabs from the area of the Jewish State.

The outline of Zangwill's life and ideas is a perfect illustration of the fact that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a localised one between two aspiring nationalism over territorial sovereignty and is not reducible to abstract notions with universal significance as so much of the 'left' seems to think.


Andrew said...

There was an excellent article on this in Middle Eastern Studies in the late 1980s as I recall. Sadly, that's all I recall.

yudit said...

I have always wondered if that idea had been influnced by the portrayal of Palestine in the 19th century. As Israeli photographer and history of photography in the Middle East amateur researcher i have started wondering about hwere that idea could have come from.
My theory is the following: the first photographs in the Middle East in general and in Palestine in specific were made mostly by missionaries travelling in the area.
They wanted to show their communities, especially in the USA, what "the Holy Land was ike", to show it was like "in the days of Jesus" (in fact a whole postcard industry around that theme developed): thus they liked to show images without people, or perhaps with a camel, a donkey and a lone Bedouin.
Obvioulsy an image of a train, a city etc. wouldn't fit their missionary fundraising needs, so slowly a huge body of "biblical" images was developed, which showed indeed "emptyness", no people. etc.
These images (and there were very few other, non empty images) influenced the way the country was seen in the west.

Onlt at the beginning of the 20th century the first local photographers started to work, showing "daily life" etc., vibrant, full of people, no more emptyness, no more orientalist bs.

just my idea.

bob said...

Excellent points Peter.

I'm not sure that Zangwill "returned" to mainstream Zionism though. During his involvement with territorialism, he continued to support the idea of Palestine if it was possible, and when Palestine became a real possibility (after Balfour), he continued to look for other here-and-now alternatives.

It was this non-dogmatic approach which makes Zangwill such an interesting model today.

During his territorialist phase, he kept saying that Palestine was ONLY an option if there was a Jewish majority. Thus if it was to be used as such then the Arabs would have to be induced, with or without their consent, to make a “trek” to some other part of the Arab national home in Mesopotamia or Arabia.

(This view was set out in a speech made in New York in 1904 and Manchester in 1905 entitled “Zionism and England’s Offer” (JC 14/4/1905 p.24), a lecture to the Fabian Society in December 1915, a conversation with Jabotinsky in summer 1916 , a 1917 article entitled “The Fate of Palestine” and an article entitled “Before the Peace Conference” (JC 13/12/1918).)

The phrase “trek” is taken from the Boers’ “Great Trek” whereby they removed themselves from British-dominated parts of South Africa in order to develop their own culture freely.

Later, however, Zangwill spoke positively of the “long cultural conjunction of life currents” between Jews and Arabs (1922:113) and even in the 1919 version he calls for a “cultivat[ion of] the closest friendship and co-operation” between Arabs and Jews (1919:341). The impracticality of the "trek" idea was one reason for his territorialism.

At the time of the Paris Peace conference, he said that the Jews must possess Palestine in the way that the Poles would possess Poland, i.e. not with exclusive rights to it, but as a majority free to develop culturally free from the domination of a larger imperial culture.

The Plump said...

Thanks to all three of you. Yudit may well have a point, though it is speculative. I was impressed by your blog yudit and will visit it again. Bob, despite the misfortune of living in Brockley (I grew up in Bromley but escaped) I really appreciated your corrective of my final paragraph. Again I liked your blog. I shall add both of you to the blogroll when I update next. Thanks again.

shlemazl said...

Interesting. Didn't know this.

Anonymous said...

Hey there Plump,

I was wondering if you could provide some bibliographic references for where you found this information. Specifically, where you learned that Zangwill was not referring to Palestine as a "Land without people" but was searching for a territory that could be described as such.