From Blindness to Denial: Zionism and Palestinian National Identity

Daniel Rey

In an infamous interview with the Sunday Times in 1969, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, made the claim that “there was no such thing as Palestinians”. This highlighted one of the darkest aspects of the history of Zionism: The belief that while there may be Palestinian people, there is not a Palestinian people.

One of the great tragedies of the Israel-Palestine conflict is that beyond the clash over security and territory there is a deeper, and more intractable, reality of competing national identities and aspirations over the same land.

From the outset of Zionism, a nascent assertion developed that the land of Israel was empty, and the Jewish people possessed a unique claim over the biblical territory. The early Zionists did not see, or rather did not want to see, the Arab inhabitants of the land. At the birth of Zionism in the late 19th century, ignorance of the make-up of Ottoman Palestine enabled Zionists such as Israel Zangwill to claim that Palestine literally had no inhabitants. He wrote in 1902 that Palestine “remains at this moment an almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined Turkish territory”.

However Zangwill soon opened his eyes. Soon after, he shocked the Zionist Congress by announcing that Palestine did in fact have a significant population.

And so the narrative changed. Early Zionists acknowledged the existence of Arab inhabitants of the land, but denied them any sense of collective identity. They were people, but not a people, or a nation, and only nations deserve nation-states. Zionists argued that while there may be other Arab inhabitants of the land, their claim to statehood did not rest on the same foundation of legitimacy as that of the Jewish people.

This claim was etched into the birth of Zionism with Chaim Weizmann, later to become president of the World Zionist Congress, who repeated in 1914 the oft-recited saying that there “is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without a people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country”.

This was a critical pillar of the development of Zionism as it provided a clear argument for a Jewish homeland to present to the international community. It also provided a riposte to the clear demographical imbalance that existed in mandate Palestine. In the year prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestinian Arab population held a two-thirds majority with 1.2 million in contrast to the 600,000 Jews.

Zionists argued that these people were merely inhabitants, rather than the full fledged citizens-in-waiting, that the Zionist Jews believed themselves to be.

This de-legitimisation of Palestinian national aspirations was infused in the British occupation, as the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine refused to accept the existence of Palestinians as an entity whatsoever and merely describing them as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.  This framework, coupled with the terms of the Balfour Declaration, which enshrined the aspiration for a “Jewish home”, laid the foundations for a Zionism which cemented its validity through the denial of the identity of the Arab Palestinian population.

Evidently, Palestinian national aspirations have suffered from a lack of tools available to other nation-states. As a nation that has never had its own state, the Arab Palestinian population has lacked the means to propagate its identity through independent political processes and education systems. Consequently the idea of Palestinian identity has always grown up in the shadow of other states—the Ottomans, then the British, and then the Zionists. Nonetheless, the collective narrative that makes up the constructed community of national identity was evident from the start of the 20th century in the profusion of Palestinian civil society, as demonstrated by the proliferation of the press.

The leading daily newspaper at the start of the British Mandate, Suriyya al-Janubiyya, expressed the bombastic nationalist rhetoric typical of any aspiring nation-state. A piece in January 1920 speaks of the “patriotic bonds and national rights” of its people and cries “Palestine, my honour, my glory, my life and my pride” in a manner typical of nineteenth century romantic nationalism. The paper’s articles from the early 1920s are notable in that they begin to refer solely to the Palestinian people, rather than the Arab population at large, and emphasise the shared affinity between the Christian and Muslim communities in their struggle with the rise of Zionism.

This vibrant civil society, straining under the British Mandate to express its identity, is a vital counterpoint to the right-wing Zionists of today. This Zionism is built on the claim that Palestinian nationalism is a ‘modern’ creation. They argue that it is merely a consequence of the establishment of Israel in 1948—and thus should be given less credence than the more historically founded Zionism. This viewpoint is given a voice by rambunctious American politicians, including Republican presidential hopefuls such as Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. The latter claimed only a matter of months ago that “there’s really no such things as the Palestinians”.

Former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, would use as evidence of this argument the name of Suriyya al-Janubiyya, which translates as “`Southern Syria”, to claim that prior to the establishment of the state of Israel, Palestinians merely viewed themselves as part of Syria rather than as an independent entity. It is indeed true that at the beginning of the 1920s, the Palestinian press did play heavily on the notion that it was a part of a wider Syria. However this must be viewed in the context of the era. At this time, King Faisal of Syria seemed to possess the greatest hope of breaking out of the colonial yoke of the region and thus was a rallying point for wider regional independence. The Palestinian elite therefore viewed Syrian independence as a stepping-stone to the emergence of a Palestinian nation.

The self-identification of ‘Southern Syria’ was, however, short-lived and as soon as the French crushed Faisal’s revolution, the Palestinian press made its intentions clear.  al-Sabah, the successor to the Surriya al-Janubiyya, explained in its first edition in October 1921 that it was being published in Jerusalem, “the capital of Palestine”, in contrast to preceding descriptions of the capital as “Damascus”.

Ultimately, Palestinian national identity is no greater or less than any other national affiliation, be it British, American or Zionist. However it is important to reaffirm the historical reality of Palestinian national identity to counter the more nefarious strains of right-wing Zionism. When the Israeli government expanded settlement building in the West Bank in the 1980s, they based its legality on an Ottoman ruling dating back to 1858 that declared that unused land could be turned over to the state. This behaviour can only be logically sustained by viewing the history of Palestine as merely rented land that was passed between different empires through history. It shows vicious contempt for Palestinian national identity. Consequently, Israeli governments have come to view Palestinian statehood as a price to pay for peace, rather than as the realisation of genuine national aspirations.

To move forward, liberal Zionism needs to argue more strongly than ever that the Israel-Palestine conflict is a conflict of intertwined national narratives and identities. Only through creating a Zionism that does not base its validity on the negation of the national identity of the Palestinians can a genuine and honest discussion on the meaning of a two-state solution occur. In 1973, the liberal Zionist outfit, Breira, called on American Jewry to “recognize the legitimacy of the national aspirations of the Palestinians”. Given the total lack of progress towards peace in the intervening forty-odd years, this call is as pertinent now as ever.