By Nizar Sakhnini
The first call for “Jewish” nationalism and the creation of a “Jewish” state came from Imperial France. In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, who was interested in expanding his Empire, stood within twenty-five miles of Jerusalem and proclaimed: “Israelites arise! Now is the moment…to claim your political existence as a nation among nations!” Eight years later, Napoleon issued an invitation for a Jewish convention for all European Jews.
The French emperor, however, was not alone in encouraging the Jews to go to Palestine. Palmerstone of Imperial “Great” Britain was interested in facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1840. When Britain bought the Egyptian share in the Suez Canal Corp. in 1875, Lord Rothschild (Baron de Rothschild) financed the deal. Two years later, Lord Rotschild financed the first Jewish settlement in Palestine, Betah Tekfa. (Mohammad Hassanine Haikal, Secret Negotiations between the Arabs and Israel – Arabic – pp. 21-51. See also Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, p. 8)
These imperial calls were soon echoed by “the three prophetic harbingers of political Zionism”: Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai (1798-1878), Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer (1795-1874), and Moses Hess (1812-1875).
Moses Hess was a German socialist ideologue. In the 1850s, Hess changed his ideological direction and in 1862 published his Zionist vision in a book entitled “Rome and Jerusalem: The Last Nationality Question”. Moses argued that anti-Semitism would prevent the Jews from assimilating in Christian society and, consequently, they needed to establish their own national state in Palestine.
At the time Hess wrote his book, the Ottoman Empire was weak and on the verge of disintegration. Western Imperialist powers were planning to jump on and inherit the “Sick Man of Europe”. Accordingly, Hess felt that “the state the Jews would establish in the heart of the Middle East would serve Western imperial interests and at the same time help bring Western civilization to the backward East”. (Benny Morris, “Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999”, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, pp. 14-17)
Leo Pinsker, a Jewish physician in Odessa, published a book in 1882, “Autoemancipation”, urging his people to go and settle in Palestine as farmers and artisans. He founded the society of Hovevei Zion (Hibbat Zion or Chibath Zion) in order to facilitate emigration of Jews to Palestine.
Ahad Ha’am was also one of the founding leaders of Hovevei Zion. He visited Palestine in 1891 and called for the creation of a Jewish cultural center, stressing that Palestine was not only a small land but also not an empty land. He pointed out that there was little uncultivated or utilized soil in Palestine other than some stony hills or sand dunes and warned that the Jewish settlers should not provoke “the wrath of the natives by ugly actions”. (Hans Kohn, Zion and the Jewish National Idea, from The Menorah Journal, XLVI, Nos. 1 & 2, 1958, reproduced in Walid Khalidi. Reproduced in Walid Khalidi, pp. 807-840)
Theodor Herzl published his “Der Judenstaat” in 1896, which articulated the political Zionist ideology and plans for colonizing Palestine. Herzl played a leading role in creating the institutional infrastructure for the political Zionist movement by founding the Zionist Organization in 1897. The ZO created a network of institutions in Palestine and all over the world for the purpose of creating a Jewish State in Palestine and the surrounding region.
Herzl admitted that the idea of a Jewish State implied transplantation of Jews from wherever they lived to a new location. Such an idea, however, would create economic and social disturbances. To avoid this situation and secure the integrity of the idea, Herzl proposed “the creation of a body corporate, or corporation. This corporation will be called The Society of Jews. In addition to it there will b a Jewish Company, an economically productive body”. (Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question, London: H. Pordes, Translated by Sylvie D’avigdor – 6th Edition, pp. 20-21)
To achieve the idea [the Jewish State], The Society of Jews and the Jewish Company had to proceed according to a master plan, which Herzl laid down in his pamphlet. This plan was reflected in the Basle Program that was adopted by the ZO in 1897.
For Herzl, the plan was simple “Let the sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves”. Herzl was ready to establish the state anywhere. All he wanted was permission from the great powers allowing the Jews to establish their state on a neutral piece of land. “Should the Powers declare themselves willing to admit our sovereignty over a neutral piece of land, then the Society [of Jews] will enter into negotiations for the possession of this land”. He was fully aware that the native people may be attached to their land and may resist colonization of their country by foreigners. To avoid such a situation, he opposed gradual Jewish infiltration (immigration) to the chosen country. “An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the Government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless based on an assured supremacy”. “Assured supremacy” was to be attained by dealing with the rulers of the respective country with the support of the Great powers. Accordingly, “The Society of Jews will treat with the present masters of the land, putting itself under the protectorate of the European Powers, if they prove friendly to the plan”. To get the approval of the present masters of the land, he proposed to “offer the present possessors of the land enormous advantages, take upon ourselves part of the public debt”. The support of the Great powers, on the other hand, could be obtained by offering “special services” to them: “Supposing His Majesty the Sultan [Turkish Sultan] were to give us Palestine, we could in return undertake to regulate the whole finances of Turkey [Turkey at the time was in huge amount of debt]. We should there form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should, as a Neutral State, remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence. The sanctuaries of Christendom would be safeguarded by assigning to them an extra-territorial status such as is well known to the law of nations”. (Ibid, pp. 28-30)
Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, however, almost died with him in 1904. What saved the project were British plans during WWI for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and control of the Eastern parts of the Arab homeland, which formed a land bridge between Egypt and India. France, on the other hand, had similar objectives and was mainly interested in Syria, including its Mount Lebanon coast. These designs were reflected in the Sykes-Picot agreement that was signed on 16 May 1916 according to which the whole Fertile Crescent was divided into British and French spheres of influence.
The British role was significant in facilitating the Zionist project. Chaim Weizmann, the architect of the Zionist-British relationship, got acquainted with C. P. Scott, the editor of the ManchesterGuardian. On 12 November 1914, Weizman wrote a letter to Scott stating, “…should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence, and should Britain encourage a Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency, we could have in twenty to thirty years a million Jews out there, perhaps more. They would develop the country, bring back civilization to it and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal”.
According to Weizmann, Herbert H. Asquith, then British Prime Minister, wrote the following in his diary on January 28, 1915. “I received from Herbert Samuel (who was later appointed as the first British High Commissioner for Palestine) a memorandum headed ‘The Future of Palestine’. He goes on to argue at considerable length and with some vehemence in favor of the British annexation of Palestine… He thinks we might plant in this not very promising territory about three or four million European Jews and that this would have a good effect on those who are left behind… I confess I am not attracted to this proposed addition to our responsibilities…” Asquith later added, “Curiously enough, the only other partisan of this proposal is Lloyd George. And I need not say he does not care a damn for the Jews or their past or their future, but thinks it will be an outrage to let the Holy Places pass into the possession or under the protectorate of ‘agnostic and atheistic’ France”. (A detailed account of the Zionist activities and contacts leading to the Balfour Declaration was given in: Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, Chapters 7-18, pp. 93-208)
The Balfour Declaration, promising support for a “Jewish National Home in Palestine”, which was issued on 2 November 1917, resuscitated the “Zionist Dream” and launched a state of cooperation between the World Zionist Organization and the Imperialist powers. This close cooperation was enhanced following WWII under U.S. patronage.
U.S. relationship with the Zionist-Arab conflict started as early as WWI. Its position began as a neutral power interested in the application of self-determination to all ethnic groups as advocated by President Woodrow Wilson. This relationship developed into supporting Britain in its designs for control and hegemony in the Middle East as a result of the discovery of oil in the area. It was further developed into supporting Zionist plans in Palestine that gradually enhanced into a strategic alliance between the U.S. and Israel..
Palestine was not an empty land waiting for the Zionists to build up their contemplated state. Dispossessing the Palestinian Arabs of their lands and driving them out of their country provoked the inevitable reaction of a people attached to their land. The Palestinians realized the implications of the combined Zionist-Imperialist invasion and began a long and unrelenting resistance against the colonial settlers and their Imperialist supporters.