This phrase was used in the 1800s and into the 1900s for the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. The Jews in the diaspora were a people without a land. The Land of Israel, it was said, was a land without a people. The Palestinian Arabs, including many Arab Christians, are greatly offended by this statement. They say that they were the people inhabiting the Land and that they are the indigenous people who were displaced. In addition, the Palestinians and the Muslim world declare that Israel is a colonial invasion of the West that has displaced the native population. So what is the truth of the matter?
We live in a world where people pick and choose from the totality of the evidence to create narratives that favor their particular ethnicity, party or group. Very few are willing to take the time to gain a more comprehensive understanding. My intent is to present a helpful summary.
First of all, it is crucial to note that political and cultural leaders have a deficient definition of justice. Justice is not unqualified equality in every area of life. Rather, justice is an order of righteousness where each person and all peoples can fulfill their God-intended destiny. This may include the inheritance of a particular land for this or that people. God owns all the lands of the world and has the right to allocate these lands as He wishes and sees fit. His first stated land allocation is the Land of Israel for the Jewish people, confirmed throughout the Bible.
“Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their children and their children’s children, forever …” (Ezekiel 37:25)
Before addressing other justice issues we must note that the largest justice issue is what the Just God has declared.
So how did the Jewish people come to re-inhabit their ancient land? We begin by noting that there was always a small remnant of Jewish people in the Land of Israel, even after the people sinned and were exiled by Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans. A remnant of Jewish people faithfully remained in spite of persecution. Throughout centuries of Christian and Muslim rule there has been a distinctive Jewish presence in the Land. Many Jews were killed by the Crusaders during the siege of Jerusalem in 1099. There was a significant resurgence of Jewish occupation in the Galilee during the 16th century, gathered around Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed. In the middle of the 19th century, the Jewish people were a majority in the City of Jerusalem.
The Zionist movement of the 19th century was mainly spearheaded by secular Jews and Christian Zionists who built on the existing presence of religious Jews dwelling in the four holy cities – Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius and Safed. The Christian Zionistswere motivated by a sense of prophetic destiny and Puritan theology. The secular Jews were seeking dignity after many centuries of persecution. Among them was Theodore Herzl who gave up his hope for European Jewish life after the persecution and unfair trial of a French Jewish military officer (the “Dreyfus affair”). The violent persecutions in Russia, Poland and Romania in the late 19th century were also great motivators. The early Jewish pioneers sought dignity in nationalism by returning to their ancient land and becoming a free nation. This was in the context of the age of national movements in other areas of the world.
It was an exaggeration on the part of the early Zionists to say they had found a “land without a people”. What they found was a largely forsaken region under the weakening, remote rule of the Ottoman Empire. They found a land with only a few hundred thousand occupants in an area that had contained millions during the ancient Israelite periods of history. There were Arab villages and farms, but most of the country was unsettled and desolate.
The land for Jewish settlement was purchased, not conquered. Poor land was prepared for Zionist farming. Swamps were drained and many died of malaria. Numerous Arabs gladly sold property to the Jews at inflated prices. However, especially after World War I, other Arabs saw the Jewish people as a threat, and engaged in violent attacks. One terrible attack was the famous massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron in 1929.
A Colonial Invasion?
When the British took over the province from the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1917 due to the latter’s alignment with Germany in World War I, colonial motives were significant. But to say that Israel’s existence was a product of colonialism is a real lie. Jewish settlement had already
|British General Allenby
entering Jerusalem, 1917
been taking place under Turkish rule. The British policy freed the Arab territories from Turkish control. The British colonial rule in Palestine only favored Zionism for about half a decade. By the mid 1920s Britain turned against its historic understanding of its role with the Jewish people. They became anti-Zionist and their colonial policy supported the Arabs and imposed strict limits on Jewish immigration. But the Jewish population grew in spite of British colonialism.
After World War II, despite British opposition, Jewish people escaping from the Holocaust in Europe came in large numbers and settled in many parts of the Land. The Holocaust did produce world sympathy for the Jewish people, hence the U.N. vote for a Jewish state. After the Arabs rejected the U.N. partition plan, Israel declared her independence. Both Russia and the United States recognized Israel. President Harry Truman, against the counsel of his top advisors, recognized the State of Israel. His advisors believed that the national self-interest of the United States, including the need for oil, would be best served by alignment with the Arabs. Truman’s recognition was contrary to colonial motivations. Later, during the Cold War, Israel was found to be a valuable ally against Arab states aligned with Russia (the Soviet Union), and U.S. military support for Israel began. However, Israel was never the colonial darling or embraced project of Western colonial powers. This is an Arab myth now embraced by the political left in Europe and parts of America.
Until the 1948 war, no Arab villages were emptied. However, during that fighting, some Arabs chose to flee Israel, while others were forcefully evacuated according to Israel’s assessment of its security needs. This created the Arab refugee situation which is a great and painful memory to the Arab people. Sadly, the main reason for the loss was their rejection of the Jewish state and Israel’s security needs in the light of that rejection. Had they accepted the Jewish people, there would not have been such loss.
Jewish Immigration and Settlement from 1948 Until Today
After the 1948 War of Independence, more refuges from Eastern Europe arrived. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fled or were expelled from Arab lands to settle in Israel. So again this was no Western colonial invasion.
In the ’67 War territory was conquered, and settlements of Jewish people in Judea and Samaria were fostered. This again was done to increase Jewish security. In this war, Arab villages were mostly left intact. It was hoped by some that the Jewish population would grow and dominate, but others hoped that Jordan would someday rule the Palestinian areas and Israel the Jewish areas. The intensity of today’s difficulties was not anticipated by most.
It should also be known that Jewish development, during the British rule of the Land, attracted Arab immigration from Egypt and Syria into the country. The British allowed open Arab immigration after World War II. The growing Arab population began to express itself as a distinct people laying claim to the Land and feeling threatened by the even-more-rapidly-growing Jewish population.
However, we should note that it was Arab propaganda that created the myth of an Israel created by a colonial invasion. No such invasion ever took place and Israel exists largely in spite of Western colonial powers, not because of them.
This is the messy situation in which we find ourselves; one land with two peoples. There seems to be no humanly gratifying solution.
Nevertheless, God is fulfilling His promises to the descendants of Jacob. His promises to Jacob do not negate His redeeming love for our neighbours of Arabic heritage. Therefore we believe that part of Israel’s restoration will be increasing reconciliation with the remnant among our Arab cousins the sons of Ishmael.