It Was — And Is — All About the Land

l-r: Cathy Olswing, Prof. Zach Levey, Judy Megibow, Beth Ornstein, Charna Rosenholtz

Professor Zach Levey gave a presentation Sunday night at Congregation Bonai Shalom entitled: “The Rise of the Arab-Jewish Conflict in Palestine: 1921-1939.”  Co-sponsored by the Congregation Bonai Shalom Adult Education and Social Action Committees and the Boulder Chapter of Hadassah, the event also featured Cathy Olswing, Regional Vice President for Hadassah’s Desert Mountain Region, who briefly presented Hadassah’s role in Palestine during the same period.

Speaking before an almost-full room, Professor Levey provided an illustrated history of the roots of the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine in the early years of the 20th century up to the beginning of World War II.  Contrasting (and generalizing) the two groups in that period, the Arabs were still organized mostly along clan lines, and operating much as they had for hundreds of years under the Ottoman Turks.  The Jews, in contrast, were mostly educated, dedicated Zionists with modern political outlooks, from the socialists of the kibbutz movement to the democrats and parliamentarians from Europe.

More photos from the event:

The Arabs had been promised self-rule by the British during the First World War in order to enlist their support against the Ottoman Empire.  However, the Arabs were just as aware of the British Balfour Declaration, which seemed to run counter to their interests from the beginning.  As Jewish immigration stepped up after World War I under the British Mandate, and the British seemed in no hurry to grant the Arabs self-rule, riots and other violent confrontations began to be the order of the day.  And despite Arab societal pressure, and even a fatwah against doing so, Arabs continued to sell land to the Jews at a tremendous profit, as the Jews would buy even seemingly worthless malarial swamp land for tremendous sums.

As the Jewish population rose from 80,000 just before World War I to over 400,000 (31% of the population) by 1939, the two populations, which had lived quite separately for years, rubbed against each other more and more often, all over the country.  By 1939, it was clear to the British that they had made a mistake in seemingly promising the same land to two peoples — there seemed to be no possibility of compromise or even reasonable separation — even though the Jews were agreeable to a partition arrangement, the Arabs were vehemently against any such loss of any of their lands.  The British ultimately sided with the Arabs, who had population and oil as the world went to war again, and the stage was set for what was to follow.

The question and answer session after the talks was made especially interesting by the remarks of audience members who lived or spent time in Palestine during the Mandatory period.

Zach Levey is the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Professor in the Jewish Studies Program, Political Science and International Affairs at the University of Colorado in Boulder. His principal areas of research and teaching are the Cold War, US-Israeli relations, the foreign policy of Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

About David Fellows

I've been writing things since grammar school, and served as a writer, photographer and/or an editor on my junior high and high school newspapers; the Daily Trojan at USC (where I earned my journalism degree); the student newspaper at the Anderson School at UCLA (where I earned my MBA); and written and edited countless business documents and presentations in the ensuing twenty years. I've been involved Jewishly since my bris and in Boulder since 1995. I'm married to my Executive Director Cheryl, and we have two children, Lauren and Ethan.

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One comment

  1. There is little to argue about Professor Levey's outline of Middle East history*, and his point about the land question being the context for the antagonisms between the Jewish and Arab commnities is well taken. These are certainly points of agreement. But as so many people, particularly the Jewish commnunities, bend over backwards and stretch to make this the sine qua non of the problem, I have my doubts.

    To point to the land problem in this way is to get the current situation wrong.

    The question underlying the problem of peace is more about cultural and religious criteria than a question about where Jews can get a break from the Arabs on the land question, or vice-versa. It was historically so and it is the same now. Then one has to factor in the political and economic questions as well, although land does play more closely into these questions.

    This is a mistake the Left seems to flounder upon. The Oslo peace process did not, historically, revolve around the question of Israeli settlements, for instance, and this was not a bone of contention at the beginning. The Arab street, and the leadership, largely has always been focused on a two-stage process: first to gain a foothold in the territories and then to overwhelm and take back Israel itself by any means necessary. This is simply in the recorded conversation within the Arab communities themselves even as they tried to hide this aspiration from the outside world. They continue to hide this and the West continues to fall for it. The result is continued antagonisms.

    The Palestinian Arabs largely, and among others, simply hate the Jews for underlying cultural and religious reasons and not simply because they have a legitimate claim based on the land question. They may have such claims due them on the land question, and I am not disputing that, but a mistake is made NOT to see the role of religious and cultural differences in the antagonisms. They are primary, and not secondary, and they are indefatigable.

    As Golda Meir stated so long ago, the Arabs will make peace when they love their children more than they hate the Jews.

    The land question would not be a problem for the Arab street if their hate did not drive the peace process into the ground.

    Let me be clear: The Arab world is, as is the case in the Muslim world, not incapable of having a profoundly good relationship with the Jews, and many parts of that world do. This is true from Turkey to Morrocco and beyond, including within the Palestinian communities. This was also true historically. But to ignore the bad parts by focusing on land is just excacerbating the problem.

    We need dialogue with the Arabs, but we need to insist that they drop their anti-Semitism. The world needs to do that as well. In fact, at some level that process has started, but it could fall backwards easily. With resolve to deal with the cultural and religious problem, then we might actually have peace, and the land question can be settled.

    * One quibble here. Professor Levey kept calling the Arabs living in the Yishuv in the period of 1921 to 1939, the period of his lecture, Palestinians or Arab Palestinians. In fact, they were a people who mostly thought of themselves as Syrian, not Palestinian. When newspapers of that era used the term "Palestinian," they were referring to the Jews, not the Arabs. Calling them Palestinians is to buy into their argument that they were a people distinct from Syrian origins and that the Jews were interlopers into their land. The reference to Palestinians is much more recent. This distinction is confusing to those who want to understand the history of the region and the basis of the current conflict. Jews have a 3000 year plus history in the land there, and are not simply recent immigrants different from the Arab story there.