“A land without a people for a people without a land”
It is almost impossible to acquaint yourself with scholarship on Palestine, or be involved in Palestinian activism to any extent without coming across a variation of the above. Sadly, despite all the meticulous scholarship of Palestinians and others on the topic, variations of this talking point remain a prominent feature of Israeli propaganda. But how could such a ridiculous and thoroughly debunked claim still exist to this day? Wouldn’t disproving it be as simple as a quick internet search?
Indeed, all it takes is a glance at the Nüfus (Ottoman population registry) or the much later British mandate census data to see that the land has never been empty. Additionally, inspecting these numbers tells quite a clear tale of a minority settler population growing next to a large native majority. I will not be going into the details of population numbers, but if you are at all interested in the minutiae of census and population information in Palestine, then I would recommend obtaining a copy of Justin McCarthy’s The population of Palestine: Population history and statistics of the late Ottoman period and the Mandate.
Even the earliest of proto-Zionists knew this was not a factual statement. Some of the earliest Zionist ‘pioneers’ that settled Palestine before Zionism even had its first conference wrote condescendingly about their experiences with the natives. I imagine it would be quite difficult to document your interactions with a people who do not exist.
So why does this slogan persist?
This slogan persists to this day because it was never meant to be literal, but colonial and ideological. This phrase is yet another formulation of the concept of Terra Nullius meaning “nobody’s land”. In one form or the other, this concept played a significant role in legitimizing the erasure of the native population in virtually every settler colony, and laying down the ‘legal’ and ‘moral’ basis for seizing native land. According to this principle, any lands not managed in a ‘modern’ fashion were considered empty by the colonists, and therefore up for grabs. Essentially, yes there are people there but no people that mattered or were worth considering.
There is no doubt that Zionism is a settler colonial movement intent on replacing the natives. As a matter of fact, this was a point of pride for the early Zionists, as they saw the inhabitants of the land as backwards and barbaric, and that a positive aspect of Zionism would be the establishment of a modern nation state there to act as a bulwark against these ‘regressive’ forces in the east [You can read more about this here].
A characteristic feature of early Zionist political discourse is pretending that Palestinians exist only as individuals or sometimes communities, but never as constituting a people or a nation. This was accompanied by the typical arrogance and condescension towards the natives seen in virtually every settler colonial movement.
That the early settlers interacted with the natives while simultaneously claiming the land was empty was not seen as contradictory to them. According to these colonists, even if some scattered, disorganized people did exist, they were not worthy of the land they inhabited. They were unable to transform the land into a modern functioning nation state, extract resources efficiently and contribute to ‘civilization’ through the free market, unlike the settlers. Patrick Wolfe’s scholarship on Australia brilliantly illustrates this dynamic and how it was exploited to establish the settler colony.
This becomes exceedingly clear when reading the discussions of early Zionists, such as Chaim Weizmann, who when asked about the inhabitants of Palestine responded with:
“The British told us that there are there some hundred thousands negroes [Kushim] and for those there is no value.”.
You can clearly see the influence and internalization of racist European colonial rhetoric. This attitude would become a cornerstone of Zionism as a political and colonial movement. This is why there is an emphasis in the Zionist narrative of how supposedly desolate and backwards Palestine was before their arrival. This same logic animates the ‘making the desert bloom’ myth that remains central to Israeli Hasbara efforts [You can read more about this here]. The underlying message being: We deserve the land more than its natives, they have done nothing with it, we can bring it into modernity.
Perhaps one of the most widely quoted texts used to support this argument is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869) in which he chronicled his travels through Europe and the Middle East. Naturally, his unflattering descriptions of the ‘Holy land’, both people and land, is what draws attention, as he found Palestine to be a “..hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land“. He then concludes that ‘Palestine is desolate and unlovely.’
Twain’s account is taken as definitive proof that Palestine was a lifeless, empty husk before the arrival of the Zionist colonists. But as usual, in order to present and sustain this talking point, context must be completely ignored and any evidence to the opposite omitted. Even if we are to take Twain’s commentary at face value, one would be remiss not to investigate the circumstances of his visit.
Indeed, once some very basic research is done it becomes clear that Twain visited Palestine in September, which meant that it was at the end of the summer season and the land had not seen any rain for months. In addition to this, his visit happened to coincide with a drought, meaning that this was an exceptional case of dryness even for September. And finally, his visit also coincided with the American civil war, which disrupted the cotton trade the region depended upon. That meant that the whole area, not only Palestine, was undergoing a significant economic downturn and increase in poverty, which pushed many a peasant to abandon their farms.
But let us say you are unconvinced by this, what have others who visited Palestine had to say?
Twain is far from the only traveler to visit Palestine in the 19th century. Another such traveler is David Roberts, a Scottish painter who visited Palestine in 1839. He wrote describing his travels that the way from Jaffa to Jerusalem lay..
“..across the plain of Sharon, through a richly-cultivated country. The ground is carpeted with flowers—the plain is studded with small villages and groups of palm-trees, and, independent of its interesting associations, the country is the loveliest I ever beheld.“
Siegfried Sassoon also visited Palestine during the first world war and chronicled his journey:
“March 11, reached Railhead (Ludd) at 2.30 pm. Olive trees and almond orchards. Fine hills inland, not unlike Scotland. Last night we went through flat sandy places. About daybreak the country began to be green. Tents among crops and trees all the way up from Gaza. Weather warm and pleasant, with clouds. A few Old Testament pictures of people and villages. Inhabitants seem to live by selling enormous oranges to the troops on the train.”
On page 94 of his digitized journal, which you can access fully (here), he wrote describing the flowers growing in Palestine:
“Came back through a tangle of huge golden daisies -knee deep solid gold, as if Midas had been walking here among the almond trees and cantaloupes.”
So, what is the truth? Was Palestine a desolate, backwater wasteland, or a paradise with golden daisies and green hills akin to those in Scotland?
Both Roberts and Sassoon visited Palestine in the spring, at the end of the rainy season in years with no droughts. It makes sense, then, that the land would be green and the trees and flowers would be blooming.
So why only focus on the Twain paragraph to the exclusion of others? Is it not intellectually dishonest to present The Innocents Abroad as the definitive description of Palestine when other accounts contradict it? Is this not an irresponsible and deceptive selection of information?
Sadly, this is par for the course, as more often than not these arguments are made in bad faith. Because once again, conveying historical or factual accuracy is not the intended goal of these claims. These claims serve mainly as propaganda to legitimize the colonization of Palestine and to prove that the Zionist movement was more entitled to the land than its natives. This speaks to the insecurity of the settler, as such efforts to justify themselves would not be needed if they did not believe -even if on a subconscious level- that they do not belong.
This is hardly the only example of such discourse, Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial is one of the more shameless propaganda publications masquerading as a history book, full of cherry-picked data and absurd claims regarding the origins of Palestinians [You can read more about this here]. Even though this book has been utterly debunked by a large number of scholars, it remains incredibly popular among Zionists as the definitive version of history. The endurance of this book as a source of information shows that much discourse on the question of Palestine is anything but fact based.
These cases illustrate a central point about Israeli and Zionist propaganda: It is full of selectively chosen data, dubious framing and omissions of inconvenient information. To succeed, it primarily relies on the ignorance of the listener. These talking points do not stand up to scrutiny, and wither away once countered with actual historic literacy. We should strive to challenge these claims wherever they arise, and do our best to set the record straight.
But for argument’s sake, even if Palestine had been truly “desolate” or “unlovely”, does this provide a moral cover for settler colonialism, ethnic cleansing and erecting a reactionary ethnocracy at the expense of the people living there? Of course not. It’s a fruitless argument which only aims to discredit the natives.
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- Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of genocide research 8.4, 2006: 387-409.
- Ḥisin, Ḥayyim. A Palestine diary: memoirs of a Bilu pioneer, 1882-1887. Herzl Press, 1976.
- Svirsky, Marcelo. “The Production of Terra Nullius and the Zionist-Palestinian Conflict.” Deleuze and the Postcolonial, 2010: 220.
- Said, Edward W. The question of Palestine. Vintage, 1992.
- McCarthy, Justin. The population of Palestine: Population history and statistics of the late Ottoman period and the Mandate. Columbia University Press, 1990.
- Said, Edward W., and Christopher Hitchens, eds. Blaming the victims: Spurious scholarship and the Palestinian question. Verso, 2001.
- Wolf, Patrick. Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology. London: Cassell, 1999.
- Yiftachel, Oren. Ethnocracy: Land and identity politics in Israel/Palestine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.