The Response to Violence in the Middle East: A Review of Anita Shapira’s Land and Power

Anita Shapira, Land and Power, The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (Stanford University Press, 1992)

Little did I know when I began reading Anita Shapira’s monumental study a month ago that events in the Middle East would provide an extra incentive for acquiring the knowledge imparted in these pages. Although Shapira’s book is tough reading due to her thorough and detailed description of the evolution of leading Zionists’ approach to the use of force from the beginning of the modern re-settlement of Palestine by Jews to Independence, the central thesis is clear and relatively undisputable.

Shapira describes how each major settlement group (of which there were five) viewed the fact that the land they were immigrating to was not barren of human population. Colored by their experience in the countries they had left––mainly Eastern Europe where the promise of equality was repeatedly quashed and lives taken, those who came to Palestine to re-claim the land promised to Abraham for most part rationalized away the potential problem their presence represented to the Arabs who were living there.

A few facts need to be stated for those not well-versed in the history of this region. First, there were Jews already living in Palestine when the first Zionist settlers arrived in the 1880s. Second, Palestine was never an independent, self-governing nation. From the time of the first modern settlers through World War I, the region was part of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, the British and French divided the region, the British being given a mandate to govern Palestine. Third, a form of Arab nationalism emerged over time, but there is little evidence that the notion of one’s being a Palestinian Arab coalesced before Independence. That doesn’t mean the Arabs living in Palestine were neutral to growing Jewish settlement. The problem is that Shapira does not report how they viewed what was happening around them. While most Arabs seemed to ignore the influx of Jews, some reacted negatively. Was that a reflection of religious teachings that cast Jews along with Christians as infidels, was it distrust of people who differed in so many ways, or was there some other basis for those views?

We do know that early settlers did not see their arrival as a threat to the Arab population. They projected an alliance reflecting the potential for economic development to lift Arab boats as well as their own. The settlers bought land, hired Arab laborers when there weren’t enough Jews to do the work, and, since many settlers were socialists, hoped poor Arabs would develop class consciousness. One thing these settlers did not do is view themselves as colonialists, although after World War I when the treaty of Versailles granted Palestine to the British, it’s likely many Arabs saw the settlers through that prism.

In the early years, faced with occasional attacks by random Arab groups, the settler community developed an ideology Shapira called the defensive ethos, which viewed the use of force by Jews to protect their communities as a necessary evil. That view shifted over time as generations of Jews born in Palestine came to view military capabilities as necessary to their survival. This offensive ethos contributed to the fact that Jews of Palestine were prepared psychologically to defend their home land when in 1948 Palestine was divided into two nations.

Shirpira’s history is geared towards scholars. She does offer important lessons, however, for the non-scholar, including the fact that the Holocaust did little to change the settler community’s belief that independence would most have to be achieved by military means. By the time word of what was going on in Hitler’s concentration camps reached that community, the majority were already prepared to fight to protect what they had established as well as to protect the right of Jews throughout the world to join them. In other words, the world’s reaction to the Holocaust lent official status to an existing situation––i.e., 650,000 Jews who felt their claim to the land they occupied was superior to that of their Arab neighbors.

Some may feel the absense of references to the Arab point of view in Land and Power is a weakness. Is that because there are few written sources available or because she was unable to access them? I believe the former to be the case. As a result, Shapira is forced to interpret how Arabs living in Palestine viewed the growing Jewish settlement primarily by interpreting the extent to which Zionist leaders viewed the Arab population as a problem or a threat––concerns which ebbed and flowed with events.

What can we learn about today’s crisis from reading Shapira? Palestine Arabs whose heritage went back generations had justifiable grounds in 1948 for being unhappy with partition. For some it meant leaving their homes or living once more under “foreign” rule. Did that unhappiness justify going to war? Were other options considered? Tried?

Arab hostility to Jews began as individual attacks––crimes of robbery and murder––and evolved into more serious riots and eventually military actions. Shapira doesn’t explain this pattern which began when Jews were a tiny minority, but for the Israel of today the reason doesn’t matter. They must deal with the consequences and they have.

Americans who judge Israel negatively might want to reflect on our own past. Placing our history of dealing with the native populations against that of Israel’s ought to give us pause. After the Civil War we waged war against tribes that lived in areas we coveted killing women and children as well as warriors and reducing the survivors to reservation captives. Israel allows equal rights to non-Jewish residents and although some Palestinian Arabs have been driven from their homes, that has largely been a response to Israel’s being under attack.

Shapira reports that some settlers feared teaching the young the art of warfare would harm the community. Violence tends to drive out moderation and to beget more violence, but moderation doesn’t always lead to peace. We learn from history that the choices people make are not pre-determined. Being aware of choices is the first step to avoid falling back on options that yield negative results. Perhaps after the War of 2014, Palestinian Arabs will reflect on the choices they have made in the past and decide to try a different approach. We can always hope.

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