The Concept of Land in the Zionist Ideology

by Sergio Yahni

The concept of land in the Zionist movement emerged from a colonial perception of non European territories: an immense empty space for the action of the white man. However, colonialism missed the concept of state building and aimed at the economic exploitation of colonies by big corporations or by individual entrepreneurs. The Zionist objective, on the other hand, was the creation of a new nation.

Land for the Zionist movement was not a foundation for economic entrepreneurship but the objective starting point for the transformation of European Jews into a modern nation. Land was not anymore a void territory but a landscape full of meaning – the domain of a heroic past, described in romantic terms, that becomes the basic territory of a new nation.

Thus, the detachment of the native population from the land that originates in extreme colonial violence, and is common to all colonial enterprises, becomes a basic political objective in Zionist colonialism: the territory must become physically empty to allow the metamorphosis of a European minority.

However, while Zionism is a Jewish movement, one among many, it is deeply rooted in the Christian messianic perceptions. The Restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land, and Jewish statehood were perceived by puritans as a milestone in their normalization and transformation into followers of Christ. Within such messianic perception the land itself becomes an empty territory when it exists outside the Abraham’s covenant with God.

Similarly to colonial projects in other territories, also in the colonization of Palestine messianic perceptions were a vehicle of colonialism that enhances white supremacy legitimizing the dispossession of heathens. However, in Palestine, the messianic perceptions were secularized as the construction of the nation was reframed in new terms, which in many cases derived from the language of the labor movement.


Land as the objective foundation in nation building

The Zionist concept of land emerged among Christian Restorationist who believed in the return of the Jews to Judea, as prophesied in the Bible as a precondition for the Second Coming of Christ.

In 1839 Rev. Alexander Keith, D.D., undertook a Mission of Inquiry to Palestine along other ministers of the Church of Scotland. The group traveled through France, Greece, and Egypt then overland to Gaza. They sought Jewish communities along the route to inquire about their readiness to accept Christ and, separately, their preparedness to return to Israel as prophesied in the Bible. Keith recounts the journey in his 1844 book The Land of Israel According to the Covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. It was also in that book that Keith used the slogan “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

At the end of the 19th century this concept was secularized by Theodore Herzl in a short pamphlet entitled “The Jewish State, A Proposal of a modern solution for the Jewish question.”  At this pamphlet Herzl argues that anti-Semitism is rooted in the landlessness condition of the Jews that prevent them from becoming a nation, a people who share a common territory and government.

"The Jewish question persists wherever Jews live in appreciable numbers. Wherever it does not exist, it is brought in together with Jewish immigrants. We are naturally drawn into those places where we are not persecuted, and our appearance there gives rise to persecution. This is the case, and will inevitably be so, everywhere, even in highly civilized countries - see, for instance, France - so long as the Jewish question is not solved on the political level. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America."

Israel Zangwill, one’s of Herzl colleagues at the Zionist movement, clarified the land and nation components of the equation. In an article published in the New Liberal Review, Zangwill  claimed that "Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country".  According to Zangwill, "Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes,” and concluded that there is a need to “restore the country without a people to the people without a country. For we have something to give as well as to get. We can sweep away the blackmailer—be he Pasha or Bedouin—we can make the wilderness blossom as the rose, and build up in the heart of the world a civilization that may be a mediator and interpreter between the East and the West."

Practically speaking, Herzl speculated that overcoming anti-Semitism through transforming the Jewish people into a modern nation was possible within the colonial realm:  “We know and see for ourselves that States still continue to be created. Colonies secede from the mother country. Vassals fall away from their suzerain; newly opened territories are immediately formed into free States. “

Land, according to Herzl is “the objective foundation of a State,” while the people is its subjective one. Accordingly, Herzl perceives state making as a process that evolve in two momentums. First securing the subjective foundation through the establishment of an incorporated “Society of Jews,” a political entity that will collectively manage Jewish affairs through negotiations with the colonial powers in order to acquire the objective foundation of the state: the land.


Labor as the builder of the subjective foundation of the state

Herzl’s perception of the land and the political institutions for acquiring the land were just the skeleton of the nation building process. However, Herzl and the political Zionism were not capable to concretize the modes of conquest.  The concrete colonization of Palestine was made possible by a new factor, labor, or pioneering, Zionism.

The German philosopher Moses Hess published in 1862 his work Rome and Jerusalem where he argues for Jewish settlement in Palestine as a response to European anti-Semitism.  Hess, that earlier collaborated with Marx and Engels, came to the conclusion that history is a circle of race and national struggles. He contemplated the rise of Italian and German nationalism and arrived at the idea of Jewish national revival. Following the steps of the emerging nationalist movements Hess proposed an agrarian Jewish socialist commonwealth in Palestine.

Hess claims that the agrarianization of Jews through a process of "redemption of the soil" will transform the Jewish community into the productive layers of society rather than being an intermediary non-productive merchant class, which is how he perceived European Jews.

Forty years later, the Russian Zionist thinker Dov Ber Borochov, continuing the work of Hess, proposed that the colonization of Palestine would correct the "inverted pyramid" of Jewish society. He claimed that Jewish society is abnormal as most of the Jews were forced out productive occupations by Gentile hostility and competition. He concluded that the Jewish society would not be healthy the majority of Jews became workers and peasants again. This, he held, could only be accomplished in palestine.

Hess and Borochov ideas were concretized in the 1907 Ramla conference of Poalei Tzion Party giving birth to the Zionist pioneering movement. Poalei Zion, which following Hess stated in Ramla that “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class and nations struggles.” At the core of Poalei Tzion ideology was the conquest of the “land along the conquest of work.” In other words, Poalei Tzion supported and promoted the dispossession of Palestinian natives from their attachment to the land as well as their working places. The strategy proposed by Poalei Tzion was the creation of self governing colonies of land workers  in a way that will allow the control of Jewish only territories. 

The Zionist movement was controlled by Poalei Tzion party and its derivate organizations (Mapai, Labor Party etc.) since 1920 until 1976. The way the Zionist movement grips the land was designed by Poalei Tzion and continues until today.


Ethnic cleaning as a precondition to the Jewish State

The aggressive colonial policies promoted by the Jewish Agency under the leadership of MAPAI (a derivate party of Poalei Tzion) during the first 14 years of the British Mandate prompted periodical Palestinian uprisings that in 1936 provoked the six-month-long Arab general strike.

Following the strike, on 11 November, 1936, the Palestine Royal Commission, a British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by William Peel arrived in Palestine to investigate the reasons behind the uprising. The commission returned to Britain on 18 January 1937 and on July 7, 1937, published a report that recommended partition of Palestine.

The report recommended that the British Mandate be eventually abolished—except in a "corridor" surrounding Jerusalem, stretching to the Mediterranean coast at Jaffa—and the land under its authority, and accordingly, the transfer of both Arab and Jewish populations, be apportioned between an Arab and Jewish state.

The Jewish side was to receive a territorially smaller portion in the mid-west and north, from Mount Carmel to south of Be'er Tuvia, as well as the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee, while the Arab state was to receive territory in the south and mid-east which included Judea, Samaria, and the Naqab.

The report claimed that "sooner or later there should be a transfer of land and, as far as possible, an exchange of population" and that "in the last resort the exchange would be compulsory". It cited as precedent the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. According to the report the population exchange, if carried out, would have involved the transfer of up to 225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews.

The Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich (3 to 16 August 1937) announced "that the partition plan proposed by the Peel Commission is not to be accepted,” however, the congress expressed its wish “to carry on negotiations in order to clarify the exact substance of the British government's proposal for the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine".

Later at the same congress, David Ben-Gurion, MAPAI, then chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, told those in attendance that, though "there could be no question...of giving up any part of the Land of Israel,... it was arguable that the ultimate goal would be achieved most quickly by accepting the Peel proposals."

According to Professor Charles D. Smith from the University of Arizona, "Weizmann and Ben-Gurion did not feel they had to be bound by the borders proposed. These could be considered temporary boundaries to be expanded in the future." Professor Benny Morris of the Ben Gurion University states Ben Gurion sow as a positive achievement the commission’s recommendation on population exchange.

Eventually Ben Gurion convinced the Zionist Congress to approve the Peel recommendations as a basis for further negotiations. Ben-Gurion wrote: "The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we have never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the First and Second Temples... We are being given an opportunity which we never dared to dream of in our wildest imagination. This is more than a state, government, and sovereignty—this is a national consolidation in a free homeland. ... if because of our weakness, neglect or negligence, the thing is not done, then we will have lost a chance which we never had before, and may never have again".

Eventually the British Government set up the Woodhead Commission to "examine the Peel Commission plan in detail and to recommend an actual partition plan." This Commission declared the Peel Commission partition unworkable. The British Government accompanied the publication of the Woodhead Report by a statement of policy rejecting partition as impracticable.

 Nevertheless, the Peel commission made the possibility of achieving an ethnically pure Jewish state starting the countdown to the Nakba. During the coming decade, the Zionist movement prepared its might to redraw the borders of any future partition of Palestine organizing its armed forces and its intelligence services towards this aim.

Those preparations materialized in the Plan Dalet (Hebrew, Tokhnit Dalet) that was worked out by the Haganah in March 1948. It was the fourth and final version of less substantial plans that had outlined Zionists objectives for Palestine and its native population. The Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi claims it is was the "Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine". He points to the Zionist ideas of transfer and of a Jewish state in all of Palestine, and to the offensive character of the military operations of the Zionists as the main proof of his interpretation.

With the ceasefire agreement of July 1949, the Zionist movement could claim it had achieved its objectives: a Jewish state was established on a land that was virtually emptied of its native population; Jews became its sole peasants, its sole workers and its ruling class. Borochov’s social pyramid was reorganized.


The State of Israel and the failure of the Zionist project

However, 65 years after the establishment of the State of Israeli there is room to ask whether the objectives of Zionism were achieved?

At first sight the answer appears positive: the objective foundations of the state are evident. However, even a shallow analysis of the subjective foundations of the state as described by Herzl and discussed earlier by Moses Hess reveals a totally different story.

The establishment did not resolve the animosity towards Jews but the connection between Zionism and Judaism expanded it to places where it never existed before, such as the Arab and Muslim world. Moreover, the standing of such a state in a hostile environment is fully depending on the goodwill of foreign powers. As a matter of fact, the Jewish State depends on the American goodwill for its survival as much as the French colonialists in Algeria depended on Paris goodwill. With one difference: colonialists in Algeria were French citizens, Israelis are not American citizens.

But the problem is more profound, Zionism attempted not only to resolve the problematic relations between Jews and non-Jewish Europeans, but to resolve the not less problematic relations between Jews as a religious-cultural community and nationhood.

Herzl, Zangwill, Hess and other Zionist leaders expected that providing the objective foundations of a nation state a nation, in the secular meaning of the term, will emerge from the political institutions.

“Shall we end by having a theocracy?” Herzl asked in the Jewish State, and he answered “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.”

But in the really existing State of Israel, its reason of being remains solely in the hands of the Rabies as the military became its most powerful institution.

And finally, Zionism was never able to resolve the most basic contradiction Palestine was never an empty country, as Palestinians were a nation ready to struggle for its rights.

Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (Ehad Haam), a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers, wrote in 1891 after a visit to Palestine:

“We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael is now uninhabited desert and whoever wishes can buy land there as he pleases. But this is not true. It is very difficult to find in the land cultivated fields that are not used for planting.”

And he added:

“We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, who neither see nor understand what is happening around them… [However] the Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything… But, if the time comes that our people's life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.” (Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (Ehad Haam), A Truth from Eretz Yisrael)

Six years before the emergence of Herzl’s political Zionism and sixteen years before the emergence of Ben Gurion’s pioneering Zionism, Ehad Haam already rendered Zionist utopias on the redemption of the Jewish people through the conquest of the land a tragedy.