Drinking from the Dead Sea & Israeli-Palestinan Peace

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Imagine taking a trip to the Dead Sea, swimming about a couple of yards out, bending over, and drinking a nice gulp of water straight from the source.
No this is not a death wish or a really stupid dare, rather it was a part of the original vision of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl.
In 1902 Herzl published a novel called Altneuland (Old-New Land) about the journey of two Jews who arrive in Israel in the 1920’s to experience the already created, nascent Jewish state. It’s a fascinating read in terms of both the storyline and the insight into many of Herzl’s early predictions for the Zionist movement
But the importance of the novel goes far beyond Herzl’s desire to desalinate the Dead Sea. Throughout the course of Altneuland we are able to get a glimpse of the Israel that Herzl truly wanted to create. A state that is described in detail as a synthesis of the best that both Judaism and the progressive West has to offer. And, perhaps more importantly, a first hand account of Herzl’s view as to how Jewish immigration and statehood would affect the local Arab population.
Often times early Zionist thinkers are depicted as having little knowledge about or regard towards the Arabs. The famous slogan that many falsely attribute to early Jewish Zionists, “a land without a people for a people without a land” highlights this phenomenon. But Herzl’s cosmopolitan depiction of the future Jewish state runs in complete opposition to that depiction. All throughout Altneuland, the Arabs are not only welcome as members of Jewish society, but they themselves fully embrace Zionism.
How is this so, you might ask? Was Herzl really naive enough to think that the local population would openly embrace a nationalistic movement that was coming to lay claim to and settle their home?
However to understand Herzl’s view, it is important to understand the reality of the situation that existed in early 20th century Palestine.
According to Ottoman statistics there were roughly half a million Arabs living in Palestine at the turn of the 20th century. At this time no there was no such thing as a distinct Palestinian identity, culture, or nationalistic unity as the land was simply a part of the much larger Ottoman empire. Even calling the land Palestine is a bit anachronistic given that it was truly the British, post World War One, who really resuscitated the popular use of the Greco-Roman name for the ancient land of Israel. As late as 1919 at the first congress of Muslim-Christian association, the Arab representatives from Palestine rejected the idea of a unique Palestinian identity, as they themselves argued that they had no such distinct identity from Arab Syria.
Instead, Arab villages in Palestine were governed by their own local leaders, known as muktars, with one village having almost no political connection to the next. Even the land as a whole was broken into three different administrative entities by the Ottoman empire for the limited services and governance that they did provide. The inhabitants of the Arab villages were mostly farmers, working within a feudal system on land that was owned by absentee landlords from across the Ottoman world. Due to this lack of identity and political cohesion public services were scarce and quality of life was low with the villagers having almost no way to climb up the ladder in their hierarchical and feudal society.
Enter the early Zionists and Jewish immigrants.
Here were a group of motivated immigrants moving to this swampy wasteland intent on bolstering every aspect of the area. The early Zionists dried up swamps to create more farmland, built a national transportation system, convinced people worldwide to invest millions of dollars in the land, and soon placed Palestine on the global map in terms of agricultural exports. And all of this was done in only a few years.
Herzl first arrived on the shores of Jaffe, Palestine in 1898, right around the tailend of the first Aliyah. Many of these monumental Zionist projects were well on their way and it was clear that it was having a positive effect on not only the newly immigrated Jews, but also the local Arab many of whom welcomed and had respect for these Jewish immigrants who had bolstered their quality of life.
Herzl, along with many other Zionists, truly believed that as more and more Jews arrived and the Zionist project continued to be carried out, the local Arab population would continue to welcome these developments with open arms. Of course this is not what happened. The rise of Arab nationalism and anti-western sentiment in the late 1910’s mixed with the decline of the Ottoman empire, WW1, and French-British colonialism set the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a 100+ year course that still continues today.
Now we can, of course, fault Herzl and this view for many reasons. For one it failed to recognize that the turn of the 20th century witnessed a proliferation in nationalism worldwide. Meaning that even if life would be made better for the local Palestinians and they did like the Jews, the rest of the Arab world which was just beginning to solidify their identity, would never stand by while a “foreign” people came in and began to settle what they believed to be part of their land. This is in fact what happened.
But we cannot say that Herzl did not recognize that there was a local Palestinian population or that Herzl wanted to take over the land by force. Both in the vision that Herzl lays out in his writing and throughout the actions of the majority of early Zionists everything is done with respect and care for the Arabs. Land was purchased not taken, medicine and technological advances were shared, and social services were expanded.
We can say the Herzl and the Zionist movement were naive in thinking that they could create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East without violence or strife. Just like it was naive to think that the Dead Sea would one day be able to be made drinkable. But we cannot say that they went in with bad intentions and didn’t try.
    Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
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