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The Myth of Jewish "Colonialism": Demographics and Development in Palestine

By David Wollenberg

One of the most powerful and widespread arguments against Zionism and the State of Israel has been the claim that Jewish settlement in Palestine led directly to the displacement and exploitation of the land’s long-established Arab population. In 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust and at the height of British attempts to divide the region into separate Arab and Jewish states, Jamal Husayni, spokesman for the effective government of Palestinian Arabs, forcefully raised this very argument against the Jewish national home:

Is it in any way just, that the Arabs, who have lived on this land uninterruptedly for 1300 years, and whose lives are rooted in its soil—should be dispossessed by force, should be pushed aside, and should be blackmailed to enable the Zionist Jews to fashion a Jewish National Home on this land? That’s the problem....1

This was also the claim made by five Arab states to justify war against the State of Israel in 1948, just one day after it had declared its independence. According to this view, Jews had been absent from the land of Israel for too long to claim their right to return. In their absence, another group of people had come to occupy the land, and thus the Zionist movement could succeed only at this people’s expense. The West, embarrassed by the horrors of the Holocaust, had founded the State of Israel to clear its conscience, and the Arab residents of Palestine were forced to pay the price. The creation of the Jewish State was thus an outrage, so the argument goes, because the very settlement of the land by Jews was illegitimate.

Yet this argument rests on an inaccurate description of the country’s history, namely, a mischaracterization of the demographics of Palestine before 1948. For a number of reasons, both political and environmental, the Arab population of Palestine had been in a constant state of flux for much of the region’s history. There was of course a small Arab population in Palestine that could trace its roots back for centuries. But overall, the Arab population, which had remained dormant for centuries, began to blossom only after the beginning of Jewish immigration and the subsequent improvements in economic conditions, infrastructure, and agricultural techniques. The idea of “uninterrupted settlement…rooted in its soil,” is thus inconsistent with history. It was put forward primarily in an attempt to delegitimize Jewish immigration.

This essay will explore the various reasons for the Arab population shifts over time, focusing mainly on the first half of the twentieth century. Such an examination demonstrates that Jewish settlement in Palestine did not amount to the sudden disruption that Husayni and others claim, since there was no continuous national history or uniform population to disrupt. It also suggests that Jewish settlement was in many ways beneficial to the land and all of its inhabitants. In this light, it is clear that the two main tenets of the myth of Jewish “colonialism”—that Zionism uprooted a long-established nation and led to its uniform exploitation—are ideologically motivated distortions.

Arab Demographics Prior to British Governance: Dramatic Underpopulation

From the period of the Crusades to the beginning of modern times, the population of Palestine remained at a near constant level.2This apparent stability is significant, as populations naturally tend to increase over time. It is estimated that there were 205,000 people living in Palestine in the mid 1500s.3By 1800, the population had only grown to 275,000, reflecting about a thousandth of a percent of average growth a year.4By 1890, still before any significant Jewish immigration, the population had made a slightly larger jump, to 532,000.5But even with this increase, the nineteenth century growth rate was still a small 0.7% per year.6By comparison, in the 1940s the Muslim growth rate in the Middle East was closer to 3.07%.7

A number of factors account for this dramatic underpopulation, one of which is environmental. Many people fled the area as early as the fourteenth century as a result of the Black Plague. Starting shortly thereafter, many areas became swamp-infested and malarial, especially in the northern valleys. There is much evidence to suggest that, by the mid-nineteenth century, the region had become nearly uninhabitable. Around this time, German Templars tried to settle the Kinrot Valley, where Jesus had lived, but were forced to leave due to the prevalence of malaria.8Jewish settlers in the 1880s attempted to inhabit the Hula valley, but in some places child mortality rates were nearly 100% because of disease.9The Talmud remarks, “If the Garden of Eden is in the Land of Israel, Beit-Shean is its gateway.”10But when the scholar H.B. Tristram visited the area in the 1860s, traveling in the footsteps of Jesus, he claimed, “We saw not a tree....It is scarcely conceivable how any human beings can inhabit such sites; but such is the contrast, nowhere more settling than here, between ancient civilization and modern degradation.”11 Mark Twain was disillusioned by his trip to the Holy Land. He wrote, “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes…desolate and unlovely…it is dreamland.”12Even by 1931, after many early Zionist efforts to clear the land, only a third of the whole region was cultivable.13No doubt, the lack of fertile land and presence of disease contributed to the comparatively limited population growth.

The higher growth rate of the nineteenth century (relative to the previous rates) must be attributed to a different set of conditions, namely major demographic shifts stemming from emigration and immigration. In 1831, Muhammad Ali of Egypt invaded the region to obtain raw materials and a market for his country’s industrializing economy.14As a result of the violence, many fellaheen, or farmers, fled Palestine to neighboring regions. Yet these emigres were soon replaced by a new wave of farmers from Egypt seeking to escape their country’s military draft.15According to the French scholar M. Sabry, the Egyptian governor Ibrahim Pasha brought over six thousand people to settle empty stretches of land in Palestine.16Although his leadership brought a greater sense of law and order to the land than ever before, the conquest precipitated a half-century of intertribal warfare, especially among the Bedouin.17The British decided that this instability threatened their economic interests in the region and forced Ibrahim to retreat to Egypt.18The net result of this upheaval was a positive but minor population increase. It would not be until the end of the century that modernizing developments would cause major demographic changes.

British Control: Population Shifts and the Beginnings of Growth

With British control during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries came greater material stability and economic growth. As a result of the construction of railroad lines that led to the sea, the population of Haifa tripled and that of Jaffa more than doubled from 1880 to 1910.19But while the population shifted toward these areas, the overall growth rates for the country stayed low. According to British investigations, there were 689,275 persons in Palestine in 1915, about 590,000 of whom were Arab.20 Given a population in 1890 of 532,000 (473,000 Arab), this still represents only a 0.8% per year growth rate.

Soon afterwards, during World War I, the Ottomans tried to muster troops from the region, prompting many of the upper classes to flee. It appears that the war prompted a massive flight, immediately followed by a huge influx. According to contemporary surveys, the Arab population declined by 35,000 during the years 1915 to 1919. While many Arabs may have fled to escape the draft, others were expelled by force. To defend against the British, the Ottomans, still nominally in control, expelled both Jews and Arabs from cities across the coast on the assumption that their nationalistic intentions could lead them to sympathize with the British invaders. This effort was massive: twenty-eight thousand Arabs were forced out of Gaza alone.21By 1922, however, just three years later, the Arab population had increased by 80,000 above the 1919 level.22After the War had ended and Britain had taken formal control of the area (with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire), Arab population rates recovered quickly and significantly. Many Arabs took advantage of the improved economic conditions that resulted from British administration; and by 1922, the population of Haifa—which had declined by 30% from 1915 to 1917 due to Ottoman expulsions23—had become greater than it was before the war.24 The Zionists, also eager to take advantage of this economic growth, had hoped that the British government, the country’s largest employer, would hire Jews in construction. But the British preferred cheaper foreign labor; and in the period leading up to 1922 they employed fifteen thousand foreigners (mostly from Egypt and Syria) and only five hundred Jews.25Despite this low employment rate, however, the Jewish population continued to grow through immigration. The increasing numbers of these two populations would soon lead to a significant clash.

Approaching 1948: Economic Growth and the Population Burst

After years of relative stagnation, the few decades leading up to 1948 saw significant growth in both Arab and Jewish populations. Had the Arab population remained at its pre-WWI growth rate (0.8%) after 1922, one would have expected a population of approximately 785,000 by 1947. But there were in fact between 1.2 and 1.3 million Arabs in all of Palestine by 1947.26What could have caused this sudden burst?

To investigate possible causes, it is important to examine where in the country the growth took place. Non-Jewish population growth rates were highest within modern-day sovereign Israel and in the West Bank and Gaza Strip regions. These rates cannot be explained by higher birth rates alone.

One major factor accounting for the unexpected growth was the potential for upward mobility that existed in the western cities. The wages of western cities were more attractive, no doubt bringing many people from surrounding areas. Port cities also offered greater employment opportunities, which helps explain the fact that there was a dramatic influx into Haifa and Jaffa relative to cities like Beit-Shean and Jerusalem.

Another major reason for the population explosion was the revolution that took place in farming and thus in the ecosystem generally. Agriculture had been the main source of income of 90% of Muslims in 1931.29With the increase in Jewish immigration during this period, Arab farmers began to pressure the British to stop the Jewish influx, arguing that the land could not sustain any more inhabitants. The result was the Passfield White Paper of 1930, which claimed:

It can now be definitely stated that at the present time and with the present methods of Arab cultivation there remains no margin of land available for agricultural settlement by new immigrants, with the exception of such undeveloped land as the various Jewish agencies hold in reserve.30

Although this document would be repudiated only a year later, it reflects the widespread and strongly-held belief that the land’s resources could not be shared. Yet this belief was based on the assumption that the state of agriculture could not improve, an assumption that experience would soon prove false.

One major reason for this improvement was swamp drainage. The project, largely conceived and carried out by Jewish immigrants with some British help, was enormous in magnitude. It provided dramatic health benefits in addition to large increases in the amount of arable land.

Another development in farming took the form of improved agricultural techniques. Formerly, according to historian Kenneth Stein, “the cultivated land was not very fertile or sufficiently irrigated. The failure or inability to use modern agricultural techniques such as manuring and mechanization kept yields to a minimum. Crop rotation was rarely practiced.”32This would all change in a very short time.

Yet another reason for improvement was the growth of citriculture, the most profitable form of agriculture in the country.33From 1931 to 1937, land used for citriculture increased by almost 200%, with total citrus output rising 380%. During the same period, total wheat cultivation remained near constant, dropping about 4% in total area, but tripling in output. Arab agricultural techniques improved in other ways as well, resulting in increased production of produce, tobacco, watermelons, cattle, and fowl. With new farming techniques and more cultivable land, the naturally sustainable population increased exponentially.

Another Piece of the Puzzle: Property Ownership

One of the major obstacles faced by Jewish immigrants who tried to purchase land prior to 1948 was the unique system of property ownership established in much of the country. In 1932, 117,869 dunam of land was held by absentee landowners. In most cases, tenant farmers worked the land, creating a dilemma for land purchasers.34 Even after buying the land from the “real” owner, the tenant farmers would generally remain in place. In 1927, the British passed a law preventing the transfer of land without first securing new land for the tenant farmer or making a cash settlement.35Yet this had already been the policy of the Jewish Agency, which had explicitly sought to avoid controversy in its land purchases. The Shaw Commission reported:

We think that the Jewish Companies are not open to any criticism in respect of these transactions. In paying compensation, as they undoubtedly did, to many of the cultivators of land which they purchased in the Plain of Esdraelon [Jezreel Valley] those companies were making a payment which at the time of the transactions the law of Palestine did not require. Moreover, they were acting with the knowledge of the Government.36

Despite this careful attention to the tenant farmers’ reimbursement, Arab fellaheen often claimed that Jews had given them little or no compensation. In response, the British launched investigations into over 3000 claims, of which about 2500 were ultimately rejected.37For the 600 or so claims that were accepted, the Development Department was required to provide 60 dunam of irrigable land or a cash settlement that would presumably allow the farmer to move to a city.38 The immigration of Jews to Palestine was thus done both legally and ethically.

But the local Arab elite’s complaints about Jewish immigration were not about legality anyway. These leaders claimed that the presence of outsiders would destroy the Arab nature of the country, a claim that can still be heard among Palestinians and pro-Palestinian advocates today. Ironically, however, many of the strongest opponents of Jewish land purchases were also the people who profited most from them. A brief list of Arab leaders who sold land to Jews includes Fahmi el-Husayni, mayor of Gaza; Ragheb Nashashibi, mayor of Jerusalem and founder of the “National Defense Party”; Mussa el-‘Alami, Government Advocate of the Palestine Government and a member of the Arab Higher Committee; As’ad el-Shuqairi, father of Ahmed Shuqairi, the first chairman of the P.L.O.; and Jamal el-Husayni, who is quoted at the beginning of this essay.39 Of course, the Arab leadership attempted to suppress this information, but it was brought to public attention by Lewis French, the first director of the British Mandatory Government’s Department of Development.40The news of the Arab leadership’s hypocrisy eventually led to the collapse of the Arab Executive (the governing Arab body in the Mandate) in the early 1930s. It would not be until 1936 that another body of political leadership would come to exist, in the form of the Arab Higher Committee.41

Husayni’s claim of 1300 years of uninterrupted Arab presence in Palestine is clearly a convenient simplification. Any statements about the demographics of Palestine before 1948 must recognize the country’s dynamic history. The first half of the twentieth century was a period of sweeping changes for the land and all the people living on it—Arab and Jew. After remaining nearly stagnant for centuries, the population exploded in modern times due to improved infrastructure, agriculture, and immigration, both Jewish and Arab. As a result, from 1890 to 1947, in less than sixty years, the population grew from 532,000 to 1,845,560.42The Arab population of Palestine grew more from 1922 to 1947 than it had over the previous 400 years. But the population shift that would occur over the following three years, as a result of the U.N. partition plan and the Arab-Israeli war, would be so momentous that it almost makes this prior data seem irrelevant. Each side blames the other for the consequences of the war, including some who point to the war as proof of “Zionist aggression.” But even Benny Morris, the historian who argued that the Palestinian refugee problem was caused in part by Israeli military actions43points out that “the [refugee] problem was a direct consequence of the war that the Palestinians—and, in their wake, the surrounding Arab states—had launched.”44From the beginning, it was Arab intolerance of the Jewish presence that caused the widespread opposition to Israel, an intolerance that resulted in the war of 1948. Jews, of course, had not chosen arbitrarily to immigrate to this area of the world. Moreover, they did so legally and with positive effects. As evidenced by the massive growth in population, the improvement of agriculture, and increased wages, the claim against Jewish return to Palestine was not pragmatic but ideological. The idea of a Jewish State as such was, from the beginning, anathema to the Arabs living there, and they sought to discredit and defeat it by any means possible. It is in this context that the birth of the Arab-Israeli conflict must be considered.


David Wollenberg, Harvard Class of 2003, is from Short Hills, New Jersey.

Notes


1. Arieh Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession (Efal, Israel: Yad Tabenkin, 1982), p. 11.
2. Ibid, p. 12.
3. Ibid.
4. Including 246,000 Muslims and 22,000 Christians.
5. Including 432,000 Muslims and 57,000 Christians (total Arab population: 473,000). See Avneri, p.12.
6. Because only a total population statistic is available for 1800, and not a pure ‘Arab population’ statistic, this growth rate actually represents the total natural population increase. But given the overwhelming Arab majority at the time, it is a good approximation of the Arab growth statistic.
7. “A Survey of Palestine,” prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the Information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Vol. II p. 714, as cited in Avneri, p. 252.
8. Avneri, p. 42.
9. Ibid, p. 41.
10. Erub. 19a.
11. Avneri, pp. 43-44.
12. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, pp. 441-442.
13. Kenneth W. Stein, The Land Question in Palestine 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), p. 4.
14. William L. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, p. 72.
15. Avneri, p. 13.
16. See Avneri p. 13.
17. Ibid, pp. 18-24.
18. Cleveland, p. 74.
19. Ibid, p. 27.
20. Ibid, p. 25.
21. Ibid, p. 28.
22. Ibid.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid, p. 30
25. Ibid.
26. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 8.
27. Notes compiled for U.N.S.C.O.P, pp. 12-13 (for data for December 31, 1946), as cited in Avneri, p. 255.
28. Avneri, p. 262.
29. Stein, p. 6.
30. Passfield White Paper, October 1930.
31. Avneri, p. 235.
32. Stein, p. 4.
33. Avneri, p. 259.
34. Stein, p. 179.
35. Avneri, p. 132
36. Ibid, p. 126.
37. Stein, p. 160.
38. Ibid, pp. 158-163.
39. Ibid, pp. 228-238.
40. Avneri, p. 233.
41. Ibid, p. 234.
42. Notes compiled for UNSCOP, p. 12, as cited in Avneri, p. 252.
43. Morris, p. 286.
44. Benny Morris, “Peace? No chance.” The Guardian (UK). February 21, 2002.


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