Road to Nowhere

A new book about Zionist land purchases in the Jezreel Valley/Marj ibn Amir reveals the incompatibility of the settler colonial and Zionist paradigms of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

The Jezreel Valley, known as Marj ibn Amir in Arabic (after the grandfather of a friend of the prophet Muhammed, whose tribe settled the area following the Arab conquest of Palestine in the seventh century), has since antiquity been one of the most strategically important areas of the Middle East. Stretching from the Carmel Mountains in the west to the Jordan Valley in the east, it has been the site of numerous battles between various empires and nations. In the period leading up to 1948, it became a target for Zionist settlement in the area, in the form of land purchases by Zionist organizations from mostly absentee Arab landlords.

A substantial portion of those who settled in the area were members of the youth organization Hashomer Hatzair, which was on the far left of the Zionist movement. At one stage, it even supported binationalism, which the movement defined as “a state regime based on political, social and economic equality, a regime whereby one nation will not rule the other.” And yet, in the Jezreel Valley, the movement’s members were actively involved in efforts to remove Palestinian tenant farmers from lands that they had previously been usufruct on, culminating in the events of 1948, during which most of the area’s Palestinian residents became refugees, and their villages destroyed.

Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University, attempts to explain this apparent contradiction in her new book, Colonizing Palestine: The Zionist Left and the Making of the Palestinian Nakba. She does so “through a historical sociology of the colonization practices of three Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim (collectivist settler colonies)—Mishmar ha-Emek, Hazorea, and Ein Hashofet” and their relations with neighboring Palestinian villages in the area today known in Hebrew as Ramat Menashe (“Menashe Heights”) and Arabic as Bilad al-Ruha (“Land of the Winds”), on the western edge of the Jezreel Valley.

In the introduction, Sabbagh-Khoury emphasizes the centrality of the settler colonial paradigm in understanding the events analyzed in the book: “The settler colonial approach challenges conventional perspectives that conceive of the conflict between the Zionists and Palestinians as merely one between two national movements, or between two incommensurate cultures or religions, instead foregrounding the interactions between the two sides in the context of a settler colonial frontier.” To support this view, and to draw attention to the contradictions of Hashomer Hatzair’s ideology, she calls upon the seemingly unlikely figure of the Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who in his famous 1923 essay “The Iron Wall” wrote: “They [the Arabs] look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realization of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile.” We will return to Jabotinsky later, for his views loom over both Sabbagh-Khoury’s book and this response.

“Zionism, like other instances of settler colonialism, was historically particular, even if not altogether exceptional,” Sabbagh-Khoury writes: these particularities include the fact that “Zionism’s effort to institutionalize a national state came late to the world-historical stage,” “the simultaneous fusion of its colonial project with nation formation,” and the Holocaust as a backdrop to Zionist aspirations for a political homeland. Despite these differences, she continues, Zionism was “not altogether exceptional.” And yet, reading the book I felt that the situation she was describing was, if not quite unique, then certainly more notable for its distinguishing features than for its similarities to other cases.

Sabbagh-Khoury calls Zionist efforts in the Jezreel Valley pre-1948 “colonialization by purchase.” The story of how this was achieved is somewhat complex; in brief, it meant Zionist organizations purchasing land from absentee landowners (most notably the Sursock family of Beirut) and then taking steps to evict the Palestinian tenants from the land, in a manner that was undeniably a break from earlier norms and naturally a source of tension. Sabbagh-Khoury notes that “British imperialism gave a proverbial leg up to Zionist settler colonialism,” as it was easier for Zionists to purchase land during the Mandate than it had been during Ottoman rule. But it wasn’t that easy. By May 15, 1948, Zionist land purchases amounted to only about seven percent of the total territory of Mandatory Palestine— or about 20% of the cultivable area, mostly in malaria-ridden areas in the lowlands (albeit areas that were still populated by Palestinian fellahin). In other words, this “colonialism by purchase” was— relatively speaking—a footnote in the wider story of the Zionist triumph; despite this supposed “proverbial leg up,” and their apparently settler colonial positioning, Jews were unable to purchase anywhere near as much as land as they would have liked.

Returning to the Jezreel Valley, Sabbagh-Khoury emphasizes that “land acquisition, however, was a violent process that encountered the resistance of the largely peasant Palestinian farmers.” This is the focus of the second chapter of the book (“Colonialism by Purchase: Possession, Expulsion, and Replacement”), which tells the story of the purchases and the subsequent evictions. “The area [the Jezreel Valley] was not an empty desert or terra nullius. Like other lowland areas, it was malaria ridden and insecure. Nevertheless, it contained Palestinian villages and villagers, most of whom were forager or pastoralist peasants whose livelihoods depended on the land, and who were relatively disempowered within the Palestinian social structure.” Palestinians contested the legitimacy of the land purchases, arguing that the mostly absentee landlords didn’t hold full title to the land, and that the mostly tenant farmers had customary claims due to use over time, ties to the land, and presence on the ground. Zionists, meanwhile, emphasized the legality of the sales, and the economic transactions rather than the colonial aspects. According to Sabbagh-Khoury, this is another example of how Hashomer Hatzair’s practical behavior contradicted their professed ideology.

Here, I must draw attention Sabbagh-Khoury’s curious decision to use Zionist sources almost exclusively to tell this story. In her words, “this book focuses on using settler colonial knowledge by reading against the grain—that is, through a critical settler colonial paradigm—and by reading along the grain, which allows anxieties revealed in the archival record to emerge on their own.” She does so even though she did conduct interviews with refugees of the Palestinian villages, of which she gives barely a hint of their contents. This, ironically given her Palestinian identity and ideological background, reflects a common problem in the historiography of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict namely that there is too much emphasis on Zionist voices and not enough on what Palestinians were thinking and saying. This can partly be attributed to the lack of contemporary Arab documents, but surely this provides even greater impetus to make use of what oral materials do exist? Once, Sabbagh-Khoury quotes a letter from an important Palestinian village named Abu Zureiq, before commenting, “here is a rare opportunity to hear the unmediated voice of Palestinians”—making her decision to exclude the material gathered in the interviews even more frustrating. In total, all she tells us about the interviewees is that they recalled the area’s plentiful agricultural products.

This problem comes into sharp focus with the story of the departure of the Palestinian villagers from Jo’ara, whose lands had been purchased by the kibbutz Ein Hashofet. She quotes a report by Hashomer Hatzair members: “Hundreds of pounds changed hands…to the Arabs who entered one by one to receive their reparations…We thus became tenants of the company [the Palestine Land Development Company] and received land. They received various sums, some of them dozens and others hundreds of pounds. The largest sum was handed to the mukhtar—the village elder. As far as we could see they were all satisfied.” There are of course reasons to be suspicious of this account, although it is important to note that Sabbagh-Khoury writes that these higher prices were the result of the success of Palestinian resistance in the preceding period. And naturally she offers a critical reading of the report. On the other hand, the scenario being painted here is not necessarily so fanciful. One problem with the settlement colonial narrative—ironically, given its supposed sensitivity to such Oriental tropes—is that it risks sentimentalizing the fellahin attachment to the land. Is it so hard to imagine, given the dominant story in modern global history (whether in settler colonial societies or elsewhere) of migration from rural to urban areas, that the tenants in this case were satisfied? At the very least, this would have been an appropriate place for Sabbah-Khoury to share their own recollections.

Still, this is just one example, and it is not the most representative. Certainly, most of the Palestinian villagers resisted expulsion, with some of them holding out until 1948. And with the start of the war Sabbagh-Khoury shifts focus from “colonization by purchase” to the War of Independence/Nakba, during which all the Palestinians in the Ramat Menashe area were either expelled or fled, and to the “settler colonial memory” of these and earlier events. Interestingly, while their memories of the pre-1948 period emphasized cooperation and attempts at coexistence with the Palestinians—in the manner sharply criticized by Jabotinsky at the beginning of this piece—in remembering 1948 they mostly take a much more hard-edged turn.  “A war was fought,” a kibbutz member said in 1976. “We did not start it, it was their leadership. The War of Independence was more difficult than all the wars that followed. For us it was a war “to be or not to be.” They started, we fought, and we won, and they were harshly defeated. In their literature that war is the Holocaust, to this very day.” Sabbagh-Khoury is critical of this response and others like it: “Saying that “things happen in war” normalizes the expulsion as a consequence of exigencies of war rather than as the systematic outcome of the Zionist project of encroachment and replacement.”

Here, I think, we get to the heart of the problem, which is the absolute incompatibility of the settler colonial paradigm with Zionism. Not that there aren’t certain parallels between Zionism and other settler colonial societies—I think it would be foolish to deny this—but the idea that this is the sole root of the problem. While a kibbutz member, after 1948, might have conceded (like Jabotinsky) that Zionism inevitably led to this “encroachment and replacement,” they would surely not have accepted Sabbagh-Khoury’s suggested corollary, that settling the Land of Israel was an immoral act. This is for the simple reason that they would have believed, as I do, that Jews should have the right to purchase land and settle in their ancestral home. Here, another important statement by Jabotinsky (quoted less often, incidentally) springs to mind. In “The Ethics of the Iron Wall” he writes: “Let us consider for a moment the point of view of those to whom this [Zionist settlement] seems immoral. We shall trace the root of the evil to this—that we are seeking to colonise a country against the wishes of its population, in other words, by force. Everything else that is undesirable grows out of this root with axiomatic inevitability. What then is to be done?” Jabotinsky imagines trying to settle Uganda, where the Zionist movement would have been faced with the same problem of resistance, before noting that the entire world is already settled. “So that if there is any landless people in the world, even its dream of a national home must be an immoral dream. Those who are landless must remain landless to all eternity. The whole earth has been allocated. Basta: Morality has said so.” He goes on to justify Zionist efforts by using the wretched condition of the Jewish people, contrasted with the relative strength of the wider Arab world:

The principle of self-determination does not mean that if someone has seized a stretch of land it must remain in his possession for all time, and that he who was forcibly ejected from his land must always remain homeless. Self-determination means revision—such a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination. And now when the whole of the civilised world has recognized that Jews have a right to return to Palestine, which means that the Jews are, in principle, also “citizens” and “inhabitants” of Palestine, only they were driven out, and their return must be a lengthy process, it is wrong to contend that meanwhile the local population has the right to refuse to allow them to come back

These are strong claims, and I wouldn’t expect Sabbagh-Khoury, or the former residents of Marj ibn Amir, to accept them. Nor, I think, would Jabotinsky. But I do think that they profoundly undermine her analysis of the kibbutzniks’ memories, simply because she is unwilling to accept the axioms on which they are built on. Her solution to this problem is—like so many others on the left dealing with this issue today—to turn back the clock and undo the achievements of Zionism. To return to Jabotinsky once more: “If anyone objects that this point of view is immoral, I answer: It is not true: either Zionism is moral and just, or it is immoral and unjust. But that is a question that we should have settled before we became Zionists. Actually we have settled that question, and in the affirmative.”

To accept the arguments underpinning Colonizing Palestine and the wider settler colonial paradigm as applied to Israel/Palestine would be to accept that Jews do not have at least partial claim to the land between the river and the sea based on historically undeniable facts: that the Jews emerged as a civilization there long before the area was populated by Palestinian-Arabs (irrespective of whether one accepts an earlier or a later date for the emergence of Palestinian peoplehood); that Jews were denied their rights in the land by subsequent empires (including Arab and Muslim empires); and that absence of homeland repeatedly proved fatal for Jews living in the Diaspora, culminating in the Holocaust. This is why the term “indigenous Palestinians” must be challenged or at least qualified. While there should be no denying the existence of a Palestinian nation with a rich history in Palestine, the Palestinians are primarily a derivative imperial nation who trace their heritage to the Arab conquest of the seventh century; as the Arabic name for the Jezreel Valley indicates, this history, tragically, was built on the ruins, no matter how inadvertently, of this Jewish civilization. “We study history to explain the present,” Sabbagh-Khoury writes in her conclusion. “We seek out linkages between beginnings and outcomes, trace path dependencies that may lock structures in place, and uncover moments in which social actors either reproduce patterns or interrupt them in consequential ways.” This is wise, but she does not practice it consistently. For her, these linkages between beginnings and outcomes are only relevant for the period between the return of Jews to the Jezreel Valley and the Nakba—but not for the reasons that Jews wanted to make that return in the first place. For this and other reasons, and despite Colonizing Palestine providing a useful micro-history of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, the settler colonial paradigm as applied to Israel-Palestine remains a road to nowhere.

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