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How Feudal Arab Landowners who exploited their peasantry became Nationalist Leaders

When Jewish economic success threatened to liberate their peasantry.
The same Arab politicians who protested that
they cared nothing for the money the Jews
brought into the country.... showed no such
contempt for money when it came to the
treatment of their own peasantry.
-The Reverend James Parkes, Whose Land?

The Palestinians who are today's refugees in
the neighboring countries ... know all this ...
that their present nationalist exploiters are the
worthy sons of their feudal exploiters of
yesterday, and that the thorns of their life are of
Arab, not Jewish origin.
- Abdel Razak Kader, 1969

 We have seen strong evidence that the Holy Land was inhabited only sparsely in the nineteenth century. For centuries the non-Jewish, particularly the Muslim, peoples who did inhabit the land had been largely composed of a revolving immigrant population of diverse ethnic origins who could not possibly have constituted a substantial indigenous "Palestinian" population, much less a nation of inhabitants for "a thousand" or "two thousand years." Rather, the majority of those inhabitants were migrants and peasants originating from other lands, many of whom had been unscrupuluously exploited by feudal or absentee landlords, moneylenders, and corrupt officials of the Turkish government. They in turn traditionally exploited and preyed upon the oppressed dhimmi Jewish population.

How does the history of those relationships mesh with the Arab claim that "displacement" and "landlessness" of Arab "natives" was caused by the Jews? If that claim is false, it is long-perpetuated. As such, it must be traced to its beginnings, in the Palestine of Turkish rule, when the Arab notables' charge of "Jews displacing Arabs" was devised.

It was 1878. Harsh conditions prevailed.[1] Into Palestine[2] came groups of Circassians, Algerians, Egyptians, Druses, Turks, Kurds, Bosnians, and others. One historian deduced that of 141,000 settled Muslims living in all of Palestine (all areas) in 1882, "at least 25% of those 141,000 . . . were newcomers or descendants of those who arrived after 1831 (Egyptian conquest)."[3]

A prominent British official had observed as early as 1840 that the barren Palestinian land needed the collective political return of the Jews:

If we consider their return in the light of a new establishment or colonization of Palestine, we shall find it to be the cheapest and the safest mode of supplying the wastes of these depopulated Regions.... [4]
Throughout the nineteenth century Palestine's occupying government had officially settled many foreigners. The "Egyptian" conqueror Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Turkish-speaking Albanian Muhammad Ali, had "left behind him permanent colonies of Egyptians at Beisan, Nablus, Irbid, Acre and Jaffa. . ." In Jaffa, some five hundred Egyptian soldiers' families established a new quarter.[5] Into Jaffa alone, then, "at least two thousand people" had been imported.[6] In 1844, "the American expedition under Lynch" recorded fewer than 8,000 "Turks" in Jaffa in a population of 13,000.[7] In 1857, Elizabeth Finn, the wife of James Finn, British Consul in Jerusalem, reported that "Greek and Latin foreigners hostile to Turkish power are endeavoring to grasp piecemeal and occupy the Holy Land so valuable to them both. The corrupt Pashas and Effendis [notables] allow them for [sic] money to do so as they list."[8] In 1858 Consul Finn reported the "Mohammedans of Jerusalem" were "scarcely exceeding one-quarter of the whole population."[9]

In 1860 Algerian tribes moved from Damascus en masse to Safed, and the Muslims there were "mostly descended from these Moorish settlers and from Kurds who came earlier to the city."[10]

In that same year, the British Consul wrote:

From Caiffa [Haifa] I learn the arrival of about 6,000 of the Beni Sukhr Arabs at Tiberias (who are very seldom seen on this side of the Jordan) .... [11]

... I have omitted to mention the increase of Mahometan agriculturalists and pastoral Arabs from countries of Barbary, forming a small colony in the district north of Lake Tiberias. [12]

A report on "Disturbances" noted that "The Plain of Esdraelon is full of Turkoman Bedouins.. . ."[13] The restored Turkish government was continuously adding its own numbers in order to replenish and guard its administration, as had the Egyptians before them, as had dozens of conquerors over the centuries."
I have the honour to report to your Lordship that the excess of the Druses in the Lebanon remaining unchecked by The Turkish Government, the same practices are being extended southwards, among the Metawalis.

These are a sect of Mahometans differing from the orthodoxy of the Turks, inhabiting a hilly district south of the Lebanon; their creed is the same as that of the Persians, and called the Sheah.

... but now they are acting on their own account. They have plundered the large village of Bassa on the verge of the plain of Acre, and plundered the village of Kefir Beraan near Safed .... [15]

Landlords imported workers to keep up their great areas, but the peasants and former nomads who came were subjected to the robbery of the usurers, until they ran off, to be replaced by new immigrants.[16]

Despite the constant immigration into Palestine, the land remained largely depopulated. However observers, travelers, and field workers may have differed[17] in their observations -- one found "fertility" and "the flush of green on the desert,"[18] while another found Sharon and the Upper Galilee barren[19] - records descriptive of Palestine concur on the state of depopulation and of the official wholesale importing of newly arrived emigres who continued to constitute a great part of the populace that did exist there.

As historians have noted, "The real source of the interest in the problem was the condition of Palestine":[20] "empty" [21] -- "silent" [22] -- "waste" -- "ruin."[23] Between 1840 and 1880 "writing travellers learnt on the spot ... to mistrust and hate the Turk and despise the Muslim population."

The village lands belonged in reality to the crown ... if uncultivated.[24] The population was hopelessly incompetent and lethargic, owing to the taxation... [25]
In Jerusalem, 1859, the British consul identified part of the "thinly scattered population":[26]
The Mohammedans of Jerusalem are less fanatical than in many other places, owing to the circumstances of their numbers scarcely exceeding one quarter of the whole population -- and of their being surpassed in wealth (except among the Effendi class) in trade and manufactures by both Jews and Christians.[27]
At the same time, an official report on "Disturbances" affirmed that "the Mahometan population is dying out, I can scarcely say slowly," and that the government had to supply a populace to "places formerly unknown." (Note below the reference to "not sufficient" numbers of "Mohametans" -- Muslims -- immigrating at the same time as the "large numbers" of Jews):
Hence, for the present we are supplied with low-bred ignorant Turks, reigning in small towns or rural districts, and farming taxes.... While the Jews from Russia come also in large numbers and settle in Jerusalem and Safed ... I cannot tell whether the recent immigration of Algerine Mohametans in the North is invited or fostered by Turkish Governors. These bring fanaticism with them, but their numbers are not sufficient as yet.[28]
However distasteful he found the impoverished Arab immigrants who were "supplied," the British Consul complained that there were too few inhabitants of any sort in Palestine. "Palestine," he reported, was almost "empty of inhabitants," and urgently needed a "body of population irrespective of religious considerations."[29] In fact, another official British report-contradicting the alleged grounds for its own future policy [See Chapters 14 and 15] -- attested to the abandonment of the land when renewed Jewish development began. In one area, for example:
In 1878 Commission of Enquiry visited Beisan, as did another Commission 50 years later, to report on land situated there. The commission appeared to have reported that they found the lands in disorder, exposed to raids by marauding Bedouin from across the Jordan, abandoned by the cultivators and only scantily cultivated.

There is, then, evidence for assuming that it is doubtful that any of the present-day cultivators can prove their occupation before 1870.[30]

Meanwhile, the Jewish population had been growing. They were the majority in Safed and Tiberias by 1851,[31] and by the late 1850s Jews formed at least half of the population of Jerusalem. Most of them were the "class called sephardem,"[32] and the Jews "greatly exceed the Moslems in number."[33]

The Turkish Sultan had enacted laws that promised "every encouragement to the cultivation of the land."[34] In 1856, Sir Moses Montefiore was granted an edict by the Sultan permitting Jews to buy land in Palestine.[35] At mid-nineteenth century, a "considerable number" of Jewish immigrants had come and settled in the four holy cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias, largely -- but also on the land.[36] (They were not the first European, or Ashkenazi, Jews to join the native Sephardim; following the 1769 earthquake at Safed, "a new influx" of Russian Jews had refounded the town, about 1776.)[37]

In 1860 Sir George Gawler, a non-Jewish "Zionist," one of a group in England who had been staunchly advocating Jewish nationalism for decades, wrote:

I should be truly rejoiced to see in Palestine a strong guard of Jews established in flourishing agricultural settlements and ready to hold their own upon the mountains of Israel against all aggressors.

I can wish for nothing more glorious in this life than to have my share in helping them to do so.[38]

By the 1870s, despite the traditional attacks -- "sometimes to death" -- on Palestinian Jews by "their Muslim neighbors," the situation was reportedly more secure.[39] Jews had "more redress."[40] And foreign-born Jewish pioneers were coming to join the Jewish fellahin who had clung to Palestine's soil.
The Jewish fellaheen -- those who have worked the land for centuries ... are not differentiated in their external appearance, their dress, their language or their daily life, from their non-Jewish neighbors.[41]
Contrary to other parts of the Ottoman Empire of the nineteenth century, in Judah-cum-Palestine Jews had remained on the Holy Land.
A significant characteristic of theirs [Jews] is that, except in Palestine, they are almost all city dwellers.[42]
Together they were beginning the Jewish development of depopulated land, decades before Theodor Herzl's "Zionism" was implemented in 1901. The newcomers' settlement of newly purchased areas would enable many native Palestinian Jews to shed the historically persecuted, poverty-stricken dhimmi existence.[43]

But Jews had lived principally in urban areas of the Holy Land -- their "sacred" Jewish cities.[44] However "preferable" it might have been to hire Jews for land development, Jewish agricultural labor was scarce. Furthermore, most who were available were totally inexperienced and nearly useless. For generations in many countries Jews had not been permitted to own land, and most Jews in the Holy Land had been relegated to accepting religious charity as a means to survive. By 1859, however, the British Consul could observe that

The Jews are increasing in numbers, and the Rabbis tightening the ecclesiastical control; yet the mechanical class among them are learning, though slowly, to work for their own living, instead of depending solely for subsistence upon alms from Europe, distributed by the Rabbis.[45]
The "principle of using exclusively Jewish labor" would take longer to introduce to some areas.[46] One pioneer supposedly commented,
The transformation of a "tribe of schnorrers" [beggars, Yiddish] ... into a new breed of Spartan, self-reliant, technically accomplished tillers and reapers could not be accomplished overnight.[47]
In 1878, Petach Tikvah, the first modem Jewish colony, was founded, principally by native Palestinian Jews from Jerusalem.[48] Jews such as Edmond Rothschild believed projects should be "carried out with Jewish rather than Arab labour," even though "relatively few Jewish manual labourers could be found in Jaffa or Petach Tikva," and those were "at least twice as expensive as their Arab counterparts."[49] As a consequence, on the new settlement non-Jews were hired to assist for a time with the reclamation work by which the Jews would transform the country.

Many of the Arab laborers hired were new immigrants themselves. "After 1870," for instance, the Turks' "forward policy . . . included the planting of Circassian colonies" in the country.[50] Circassians "surrounded" the Jewish settlement of Sedjera, which had been purchased from an "absentee Arab landlord" in the late 1890s.[51]

At Hadera, founded in 1891, Egyptian workers were contracted because there was not enough local Arab labor, and those few locals available were not willing to run the "risk of malaria and yellow fever." At Zikhron Yaacov, founded in 1882, there were twenty-one Jewish workers to six Arab workers in 1893; five years later, in 1898, there were twenty-seven Jews to twenty-one Arabs.[52]

And in 1889, the forty Jewish families in the Jewish settlement Rishon I'Tsion (founded in 1882) had been followed by more than ten times as many Arab families from Egypt and elsewhere. The following letter from a pioneer provides a vivid illustration:

In Rishon L'tzion, there are now forty Jewish families, and most of them are financially supported by the noble.... Besides this forty, more than four hundred families are settled in the areas surrounding the moshava. The Arab village of Sarafand that stood ruined to the south of the moshava (Rishon L'tzion) is now called Srefand Harib, and is a large, spreadout village; many Bedouin and Egyptian families have settled within it. Those who left their villages to come here all find work. They, along with their wives, daughters and sons have split up into a wide variety of trades and vocations. Dozens of families have gathered in Bet Dagon (Badazshak), in Yadzor, in Safria, in Srafand Amar, in Agar and elsewhere (a few thousand dunam that was, and until today is, desolate and empty and used for putting sheep and bulls out to graze). Those who have come to the area are wretchedly poverty-stricken and destitute, and came with nothing to plant. Grains (income) were taken by the government, and they were left lacking of all. About one thousand Arabs work on occasion and (during the winter in Rishon), and how many in the villages? We ourselves are giving them plough blades that are sharpened -- into the hand of those who someday may stand as enemies against us.[53]
By 1897, at Petach Tikvah, one of the largest Jewish settlements, Jews were in a "rotating work force of some thirty-two hands" in an attempt to "avoid the need for Arab labour," and strengthen the spirit of the settlers.[54] Still, in 1914, Petach Tikvah's population would number 2,600 Jewish settlers, 600 resident Arab workers, and 1,100 "floating" Arabs.[55]

One condition was unique to Palestine, however: it was solely in Judah-cum-Palestine that the traditional Jewish dhimmi not only would be equal, but he or she would

1) help wrench the effendis' historical hold over the peasant-migrants and
2) create independence for the Jews.

As a counter, the effendis would set about inflaming the entrenched Jew-hatred of the Muslim masses by instilling fear in the only way the masses understood: by ominous warnings that Jews might begin to oppress Muslims as the Muslims had for so long oppressed the Palestinian Jews. According to one account,

In all eyes the Jew is becoming ... the traitor prepared to plunder his neighbor to take possession of his goods.[163]
It was in 1909, at the time when leading effendis felt their grip over the lives and fortunes of their erstwhile prey was getting too loose, that effendi Ruhi Bey al-Khalidi warned that the Jews would "displace the Arab farmers from their land and their fathers' heritage.... The Jews were not here when we conquered the country." [164] It mattered little that the effendi's argument was false. It served his group's long-range economic interests, and at least some of his misstatements would be swallowed whole by a surprisingly large part of the world for the better part of a century.

In 1911, an Arab land official from a notable family based in Damascus charged that the Jewish settlers in Palestine wanted "solely to expel the poor Arab peasants from their land,"[165] while "treacherous Arab landowners" sold lands to the Jews. [166] In case some among the impoverished masses might question the sincerity of sudden concern shown by the Arab absentee landlord in question- whose wealth and holdings came from precisely the activities he was attributing to the Jews -- a more emotional and basic appeal was added to ensure the desired mass reaction: the Damascus landlord warned that the Jews were "disloyal" Ottoman soldiers and would "later shoot the Arabs." [167]

As Jew had been plundered by Arab, so now would Arab be plundered, the leaders alleged. As Arab had been stripped of land and money by Arab, so now the Jews would be blamed. Most important, as Jew was displaced by Arab in Palestine -- with each restriction on Jewish immigration, Arabs were coming into the Jewish-settled areas to take places and employment that the Jews were creating for other Jews -- so Arab would charge Jew with the Arab's action. The implanted fear that the new, bolder Jews would turn the tables on the Muslims fomented the desired violent reaction. It was the same tactic that would later throw fuel on the "Palestinian refugees" flight in 1948.

The effendis' somewhat disingenuous tactic in 1909 may have been the first specious charge of Jews specifically "displacing" Arabs. But the same effendi tactic had succeeded in pressuring the Turks to halt Jewish immigration to the Holy Land nearly thirty years before that. And the same tool would be cynically employed later by the Arabs with British support: later, "Arabs" in "Palestine" would be seen by the world as having been "displaced" and "excluded" from "their homeland" in 1948.

Despite the anti-Jewish solicitation inherent in his positions, as early as 1911 Ruhi Bey al-Khalidi proclaimed he was not an "anti-Semite, but an anti-Zionist."[168] It was perhaps the premiere performance of that protest of qualification that is prevalent today. One benefit accruing from prominent effendi al-Khalidi's pronouncement could have been that Jews might be more likely to continue to buy land surreptitiously from one who disclaimed any support of "anti-Semitism."

But the distinction was aimed only at influencing the Jews. As other non-Jews pointed out, the "masses were incapable of making the distinction" between one Jew and another. [169] One influential Arab writer candidly observed that there should be no distinction between "Zionists" and "non-Zionists," since all shared common goals.[170]

Anti-Jewish attitudes were the "daily bread in Palestine.[171] Sheikh Sulayman al-Taji, an "Ottomanist" patriot and landlord who, paradoxically, himself sold land to Jews, wrote a poem called "The Zionist Danger" about "Jews, the weakest of all peoples and the least of them ... sons of clinking gold, stop your deceit . . ."[172] The "poem" was published in November 1913, and that same month, murders were committed in Jewish kibbutzes (kibbutzim) of the Jewish-settled area of the country.[173]

By the time of World War I, the active Arab anti-Semitism, whether called "Ottomanism," "anti-Zionism," or "Arab nationalism,"[174] had evolved into a kind of Muftism after Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti and scion of the al-Husseini notables.

As Britain's Commander in Chief and Palestine's High Commissioner would conclude a generation later, in 1938, Arab "terrorism was not a national movement but bands of banditti of no genuine political significance [or] Arab peasants who are restless and anti-Jew, and who are not averse to joining violent action" for a fee. But, said the Commissioner, the "moderate" Arabs in Palestine who opposed terror feared they would become the victims if they took "a lead against the terrorists." "Other political leaders might arise," if Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini weren't "sitting just across the border."[175] But the terrorist leader and his effendi colleagues in Palestine had been "sitting" in control of the country's security for decades. As an anti-Jewish movement, Muftism would not only cooperate with the Nazis, but would actually succeed in efforts to cause the deaths of additional hundreds of thousands of European Jews whom the Nazis had earmarked for Palestine, as is documented later.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst 
Brooklyn, New York 
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Source: "From Time Immemorial" by Joan Peters, 1984
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Portions Copyright © 1984 Joan Peters, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
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