Towards the birth of the state of Israel. Jewish settlements and Arab nationalism

Ferrara continues with this third article a series of four interesting cultural-historical summaries to understand the configuration of the State of Israel, the Arab-Israeli question and the presence of the Jewish people in the world today.

Gerardo Ferrara-July 22, 2023-Reading time: 6 minutes

Jewish settlement Maale Adumim ©CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters

Jews who emigrated to Palestine founded cities (e.g., Tel Aviv, Israel's second largest city, was founded in 1909 near the city of Jaffa, which today is a district of the city) and agricultural villages of two distinct types.

The kibbutzim and moshàv

- Kibbùtz (from the Hebrew root kavatz, "to gather," "to group"), a type of agricultural (in some cases also fishing, industrial, or artisanal) farm whose members voluntarily associate and agree to submit to strict egalitarian rules, the best known of which is the concept of collective ownership. Within the kibbùtz, profits from agricultural (or other) work are reinvested in the settlement after members have received food, clothing, housing, and social and medical services. Adults have private accommodation, but children are usually housed and cared for as a group. Meals are always communal and the kibbùtz (the first was founded in Deganya in 1909) are usually established on land leased from the Jewish National Fund, which owns much of the land in today's State of Israel. Members convene weekly collective meetings at which general policy is determined and trustees are elected.

- Moshàv (from the root shuv, "to settle"), also, like the kibbùtz, a type of cooperative agricultural settlement. Unlike the latter, however, the moshàv is governed by the principle of private ownership of the individual plots that make up the farm. The moshàv is also built on land belonging to the Jewish National Fund or to the State. Families live here independently.

A new life, a new language

In the new agricultural and urban settlements, the 'olìm, who were still subjects of the Ottoman Empire, had to learn to live in a new way. Above all, there was the problem of their different geographical and cultural origins, which required a unique language to communicate. Therefore, the biblical Hebrew language was resorted to. The pioneer of the project to revive this language was Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922), a Russian-born Jew and immigrant to Palestine, whose son became the first Hebrew mother tongue child after thousands of years.

The revival of a language that had been in disuse for two millennia was one of the most incredible adventures in history, not least because of the need to adapt a language whose lexicon, poor and based mainly on the Holy Scriptures and ancient lyric poetry, had to be completely reinvented and adapted to a modern pronunciation that proved to be a compromise between those adopted by the various communities scattered around the world.

Thus were created the foundations of a new man, the future Israeli, who often changed his name, refused to speak the language he had used until then and had to be strong, tempered by hard work and the desert, the opposite of the traditional Jew of the ghetto. It is no coincidence that, even today, the natives of the State of Israel are still called tzabra ("prickly pear" in Hebrew) and are characterized by their rough and brusque manners.

Among other things, given the growing resistance of the Arab population already living in Palestine, it was necessary for someone to watch over and watch over the security of the settlers. Thus, also in 1909, the Ha-Shomer (Guild of Guardians) was born, to guard the settlements in exchange for a salary, merging later, in 1920, with the famous Haganah, which was formed after the Arab uprisings of the same year.

Arabs or Palestinians: the big losers

A distinction should be made between the word "Arab" and the word "Palestinian". The former indicates, in the first place, an inhabitant of the Arabian Peninsula and, by extension, has come to designate anyone who, today, speaks the Arabic language, although, in this sense, it would be more correct to use the noun adjective "Arabic-speaking". In fact, many of the people who today use Arabic as their first language are not Arabs in the strict sense, but "Arabized" in the centuries following the arrival of Islam.
At the time of the arrival of the Islamic conquerors, the Syro-Palestinian region was subject to the Byzantine Empire and was mostly Christian.

It was occupied and ceded several times throughout history, forming part first of the Umayyad Caliphate, then of the Abbasid Caliphate and again of the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt; later, after being dominated by several Crusader kingdoms and witnessing the exploits of Saladin, who reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, it finally returned to Muslim hands with the Seljuk Turks and, later, the Ottomans. In 1540, during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem were built and are still standing.

At the end of the 19th century, the area was part of the Ottoman Empire ("vilayet" from Syria). The name "Palestine" was used loosely to define both what we know today as the Israeli-Palestinian area and parts of Transjordan and Lebanon and the inhabitants of the area, who, as we have seen, were almost entirely Arabic-speaking. Although the vast majority (just under 80%) of the population was Muslim, there was a sizeable Christian minority (around 16%, mainly in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Nazareth), a small Jewish minority (4.8%) and an even smaller Druze presence.

The inhabitants then considered themselves Ottomans and Arabs, and only later Palestinians, nationalism was only a germ in the minds of a few members of the wealthy classes. However, resentment towards the central power and its increasingly exorbitant tax system was on the rise, especially after the land reform of 1858 (Arazi Kanunnamesi), enacted within the framework of the Tanzimat. The aim of this decree was for the central authority to regain control over lands that had escaped its "longa manus" over the centuries and were in the hands of individuals or peasants unable to claim legal rights over them.

Thanks to this reform, however, large landowners were able to display false ownership certificates to further increase their landholdings, sometimes favored by the small landowners, tribes and peasant communities themselves, who feared even more exorbitant taxation if they became legal owners of the land on which they had settled for generations. Thus, it was easy for wealthy international Jewish foundations to acquire large tracts of land from local landowners.

The Arab and Islamic national awakening

Curiously, the Arab national awakening coincided with the Jewish national awakening, at first due to different factors, but then due to a direct clash between the two, and precisely in Palestine, given the growing presence in the region of Jews settling on lands previously occupied by Arab peasants. In fact, until the 19th century, that is, before the Tanzimats, the Muslim Arabs were considered, like the Turks, first class citizens of an empire that was not sustained on an ethnic basis, but on a religious one. There are, therefore, three fundamental factors behind the emergence of the Arab nationalist phenomenon:

1. The reforms called Tanzimat, which brought about a revival of Turkish nationalism (also called "pan-Turanism"), which we have discussed in the articles on the Armenian genocide.

2. The influx of thousands of Jews to Palestine, beginning in 1880, and the ease with which they became farm owners in the area.

3. European colonialism, which prompted Islamic intellectuals and writers such as Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani (ca. 1838-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) to become advocates of the project known as Nahdha, or the cultural and spiritual awakening of the Islamic Arab world, through a greater awareness of its literary, religious and cultural heritage, but also through a return to its origins, a rediscovery of the golden age in which Arabs were not oppressed (a concept, this, at the basis of Salafist thought).

This gave rise to two opposing currents of thought:

1. Pan-Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism: more or less from the same period as Zionism and whose cradle is located between Lebanon and Syria. This ideology is based on the need for the independence of all the united Arab peoples (whose unifying factor is the language) and that all religions have the same dignity before the State. Among its founders was Negib Azoury (1873-1916), a Maronite Christian Arab who had studied in Paris at the École de Sciences Politiques.

Later thinkers and politicians such as: George Habib Antonius (1891-1942), Christian; George Habash (1926-2008), Christian, founder of the Arab Nationalist Movement and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which later merged into the PLO; Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), Christian, founder, together with the Sunni Muslim Salah al-Din al-Bitar, of the Baath Party (that of Saddam Hussein and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad); and Gamal Abd Al-Nasser himself (1918-1970).

2. Pan-Islamic nationalism, or pan-Islamism: also born in the same period, from thinkers such as Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh, but with the aim of unifying all Islamic peoples (not only Arabs) under the banner of a common faith and in which, of course, Islam has a preponderant role, a superior dignity and full right of citizenship, to the detriment of other religions. Exponents of this were, among others: Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the infamous Sheikh Amin Al-Husseini (1897-1974), also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the precursors of Islamic fundamentalism, which he expressed through his anti-Jewish proclamations and his closeness to Hitler.

The authorGerardo Ferrara

Writer, historian and expert on Middle Eastern history, politics and culture.

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