The Seeds of Conflict

By Roy Ribitzky

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series of three articles to be published consecutively.

He was a real gentleman. In the brutal summer heat of Georgia, Mr. Smith would always come to work early and help with the gardening. One day, he asked about where my family was from.

“Where’s Israel?” our friendly gardener asked my mom after she told him. Taken aback at first, my mom replied, “The Holy Land…”

“Oh! The Holy Land! The Land of our Lord.”

It seems as though every person has his or her own idea of what the Middle East means to them. To some, the state of Israel exists. To others, it cannot. Some world opinions equate the Jewish state with apartheid. Western governments view Palestinian organizations as they do terrorist organizations. What has formed over the last century, since the first Jewish immigration, or “aliyah,” entered the Palestinian port of Jaffa, is a complex story of anecdotes, histories, experiences and suffering.

Are we witnessing the climax to a tragic play? Arab writer Najib Azouri proclaimed in 1905 that “two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed, are emerging at this moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent efforts of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. These movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins.”

Despite the fact that there are still pages to be written in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we are approaching the end of an era. What began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent imperialist failures of the British has grown into one of the most divisive issues the world has known. The fight over Jerusalem, the Jewish Right of Return, and the “Nakba” – Arabic for what Palestinians call the “catastrophe” of Israel’s Independence Day – is all coming to a head this Friday when the Palestinian Authority asks for statehood at the United Nations in New York City.

Four thousand years of anti-Semitism? No. The destruction of the Second Temple? Two thousand years ago. The Jewish kingdom stretching into modern day Jordan and Syria? Those will rest on ancient scrolls forever. Our modern crisis was planted with seeds of cultural misunderstandings, incompetence and fear of the unknown. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about who was here first, or who has more right to what holy site, but something greater. It will come to redefine how we identify with nationalism.

The Pogroms of Russia and the anti-Semitism fueled trial of French military officer Alfred Dreyfus forced Jews to reevaluate their safety in living in Europe in the 1890s. A few Jewish visionaries returned to a weakening Ottoman-ruled Palestinian territory. In the city of Jaffa, surviving Jewish families settled just outside the port city. In the beginning, there was solidarity among the people. As Jews were a tiny minority, Arab workers helped them build new homes and infrastructure. Jews and Arabs were living and working together.

We seem to forget that there were and are pockets of unity in Palestine and Israel. But cultural differences inevitably proved too difficult to overcome. In what was known as the “politics of notables” before the Zionist migration, elite Arab families had local power over Palestinian communities. It was common practice for these elite clans to lease out land, including “mawats” – land lots – to farmers. This land was accessible by nomadic tribes who could pass through or harvest crops.

The Zionists wanted to bring Palestine into Modern times. They were the Jews of Europe – a new Europe blossoming with waves of philosophies and ideologies about democracy, individual freedoms, capitalism and national pride in a time when the idea of nationalism was a new concept in human history. And all of this – despite the contemporary tendency in associating “modern” with good and “primitive” with bad – is what we are really referring to when we say that a group in history was more “modern” than another.

Nationalism for Jews took on a different meaning. Judaism, unlike most religions, is tied to a specific territory. Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian and the “father” of the Jewish state, was the first modern Jew to call for a return to Judea. He died in 1904, a few years before the first modern Hebrew city of Tel Aviv was founded on the shores across from Jaffa.

Better infrastructure took shape outside Jaffa. Cafes opened up playing Western music, bringing in a new economic lifestyle. Larger waves of Jewish families began immigrating to Palestine and buying up mawats from elite Arab families, thus privatizing them. All of a sudden, farmers with no knowledge of capitalist and industrial concepts could not understand why they could not walk through an undeveloped patch of land. Cracks in mutual respect for each other grew wider. With all the money pouring in to Tel Aviv, Jaffa’s economic and cultural importance slowly depressed. The way of life was changing in Palestine.

This was the Palestinians’ first taste of modernism and the realities of capitalism and both were bitter to the taste. Progress is vital to global stability, but when a peoples’ life is so abruptly changed – especially when the people making the change speak another language and come from a different place – it becomes more difficult to overcome those challenges. When the Jewish families believed they were bettering their own society, many Arab families believed their culture was being overturned. Modernity unfolded into a conflict between old and new, West and East and is played out now under the nationalistic banners of Israeli and Palestinian.

Outside Palestine, the world was at war, but that didn’t stop colonialist ambitions. The British, French and Russians met in secret meetings and created Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon out of thin air. The United Kingdom, masters of the divide-and-conquer tactic, sought to solve this “Pan-Islamic problem,” yet there was only one reason why England wanted Palestine – they desired a direct route to their jewel of India instead of having to sail around Africa’s horn.

Thus the Gentlemen of the West sought to solidify control over Palestine. The British changed the “mawat” laws – or, some argue, misinterpreted – saying that mawats were government property to be sold to whomever it felt could develop it best. This alteration undoubtedly favored richer Jewish families. The British sought Sayyid Hussein, a popular Arabic caliphate, to give his support to help ease the fervor over the change among Palestinians. In exchange, the British secretly agreed to the idea of establishing an independent Arabic and Muslim state.

At the same time, England made a public endorsement in support of establishing a Jewish state with the Balfour Declaration. The end of World War I sealed England’s presence in the Middle East. These changes brought on during the British Mandate of 1917-1948 effectively sparked conflict and war between the Zionist and Palestinian national movements. The Arabs felt betrayed by the British, and the Jews were determined to see out the Balfour Declaration.

Two pivotal events then occurred that would change the course of the next 65 years. First, on May 15, 1948, the Jews established the state of Israel. Second, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Arab Liberation Movement immediately declared war on this newfound state.

Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]