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Interrupting a history of tolerance - Part II

By Riaz Hassan - posted Friday, 3 August 2007

Anti-Semitism was not an entrenched characteristic of Islamic ideology and history until the 20th century. Without doubt, European anti-Semitic writings and their translation into Arabic during the 19th century and German National Socialism in the 20th century were instrumental in instigating anti-Semitism throughout Arab lands.

The Zionist project for a Jewish state was predicated on centuries of Jewish sufferings in Europe. But the establishment of Israel in Palestine was intricately intertwined with the political expediencies of European imperialism which paid little attention to the resistance of native Palestinians to its establishment. The Zionists accepted the European imperialists’ negative stereotypes of the natives who were expected passively to accept plans made for their land.

But historical accounts that support such a claim have one serious shortcoming, invariably treating the Arabs as empty vessels, gullible and unreflective subjects devoid of all intellectual abilities to reflect on and analyse the existential conditions of their social, political and economic predicaments. Any serious student of Arab and Islamic history would reject such characterisations.


Arab leaders - including Mufti el-Husseini, the Islamic Brothers and Imam Izz al Din Al Qassam of Haifa and his followers - had been in the forefront of political resistance to increasing Jewish immigration and the British plan to establish a new Jewish state in Palestine. The failure of their political resistance radicalised them to resort to the armed struggle against Zionists and their supporters.

In a number of his books and especially in his book Question of Palestine, the late American Palestinian academic Edward Said describes how Zionism, a European imperialist idea, was imported to Palestine. Native Palestinians paid for that idea and suffer in concrete ways, which is why they protested and rebelled against it.

Zionism, like European imperialism, viewed Palestine as an empty territory, paradoxically filled with ignoble and even despicable natives. Chaim Weismann, a leading Zionist and the first president of Israel, acknowledged that Zionism allied itself with imperial powers in carrying out the plans to establish a new Jewish state in Palestine, according to Said. Zionism regarded “the natives” negatively, as a people expected to accept passively the plans made for their land.

A number of Zionist historians including Yehoshua Porath and Neville Mandel empirically show that well before World War I, Palestinians fiercely resisted the ideas of Zionist colonisers, not because the natives thought that Jews were evil, but because most natives do not take kindly to having their territory settled by foreigners.

Zionism not only accepted the generic racial concepts of European culture, but also banked on the fact that Palestine was home to a backward people who would not resist dominance. In formulating the concepts of a Jewish nation “reclaiming” its own territory, this implicit assumption of domination led Zionism to ignore the natives. It led Zionism to develop a consciousness of itself, but not of the natives.

As noted by historian and sociologist Maxime Rodinson, Zionist indifference to the Palestinian natives was an indifference linked to European supremacy, which benefited even Europe’s proletarians and oppressed minorities. In fact, if the ancestral homeland had been occupied by one of the well-established industrialised nations that ruled the world at the time, one that had thoroughly settled down in a territory it had infused with powerful national consciousness, then the problem of displacing, for example, German, French or English inhabitants and introducing a new nationally coherent element into the middle of their homeland would have been in the forefront of the consciousness of even the most ignorant and destitute of Zionists.


The constitutive energies of Zionism were premised on the excluded presence, that is, the functional absence of “native people” in Palestine. A popular Zionist slogan was, “A people without land for a land without people”.

Several Israeli leaders have denied the existence of Palestinian people. In a statement to the Sunday Times of June 15, 1969, former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir declared: “There is no such thing as Palestinian people … It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They did not exist.”

Israel built institutions, deliberately shutting out the natives; the nation drafted laws, ensuring that natives would remain in their “non-place”. The “problem” of Palestinians unites Israelis, and the negation of Palestinians is the most consistent thread running through Zionism. Thus, Palestinians and Arabs tie Zionism to imperialism.

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First published in YaleGlobal on July 24, 2007.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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