As summer extends into yet another steamy week, it’s tempting to continue our stroll through Israel’s history. The present hate and threats will be waiting for us in plentiful supply next week. So let’s return to the hopeful early dreams of Zionism and optimistic early days of Israel. In reviewing what could have been, we might just see the path forward more clearly.
Last week, I wrote about the original Zionist goal of building a Jewish homeland in which the Arab residents would be full and equal citizens. These early Zionists dared to dream that the Arabs might even welcome the Jews home and recognize in their return a source of great benefits and blessings. Together, these Zionists hoped, Jews and Arabs could build an outpost of cooperation and prosperity that would lift the entire Middle East.
As we all know, these expectations eventually proved to be naive in the extreme. Yet what few people remember anymore is that the initial Arab reaction to the Zionist movement was not at all hostile. In fact, Arab leaders originally responded to Zionism as warmly as Herzl and the other early Zionists had hoped. Rejection was not the only path the Arabs could have followed. There were other views. There was another way.
In 1906, Syrian author Farid Kassab noted that, “The Jews of the Orient [Israel] are at home. This land is their only fatherland. They don’t know any other.” The Mufti of Jerusalem (the predecessor to the genocidal Hajj Amin Husseini) participated in the laying of a foundation stone for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After Lord Balfour’s declaration that Britain would facilitate the building of a Jewish national home in Palestine, a Gaza sheikh stated, “Tell Balfour that we in the South are willing to sell him land at a much lower rate that he will have to pay in the North.” Indeed, Arabs throughout the country sold their land to Jewish buyers without hesitation, and pocketed ever increasing profits.
But the most promising response of all came from the very top. The earliest leader of the Arab national movement was Emir Faisal ibn Hussein of Mecca, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed and the leader of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. As Faisal directed the effort to create an independent Arab nation in the lands formerly controlled by the Ottomans, he did not see the Zionists as rivals. He instead viewed them as potential partners in building a modern Middle East.
In 1919, Faisal led the Arab delegation to the Paris Peace Conference that followed World War One. There he met with Chaim Weizmann, who was representing the Zionists. The two leaders did not fight, shout, or even stare at each other icily. Instead, they signed a Treaty of Friendship. In this agreement, both parties pledged the “closest possible collaboration” in building their future Arab and Jewish states. The Arabs further agreed to “encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.”
In a letter to a group of American Zionists a few months later, Faisal went even further. He wrote, “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, insofar as we are concerned, to help them through. We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”
“We wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.” The fact that the leader of the Arab nationalist movement once uttered such a phrase is astonishing, but true. And thousands of Jewish and Arab souls cry out from their graves in righteous anger that this sentiment never crossed from words into action. Actually, millions of Jewish souls cry out from their graves. Had the Jewish national home been implemented back in 1919, millions of European Jews would have had somewhere to go as Hitler’s grasp grew ever tighter around them.
Faisal would go on to be King of Syria, and then King of Iraq. But less visionary leaders later seized control of the Arab nationalist movement. In time — and as a response to the Zionist movement — the local Arabs began to view themselves not as Ottoman subjects, and not even as Arabs in a broader sense, but as a distinctive new nation — Palestinian Arabs. In a very real sense, Palestinian Arab nationalism was the offspring of Zionism. And as if possessed of a powerful Oedipus complex, Palestinian nationalism has been trying to kill its Jewish father ever since. With limited exceptions, Palestinian leaders have embraced the path of war and rejection, including the rejection of repeated offers to create a Palestinian state.
Given what could have been, the present state of affairs is pure tragedy. But it is important to note that there was another path. And it is even more important to stress that this path still exists. Yes, it may be covered by the desert sands, but it’s still there and it remains passable. Anwar Sadat walked down it on his way to Jerusalem to recognize the Jewish State. So did Jordan’s King Hussein. And it is possible that one day a Palestinian leader will follow their lead. Until then, Israel must continue to stand strong. Israel must defend herself. The ongoing dream of destroying Israel must be proven to be naive in the extreme. Maybe then, the dream of peace will once again capture the minds of those who are supposed to lead their people.
David Brog is the executive director of Christians United for Israel and author of a new book, In Defense of Faith: The Judeo-Christian Idea and the Struggle for Humanity. You can follow David on Facebook by clicking here and on Twitter by clicking here.