Monday, September 19, 2011

A century-old warning

A few days ago I found lying in the street near my home an old book – the collected writings of Micha Joseph Berdichevsky, a Zionist writer, poet and commentator who was born in 1865 and died in 1921. Once his name was well known, but now he is almost forgotten and even most of those who live on Berdichevsky Street in Tel Aviv have no clear idea for whom their street was named. I opened the yellowing pages and found an article written in the aftermath of the  Seventh Zionist Congress, held at Basel in 1907. Much of it seems as if it was written just now. (Emphasis in the original). .

(...) We heard a thorough discussion about the Arab movement and of the Arab people. Eretz Yisrael is no virgin soil, but a land inhabited by a nation which works the land and which has rights over their land ... The writer A. Hermoni, a native of Eretz Yisrael, spoke of the Arab movement in his articles published in "Hashiloah". Even more explicit was what we heard from another resident of Eretz Yisrael, the teacher Yitzhak Epstein, who during the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel set out before us this major issue, the issue of the attitude of the Sons of Israel coming to settle in the Land of Israel towards the Arabs ...

"The Hidden Question" was how the speaker spoke of it. The fact that such a fundamental issue could have been ignored and kept out of mind, that after thirty years of settlement work it could be spoken of as a new subject for investigation, is a sad proof of the lighthearted attitude prevalent in our movement.

"Ever since our national movement emerged,  said this speaker, the activists ceaselessly discussed and debated about the situation of the the country and its laws and so on. But one thing we have forgotten to discuss: we have forgotten that in the country we love there is an entire other people, which has been holding to it for centuries, and which never had any intention of letting go of it".

And he goes on to tell us of this living people as "a people with a sensitive heart and a loving soul", which is bound to its his homeland by strong bonds and that "It is to be conjectured that many of them are descended from the scattered and refugee members of our own people, who had become assimilated among other peoples during times of persecution and destruction", and share this blood relation. "The Arabs are a prime example of peasants who work their fields devotedly and water them with the sweat of their brow. In physical development, the Arab is the superior of all European".

"It is high time to get rid of the wrong idea, which has become widespread among Zionists, that in Eretz Israel there is soil which remains uncultivated due to the lack of working hands. There are no empty fields. On the contrary, each fellah is striving to add to his plot whatever uncultivated land is to be found nearby."."Well, when we come to take hold of the country, there immediately comes up the question: What would do the peasants, whose fields we will purchase? – Where will the dispossessed turn? – True, sometimes the Hebrew colony provides him with some work. However – first, we can’t oblige ourselves to permanently provide him a job, and secondly, by so doing we only make the situation worse. For when the fellah is provided with a job in the colony founded on his land, he is also provided with the ability to retain contact with the land which nourished him from birth, and he will continue to regard it as his own domain which had been temporarily stolen by strangers…" 

The speaker added: "Even supposing that in the land of our ancestors we are not obliged to care for others and that we have the right – or even a duty incumbent upon us – to obtain whatever parcels of land become available. But can this behavior really persist? Would these dispossessed keep silent and accept passively what was done to them? Is it not clear that they would at least rise up to regain by the fist what was taken away from them by  gold!  Will they not seek to settle accounts with the foreigners who expelled them from their land. - and who knows, would they not then become prosecutors and judges rolled into one... After all, they are brave people, all of them armed, skilled shooters, excellent riders, zealous for their nation and especially their religion. And this people is but a small part of a great nation, holding all the environments of our country: Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt"..
"We must not disregard the rights of these people" he cried out. "Most especially, we must not resort to the evil of those who rob their brothers. Do we trust that the ashes will always cover  the flames? Let one spark escape – and a conflagration will arise which could not be extinguished!"

Is Binyamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel in September 2011, truly unable to see what  Micha Joseph Berdichevsky  described so clearly a hundred years ago?