This phrase was used in the 1800s and
into the 1900s for the return of the Jewish people to the Land of
Israel. The Jews in the diaspora were a people without a land. The
Land of Israel, it was said, was a land without a people. The
Palestinian Arabs, including many Arab Christians, are greatly offended by
this statement. They say that they were the people inhabiting the Land and
that they are the indigenous people who were displaced. In addition,
the Palestinians and the Muslim world declare that Israel is a colonial
invasion of the West that has displaced the native population. So what
is the truth of the matter?
We live in a world where people pick and choose from the totality of
the evidence to create narratives that favor their particular
ethnicity, party or group. Very few are willing to take the time to gain a
more comprehensive understanding. My intent is to present a helpful
First of all, it is crucial to note that political and cultural leaders
have a deficient definition of justice. Justice is not unqualified
equality in every area of life. Rather, justice is an order of
righteousness where each person and all peoples can fulfill their
God-intended destiny. This may include the inheritance of a particular
land for this or that people. God owns all the lands of the world and has
the right to allocate these lands as He wishes and sees fit. His first
stated land allocation is the Land of Israel for the Jewish people,
confirmed throughout the Bible.
"Then they shall dwell in the land that I have given to Jacob My
servant, where your fathers dwelt; and they shall dwell there, they, their
children and their children's children, forever ..."
Before addressing other justice issues we must note that the largest
justice issue is what the Just God has declared.
So how did the Jewish people come to re-inhabit their ancient land? We
begin by noting that there was always a small remnant of Jewish
people in the Land of Israel, even after the people sinned and were exiled
by Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans. A remnant of Jewish people
faithfully remained in spite of persecution. Throughout centuries of
Christian and Muslim rule there has been a distinctive Jewish presence in
the Land. Many Jews were killed by the Crusaders during the siege of
Jerusalem in 1099. There was a significant resurgence of Jewish occupation
in the Galilee during the 16th century, gathered
around Rabbi Isaac Luria in Safed. In the middle of the
19th century, the Jewish people were a majority
in the City of Jerusalem.
The Zionist movement of the 19th century was
mainly spearheaded by secular Jews and Christian Zionists who built on the
existing presence of religious Jews dwelling in the four holy cities -
Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius and Safed. The Christian Zionists were
motivated by a sense of prophetic destiny and Puritan theology. The
secular Jews were seeking dignity after many centuries of
persecution. Among them was Theodore Herzl who gave up his hope for
European Jewish life after the persecution and unfair trial of a
French Jewish military officer (the "Dreyfus affair"). The violent
persecutions in Russia, Poland and Romania in the late
19th century were also great motivators. The
early Jewish pioneers sought dignity in nationalism by returning to their
ancient land and becoming a free nation. This was in the context of the age
of national movements in other areas of the world.
It was an exaggeration on the part of the early Zionists to say they had
found a "land without a people". What they found was a largely forsaken
region under the weakening, remote rule of the Ottoman Empire. They found
a land with only a few hundred thousand occupants in an area that had
contained millions during the ancient Israelite periods of history. There
were Arab villages and farms, but most of the country was
unsettled and desolate.
The land for Jewish settlement was purchased, not conquered. Poor
land was prepared for Zionist farming. Swamps were drained and many died of
malaria. Numerous Arabs gladly sold property to the Jews at
inflated prices. However, especially after World War I, other Arabs saw the
Jewish people as a threat, and engaged in violent attacks. One terrible
attack was the famous massacre of the Jewish community of Hebron in 1929.
A Colonial Invasion?
When the British took over the province from the Turkish Ottoman Empire in
1917 due to the latter's alignment with Germany in World War I,
colonial motives were significant. But to say that Israel's existence
was a product of colonialism is a real lie. Jewish settlement had already
been taking place under Turkish rule. The British policy freed the Arab
territories from Turkish control. The British colonial rule in Palestine
only favored Zionism for about half a decade. By the mid 1920s
Britain turned against its historic understanding of its role with the
Jewish people. They became anti-Zionist and their colonial policy supported
the Arabs and imposed strict limits on Jewish immigration. But the
Jewish population grew in spite of British colonialism.
British General Allenby
entering Jerusalem, 1917
After World War II, despite British opposition, Jewish people escaping from
the Holocaust in Europe came in large numbers and settled in many parts of
the Land. The Holocaust did produce world sympathy for the Jewish
people, hence the U.N. vote for a Jewish state. After the Arabs rejected
the U.N. partition plan, Israel declared her independence. Both Russia and
the United States recognized Israel. President Harry Truman, against the
counsel of his top advisors, recognized the State of Israel. His advisors
believed that the national self-interest of the United States, including
the need for oil, would be best served by alignment with the Arabs.
Truman's recognition was contrary to colonial motivations.
Later, during the Cold War, Israel was found to be a valuable ally against
Arab states aligned with Russia (the Soviet Union), and U.S. military
support for Israel began. However, Israel was never the colonial darling or
embraced project of Western colonial powers. This is an Arab myth now
embraced by the political left in Europe and parts of America.
Until the 1948 war, no Arab villages were emptied. However, during that
fighting, some Arabs chose to flee Israel, while others were forcefully
evacuated according to Israel's assessment of its security needs. This
created the Arab refugee situation which is a great and painful memory to
the Arab people. Sadly, the main reason for the loss was their rejection of
the Jewish state and Israel's security needs in the light of that
rejection. Had they accepted the Jewish people, there would not have been
Jewish Immigration and Settlement from 1948 Until Today
After the 1948 War of Independence, more refuges from Eastern Europe
arrived. In addition, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fled or were
expelled from Arab lands to settle in Israel. So again this was no
Western colonial invasion.
In the '67 War territory was conquered, and settlements of Jewish
people in Judea and Samaria were fostered. This again was done to increase
Jewish security. In this war, Arab villages were mostly left intact. It was
hoped by some that the Jewish population would grow and dominate, but
others hoped that Jordan would someday rule the Palestinian areas and
Israel the Jewish areas. The intensity of today's difficulties was not
anticipated by most.
It should also be known that Jewish development, during the British rule of
the Land, attracted Arab immigration from Egypt and Syria into
the country. The British allowed open Arab immigration after World War
II. The growing Arab population began to express itself as a distinct
people laying claim to the Land and feeling threatened by the
even-more-rapidly-growing Jewish population.
However, we should note that it was Arab propaganda that created the myth
of an Israel created by a colonial invasion. No such invasion ever took
place and Israel exists largely in spite of Western colonial powers,
not because of them.
This is the messy situation in which we find ourselves; one land with two
peoples. There seems to be no humanly gratifying solution.
Nevertheless, God is fulfilling His promises to the descendants of Jacob.
His promises to Jacob do not negate His redeeming love for our neighbours
of Arabic heritage. Therefore we believe that part of Israel's
restoration will be increasing reconciliation with the remnant among our
Arab cousins the sons of Ishmael.