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Changing the Ethnic Vocabulary

by LARRY PORTIS

Between the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the creation of the United Jewish Agency in 1929, the evolution of political vocabulary in relation to ethnic groups in Palestine accompanied the emergence of an increasingly difficult geopolitical problem.

At the time, notions of nationhood were at the center of all questions of foreign affairs. Although touted as a solution to collective conflicts in general, national self-determination was at best a tenuous idea that tended to obscure the re-composition of empires or, at least, the transfer of their control from one powerful entity to another.

Spokespersons for the Zionist movement intervened actively in the US popular press during this period of transition between the defeat of the Turkish Empire (end of 1917) and the eventual implementation of the British Mandate in Palestine (April 1920). This journalistic activity was particularly important in the United States because financial donations from the large and relatively wealthy Jewish population in the US were vital to the Zionist project in Palestine.

Contrary to predictions of stability under the British Mandate, British control was inaugurated by riots caused by increased Jewish immigration. In July 1921, after one year of the new British administration, the Literary Digest noted that fears concerning the Zionist project were articulated in Palestine and also in neighboring countries and in the United States. Reviewing reactions to the events in Palestine in Arab-American publications, the Digest found, as did Arab newspapers in the Middle East, that there was a careful distinction drawn between attitudes concerning Jewish people and those concerning Zionism. In Al-Bayan, a Syrian newspaper published in New York, it was feared that there was much misrepresentation “as to the real ground of opposition in Palestine to Zionism”. This concern was echoed by the Meraat-ul-Gharb (New York) asserting that “the people of Palestine do not hate the Jews, but hate Zionism.” The Syrian Eagle (New York) found it ironic that it was the Palestinians who were being accused of religious fanaticism when it was the Zionists who were immigrating to Palestine out of “religious sentimental” motivations. The editorialist then asked: “Has it come to this, that we must plead with England for possession of our own country, and prove to a credulous world that Palestine really does not belong to the Zionists?”

Although it was never explicitly stated, confusion existed over how to refer to the members of different ethnic groups in Palestine. In an article in the Literary Digest of November 5, 1921, for example, reference is editorially made to “Arab Mohammedans”, “native Christians” and “Jewish colonists”. But this circumspection is in contrast to the ethnic characterizations of Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Congress, who in the same article referred simply to “Jew and Arab”, or to those the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, quoted as approving “the legitimate aspirations of the Jewish race (my italics)”. Samuel (who was Jewish) tended to reduce the population of Palestine to “the Jew”, on the one hand and “the Arab”, on the other.

Even as he attempted to allay the fears of the non-Jewish population of Palestine, Samuel systematically employed a schematic vocabulary that obscured perceptions of the situation. For him, the “Jewries of the world” were simply attempting to establish their home “in the land which was the political, and has always been the religious, center of their race.” Several years later, the political secretary of the World Zionist Organization, Conrad Stein, castigated the “few mischief makers” who were “doing their best to keep the two races in Palestine apart.” (my italics)

In 1926, an anonymous “Friendly Visitor” wrote in the magazine Living Age about the “racial situation” in Palestine stating that “up to the present the two races are living side by side without intermingling” explaining that such exclusiveness was good because the Zionist policy was not to exploit Arab labor, but rather to encourage Jews to work in all sectors of the economy. The idea was that separate development, avoiding ethnic segmentation of the work force, would lead to more rapid improvement of Arab living standards: “as soon as the Arabs’ standard of living has risen and the wages of the two races are equalized such discrimination will automatically disappear.” In addition, Jews must be encouraged to do agricultural labor, for “[n]othing but agriculture can change the Jews from a nation of traders into a nation with a normal distribution of its people into all branches of productive labor. The movement to the farm is the corner stone of racial regeneration.”

Zionist spokespersons incessantly emphasized that the Jews were a separate and distinct people or race. At the same time, the Muslim and Christian Palestinians were also referred to as a racial group: the “Arabs”. Less and less were the different participants in the drama designated as Europeans and Palestinians, or Jews, Muslims, Christians or Druzes. Increasingly, only two groups seemed to be present: the “Jews” and the “Arabs”. In only a few years, non-Jewish representatives of the region would also begin to speak in terms of “race” when referring to the different ethnic groups in Palestine.

Arnold Toynbee, the famous historian, raised a related question in The New Republic in 1922. For him, the trouble in Palestine lay in the imposition of a western idea — nationalism — in a region culturally unprepared for it. Palestine, regardless of its religious complexity, was in fact “a comparatively homogeneous country”. But a western political idea called “nationality” and the rise of national feeling in Palestine has “produced two effects. On the one hand, the Moslem and Christian Arabs began to feel themselves one with their Arab neighbors, especially with those of Syria, from which Palestine is divided by no physical boundaries. On the other hand, the Palestinian Jews, especially the agricultural colonists, and, still more, a majority of the Jewish ‘Dispersion’ all over the world, began to look forward to making Palestine eventually their own in the sense in which the United States belongs to the American people or France to the French.” Toynbee observed that the commitment of the British, United-Statesian, French and Italian governments to the “hazardous experiment” of the implantation of Zionism in Palestine would lead to more and more explosions of violence.

By the end of 1922 the future of social conflict within Palestine, and the uses of Palestine by powerful states, had been thoroughly discussed. The nature of Zionism as a nationalist political movement, its uses by the governments of the major western countries, the determining events in the creation of an almost intractable political situation, all of these dimensions of the “question of Palestine” were well known by educated readers. The way towards the eventual creation of a Jewish state seems to have been traced out well in advance of the actual event.

By the late 1920s, outbreaks of ethnic violence in Palestine tended to reinforce the idea that the population was divided into two irreconcilable camps. One result was the attenuation of disagreements between Jewish people over the legitimacy of the Zionist project. The creation of a reorganized Jewish Agency supportive of the colonization of Palestine, but not declaredly Zionist, seems to be related to the situation.

In November 1928, the Literary Digest cited a variety of Jewish-American periodicals (such as the American Hebrew in New York, the Jewish Tribune in New York, the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia, and the Canadian Jewish Chronicle in Montreal) in which various “non-Zionist” spokespersons expressed their solidarity with the Jewish immigration to Palestine. At a conference in New York organized by the jurist Louis Marshall, Marshall proclaimed: “there are no longer Zionists and non-Zionists. We are all Jews together.” “American Israel”, ran the conclusion, “is at last united in a ‘pact of glory’ […] for the up-building of Palestine.” Here, the use of the term “Israel” in reference to the Jewish population of the United States is significant for its “national” implications. The expression “Israel”, used to designate a people seen as a nation, will eventually denote the nation as concretized in the “nation state”.

When the United Jewish Agency was officially formed at the Zionist congress at Zurich in August 1929, its creation announced a new phase in the conflict over the destiny of Palestine.

The new Agency created at the Zionist meeting was composed of one-half non-Zionist members. The importance was that these non-Zionists promised to support the pursuit of the Jewish projects in Palestine, projects that, in fact, are properly called “Zionist”. But now the Jewish colonization of Palestine was no longer presented as a specifically Zionist project, but rather as a “Jewish” aspiration. Consequently, the demographic transformation of Palestine no longer expressed the same degree of dissension among Jews.

To refer to “Zionists” would henceforth tend to be perceived as an implicitly critical assessment of the project itself. The new political correctness was not the word “Zionist”, which implied a secular political movement in favor of a particular ethnic group, but rather a new application in this particular political context of the word “Jewish”. Replacing “Zionist” by “Jewish” consensually united all members of the confessional group in the same project by agreeing to not to disagree over modes of expression and ultimate goals.

It is possible that the new consensus among non-Palestinian (European and North-American) Jews, symbolized by the United Jewish Agency, contributed to the tragic events accompanying its emergence. The inter-ethnic violence of August 1929 may have been directly related to the creation of the United Jewish Agency. This is the opinion of the well-known writer John Gunther, who was not unfriendly to the Zionist cause. According to him, “the formation of the Agency was a direct factor contributing to the riots, because it incited outbursts of chauvinism by Jews in Palestine, and this led to Arab retaliation.”

Whatever the case, the decade of the 1920s saw the emergence of ethnic hostilities in Palestine that would not be resolved by the eventual creation of the state of Israel. The dilemma of “national” identifications linked to racialist notions is a field for political exploitation that has remained all-too-fertile and tempting for demagogues of all persuasions. In this particular case, by incessantly juxtaposing the two terms, “Jew” and “Arab”, often in a context of comparative evaluation detrimental to the latter, a confusion was created between, on the one hand, religious confession and, on the other hand, culture regardless of religion.

From a Zionist standpoint, such terminological amalgamation was perhaps necessary in order to unite Palestinian Jews and the new arrivals. The “Jew-Arab” dichotomy was also convenient in that it drove a wedge between Jewish and non-Jewish Palestinians. The problem was (and is) that the terms refer to populations, real people, who were encouraged to see themselves and “the others” as different in some qualitative way.

Is not surprising that the term “race”— that in the nineteenth century had connotations that were as much cultural as racial — should be used in reference to the general characteristics of both broadly defined groups. It is unfortunate, however, that “Jews” and “Arabs” came to be thought of as such separate peoples. All the old “orientalist” prejudices of the nineteenth century, including anti-Semitism, could now be applied in a new geopolitical environment in which great-power interests would, once again, be justified by the principle of national self-determination, but this time by helping to create a national entity where the people designated as its active population were not only a minority but also recent immigrants. It was a project legitimized in great part by the idea that “Arab” populations were incapable or unready to assume responsibility for their political destinies.

After the interwar period the term “race” was avoided in reference to the “Jewish-Arab” conflict (because of the prominence of racist ideology in the carrying out of the genocide perpetrated by the Nazi regime against Jews and others). But are racialist connotations excluded from such terminology? Certainly not. Even after the creation of the state of Israel and the emergence of the new mode of referring to the conflict as “Arab-Israeli”, invidious connotations remain attached to the term “Arab”. This is, alas, but one example of how imprecise or misleading language is a tool for political manipulation that holds out the promise of instilling tenacious prejudices, all in the interest of ethnic cleansing.

Israel was created on this basis, and its culture and law are infused with racist presumptions. The very idea of a “Jewish state”, the low-intensity ethnic cleansing operative as state policy, the “law of return” designating Israel as “homeland” for all “Jews” regardless of their existing citizenship or their geographical origins, the biological definition of the term “Jew” (those who are born of a “Jewish” mother), the genocidal practices of control and repression inflicted upon those uprooted from their land and homes in the territories appropriated in 1948 and those living in the territories occupied in June 1967 (see the UN Convention on Genocide for the definition), the second-class status suffered by non-Jewish Palestinians in Israel, all of these things stem from a racialist conception of ethnicity.  The Zionist movement was founded on this conception, and in spite of wordplay or wishful thinking the Zionist state continues its long-term project unabated.

LARRY PORTIS is a professor of American studies at the University of Montpellier, France and a founding member of Americans for Peace and Justice in Montpellier. He can be contacted at larry.portis@univ-montp3.fr

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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