Confessions of a Former Zionist: A Land Without A People

By Leigh Hoffman

The cool breeze of the Mediterranean floats through the air as I meander through the streets of Haifa. The wide roads accommodate four lanes of traffic.  I crisscross through alleyways and side streets to explore the city beyond the Israeli stores and Hebrew signs. Not far from the city port, the glow of yellow stone reflects under the sunlight, and I notice a few deteriorating buildings, their walls and roofs caving in. Surrounded by lawns filled with trash and broken furniture, I creep through the overgrown grass and weeds and duck my head as I enter the abandoned homes. Folded up mattresses and remnants of food wrappers cover the ground, as remaining walls crumble to rubble and dust at my touch. Like many of the structures I had become familiar with during my stay in Palestine, the building was a series of interconnected rooms, no built-in doors, windows created by gaps in stone. A classic Arab house, a former family home, and now the home to squatters and the trash of the Israeli public. Leaving, I walk up the hill towards the apartment of my Israeli Jewish friends, newly renovated and equipped with all of modern life’s necessities. 

A street in Balata Camp. Photo by Leigh Hoffman
A street in Balata Camp. Photo by Leigh Hoffman

In the narrow streets of the Balata Refugee Camp, the noise of children playing and peddlers selling shoelaces and candy bags floats through the air. I can feel the breeze of the warm winter day in my bones, but there are no trees for its whistle to blow through, no open spaces for its subtleties to be felt. I crane my neck towards the sun, barely able to see the blue streaks of sky through the towering homes, floor built on top of floor to accommodate growing families in a camp leased a mere 1km2 from the United Nations in 1950. Over 25,000 residents live in this ghetto, sometimes turning their bodies sideways to fit as they walk through the street to their front door. 

The largest of the at least 20 Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank, Balata is situated beside Nablus. Its residents come from all across the land, with the majority from the Jaffa region. Sixty-five years after the camp was established as a temporary home for those expelled from their lands and homes in the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, thousands of families still believe they will one day return to their original homes. 

On the main street of Balata, a road wide enough for two cars to barely drive alongside each other, the dilapidated storefronts are overflowing with people. The bright colors of t-shirts and posters of martyred Palestinians stand out against the grey buildings. In the middle of the street, my friend and I approach an elderly woman, sitting beside the fence of the only green space in the camp, a square-foot memorial to the freedom fighters of the First Intifada. 

“This woman is one of the last survivors of the Naqkba still alive here in Balata,” my friend explains to me. The Naqkba, or ‘catastrophe,’ is the Palestinian name for the 1948 war. Mohammed is nice enough to facilitate a conversation between us through his translation. 

Her family is originally from Haifa. She was born in her family home, near the Wadi. When the settlers starting coming, from Europe, at first it did little more than just increase the population of the city. But as their numbers grew, the opportunities were fewer, and things began to change. 

A woman in  in Balata, beside the picture of her imprisoned son. Photo by Leigh Hoffman.
A woman in  in Balata, beside the picture of her imprisoned son. Photo by Leigh Hoffman.

Pausing, her eyes drift between Mohammed and me, careful to ensure I understand what she is saying, and up towards the cracks in the buildings where the light shines from above.  She continues to long for her home, words pouring out of her dry lips like honey, slow and thick, as she recollects the memory of her home, the only home her family had known for generations, the home where she and all her siblings were born. When the Haganah troops finally came, this woman’s family, like many others, did not know what to do. Her father was without a job, and big European-style homes were being constructed all around them. She had friends who were killed, fighting to save their homes. She was a teenager, and her family was told they couldn’t live there anymore, but that they would be able to come back. Her neighbourhood streets were lined with new soldiers, guns and shrapnel at every turn; what was she supposed to believe? The faint remnants of fear stutter her monologue as she recounts her family packing up their things, and joining the thousands others who were forced out of the city. Many were killed before even reaching the city outskirts; many more died before arriving in Jordan. 

She is standing beside a picture of her son, currently imprisoned in Israeli military jails. She forces a smile as she points to the poster, her face aching with devotion and devastation. Mohammed explains to me that he has been in prison for over 10 years, and likely will not be released before his mother passes. 

“I hope one day my son can see his home, our family home.” I smile gently at her quivering face, and with images of crumbling yellow stone projected behind my eyelids, I muster: 

 “Inshallah.”

The first water tower in Tel Aviv (depicts Tel Aviv as sparse and empty, and demonstrating the 'modern successes' of early Zionist settlers). Photo by Avraham Soskin.
The first water tower in Tel Aviv (depicts Tel Aviv as sparse and empty, and demonstrating the ‘modern successes’ of early Zionist settlers). Photo by Avraham Soskin.

Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, once described Palestine as ¨a land without a people for a people without a land.¨ His infamous observations were embarrassingly ignorant. Prior to the onset of political Zionism (in the late 19th century) and the creation of the state of Israel (in 1948), there were in fact many people living on the land, including Muslims, Christians, and small communities of Jews. The land was far from empty, both physically and socially. 

The establishment of Israel was a project that involved, in fact necessitated, the expulsion of existing communities and villages, and later the erasure of the fact of their having ever existed. After the 1948 war (referred to by Israel and global Zionist communities as ¨The War of Independence,¨ or even “Liberation,” and by Palestinians as the ¨Naqkba”) over 80% of Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of what became Israel had fled or were forcibly expelled because of violence, intimidation, and manipulation. Historians generally accept that at least 700,000 Palestinians were forced out or left their homes in the wake of the 1948 war, and put the number of Palestinian villages destroyed by Israeli forces at anywhere from 418 to 532. The figures alone demonstrate the fallacy proposed by Herzl’s description of the land. 

In classic Orientalist fashion, Zionist media distributed globally prior to 1948 depicted Palestine as largely empty, inhabited by only few people, who were primitive and otherwise unsophisticated. This image ignored the existence of millions of people, and served to garner support for the Zionist cause from world imperial powers as well as global Jewish communities. Further, much early Zionist documentation of the land of Palestine focused on Jewish settlers, glorifying their simultaneous agricultural and urbanizing work. The forced transfer of Palestinians from their land was an explicit aim of early Zionist settlers, acknowledging the fact of existing populations ignored by public Zionist propaganda. Youssef Weitz, a prominent Jewish leader in communities prior to the creation of Israel wrote in 1940, ¨Transfer does not only serve one aim – to reduce the Arab population – it also serves a second purpose by no means less important, which is: to evict land now cultivated by Arabs and to free it for Jewish settlement… not a single village or tribe must be let off.¨ David Ben-Gurion (the first prime minister of Israel) wrote in the same year, ¨Every attack [on Arab villages] has to end with occupation, destruction or expulsion.¨ 

Private knowledge of existing populations was kept private over concern that public acknowledgement of inhabitants would hinder global support for Zionist settlement. Public acknowledgement, in its rare appearances, tended to be Orientalist and explicitly racist, belittling the ‘Arab’ as under-developed, weak, primitive, and otherwise perfect subjects for foreign control and manipulation. Consistent with colonial discourse, the negative portrayal of indigenous populations served to justify imperial power, masking economic and strategic interests behind the guise of white superiority. 

While not all early Jewish settlers were under the illusion that the land was uninhabited, this trope is one widely employed throughout Zionist history and contemporary ideology. When existing populations were historically acknowledged, it was done in a quiet voice, with full awareness that the indigenous Palestinian populations posed a threat to the mission of creating a Jewish state. This says nothing about the nature of Palestinian national consciousness at the time, yet clearly indicates the priorities of Zionist nationalists: to create a Jewish state, no matter the cost. 

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