Two recently published articles, a lengthy feature by George Gilder and a shorter piece by Daniel Pipes, reiterate a familiar argument made by Israel advocates: Jewish settlement in pre-state Palestine brought economic benefits to the Arab population and Zionist land purchases were directed at previously noncultivable wastelands. Those arguments, however, are fundamentally flawed, both on a factual basis and, more importantly, for the deeper message they convey.
On the factual level, according to Ken Stein’s 1984 book The Land Question in Palestine 1917-1939, Zionists made most of their land purchases in cultivable areas. At least part of these lands were often occupied at the time of purchase by poor tenant farmers, who were compensated in a variety of means but one way or another forced to leave.
It is undoubtedly true that at the same time, Jewish settlement was the chief driver of pre-state Palestine’s economy. Gilder covers this ground well, writing, “Between 1921 and 1942, the Jews increased… the total invested capital from a few hundred thousand dollars to the equivalent of $70 million.” Since that time, Jews have continued to expand the economic potential of the territory currently controlled by Israel, facilitating higher incomes and standards of living for all its inhabitants, whether Arab or Jew, Israeli citizen or not.
This points to the deeper problem in the argument made by Gilder and Pipes. In justifying the Jewish claim to national independence in the Land of Israel through the morality of their modern conquest or the economic benefit it provides, this leaves open the question of what rights Jews would have if those things were not so.
The truth, once well understood by those Zionist land purchasers, is the Jewish claim to the land is at least equal to that of the Arabs. It doesn’t matter much how the land was acquired (though we did so legally) or what kind of land it was that we bought. It was – and is – ours by the natural right of the Jewish people to political independence in their native homeland. Even if the dire poverty of the Pale of Settlement had been recreated in Israel or if the Jews had mistreated the Arabs in the manner of the worst anti-Israelist fantasies, the land would still belong to them, for there is probably no people with as profound a connection to a spot of earth as the Jews to the Land of Israel, and there is only one Jewish state.
Israelis may grant the rights of another people in their land and be willing to compromise with them for peace. But until American advocates for Israel are able to follow the stirring example set by Benjamin Netanyahu in his address to Congress last month, in which he reiterated well the Jewish right to our homeland, they will forever find themselves defending that which requires no defense.