Thirty years ago this month, the journalist Sidney Zion wrote an article for New York magazine titled “The Palestine Problem: It’s All in A Name,” which he would update in 2003 for The Jewish Press. Zion essentially supported the right-wing Zionist argument against the historicity of the Kingdom of Jordan, while upending the right-wing Zionist argument against the historicity of a Palestinian people.
Not that the latter was necessarily an exclusively right-wing conceit — Labor party icon Golda Meir, for example, insisted publicly on more than one occasion that “There are no Palestinians, there are only Jordanians.”
“Of course,” wrote Zion, “she was wrong. In fact, there are no Jordanians, only Palestinians.”
Zion’s contention was that by pushing the idea that there was no such thing as a Palestinian Arab and acquiescing in the myth that Jordan is “an immutable entity, as distinct from Palestine as are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq,” Israeli leaders had helped obscure the empirical truths that Jordan was the artificial nation and “Jordanian” the artificial nationality. And their doing so lent important credence to the misperception, by now almost universally accepted, that Israel sits on the entirety of what was once Palestine.
The reality, Zion noted, was that “what began in 1920 as a mandate to turn Palestine into a Jewish homeland turned into a reverse Balfour Declaration, creating an Arab nation in four-fifths of Palestine and leaving the Jews to fight for statehood against the Arabs on the West Bank.”
Writing about Jordan in a 1981 New York Times op-ed column, Zion encapsulated in one paragraph the real history of Jordan and the repercussions of that history having disappeared down the memory hole:
I know people who think it’s two thousand years old. But Jordan was only the name of a river until 1922, when Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, turned its East Bank into the Emirate of Transjordan – created an emirate out of the British Mandate territory of Palestine. Transjordan was 80 percent of the land mass of Palestine. Transjordan is Palestine. In 1946, by British fiat, [then-King] Hussein’s grandfather, Abdullah, became King of Transjordan. In 1948, Abdullah changed the name of his country to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Presto! The Ancient Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. So what? So everything. What was in every respect Palestine became a refugee camp for Palestinian Arabs, a host country for those “driven out” by the Jews. And so it is viewed today. The Hussein family, brought out of Arabia by Churchill, are the only true non-Palestinians living in Jordan today. Yet the world sees Palestine as wherever the Jews live.
Would history have turned out differently had Israel and its supporters, loudly and consistently, focused on the fact that the real “theft of Palestine” had been pulled off by the British for the sake of an Arab client and that almost without exception “Jordanians” are in fact Palestinians?
In his 1978 New York article, Zion felt that it indeed would make at least some difference “if the world were to understand that Israel now occupies only 20 percent of Palestine” and that “if it becomes clear that the Arab refugees and their children who crossed over to Jordan in 1948 did not enter a ‘host country’ but rather the Arab part of their own country . . . ”
Zion may have had some basis for hope 30 years ago, when Israel was but three decades old and not quite yet the international outcast it has since become. But now that Israel is twice as old as it was in 1978 and the world – including an appreciable number of Jews – has largely come to view the Arab-Israeli conflict through the prism of Israel’s enemies, such conjecture seems like nothing more than a sad joke.
It’s a story of missed opportunities, and of how a people lauded for their smarts permitted their history and patrimony to be hijacked while barely putting up a fight.