Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Great Thanksgiving Meeting, December 2, 1917

In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, British and world Zionist leaders gathered at the London Opera House to publicly show their thanks to the British government in promising them a homeland.

The speakers and audience members were almost all Zionists or very sympathetic to Zionism. If one wants to have a good idea of the mindset of early Zionists, reading their own words to their own people is invaluable.

So it is instructive to see how these Zionist leaders talked about the existing Arab population in Palestine. If, as some would claim, Zionism has always been inherently antagonistic to Arabs, and it had always planned to expel the Palestinian Arabs from their homes, one would guess that these speeches would provide an inkling of that plan.

Here is everything said on that day about Arabs in Palestine:

We welcome among us not only the many
thousands of Jews that I see, but also representatives of the Arabian and Armenian races who are also in this great struggle struggling to be free. (Hear, hear.) Our wish is that Arabian countries shall be for the Arabs, Armenia for the Armenians, and Judaea for the Jews. (Applause.) Yes, and let us add, if it can be so, let Turkey, real Turkey, be for the Turks.
Three conditions must indeed be observed in any new developments that may take place in Palestine. In the first place, there must be full, just recognition of the rights of the Arabs, who now constitute the majority
of the population of that country. Secondly, there must be a reverent respect for the Christian
and Mohammedan holy places, which in all eventualities should always remain in the control and charge of representatives of those faiths. (Cheers.)

And if there is one thing that gives me great pleasure here to-day it is to feel that you—at this turning-point in your history, when the Government made its Declaration—you thought not only of yourselves, but you thought also —
and afterwards you will look back with joy on the fact—when the hope of redemption was held out to you, you thought not only of yourselves but also of your fellows in adversity, the Armenians and the Arabs. (Lend cheers.)
The British Chief Rabbi:
The spirit of the Declaration was that of absolute justice, whether to
Jews out of Palestine or to non-Jews in Palestine. They especially welcomed in it the reference to the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That was but a translation of the basic principle of the Mosaic legislation. (Cheers.)
"SHAHK ISMAIL ABDUL-AL-AKKI addressed the meeting. He spoke in Arabic, and his speech was
translated by Mr. I. Sieff, who mentioned that the speaker was under sentence of death by the Turkish Government for having joined the Arab national movement":
Shahk Ismail said he desired to tender deep gratitude to the British nation and the British Government for affording his countrymen and himself help and asylum in their hour of persecution. His country was held in chains by the Turks, who were supplied with German gold, and he looked with confidence to England and France to deliver them from bondage, as he believed in the ultimate good over evil, and was confident in the victory of the Allies. He not only spoke as an Arab, but as a "Moslem" Arab, having studied five years in Theological Schools and being granted a Degree, and it was the duty of every Moslem to participate in the movement for the liberation of their countrymen.

The meeting was to celebrate the great act of the British Government in recognising the aspirations of the Jewish people, and he appealed to them not to forget in the days of their happiness that the sons of Ishmael suffered also. They had been scattered and confounded as the Jews had been, and now began to arise, fortified with the sense of martyrs. He hoped that Palestine would again flow with milk and honey. (Cheers.)
M. H. N.
MOSTDITCHIAN, a member of the Armenian Delegation, said he availed himself of the opportunity of giving their Jewish brethren the heartiest greetings of the Armenians — (cheers) —and sincerest congratulations for the dawn about to break upon the glad valleys of their ancestral land. ...It was not the time to say what the Armenians had suffered during the last three years—a state of things to which the worst pogrom was a heaven; but they, as well as the Jews, looked towards "tomorrow" with great fervour as a result of the Declaration. They had waited long enough with their Jewish brethren, for centuries and centuries, and these two nations as well as the Arabs would make Palestine another Promised Land and a Garden of Eden—a centre to which humanity might look up. (Cheers.)
MR. NAHUM SOKOLOW: (later to become president of the World Zionist Organization and to write his own History of Zionism, 1600-1918)
Relations between Jews and Arabs had hitherto been scanty and spasmodic, largely owing to mutual ignorance and indifference. There were no relations whatever between the two nations as such, because the oppressive Power did not recognise either of them, and whenever points of connection began to develop they were destroyed by intrigue, to the detriment of both nationalities. We believe that the presert hour of crisis and the opening of a large perspective for epoch-making developments offer a fruitful opportunity for a broad basis of permanent cordial relations between two peoples who are inspired by a common purpose. We mean a real entente cordiale between Jews, Arabs, and Armenians, such an entente cordiale having already been accepted in principle by leading representatives of these three nations. From such a beginning we look forward with confidence to a future of intellectual, social, and economic co-operation; we are one with the Arabs and Armenians to-day in the determination to secure for each of us the free choice of our own destinies. We look with fraternal love at the creation of the Arab kingdom, re-establishing Semitic nationality in its glory and freedom, and our heartiest wishes go out to the noble, hardly-tried Armenian nationality for the realisation of their national hopes in their old Armenia. Our roots were united in the past, our destinies will be bound together in the future.
A few days later, Mr. Sokolow in a later demonstration said:
We appreciate deeply the important remarks offered by our distinguished friend Sir Mark Sykes on the subject of the relations between the Jews, the Arabs, and the Armenians. My reply to these remarks is: We are Zionists—not only Zionists for ourselves, but also for the Arabs and the Armenians as well. Zionism means faithfulness to one's own old country, to one's own old home. Zionism means consciousness of a nation. Can we Jews be ignorant of the fact that the Arab nation is a noble nation which has been persecuted? Is not the co-operation between the Arabs and ourselves, the Jews, in the Middle Ages for civilisation and for true culture written in our hearts and deep-rooted in our conscience? Our membership of the Semitic race, our title to a place in the civilisation of the world and to influence the world and take our share in the development of civilisation, have always been emphasised. If racial kinship really counts, if great associations exist which must serve as a foundation for the future, these associations exist between us and the Arabs. I believe in the logic of these facts. In the principle of nationality lies the certainty of our justice. There lies also the certainty of our brotherhood with the Arabs and the Armenians. We look most hopefully to the happy days when these three nations will create—in fact they have already created in the consciousness of some of their leaders—an entente cordiale in the countries of the Near East which have been neglected for so long. We are not going to take away anybody's property or to prejudice anybody's rights. We are going to find the land which is available and to settle down wherever there is room, and to live in the best relations with our neighbours—to live and to let the others live. Palestine is not yet a populated, civilised, prosperous country. We are going to make it so by investing our means, our energies, and our intelligence....

We Zionists hate the word toleration, and Sir Mark Sykes really struck the very point when he condemned the word. We don't like mere toleration by non-Jews, and we don't want them to be tolerated. We know that Palestine is full of sanctuaries and of holy places, holy to the Christian world, holy to Islam, holy to ourselves. Are we blind not to see that there are these places of worship and of veneration? Palestine is the very place where religious conflicts should disappear. There we should meet as brethren, and there we should learn to love each other, not merely to tolerate each other. (Applause.)

Even in the wake of an astounding political victory, the Zionists took pains to say that they wanted to be partners with the Arabs; that they were looking forward to Arab states becoming independent side-by-side with the Jewish state; that Zionism should inspire the Arabs and other oppressed peoples to greater heights.

The worst that can be said about the early Zionist vision of Jewish/Arab unity is that it was hopelessly optimistic, that wishful thinking was allowed to trump common sense (as history was to show only a few years later as the Arabs, goaded by "leaders" who were motivated out of self-aggrandizement and pure anti-semitism, started their first deadly riots against Jews in Palestine.) But to read these words and conclude that the early Zionist leaders had anything but respect for their Arab neighbors would be to be purposefully blind.