By Carol Rushton
One of the most common charges against the Jews is that over the last 100 years or more, Jews have illegally seized or outright stolen property and lands belonging to Arabs.
When Jews started returning to the Holy Land in the late 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy Jews or Jews who pooled their money bought land from Arab owners for Jewish agricultural settlements, known as either a kibbutz or moshav. At this time and even well past World War II, the land of Israel was known for being dreary and empty with much of it being desert. The lands of Megiddo were a swamp, filled with malaria-infested mosquitos as well as rocks and stones. No one wanted this land, least of all the Arabs. They had had possession of the Holy Land for hundreds of years through the Mamluk and Ottoman Empires and had neglected and ignored it. Only the Jews who loved their ancient lands and wanted to devote themselves to countless years of backbreaking work to reclaim the deserts and swamp lands were interested in it.
In Mark Twain’s book, Innocents Abroad, he described the Holy Land in in the 1800’s, it is relevant to remind the readers the hapless state of the country at that time.
“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint. . .Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective – distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land . . . a limitless desolation.
“Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Where Sodom and Gomorrah reared their domes and towers, that solemn sea now floods the plain, in whose bitter waters no living thing exists – over whose waveless surface the blistering air hangs motionless and dead – about whose borders nothing grows but weeds, and scattering tufts of cane, and that treacherous fruit that promises refreshment to parching lips, but turns to ashes at the touch. Nazareth is forlorn; about that ford of Jordan where the hosts of Israel entered the Promised Land with songs of rejoicing, one finds only a squalid camp of fantastic Bedouins of the desert; Jericho the accursed, lies a moldering ruin, to-day, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago; Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and their humiliation, have nothing about them now to remind one that they once knew the high honor of the Saviour’s presence; the hallowed spot where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, and where the angels sang Peace on earth, good will to men, is untenanted by any living creature, and unblessed by any feature that is pleasant to the eye. Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village; the riches of Solomon are no longer there to compel the admiration of visiting Oriental queens; the wonderful temple which was the pride and the glory of Israel, is gone, and the Ottoman crescent is lifted above the spot where, on that most memorable day in the annals of the world, they reared the Holy Cross. The noted Sea of Galilee. . .was long ago deserted by the devotees of war and commerce, and its borders are a silent wilderness; Capernaum is a shapeless ruin; Magdala is the home of beggared Arabs; Bethsaida and Chorazin have vanished from the earth, and the “desert places” round about them where thousands of men once listened to the Saviour’s voice and ate the miraculous bread, sleep in the hush of a solitude that is inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes . . . Palestine is desolate and unlovely.”
Twain was not the only person to note the poor, dilapidated, deteriorated condition of the region formerly described as the “land of milk and honey” in the Bible. The Israel Group website in an article entitled, “The Myth: Jewish Theft of Arab Land,” quotes several non-Jews whose description echoes Twain’s.
Walter Clay Lowdermilk, soil conservationist, in his 1944 book, Palestine Land of Promise Third Edition: Israel is “a land impoverished by erosion and neglect. . .soils were eroded off the uplands to bedrock over fully one-half the hills; streams across the coastal plains were chocked with erosional debris from the hills to form pestilential marshes infested with dreaded malaria; the fair cities and elaborate works of ancient times were left in doleful ruins.”
Henry Baker Tristram, English clergyman and Bible scholar, in his book, The Land of Israel: A Journal of Travels in Palestine, published in 1865: “A few years ago, the whole Ghor [the Jordan Valley] was in the hands of the fellahin, and much of it cultivated for corn. Now the whole of it is in the hands of the Bedouin, who eschew all agriculture, except in a few spots cultivated here and there by their slaves; and with the Bedouin come lawlessness. . .the same thing is now going on over the plain of Sharon, where, both in the north and south, land is going out of cultivation, and whole villages rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Since the year 1838, no less than 20 villages have been thus erased from the map and the stationary population extirpated.”
Arthur Penryhn Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, wrote in 1853: “In Judea it is hardly an exaggeration to say that whilst for miles and miles there is no appearance of present life or habitation, except the occasional goat herd on the hill side, or gathering of women at the wells. . .the general fact of the ruins of Palestine, whether erect or fallen, remains common to the whole country . . . the impression of age and decay . . .”
Israel Advocacy, www.israeladvocacy.net, confirms that the few Arabs living in the sparsely isolated Holy Land were very poor, not wealthy property owners with vast estates. Arabs who owned large tracts of lands were “absentee landlords who lived in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut” (Israel Advocacy, “Is It True That Israel Stole Palestinian Land?”). The article continues:
The region was severely underpopulated which meant the Jews were able to avoid buying land in areas where Arabs might be displaced, which they did. They sought land that was largely uncultivated, swampy, sandy, and most importantly, without tenants. In 1920, David Ben-Gurion (the future prime minister of Israel) expressed his concern about the Arab fellaheen 9peasants), whom he viewed as “the most important asset of the native population . . . under no circumstances must we touch land belonging to fellahs or worked by them . . . Only if a fellah leaves his place of settlement should we offer to buy his land at an appropriate price.”
When Jews did purchase land from Arabs, many times the price was greatly inflated. In 1930, John Simpson, a member of the British Parliament, reported back to his country, “They [Jews] paid high prices for the land, and in addition they paid to certain of the occupants of those lands a considerable amount of money which they were not legally bound to pay” (Israel Advocacy, “Is It True That Israel Stole Palestinian Land?”).
In 1935, the British government authorized the Peel Commission, headed by Lord Robert Peel to find out the causes of riots and violence between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land under the British Mandate. The Peel Commission published their report in 1937, concluding that Arab charges regarding Jewish confiscation of their land were groundless and unsubstantiated. The report said that “much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased. . .there was at the time of the earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land.” The report also noted that Jewish ownership and development of land “had resulted in higher wages, an improved standard of living and ample employment opportunities” (Israel Advocacy, “Is It True That Israel Stole Palestinian Land?”).
The Israel Group also quotes further from the Peel Commission report.
“The shortage of land is, we consider, due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population . . . the Jews had made . . . careful enquiry into the matter of landless Arabs and they had discovered only 688 tenants who had been displaced by the land being sold over their heads; and that of these some 400 had found other land. This enquiry related to the period 1920 to 1930 . . . The Arabs would be no better with a larger population than to-day on the same amount of land, unless, they learn to cultivate their land more intensively and unless in addition they can find supplementary employment in the towns. And neither of these two things can be brought about without the assistance of Jewish taxable capacity and Jewish capital.”
Even into the 1940s, Jews were paying exorbitant prices for any land Arabs would sell to them, $1,000 or more for small parcels of inferior, desert areas. To understand this properly, one-acre tracts of very fertile farmland in Iowa in the 1940s sold for about $100. Jordan’s King Abdullah, the grandfather of the current king of Jordan, wrote in My Memoirs Completed, “It is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in useless wailing and weeping.”
Today, sales of Arab property to Jews do not occur very often, and if so, it comes with a high price tag for an Arab. If an Arab is discovered to have sold any property to a Jew, death is usually the result, whether he is murdered by a terrorist group or arrested by the PLO-PA, prosecuted, and then executed.
There is a vast difference in the way Jews and Arabs view the land in the Middle East. Dr. Judah Magnes, first president of Hebrew University, explains this difference as quoted by The Israel Group. “For us, the Land was everything, and there was nothing else. For the Arabs, Palestine was only a small portion of the large and numerous countries. Even when the Arabs became a minority in Palestine, they would not be a minority in their territory, which extended from the Mediterranean coast to the Persian Gulf, and from the Taurus Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.”
Chaim Weizmann, the man whose development of acetone helped Great Britain win World War I and led to the Balfour Declaration, also responded to the charge that Jews had stolen Arabs’ property from them:
“Very often I heard from quite benevolent Arabs. . .you have come to Palestine and you have in your hands the best land in the country. In fact, some of them whom I know said, well, you have really cheated us; we have sold you this and that piece of land very, very cheaply; if we had waited another ten years we could have sold it to you at double or triple the price. . .My answer to them was, gentlemen, you seem to have forgotten that we have made it into good land; we have made it into good land because we have sunk so much effort into it. If you would do the same, your land would be just as good if not better than ours. Do not reproach us for having improved that part of the land which you have sold us because you could do nothing with it.”