A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land

       This phrase has come to be identified as the official slogan of Zionism. It is perhaps the single most misunderstood and misapplied sentence in all literature relating to Zionism. Even pinning down who actually coined the phrase has proven an overwhelming challenge to most people referring to it. It is commonly, though incorrectly, traced back to a British author named Israel Zangwill. Yet Zangwill was only paraphrasing Lord Shaftesbury, another British politician who wrote about Greater Syria (Palestine): "There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country."94.

       But it was not even Lord Shaftesbury who was the first to use this phrase. Back in 1844 (9 years before Shaftesbury is credited with his version of this phrase) a Scottish minister named Alexander Keith wrote, "The Israelites ... are ... wanderers throughout the world, who have nowhere found a place on which the sole of their foot could rest - a people without a country; even as their own land, as subsequently to be shown, is in a great measure a country without a people."34

       There are a couple of ways to address the confusion this slogan has generated over the years. It can be shown that despite its promotion to the status of official "Zionist slogan", it doesn't seem to have been invoked by very many Zionists. Alternatively, and more significantly, it can be clarified that the usual interpretation assigned to this slogan, that no one was inhabiting Palestine when the Jews arrived, is a misunderstanding of the meaning it intended to convey. It does not make sense that both of the above lines of reasoning should simultaneously be true since proving one renders the other inconsequential. In other words, it matters very little whether or not this quote intended to say that Palestine was uninhabited if but a few Zionists repeated it; and it matters very little how many Zionists repeated it if it did not imply Palestine was empty. However, I thought it a good idea to address both for the sake of reaching the uninformed no matter which erroneous starting point they might be approaching this from.

       It is unclear exactly how much support this slogan enjoyed among Zionists, though it looks more like a case of attribution rather than endorsement. Overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, when this quote is introduced as the "Zionist slogan", it is done so by people who are not Zionist. One would expect for there to be plenty of instances of the official “Zionist slogan” being used in speeches, papers, correspondence, etc. We'll start our search for the examples of its use, as well as the nastiness it intended, in the most logical place ... the people who complain about it the loudest.

Putting a Name to the Face (in Academia)

       Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi has addressed the "land without a people" phrase a couple of times. Khalidi writes, "In the early years of the Zionist movement, many of its European supporters - and others - believed that Palestine was empty and sparsely cultivated. This view was widely propagated by some of the movement's leading thinkers and writers, such as Herzl, Bialik, and Mandelstamm ... It was summed up in the widely-propagated Zionist slogan, 'A land without a people for a people without a land.'"36

       The names Khalidi gives us (Herzl, Bialik, and Mandelstamm) are not listed here as Zionists using this phrase, but people he accuses of believing Palestine to be empty. When it comes time to demonstrate this phrase being used by these Zionists, or any others for that matter, all specific names vanish and it transforms into a "Zionist slogan" that was "widely-propagated", but by who, we just don't know.

       Khalidi again mentions this slogan in the introduction of his more recent book only to describe it as the "Zionist vision of Palestine as 'a land without a people for a people without a land'".37 Again, no names of Zionists who used it, and no examples of it being used.

       Author Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh states that “Although it is sometimes argued that most Zionists were unaware of the existence of the Arab population at the time they were making plans for the region, recently declassified archives and diaries make it clear that Zionist leaders in fact quickly became highly preoccupied with what was referred to as the ‘Arab problem.’ The image of Palestine as an empty, neglected wasteland, exemplified by the slogan ‘Land without people for a people without land,’ was constructed through the colonialist cultural tools that were at the disposal of European Zionists.”38

       She starts off by debunking Khalidi's accusation that Zionists believed Palestine was empty and then, as abstractly as possible, ties the origin of the phrase to "colonialist cultural tools." So which Zionists "constructed" this slogan in their colonialist cultural workshop? "European Zionists." She doesn't know their names, but she knows they were Zionists and she knows they were from Europe.

       Not even Norman Finkelstein, that bastion of anti-Zionist fervor, was able to drum up a single Zionist (other than the ubiquitous Israel Zangwill reference, of course) who used this slogan. In Finkelstein's book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, after incorrectly crediting Zangwill with coining this phrase, Finkelstein falls back confidently on the accusation that it "typified Zionist propaganda on Palestine."18 He immediately supports this claim with an uncited recollection from Moshe Smilansky in which not even Moshe Smilansky gives a name or an example of any Zionist using this slogan.

       Finkelstein points out that the propaganda this slogan allegedly intended was "meant mostly for foreign Zionist consumption" and that it was "not taken seriously abroad outside Zionist circles." But he stops short of demonstrating it being taken seriously even within Zionist circles. Instead, Finkelstein goes on to cite Ahad Ha'am, Yitzak Epstein, Hillel Zeitlin, and Anita Shapira as Zionists who all called attention to the Arab population of Palestine. In so doing, he holds true to the emergent pattern regarding this "Zionist slogan" which is: 1) accuse it of being Zionist; 2) neglect any documented use of it by Zionists, and finally; 3) proceed to unravel the initial accusation by citing Zionists by name who explicitly state that Palestine was inhabited in direct contradiction to the propaganda they're accused of.

       Another good example of misunderstanding in action comes from a debate between Finkelstein and Israeli diplomat, politician and historian Shlomo Ben-Ami in February 2006. Debate moderator, Amy Goodman, seems fairly sure of herself that there are enough people out there who believe Palestine was "not populated" to justify its incessant debunking. She identifies these people as "those who continue to say ... that Jews came to a place that was not populated." There are a couple routes Ben-Ami, as a historian, could have taken in response to this question:

  1. Amy, the argument isn't that Palestine was "not populated", but that it was "thinly populated". There are volumes of evidence proving that Palestine was thinly populated for centuries on end, and the only controversy generated by saying so comes from the political realm, not the historic.

  2. Amy, the slogan "Land Without a People" did not intend to suggest Palestine was "not populated". The idea of a people in Palestine was directly concerned with nationhood, not existence. Responding to your question in its present form would entertain a misconception.
But instead of correcting the flawed premise of the question, for some reason Ben-Ami addresses it by restricting his answer to the mistaken confines in which it was asked:

Amy Goodman: And Shlomo Ben-Ami, your response to those who continue to say that at that time, at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel and before, that it really was empty, that Jews came to a place that was not populated.

Shlomo Ben-Ami: Of course, it is nonsense. I mean, it was populated. Obviously, it was populated. I mean, the notion that existed, I think it was Israel Zangwill, the first to say that we are – we came a nation without a land to a land without a people. Obviously, it was not true ..."21

       The degree to which academics can't find Zionists using this phrase while attributing it to them nonetheless is stunning:

       The list just goes on and on with what should be an embarrassing bottom line for the multitude of authors who make half a million claims that the phrase characterized Zionism but can then only produce a couple Zionists who mention it in passing; Israel Zangwill and Chaim Weizmann.

"... it is not evident that this was ever the slogan of any Zionist organization or that it was employed by any of the movement's leading figures. A mere handful of the outpouring of pre-state Zionist articles and books use it. For a phrase that is so widely ascribed to Zionist leaders, it is remarkably hard to find in the historical record."35

Putting a Name to the Face (on the Internet)

       A Website that tows the hardcore Palestinian line called From Occupied Palestine identifies “the Zionist movement”2, “the Zionist slogan”3, “the Zionists”4, “the Zionists”5 (again), and “the Zionist movement”6 as those guilty of using this slogan. The absence of even one name of any Zionist actually repeating it is noteworthy. They couldn't find one example to support their accusation?

       Another vigorously anti-Zionist Website, Palestine Remembered, identifies “leaders and architects of Zionism”7, “the Zionist propaganda machine”8, “the Zionists”9, “the Zionists”10 (again), and “the prevailing Jewish view of Palestine”11 as among those using it. They devote a page on their Website to refuting this slogan12 where they sniff out those using it as the “the Zionists”, “Zionist leadership” (twice), “nearly all Israelis and Zionists”, “many Israelis and Zionists”, and “the Israelis and Zionists”. In other words, much like From Occupied Palestine above, they can’t offer a single name or a single clue as to which Zionists are actually using this slogan. Instead, they lazily implicate "Zionism" in totality with sweeping accusations regardless of who said what. Apparently the reader has to care more about their cause than they do to track it down in action.

       Palestine Remembered leads the reader to believe this slogan was created to give the false impression that Palestine had no inhabitants living in the country. This misunderstanding is dealt with below. But since that is the misunderstanding they labor under, it is rather curious that the only Zionists they can identify by name are those who specifically stated the opposite of what Palestine Remembered thinks this slogan means, acknowledging that Palestine was in fact not empty. The names they list include David Ben-Gurion himself, Ben-Gurion’s official biographer Shabtai Teveth, Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Professor Yehoshua Porat, and of course, Israel Zangwill. They continue pointing out that “a Zionist delegation” and “many Zionists” were well aware of the fact that Palestine was inhabited as far back as 1897. Had they gone further in their research, they could have found quotes from practically every politically significant Zionist acknowledging the existence of Arabs in Palestine. So I’m confused, if “A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land” meant that no one was living in Palestine, is the claim being advanced by Zionists, or refuted by them?

       Yet another Palestinian activist Website, Palestine Monitor, sheds light on which Zionists were guilty of this falsehood with a nebulous "It has been said that this was a land without a people for a people without a land ..."91 By whom has this been said? They do not know, but this myth was intended "For Israel ..."92 Yes, that is a whole country with no time frame attached, meaning the myth is used and believed by anywhere from 600,000 people to several million. Palestine Monitor takes a stab at refining the ludicrous generality by quoting an Israeli who confines this mythological slogan to "the perception of the Israeli Zionist leaders ..."93 No names are forthcoming, however. But it was definitely the Zionist leaders. All of them? Half of them? A few of them? It really doesn't matter.

       The Website Electronic Intifada borders on obsession with an almost constant need to assure its readers that Palestine was not a "land without people for a people without a land." Electronic Intifada wants everyone to know that this slogan was "a Zionist lie"39, "Zionist fiction"40, "Zionism's founding myth"41, "The slogan the Zionist movement used"42, "the old Zionist reference to Palestine"43, and "Zionist propaganda"44. This slogan was "what Zionism has always represented as a political movement"45 and what "Zionist propaganda falsely proclaimed"46. This slogan was one of "two main pretences given by the Zionists to justify their colonization"47. There are perhaps a half dozen or more articles criticizing this slogan while not directly attributing it to Zionists and twice it is incorrectly traced back to Israel Zangwill.48 49

       "There are some very important and documented speeches from Jewish leaders, both former and present, which deny that there were Palestinians living in Palestine before the Jewish arrival. They claim that Palestine as a land without people was waiting for a people without a land to change it from a desert into a paradise flowing with milk and honey."50 One would be tempted to continue reading to find out which Jewish leaders in these very important and documented speeches denied that Palestine was inhabited, but one would be wasting one's time. Internet Intifada not only fails to gives any of these Jewish leaders' names, they don't even make reference to these important, documented speeches. But they're out there, somewhere.

       The political Website Counterpunch plays host to an assortment of articles that have much to say about Israel. Those that specifically deal with the so-called "Zionist slogan" take turns attributing it to "the Israelis"22, "the ideological progenitors of Israel, the Zionists"23, "Israeli officials across the ideological spectrum"24, "early Zionists"25, Israel's "early leaders"26, "Zionists"27, "Zionists"28, and of course, "the Zionists"29.

       Other articles there claim that it "became the leading edge of Zionist propaganda"30 and twice affirmed that it was indeed a "Zionist slogan"31 32. A few of their articles simply neglected to attach the use of this slogan to any abstract group at all (much less a name) and almost every single one denounced the slogan as if its intent was to suggest Palestine had no inhabitants (again, a misunderstanding corrected below). At this point, if only by pure accident, one of the myriad writers and articles Counterpunch publishes should have managed to cite an actual Zionist using this slogan in the way they think it was intended. Instead, all we are provided with by way of specific names, again, are Zionists who stated Palestine was not empty.

       Dissident Voice, yet another site offering up a melange of articles and authors, some of whom can be found at the sites mentioned above, is no less emphatic about how Zionist the "land without a people" slogan was/is. We read that it was a "Zionist slogan"68, "Zionism's colonizing slogan"69, "the old Zionist thesis"70, "the Zionist myth"71, "the early Zionist slogan"72, "one of the founding myths of the State of Israel"73, one of the "main pretences given by the Zionists to justify their colonization of Palestine"74, and "the Zionist slogan"75 (again).

       When it comes to identifying the Zionists using this slogan, Dissident Voice assures us that "Zionists"77 used it. Who? "They" did. More specifically, it was "the marketing slogan for the Zionist project ... taken up by American Zionists"76, as opposed to the nameless "European Zionists" Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh almost identifies above. Accompanying the complete inability to identify a single Zionist using this "Zionist" slogan is the typical mistaken credit given to Israel Zangwill for originating the phrase78. And not to be outdone, Dissident Voice throws in for good measure the trademark misunderstanding of what the slogan was communicating as they inform their readers "'A land without a people for a people without a land.' That is to say, Palestine is an empty country."79

       In similar fashion, the Website Z Communications has so many references to this slogan it was a tedious process just collecting them all. But at this point, would anyone be surprised to find out the collective body of articles at Z Communications fails to identify a single Zionist using the slogan they so adamantly declare to be Zionist?

       They refer to it as Israel's "historic objective"82, a slogan "Israel's mythmakers have tried to promote"83, a "Zionist myth"84, an "Israeli myth"85, a "Zionist slogan"86, a Zionist "story"87, a "Zionist slogan"88 (again), and one of "two main pretences given by the Zionists to justify their colonization of Palestine."89 Another dozen or so articles point out it was a Zionist myth or lie indirectly by not designating it as such, but eluding to it in the context of a discussion about Zionism or Zionists.

       Leaving behind the inability of these specific Websites to name even one Zionist who uses this slogan, a general search on the Internet proves equally unsatisfying when trying to track down a few names. A Web search for the phrase “Land Without a People” returns a huge number of sites that all seem to be quite certain that "Zionists" or "Zionist leadership" adopted this as their official slogan either through ignorance or for deception. But the first dozen or so sites returned in the search13 all failed to list even one Zionist who used the slogan besides Israel Zangwill. This illustrates the prevalent misunderstanding and thoughtless ease with which it is passed along. Their shallow efforts support nothing more than there exists a nameless, faceless, abstract entity called “the Zionists” who are up to no good.

       I did eventually find one Website that cites a book that quotes a Zionist by name who uses a slogan similar to the one being discussed. Chaim Weizmann is quoted as saying, "... there is a country which happens to be called Palestine, a country without people, and, on the other hand, there exists the Jewish people, and it has no country."14 Ironically, this same Website on the same page continues quoting Weizmann saying, "Why should the Jews choose a country which has a population that does not want to receive them in a particular friendly way ..."15 Referring to Palestine both as "a country without people" and "a country which has a population" sounds contradictory to say the least. The resolution for this seeming contradiction lies in his probable meaning of the words "people" and "population" and brings us to the next point.

“Zionism never imagined the land was unpopulated. The argument that Palestine was not terra nullius, and therefore belonged to the people already resident there, raises the important question of why the international community not only condoned but encouraged the establishment of a Jewish state. Such was the determination of non-Muslim members of the international community and its institutions beginning with the Balfour Declaration through the decisions of the League of Nations and the United Nations. ... Since terra nullius has been misrepresented with regard to Palestine and subjected to the distortions of political correctness, we must ask what such an apparently outrageous statement – ‘a land without a people, for a people without land’ – once meant and how it served to legitimate Zionist claims.”66

Context is Golden

       There are slight variations of this slogan, but they all ultimately intended to convey the same meaning:

Keith: "a people without a country ... a country without a people"
Shaftesbury: "a country without a nation ... a nation without a country"
Zangwill: "a country without a people ... a people without a country"

       Shaftesbury's version uses the word "nation" where the others used "people". Nation is a word that can be used several ways, one of which is to describe "a large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government particularly its own"17.

       To say no nation existed in Palestine was not to deceive people into believing there were no inhabitants, but that those inhabitants did not form a nation. For example, when Alphonse de Lamartine visited Greece in the 1830s, he wrote "There are here, as in Italy, most manly, brave, intelligent, and illustrious individuals, but there is no common tie among them. They are Greeks, but not a nation."19 No one misinterpreted his statement to suggest no one was living in Greece, nor is there any debate over his intention in making the claim.

       Likewise, King Faysal of Iraq in 1933 declared, "In Iraq there is not yet … an Iraqi nation, but rather uncounted masses of people, lacking any patriotic ideal."80 To say that no nation existed in Palestine was hardly deceptive. Palestinian nationalism which experienced no formal organization until the 1920s and 1930s was a direct response to political Zionism and was completely non-existent prior to then.

"... the Zionist conception of early twentieth-century Palestine as vacant cannot (and was probably never meant to) be accepted altogether literally, at least not as a claim that there were no prior inhabitants whatsoever of mandatory Palestine. At most, it stakes a lesser claim concerning the density of the population, i.e. the fact that the territory in question was, according to all accounts, at that time very sparsely populated. More likely, if intended as an empirical statement at all, it denies that ‘a people’, that is a free-standing full-fledged nation, inhabited Palestine as such prior to its renewed Jewish settlement."20

       Zangwill's paraphrase carried the same intent, he just substituted "nation" for "people" and "country" for "land". Today it sounds overly subtle, but the context would have been clear at the time it was used; to refer to "a people" was to refer to a politically united entity, not disparate clans and villagers throughout the country. Returning to Chaim Weizmann's conflicting quotes, Weizmann affirmed that Palestine did have a population, but that this population was not organized into a united body governing themselves. I don't profess to know Weizmann's thoughts, but considering the historical intent behind this slogan and the fact he did affirm a population of inhabitants in Palestine, this was certainly his intent as well.

       Another favorite is Golda Meir's statement where she says, "There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people, and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist."16 Political necessity has dumbed down this quote to the half-baked paraphrase that "there were no Palestinians," but she was clearly referring to the existence of a Palestinian nation and not individual people when she stated they did not exist. That was an accurate statement.

       With this being the case, it hardly makes sense for people to put forth arguments such as "... statistics belie the illusion of an empty land awaiting reclamation: From 1880 to 1913 there was steady demographic growth in Palestine. During this period, the overall population of Palestine increased by approximately 50 percent, and the population of the largest towns doubled. Although the influx of 50,000 European Jews certainly pushed up these numbers, Jewish immigrants made up only 7 percent of the total population of 750,000. Palestine was hardly a 'land without a people.'"33

       James Gelvin, the author of this passage, totally ignores the more significant nationalist intention this slogan carries. He instead, like most others, proceeds to attack the misrepresentation imposed on this slogan that no one lived in Palestine. Gelvin's dubious context for his demographic data begins in 1880, but this year corresponds to a later timeframe when Jewish immigration was already in progress, not the timeframe a snappy slogan would have been convincing people to emigrate. He also fails to mention that the population of Palestine begins to sharply increase beginning around 1880, and disregards the historic sparseness of the population prior to this date. Recall that it was back in 1844 that Alexander Keith used the "land without a people" phrase Gelvin refers to. According to multiple estimates, Palestine's population just 30 years before Gelvin's starting point of 1880 was a meager 50,000-100,000 inhabitants.

       Even if the "land without a people" slogan intended to suggest Palestine was empty of inhabitants Gelvin distracts his readers with the conditions in 1913 rather than the appropriate timeframe this slogan applied to. In other words, had the number of Palestinian inhabitants been Keith's primary consideration when he described the "land without a people", he would not have been considering Palestine in 1913 with roughly 680,000 inhabitants, (Gelvin's figure is high) or even Palestine in 1880 with 450,000 inhabitants, but Palestine sometime near 1840 with only 50,000-100,000 inhabitants. Gelvin's figure of 750,000 he cites immediately prior to his persnickety conclusion that "Palestine was hardly a 'land without a people.'" is absolutely irrelevant to this slogan in terms of its nationalist intention or the number of inhabitants at the time it was used.

A More Intelligent Way to Misunderstand on Purpose

       For the handful of scholars who find the intellectually dishonest claim that Zionists believed Palestine to be uninhabited increasingly difficult to sustain, a more nuanced form of condemnation has evolved. Combined with their ever-present cynicism, a bit of creative eisegesis has produced the alternative claim that while Zionists knew full well of the Arabs in Palestine, they refused to acknowledge their status as "a people" because they were not a white, European people. This revised version serves the Israeli critics well. It transforms the relatively benign alleged ignorance of the country's existing population into a more malicious, racist denial of non-white humanity. Whereas Zionists pointing out the Arab population of Palestine worked to refute the accusation that they believed it to be empty, it is now said to illustrate their refusal to recognize brown skinned inhabitants despite knowing they lived there.

       Unfortunately for this revised interpretation of the slogan, it remains discredited for the same reason the old one is. It wasn't a "Zionist" slogan. The authors cited above also fail to introduce any compelling evidence to justify re-interpreting the slogan beyond its obvious claim that no nation was occupying Palestine before the Jews arrived.

"This phrase was often ... misquoted in anti-Zionist writings as 'A land without people', missing the indefinite article. This subtle falsification enabled some to make a comparison of early Zionism with the racist attitudes of the colonial English in America and the Dutch in South Africa, to whom native Americans or Africans did not qualify as human beings at all. ... the difference represented in 'without a people' is crucial. The specific claim was not the blatantly false one that the territory was unpopulated, nor that those living there were not human, but that they did not constitute 'a people': in other words, it was argued that they had no conception of nationhood in a modern western sense."64

An Argument Without Credibility for some Credibility Without Argument

       What becomes overwhelmingly obvious is that the desire to condemn Israel is so irresistible that Zionists get no credit for their clear and frequent pronouncements that Palestine was not empty when they got there, but are instead relentlessly attacked based on the critics' own misunderstanding of a slogan that can scarcely be attributed to them in the first place. Certainly researchers/writers/authors who can only muster together a couple Zionists actually using this slogan, or usually none at all, are aware of their lack of evidence. Such lack of evidence should lead one to the conclusion that it probably wasn't as significant as they are portraying it, and therefore doesn't require such passionate rebuttals as are being assembled still today81.

       It's also impressive in a pathetic sort of way the effort that goes into misunderstanding the true meaning behind this slogan. It's not hidden or difficult to figure out. Notice how in almost every case the writer feels as though they are refuting it in some way by demonstrating how Palestine had at least some people living there. What Zionists and many others did/do challenge is not the existence of people in Palestine, but how many of them there were. The extremely politicized Palestinian refugee problem requires increasingly higher numbers of Palestinian inhabitants in the generations preceding Jewish immigration. Higher numbers of Arabs in Palestine also assists the complaint that incoming Jews were displacing them. These issues have increased the significance of population estimates for Palestine throughout the years.

       But what better way to discredit Zionism than by misrepresenting a 150 year-old quote to level the ridiculous charge that Zionists professed Palestine to be empty of inhabitants? It doesn't take much sense or effort to refute such ignorance which translates into an easy "win" for anti-Zionists and sort of resembles an achievement. Of course, proving that people lived in Palestine would be difficult to get wrong and doing so refutes only the misunderstanding attached to this slogan, not the slogan itself. It is noteworthy that the large majority of those taking exception with it never touch upon the obvious source of contention it creates; whether or not the previous existence of a nation is relevant to the legitimacy of establishing one of your own.

Related Information:

Population Estimates and Descriptions of Palestine Over the Centuries
Norman Finkelstein Mishandles Zionist Conquest and Palestinian Population Estimates

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