A Barren Palestine Reminds Norman Finkelstein of Nazis

       In the second edition of Norman Finkelstein's book Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict1, he takes issue with the image of a thinly populated or uncultivated Palestine on the eve of Zionist immigration. His basic argument, found in the first part of the chapter "Settlement, not Conquest" is that much like British conquest in North America, Dutch conquest in South Africa, and Nazi conquest in Eastern Europe, Zionism came along recycling the same myths that the architects of these prior conquests relied upon to justify stealing land. In other words, Palestine was not actually under-cultivated, barren, or thinly populated, but the Zionists needed to create this image to warrant the expropriation of Arab land.

"From the British in North America to the Dutch in South Africa, from the Nazis in Eastern Europe to the Zionists in Palestine, every conquering regime has invoked the same claim that the territory appointed for conquest was deserted." (p. 88)

"Historian Francis Jennings has proposed that there exists a 'standard conquest myth'. Its core component is the belief that the territory slated for conquest is a 'virgin land or wilderness'. ... A refinement of this belief suggests that the territory, if not literally empty, is thinly peopled by unsettled tribes whose aboriginal rights of tenure are at best tenuous since they have not worked the land." (p. 89)

       Finkelstein claims to have ranged broadly "across time and space" and twice emphasizes the importance of doing so when illustrating that this "standard conquest myth" is present in "many, if not all, conquest enterprises". This claim is laughable considering he immediately, and for the duration of this subject, disregards a broad range of time and space to focus on three very specific examples of conquest: the British in North America, the Dutch in South Africa, and the Nazis in East Europe.

       He flatly ignores dozens of other significant conquests in history such as the Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Sassanids, the Arab Islamic Caliphate, the Seljuks, the Mongolians, and the Moors. He ignores the Aztecs (who had subjected 15 million indigenous to their rule before the Spaniard conquistadors arrived) and the Incas (who had subjected 10 million indigenous to their rule and so badly mistreated them that they supported the Spaniard conquistadors upon their arrival). He ignores the Ottomans, Shaka's Zulu Nation (that systematically absorbed every surrounding tribe in an area of 18,000 square miles and subjected hundreds of thousand to its rule), Napoleon's conquests in Prussia and the Middle East, the French conquests of North and West Africa and Syria, Imperial Japan's conquests of Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, etc, and the Russian conquests in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and East Europe. There are more. Including any of these conquests would have greatly assisted with actually ranging broadly across time and space rather than just claiming to.

       It is also a curious matter when the British are in focus as to why Finkelstein stops with the North American colonies. The British Empire, one on which the sun never set, should have served as the motherload for case studies and illustrations to support his claim. The British participated in conquests of Egypt, Sudan, Aden, Afghanistan, India, Java, Singapore, Malacca, Burma, Uganda, Kenya, Singapore, New Zealand, etc, and all this before being granted Mandates over a significant portion of the collapsed Ottoman Empire in the wake of WWI. Did Norman Finkelstein's research truly yield the conclusion that most, if not all conquests rely on similar mythology, or was his study confined to the few that did?

       There is a reason he claims that "many, if not all, conquest enterprises" rely on the same mythology. If his readers swallow the errant suggestion that there is a common thread running throughout all conquests; one that Zionists also relied upon, it will be that much easier to cast Zionism within a framework of conquest. Zionists claim that Palestine was uncultivated? They must be just like British colonialists! Zionists claim that Palestine was thinly populated? They must be just like Nazis, and so on. Conclusions are already being formed, the evidence be damned. Finkelstein does find propaganda from the British, Dutch, and Germans that sounds similar to statements Zionists would go on to make about Palestine. While these similarities should trigger a heightened skepticism when hearing them repeated in the future, conclusions about whether or not Palestine was under-cultivated or thinly populated should be based upon demographic or land usage studies, not the guilt by association tactic Finkelstein almost exclusively relies on.

       Seemingly, the most direct route to refuting the myth of a barren or thinly populated Palestine would be to present this demographic or land usage data to expose it as such rather than mentally conditioning readers to associate otherwise factual statements about Palestine with colonialists and Nazis. Unfortunately, Finkelstein fails to include any hard figures or other serious demographic data in his handling of this topic such as population or cultivation estimates either in absolute numbers for Palestine or in relative numbers to other territories.

       So what evidence does he present to his readers? He cites a couple Zionists who acknowledged Palestine was inhabited when they arrived with no mention of the number of said inhabitants. Next, he provides two quotes and a paraphrase that declare "all the land available [in Palestine] for cultivation was already being worked by the indigenous Arab population." (p. 95) and "... Palestine belongs to others, and it is totally settled.". That's it. In his view, this is all the evidence required to "expose" the "myth" that Palestine was thinly populated and under-cultivated.

       If his goal with these few sources was to counteract the overwhelming conclusion that Palestine was thinly populated and barren on the eve of Zionist immigration, he doesn't scratch the surface. He gives no explanation as to what makes his handful of tenuous exceptions more valuable or trustworthy than the rule. Perhaps the implication is that these few Zionists were the only ones courageous enough to speak the truth in a flood of conquest-justifying mythology that most travelers, demographers, surveyors, and government officials subscribed to and perpetuated. Finkelstein succeeds not in weaving together a tapestry of evidence to show that, contrary to popular consensus, Palestine was moderately populated or cultivated, but in ignoring this consensus to over-glorify a smidgen of dissent.

       Moving forward, he complains about the descriptions of a barren and under populated Palestine on the eve of Zionist immigration found in David Ben-Gurion's A Personal History, Abba Eban's My Country, and Walter Laqueur's A History of Zionism. But complaining is where it ends. He doesn't refute their characterizations of the country, save for the same three conflicting descriptions he cited a couple pages back. Since the reader is not presented with any demographic data on which to base an objective conclusion regarding the condition of Palestine, they are forced to rely on the amount of sarcasm Finkelstein employs when writing about topics he disagrees with.

       And finally, an objection must be made with his identifying Zionism as a conquest. Completely absent from Finkelstein's comparison between Zionism and the unilateral conquests by the British, Dutch, and Nazis he identifies as precursors, is the fact that the state of Israel was created through entirely legitimate means. A majority vote in the United Nations approved the creation of the Jewish state and both of the world's superpowers at the time recognized Israel immediately. For all the legitimacy behind the creation of Israel to be silently disregarded and still be compared to Nazi conquest storming across Europe, it can only be concluded that Finkelstein, for whatever personal or political reasons, is hopelessly ill-disposed toward the existence of a Jewish state. This explains nicely the tortured logic necessary to always project such sentiment in his writing.

“Zionist settlement was not the product of conquest. It was based on the purchase of land or its acquisition through agreement. ... The UN partition plan, for the first time, granted Jewish sovereignty and access to unused land that was under governmental control. ... It is significant that Zionism sought agreement over the right to settle in particular locales. Whatever absolute right Zionists believed they had, they well understood the practicality of legally acquiring territory from the resident population.”2

Related Information:

Population Estimates and Descriptions of Palestine Over the Centuries
A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land

1  Finkelstein, Norman G. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. London: Verso, 2003.
2  Lassner, Jacob, and S. Ilan Troen. Jews and Muslims in the Arab World: Haunted by Pasts Real and Imagined. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007. 309