Victor Rosenthal – We’ve Always Been Here: The Historical Right of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel
I often talk about the Jewish people’s historical right to Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, in addition to our legal and moral rights. What do I mean by that? First we need to understand the concept of a distinct “people.”
Mahmoud Abbas has said numerous times that the Jews are not a people; being Jewish is only a religion. He could not be more wrong: the Jewish people are the paradigm case of a people. In other words, if you want to know what a “people” is, look at the Jews.
More analytically, a “people” is a collection of individuals who have certain characteristics in common. Not every individual in the group will have all of them, but the more of them that they have, the more likely it is that they will be considered a member of that people. They are:
- A common geographical origin and a connection to their aboriginal home.
- A shared genetic heritage.
- A unique ancestral language.
- A unique religion.
- A shared culture.
- A shared historical experience.
- Self-identification as members of a people.
The Jewish people originated in Eretz Yisrael. They generally married within the group, so DNA tests today display a high degree of genetic similarity. They maintained a familiarity with their ancient Hebrew language, even when they spoke other languages as a result of their dispersal. Their religion, Judaism, has changed to some extent over the centuries, but their holy book, the Torah, has remained essentially the same for several thousand years. Their dispersal created Jewish subcultures, but all of them retained some connections to their original culture, even as they drew apart. The historical experience of Jews in the diaspora was remarkably similar, whether they were in Europe, Africa, or the Middle East – they were outsiders, sometimes persecuted or expelled, sometimes living peacefully, but always marked as different and almost always as second-class citizens. Finally, all of them everywhere strongly felt themselves to be members of the Jewish people, tied to Eretz Yisrael, to which they prayed to return.
Individuals can enter or leave a people, usually by marrying in or out and adopting the religion, language, and culture of their partner. Peoples change over time. Sometimes a people is so diluted that that it is extinguished, absorbed by the peoples around it. Such is the case with many cultures of antiquity. Where are our once deadly enemies, the Philistines, today? (No, the Palestinian Arabs are not descended from them). But the Jewish people maintained its genetic distinctness, its religion, its language, and much of its culture in diaspora for millennia.
With the establishment of the State of Israel in Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish people were able to restore their ancestral language to everyday use, to reunite the diverse Jewish subcultures that developed in the long period of diaspora, and to redevelop a non-diasporic culture: a culture of a people living in their own land.
A population is said to be indigenous to the place that it originated. Members of the oldest extant group indigenous to a particular place are called the aboriginal inhabitants of the place. The Jewish people are the oldest extant people indigenous to Eretz Yisrael, and as a matter of fact the last indigenous independent political entity in Judea was the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty of c. 110 BCE. From then on, Eretz Yisrael was ruled by a succession of non-native conquerors, beginning with the Romans. In the seventh century, the land was conquered by Arab Muslims from Arabia; later, it fell to Crusaders, Mongols, and various others. In 1517, it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, who held it for 400 years. Finally, it passed into the hands of the British after WWI. The native Jewish population waxed and waned, but was always present while others came and went. There was never a “Palestinian” regime. In 1948 the last colonizer – the British Empire – was expelled, and a Jewish state reestablished.
This is remarkable, even incredible. In almost every other case, aboriginal peoples have been unable to reestablish sovereignty in their native lands – certainly not in the Americas, Australia or New Zealand. When the British left, there was a struggle for sovereignty between the Jews, who had developed the framework of a state during the period of the Mandate, and the Arabs within and outside of the land. The surrounding Arab nations wanted to divide the area up between them, and the majority of Palestinian Arabs supported them in this. Despite what some people think, Palestinian nationalism – as opposed to broader Arab nationalism – was not a significant force at this point.
The Jews beat back the Arabs, and established a sovereign state. They did not “take the country from the Palestinian Arabs,” who never had it. They simply became sovereign in place of the foreign powers that had controlled the land since 110 BCE.
The Palestinian Arabs, who had mostly supported the Arab states in their attempt to take over the land (and incidentally, to massacre its Jewish inhabitants), paid the price for being on the losing side of a war. Some of them left before the war and planned to return, some of them fled out of fear that the Jews would do to them what they would have done to the Jews, and some of them were expelled by the Jewish fighters. The numbers are disputed, but some 500,000 – 700,000 Arabs left their homes in the land that would become the State of Israel, and were not allowed to return. A tragedy for them, but magnified 100 times by the Arab states who refused to absorb the refugees. At roughly the same time, some 800,000 Jews were expelled or fled from Arab and other Muslim countries. Most of these went to Israel, whose Jewish population today is about one-half from the European diaspora, and one half from the African and Middle Eastern ones.
The Palestinian Arabs claim that they are the aboriginal inhabitants of the land and that the Jews are Europeans who invaded and colonized “Palestinian land.” But there was never a Palestinian political entity, and the Palestinian Arabs themselves are of relatively recent provenance in the land. Very few of them have ancestors that arrived before about 1830, and most go back only as far as the early 20th century. Indeed, the definition of “Palestinian refugee” adopted by the UN requires only that a person lived in the Palestine Mandate from June of 1946 to May 1948, and lost his home and work due to the war.
Palestinian Arabs do not have a uniquely Palestinian language or religion. Although there were stirrings of Palestinian Arab nationalism as early as 1920 (mostly among Christian Arabs), most Palestinian Arabs identified most strongly with their clans, and less so as belonging to “Southern Syria.” It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that they began to self-identify as “Palestinians.” Insofar as they can be called a people, it is a people that dates to the 1960s, and whose unique “Palestinian” culture is composed entirely of its opposition to Jewish sovereignty and the State of Israel.
The Palestinian claim that they are an ancient people rooted in this land is simply false. Stripped of its narrative flourishes, it devolves into nothing more than the fact that there were more Arabs than Jews between the Jordan and the Mediterranean immediately prior to 1948.
Jews have been here in some number since biblical times. The Jewish claim to be the aboriginal inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael is supported by a huge body of historical evidence – not surprising, given the importance of the contribution of the Jewish people to Western civilization over the millennia – as well as archaeological evidence that is strengthened by new discoveries almost daily.
This is the basis of the historical claim of the Jewish people to Eretz Yisrael. It is also part of the argument for the legal rights of the Jewish people, both as the beneficiary of the Mandate and as the natural heirs of the decolonization process. But that’s another long story.