What was the impact of the Zionists on Palestine?

What was the impact of the Zionists on Palestine?

In the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a litany of Christian travelers – Siebald Rieter and Johann Tucker, Arnold Van Harff and Father Michael Nuad, Martin Kabatnik and Felix Fabri, Count Constantine Francois Volney and Alphonse de Lamartine, Mark Twain and Sir George Gawler, Sir George Adam Smith and Edward Robinson – found Palestine virtually empty, except for Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Safed, Shechem, Hebron, Gaza, Ramleh, Acre, Sidon, Tyre, Haifa, Irsuf, Caesarea, and El Arish, and throughout Galilee towns – Kfar Alma, Ein Zeitim, Biria, Pekiin, Kfar Hanania, Kfar Kana and Kfar Yassif. To stay, these Jews had submitted to innumerable conquerors, taxes, pogroms and degradation. But they stayed. In 1799, Palestine was still so much in need of people that Napoleon Bonaparte championed a full-scale return of Jews.



In the early 19th century, Palestine was a backward, neglected province of the Ottoman Empire. Travelers to Palestine from the Western world left records of what they saw there. The theme throughout their reports is dismal: The land was empty, neglected, abandoned, desolate, fallen into ruins.

In Jerusalem, all reports and journals of travelers, pilgrims and government representatives during these years, repeatedly record the poverty, filth and neglect and the desolate nature of the countryside. Early photographs show lepers in rags and dilapidated buildings. Jerusalem was surrounded by marauding bands of Bedouin Arabs and had to close her gates at nightfall and reopen them at first light, a practice that was similar in Biblical times.

Some quotes from the writings of these visitors before modern times:

  • Nothing there [Jerusalem] to be seen but a little of the old walls which is yet remaining and all the rest is grass, moss and weeds. [English pilgrim in 1590]
  • The country is in a considerable degree empty of inhabitants and therefore its greatest need is of a body of population. [British consul in 1857]
  • There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent [valley of Jezreel] — not for 30 miles in either direction… One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. … For the sort of solitude to make one dreary, come to Galilee … Nazareth is forlorn … Jericho lies a moldering ruin … Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and humiliation… untenanted by any living creature… A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds … a silent, mournful expanse … a desolation … We never saw a human being on the whole route … Hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil had almost deserted the country … Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery Palestine must be the prince. The hills barren and dull, the valleys unsightly deserts [inhabited by] swarms of beggars with ghastly sores and malformations. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes … desolate and unlovely … [Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1867]

Remarkably, there are photographs dating to the 19th century and early 20th century that document the development of Palestine from the desolate, pre-Zionist landscape reported by travelers to the green and productive land that Jewish immigrants created there. This web site has 460 photographs and lithographs of the period, some never before available to the public. They show how the industrious Zionists made the lightly-populated land productive and able to support the great increases in Jewish and Arab numbers that came to Palestine in the following decades.

Winston Churchill was British Colonial Secretary when he visited the Middle East in the winter of 1920-1921. Anti-Semitic elements in the British government tried to assert that the Jews were not needed to develop Palestine. Churchill replied:

  • Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps towards the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell—a handful of philosophic people—in wasted sun-drenched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea.”

In 1924, a few months after becoming Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Elwood Mead (namesake of Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam) published a highly favorable review of Jewish settlements in Palestine based on his visits there in 1923. His article, “New Palestine,” praised the Zionists accomplishments and plans, a publicity coup. Mead blamed Islam, Ottoman governance, and Arab culture for the demise of Roman irrigation systems that, according to Mead, once supported “lands flowing with milk and honey.” Mead was a consultant to Chiam Weizman offering his expertise to maximize the return on investment of the extensive investments in irrigation, land reclamation, and water supplies in the Zionist areas based on Mead’s extensive experience in the American West.

After the Arab riots in 1929, Mead wrote to the British High Commissioner that Jewish colonists had produced “a marvelous transformation” in the Palestinian landscape. Mead noted that in his visits to Palestine he had seen nothing “to indicate that the Arab was injured.” Moreover, the Jewish example of “what modern finance and equipment can do, coupled with the sympathetic interest of the government is bringing him out of the hopeless inertia that misgovernment and oppression of centuries past have created …. ” Jewish settlers in Palestine were not only reclaiming the land, they were elevating living standards for the Arab population and assisting the British government.

In his report to the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Transjordan for the year 1925, the British High Commissioner wrote:

  • Fuel-power stations for the generation of electrical light and energy have been established at Haifa and Tiberias by the [Jewish] Palestine Electric Corporation, Limited. This increase in commercial activity, in building enterprise and new industrial developments is due almost entirely to Jewish capital and the entry during the year of an immigrant class with money to invest.

During this period a significant shift of population took place as Arabs and others from all over the Middle East moved to the areas of Zionist cultivation and development. The organizational and technical skills of the Jewish settlers, their access to outside capital, and their sheer hard work created an economic boom that created opportunity for Arab workers, particularly in contrast to the stagnant conditions elsewhere in the region. This has been documented by many, following the much-criticized but basically sound work of Joan Peters in her book From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab–Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. The central findings are that:

  1. As far back as 1893, the Jews not only were already far from being a small minority in the areas where they had settled, but were the largest single group there (if one divides the non-Jewish population into Muslim and Christian), and
  2. Substantial immigration of Arabs to Palestine took place during the first half of the twentieth century; from 1893 to 1947 while the Palestinian Arab population slightly more than doubled in areas where no Jews were settled, it quintupled in the main areas of Jewish settlement.

These findings are supported with an array of demographic statistics and contemporary accounts, the bulk of which have not been questioned by any reviewer.


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