2020-11-21

“In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”

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by Neil Godfrey

Yusuf Diya’ al-Khalidi was an outspoken liberal member of the first Ottoman Parliament, three times Mayor of Jerusalem, an Ottoman diplomat, an instructor and then a professor at the Imperial-Royal Oriental Academy in Vienna, and author of several scholarly works, including the first Kurdish-Arabic dictionary (and one of the first examinations of the Kurdish language on modern linguistic principles). — Khalidi 2009, 68

March 1, 1899, Yusuf Diya, scholar, mayor and diplomat, wrote a letter to Theodor Herzl, leader of the Zionist movement.

Background to that letter:

As a result of his wide reading, as well as his time in Vienna and other European countries, and from his encounters with Christian missionaries, Yusuf Diya was fully conscious of the pervasiveness of Western anti-Semitism. He had also gained impressive knowledge of the intellectual origins of Zionism, specifically its nature as a response to Christian Europe’s virulent anti-Semitism. He was undoubtedly familiar with Der Judenstaat by the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, published in 1896, and was aware of the first two Zionist congresses in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897 and 1898. (Indeed, it seems clear that Yusuf Diya knew of Herzl from his own time in Vienna.) He knew of the debates and the views of the different Zionist leaders and tendencies, including Herzl’s explicit call for a state for the Jews, with the “sovereign right” to control immigration. Moreover, as mayor of Jerusalem he had witnessed the friction with the local population prompted by the first years of proto-Zionist activity, starting with the arrival of the earliest European Jewish settlers in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Herzl, the acknowledged leader of the growing movement he had founded, had paid his sole visit to Palestine in 1898, timing it to coincide with that of the German kaiser Wilhelm II. He had already begun to give thought to some of the issues involved in the colonization of Palestine, writing in his diary in 1895:

We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our own country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.

Yusuf Diya would have been more aware than most of his compatriots in Palestine of the ambition of the nascent Zionist movement, as well as its strength, resources, and appeal. He knew perfectly well that there was no way to reconcile Zionism’s claims on Palestine and its explicit aim of Jewish statehood and sovereignty there with the rights and well-being of the country’s indigenous inhabitants. It is for these reasons, presumably, that on March 1, 1899, Yusuf Diya sent a prescient seven-page letter to the French chief rabbi, Zadoc Kahn, with the intention that it be passed on to the founder of modern Zionism.

The letter:

The letter began with an expression of Yusuf Diya’s admiration for Herzl, whom he esteemed “as a man, as a writer of talent, and as a true Jewish patriot,” and of his respect for Judaism and for Jews, who he said were “our cousins,” referring to the Patriarch Abraham, revered as their common forefather by both Jews and Muslims. He understood the motivations for Zionism, just as he deplored the persecution to which Jews were subject in Europe. In light of this, he wrote, Zionism in principle was “natural, beautiful and just,” and, “who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country!”

This sentence is sometimes cited, in isolation from the rest of the letter, to represent Yusuf Diya’s enthusiastic acceptance of the entire Zionist program in Palestine. However, the former mayor and deputy of Jerusalem went on to warn of the dangers he foresaw as a consequence of the implementation of the Zionist project for a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. The Zionist idea would sow dissension among Christians, Muslims, and Jews there. It would imperil the status and security that Jews had always enjoyed throughout the Ottoman domains. Coming to his main purpose, Yusuf Diya said soberly that whatever the merits of Zionism, the “brutal force of circumstances had to be taken into account.” The most important of them were that “Palestine is an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and more gravely, it is inhabited by others.” Palestine already had an indigenous population that would never accept being superseded. Yusuf Diya spoke “with full knowledge of the facts,” asserting that it was “pure folly” for Zionism to plan to take over Palestine. “Nothing could be more just and equitable,” than for “the unhappy Jewish nation” to find a refuge elsewhere. But, he concluded with a heartfelt plea, “in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”

Herzl’s reply:

Theodor Herzl

Herzl’s reply to Yusuf Diya came quickly, on March 19. His letter was probably the first response by a founder of the Zionist movement to a cogent Palestinian objection to its embryonic plans for Palestine. In it, Herzl established what was to become a pattern of dismissing as insignificant the interests, and sometimes the very existence, of the indigenous population. The Zionist leader simply ignored the letter’s basic thesis, that Palestine was already inhabited by a population that would not agree to be supplanted. Although Herzl had visited the country once, he, like most early European Zionists, had not much knowledge of or contact with its native inhabitants. He also failed to address al-Khalidi’s well-founded concerns about the danger the Zionist program would pose to the large, well-established Jewish communities all over the Middle East.

Glossing over the fact that Zionism was ultimately meant to lead to Jewish domination of Palestine, Herzl employed a justification that has been a touchstone for colonialists at all times and in all places and that would become a staple argument of the Zionist movement: Jewish immigration would benefit the indigenous people of Palestine. “It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own.” Echoing the language he had used in Der Judenstaat, Herzl added: “In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.”

Most revealingly, the letter addresses a consideration that Yusuf Diya had not even raised. “You see another difficulty, Excellency, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think of sending them away?” With his assurance in response to al-Khalidi’s unasked question, Herzl alludes to the desire recorded in his diary to “spirit” the country’s poor population “discreetly” across the borders. It is clear from this chilling quotation that Herzl grasped the importance of “disappearing” the native population of Palestine in order for Zionism to succeed. Moreover, the 1901 charter that he co-drafted for the Jewish-Ottoman Land Company includes the same principle of the removal of inhabitants of Palestine to “other provinces and territories of the Ottoman Empire.” Although Herzl stressed in his writings that his project was based on “the highest tolerance” with full rights for all, what was meant was no more than toleration of any minorities that might remain after the rest had been moved elsewhere.

Herzl underestimated his correspondent:

Herzl underestimated his correspondent. From al-Khalidi’s letter it is clear that he understood perfectly well that at issue was not the immigration of a limited “number of Jews” to Palestine, but rather the transformation of the entire land into a Jewish state. Given Herzl’s reply to him, Yusuf Diya could only have come to one of two conclusions. Either the Zionist leader meant to deceive him by concealing the true aims of the Zionist movement, or Herzl simply did not see Yusuf Diya and the Arabs of Palestine as worthy of being taken seriously.

Instead, with the smug self-assurance so common to nineteenth-century Europeans, Herzl offered the preposterous inducement that the colonization, and ultimately the usurpation, of their land by strangers would benefit the people of that country. Herzl’s thinking and his reply to Yusuf Diya appear to have been based on the assumption that the Arabs could ultimately be bribed or fooled into ignoring what the Zionist movement actually intended for Palestine. This condescending attitude toward the intelligence, not to speak of the rights, of the Arab population of Palestine was to be serially repeated by Zionist, British, European, and American leaders in the decades that followed, down to the present day. 

Arthur James Balfour

Conclusion:

In 1917, Arthur James Balfour stated that in Palestine, the British government did not “propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” The great powers were committed to Zionism, he continued, “and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/pompeo-becomes-first-secretary-state-visit-israeli-settlement-n1248084

Khalidi, Rashid. 2020. The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017. New York: Metropolitan Books. (Quotations in body of the post)

Khalidi, Rashid. 2009. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press. (Note beneath image of Yusuf Diya)

The interview:
Khalidi, Rashid. 2020. Palestine’s 100 Years War Interview by Philip Adams. Late Night Live. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. (Source that introduced me to the letter of Yusuf Diya)

Professor Rashid Khalidi’s family has been part of the Palestinian struggle since 1899, when his great-great-great Uncle, the Mayor of Jerusalem tried to warn off the leader of the Zionist movement, Theodor Hertzl, to not choose Palestine for a homeland.

Now decades down the track, and many attempts at peace later, the mood is shifting towards a new era of the Palestinian struggle, known as the Palestinian rights movement. Although this movement is in nascent form, its focus is no longer just on a two-state solution.

Duration: 20min 37sec
Broadcast: Wed 5 Aug 2020, 10:20pm


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Neil Godfrey

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7 thoughts on ““In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.””

  1. Hey, if God could give away lands already occupied, who are we to say modern states shouldn’t? Similarly the US allowed “settlers” to poach lands already settled and gave away lands owned by others. This is a longstanding tradition.

    1. Another site apart from Palestine could have been chosen; several options were on offer for consideration.

      The state of Israel could have seized the moment when they were offered the 1967 borders as the basis for a genuine two-state solution.

      Now both of those options are long past their ‘use-by’ date, the state of Israel can reject its racist foundation and introduce genuine democracy for all, Arabs as well as Jews, as a single state incorporating Gaza strip, West Bank, and Israel as one free, united country, no longer “Jewish” (any more than we have the perpetuation of a white South Africa) but democratic for all races.

  2. “We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border…”

    Zionist apologists will probably rush to tell you that Herzl was thinking about Argentina, and not Palestine, when he wrote this. They will ignore you when you point out that it is wrong to do this to anyone.

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