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By Ari Shavit

How can this be, I ask myself in another millennium. How is it possible that my great-grandfather does not see?

There are more than half a million Arabs, Bedoins and Druze in Palestine in 1897. There are twenty cities and towns, and hundreds of villages. So how can the pedantic Bentwich not notice them? How can the hawkeyed Bentwich not see from the tower of Ramleh that the land is taken? That there is another people now occupying the land of his ancestors?

I am not critical or judgmental. On the contrary, I realize that the land of Israel on his mind is a vast thousand square kilometres, which includes today’s Kingdom of Jordan. And in this vast land there are fewer than a million inhabitants. There is enough room there for the Jewish survivors of anti-Semitic Europe. Greater Palestine can be home to both Jew and Arab.

I also realize that the land Bentwich observes is populated by many Bedouin nomads. Most of the others who live there are serfs with no property rights. The vast majority of the Palestinians of 1897 live in humble villages and hamlets. Their houses are nothing but dirt huts. Bowed by poverty and disease, they are hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman.

It is also likely that Herbet Bentwich, a white man of the Victorian era, cannot see nonwhites as equals. He might easily persuade himself that the Jews who will come from Europe will only better the lives of the local population, that European Jews will cure the natives, educate them, cultivate them. That they will live side by side with them in an honourable and dignifies manner.

But there is a far stronger argument: In April 1897 there is no Palestinian people. There is no real sense of Palestinian self-determination, and there is no Palestinian national movement to speak of. Arab nationalism is awakening in the distance; in Damascus, in Beirut, in the Arabian peninsula. But in Palestine there is no cogent national identity.

Excerpted from My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. Published in 2013 by Spiegel&Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group.

 

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