"Making the Desert Bloom" : A Myth Examined
A central theme of Zionism has always been that the Jewish people could regain their dignity, after centuries of restriction to urban occupations, only by a return to agricultural labour. In their enthusiasm for this ideal, Zionists have displayed an understandable tendency to overstate the extent of their achievements. There have, however, been other, less honourable, reasons for such exaggeration. During the Mandate the Zionists' overriding concern was to ensure unhindered Jewish immigration to Palestine. To this end, they attempted to convince world opinion that the country was a virtually uninhabited desert - a land without people for a people without a land - in which Jewish immigrants could settle without prejudice to anybody's interests. At the same time, to those who knew that Palestine was already inhabited by Arabs, the Zionists emphasized the technical superiority of their agriculture to that of the native farmers. The latter, it was argued, would benefit greatly from the adoption of modern farming methods learned from the Jewish immigrants.
Since the establishment of Israel, Zionists have most frequently used the contention that they have "made the desert bloom" to justify the establishment of the State of Israel in Palestine in 1947-48. On the one hand, the extent of the catastrophe suffered by the Palestinians is belittled by repetition of the old assertion that the country had been an almost unpopulated desert before the Zionists' arrival. On the other, Zionists have taken their argument about the superiority of their own, to Palestinian, agriculture one step further and contend that they have a stronger claim to sovereignty over the country because they have exploited its agricultural potential more efficiently than the Palestinians could have done. Whether or not Israel's agriculture is more advanced than the Palestinians' might have been had they not been dispossessed, it is an astonishing assertion that sovereignty over a territory should belong to the people best able to develop its resources. One wonders what the state of the world might be today if this principle were adopted by the superpowers as a basis for their foreign policies.
Despite their inaccuracy, repetition of statements such as those quoted above by Peres and Eshkol has resulted in a widespread belief that Palestine really was a barren wasteland which the Zionists have trans- formed into a Garden of Eden. What are the facts?
Alan George is a former Assistant Director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, London.