A Kingdom in Heaven, a Serfdom on Earth More than the thriller of Jerusalem, the tragedy of biased land property
When states become “more sovereign” than human persons and their property rights, when the positive law outweighs the natural one, when people become peoples before being free, here is a question we might ask: will there ever be peace in a land that is so holy for so many, who, by the machinations of the politics of warmongers, arrive at hating each other with such undisguised anger?
Those breaking news about that broken City
On December 6, 2017, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city and requested the subsequent relocation of the US Embassy (currently placed in Tel Aviv). The declaration has the same scent as the one made in 1917, during World War I, by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, in the name of the British government (nota bene: the hyper-power of the epoch), announcing support for the creation of “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine (nota bene: at that time, a part of the already decaying Ottoman Empire and hosting a minority of Jewish population amidst an overwhelming Arab majority).
It is well known that Jerusalem’s status is one of the most controversial aspects when it comes to the Israel vs. Palestine conflict, as Israelis see Jerusalem as their heavenly-promised historical heartland, while Palestinians view Eastern Jerusalem as the only place on earth to settle their future state’s capital.
However, Trump’s recent move has raised tensions at a different level, his action being seen by many as a way of legitimizing (another episode from) Israel’s takeover of Palestinian land. In response, the UN Security Council announced a couple of days later that it is considering a draft resolution, which would claim that any change in Jerusalem’s status has no legal effect. Meanwhile, Fatah, the political party of the Palestinian President, Mahmud Abbas, called for protests against the Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Jerusalem. An atmosphere of outrage emanates from the entire Muslim and Arab world, felt at the “emergency summit” of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, in Istanbul, on the 13th of December.
To some, this could be the end of the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Or is it a piece of “strategic repositioning”?
From the Book of Books to the Map of Maps
Since 1948, peace has been an elusive and illusory dream in Jerusalem, as it is in the whole of new Israel and old Palestine. For hundreds of years, Jerusalem was a dream for the people of Moses and David. Actually, for thousands of years, a home was their dream. Contemporary Israel is in unrest and subject to neighbourly hatred. Again. Why so much fury against a state built by a nation that is both “chosen” by God and “chased” by man throughout history between and out of the corners of the world? It seems that it continues to pay instalments on the price of an “original sin” that does not necessarily date back to biblical times, but to times that are more recent.
As it happened many times in the course of the history, various human communities, be they tribes, unions of tribes, peoples, or nations, became the victims of overly enthusiastic “political projects” created by leaders that rushed to write history while being too lazy to read the one that was written before them. And their peoples were left to suffer undeserved opprobrium. This is the case of the Israeli people. The Middle East crisis, during which Israel made the entire Arab and non-Arab Muslim community angry, begins with the end of the World War I, with an impossible double promise, a cynical “naked short selling”.
The British government, as self-appointed arbiter of the Middle East and, in general, of the entire antebellum world, promised independence to Arabs (along with the very land they inhabited and processed – “owned” in the “Lockean” sense) “in exchange” for their rebellion against their oppressor – the Ottoman Empire – that the British wanted “neutralized”. The same British government promised Arabic Palestine as territory for a future Jewish homeland, to be built by Zionists, in exchange for financial support. Summing up: one nation (the Brits) promised to another (the non-Palestinian Jews) the land of the third (the Palestinian Arabs).
Decoupling anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism
It would be profoundly immoral if all Jewish people were blamed together for all political agendas, from Abraham to Menachem Begin, from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Perez, from today’s Israeli political establishment to the ones to come. Anti-Semitism is a form of visceral xenophobia and blunt racism that pertain only to political simpletons, as underdeveloped “zoon politikon”, an insult for the human species itself. Anti-Zionism is a critical attitude with respect to a political project that cared less, if at all, about human rights other than the Jews’ “historical right” to a return to their “biblical cradle”.
It must be said that the Zionist project was, at that time, one of the various political projects associated to the idea of finding or recovering a homeland for the Jewish people. After the French Revolution and its spiritual replicas, the European continent witnessed a strong emancipation movement of the Jewish communities. This new social mind-set led to a series of new possibilities for rethinking the Jewish communities’ destiny, profoundly ostracized and ghettoized throughout all the medieval history. Three main scenarios were put to the restructuring of Jewish communities in the 19th century:
- merging them into the open society, driven by reason and respect, that was in process of being built, by Enlightenment, in the Western Europe;
- insulating them into communities which would preserve their ethnical and spiritual identity (in Western Europe), or creating a Jewish state in Eastern-European regions, ethnically dominated by Jews, or perpetuating the Yiddish lifestyle (the culture of the old ghettos), but in colonies located in unpopulated areas of the world;
- creating a nation-state, in the homeland of Palestine.
The Zionists (initially not homogenous in terms of the tolerance with which they concede or not to the Arabs a cohabitation within the state structure proposed in the Palestinian space) ultimately took over the Jewish political project and declared as final and non-negotiable objective a Jewish state in Palestine, and nothing less.
How it’s made: from old Palestine to new Israel
Various justifications were circulated by Zionists in defending their project, “justifications” that unwisely denied the historical evidence of the Arab stable presence in the desired region: military power – Menachem Begin (the prime minister at the time when Israel was founded) with “we fight, therefore we exist” (translating this – “power transforms claims into rights”); the Holy Bible – Begin’s ace up the sleeve: “Palestine is God’s gift for the Jews and forever”; secular history – Palestine’s territory has been populated by Jews, more than 2000 years ago; mister Balfour – the word of a gentleman from a governmental cabinet is “the rule of law”; Hitler’s infamy – the victims of the Holocaust deserve a right to a nation scale compensation; the Arab states’ behaviour – Arab retaliation is aggression, so any Israeli backlash, which eventually enlarges the space of security, for instance, by adding to the territory, is legitimate.
For the state of Israel to be fully justified in its creation as a political community, a decent prerequisite would have been for its citizens (as “social contract” parties) to have possessed and acquired Palestine’s land as legitimate property, following the classical liberal procedure: through original appropriation (homesteading) or voluntary purchase, donation, inheritance. Yet there was a problem with the whole property rights arrangement that is much more subtle than the outright expulsion of Arab Palestinians from the territory of the nascent Israeli state – the regime of land ownership in the Ottoman Empire, a highly problematic one that was later speculated by Jewish buyers. Taking a look at the land acquisition process is of great help in distinguishing “the good” from “the bad” and “the ugly” when it comes to the creation of the Israeli homeland and answering the sensitive question: “whose home was this land really?”.
On cruel feudalism as convenient benchmark
The Ottomans, who controlled the Palestine region for almost four centuries, found there an Arab population, partially nomadic, but most of it stable (fellah farmers). In short, there were:
“First, the Bedaween, «Arabs of the Arabs», who live in tents and roam the deserts.
Second, the Fellahheen, «Ploughmen», or agricultural peasantry… who live in villages, and are freehold owners of the soil which they cultivate.
Third, the Belladeen, «Townsfolk», who live, and who have lived from generation to generation, in cities, generally in their own freehold houses” (E.A. Finn, cited in Halbrook (1981)).
Although Arab peasants were naturally considering the land as theirs, based on long-term possession and cultivation, in the Ottoman Empire the sultan was the “supreme” owner of the entire agricultural property, natural property being usurped at will (by high taxes, impoverishing mortgages, mere expropriations, etc.). The census of land ownership in the Ottoman Empire, as elsewhere in the feudal age, was made with the purpose of extracting taxes as well as for military conscription during wars. In order to avoid such burdens, the real land transactions were “hidden” by the natural owners through the legal registration of only a part of the land they legitimately owned / worked. A large share of the active population chose to register their land on the name of deceased, fictitious or influential people (able to evade conscription – Muslim nobles, Christians, Jews from Jerusalem, Beirut or Damascus).
Therefore, property registration and protection were completely insignificant in the Ottoman Empire, a fact unfortunately speculated by interwar Zionist buyers, who preferred to consider as valid the “formal” contracts made by the heavily harassed Arab farmers with the real estate opportunists. The Zionists chose to purchase the land from the “legal” usurpers of the Arabs.
Land acquisitions: very few and very obscure
Zionists started a process of purchasing Palestinian land from Arab or Turkish land owners – see the creation of the Palestinian Jewish Colonization Association (PJCA) by Baron Edmond de Rothschild –, that is, precisely from those objectionable owners of Arab land, a process combined with the fellahs’ expulsion and, only occasionally, their tolerance on what was / would have been, once upon a time, their (traceable ancestor’s) property.
In 1907, the World Zionist Organisation incorporated Keren Kayemeth Leisrael (the Jewish National Fund), dedicated to land acquisitions exclusively by Jews and forbidding the resettlement of displaced Arabs. The land acquisition process strongly increases in the interwar period. But the working philosophy during all this time, synthesized in 1919 by Israel Zangwill, a Zionist leader, quoted in Halbrook (1981), was:
“The power in every country… always resides in the landowning classes. Yet over 30,000 Arab landlords and some 600,000 fellaheen are to continue in possession of the bulk of the Holy Land… [To remedy this situation] measures of race redistribution… will be carried out in Palestine as elsewhere. Thus, the Arabs would gradually be settled in the new and vast Arabian Kingdom. …Only with a Jewish majority… can Israel enter upon the task of building up that model state”.
The policy of discrimination against Arabs amplified the injustice of land “transactions”, through which only 9.4% of land was acquired directly from fellahs – legitimate owners of the land –, the rest being bought by PJKA, Keren Kayemeth and Land Development Co. (Zionist organisations) from land owners who held, in a problematic manner, the property titles (at the level of 1936).
Three principles were completing the institutionalized expropriation policy: Kibush Hakarka (Conquest of the Land) – meaning the eviction of Arab lessees (again, most of them formal lessees on their legitimately owned land); Kibush Ha'avoda (Conquest of Labour) – meaning the avoidance of (re)employing the Arabs; T'ozteret Ha'aretz (Produce of the Land) – meaning the boycott of Arab goods.
In May 1948, when the state of Israel was created, Jews increased their ownership of Palestine land through military conquests. From 7% to 79%! Palestine became, therefore, mostly through “expropriation” – be it of a “capitalist” or “military” nature – the modern state of Israel. The annexationist spiral from then on is just an unfortunate continuation of a history that started in a wrong way.
Bergstrom, Markus. 2009. Israel and Palestine: A Statist War. Mises.org Daily Article, http://www.mises.org/story/3285.
Halbrook, Stephen P. 1981. Alienation of a Homeland: How Palestine Became Israel. The Journal of Libertarian Studies V(4) (Fall), http://tmh.floonet.net/articles/halbrook.html.
Richman, Sheldon L. 1991. “Ancient History”: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War II and the Folly of Intervention. Policy Analysis 159 (August 16), http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=1019&full=1.
Rothbard, Murray N. 1982. The Ethics of Liberty. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press.
Rothbard, Murray N. 1978. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. London: Collier Books.
Rothbard, Murray N. 1967. War Guilt in the Middle East. Left and Right 3(3) (Autumn), http://www.mises.org/journals/lar/pdfs/3_3/3_3_4.pdf.