From Time Immemorial – Palestine on the Eve of Zionist Settlement: An Empty Land? (Part 2 of 6)

by | Apr 17, 2002 | POLITICS

In 1901, Israel Zangwill wrote, “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.”1 Joan Peters takes up this view, claiming a “profusion of evidence of an uninhabited Palestine [p.170],” and citing many travelers through Palestine to show that by the last half of the nineteenth century, the land […]

In 1901, Israel Zangwill wrote, “Palestine is a country without a people; the Jews are a people without a country.”1 Joan Peters takes up this view, claiming a “profusion of evidence of an uninhabited Palestine [p.170],” and citing many travelers through Palestine to show that by the last half of the nineteenth century, the land was deserted and desolate.

Critics contend that Peters neglects accounts by early Zionist settlers who, in the words of one of her sources, “were genuinely taken aback to find Palestine inhabited by so many Arabs.”2 As Porath notes, when Peters makes reference to Asher Druyanov’s collection of early Zionist settlers’ writings, she does not mention “the many passages in his two volumes referring to the presence of Arabs living in the areas where Jews had settled.”3 Other critics cite the Jewish writer Ahad Ha’am, who visited the area and related his experiences in an 1891 essay called “Truth from Palestine”:

We abroad are used to believing that Palestine is now almost totally desolate, a desert that is not sowed, and that anyone who wishes to purchase land there may come and do so to his heart’s content. But in truth this is not the case. Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed. Only sand dunes and stony mountains that are not fit to grow anything but fruit trees–and this only after hard labor and great expense of clearing and reclamation–only these are not cultivated, because the Arabs do not like to exert themselves in the present for a distant future. For this reason the opportunity to purchase good soil does not always exist. Both the farmers and the large landholders are reluctant to sell good, productive land. Many of our brothers who came to Palestine to buy land wait for months, have criss-crossed the land and have not yet found what they seek. 4

While the evidence of Zionist settlers is no doubt more pertinent than the descriptions of those who were just passing through, Peters’ omission is not as significant as it seems. In Palestine under Ottoman rule, land left uncultivated reverted to the state.5 But Ottoman restrictions prevented Jews from purchasing state lands, which made up a significant proportion of the available land.6 Thus Jews would have been allowed to purchase only land already under cultivation, even if large areas of the country were deserted.

Jewish Settlements as a Magnet for Arab Immigration

When Jewish colonization began, Palestine may have been sparsely populated but it was not entirely uninhabited. Peters discusses how the law recognized land titles; her population figures show how many people lived in the country. Yet by her account the population was a mix of nationalities, largely nomadic, having no distinct national “identity.” She adds that many more Arabs were attracted by the early Jewish economic development, and that the Jews rapidly became the largest religious group in the areas they settled.

Peters sets Palestine’s population when Jewish settlement began at between 300,000 and 400,000, a figure that had been stable for two centuries [p. 223, p. 244].7 She then argues that natural increase could not have accounted for growth in the settled Muslim population between 1882 and 1895, so that Jewish development must have attracted 82,000 foreign Muslims into Palestine [p. 245]. But her argument depends on taking the low figure for settled Arabs in 1882 and ignoring the high end of the range she had established earlier.8 Since her population estimates vary by as much as 100,000, her conclusion is tenuous at best.9

Peters goes so far as to defend her low-end figure of 300,000 for 1882 as “not incompatible” with another population estimate of 475,000 for 1875 [note 38]. In other words, she maintains that just before its putative 1882-1895 increase at a “hardly possible” rate, the population of Palestine diminished by 175,000 in only seven years, a fall of almost 37 per cent. In percentage terms, this exceeds the loss of one-third of Europe’s population in the Black Death between 1347 and 1352, yet Peters makes this assertion based on nothing other than Colonel Conder’s statement that the population had “diminished sadly,” hardly evidence for a decrease of this magnitude. In other words, Peters’ claim of massive Arab population increase and immigration from 1882 to 1895 rests on wildly unrealistic assumptions.

According to Peters, the impetus for this alleged Arab immigration was Jewish development, yet no evidence supports her claim.10 In the last half of the nineteenth century, most Jews lived in the four “holy cities” of Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron and Tiberias, where a large proportion lived off charity.11 Peters counts only fifteen Jewish settlements by 1893, with a total Jewish population that grew to reach 1100 [p. 253].12 Thus there is no reason to suppose Jewish development was extensive enough to have lured eighty thousand Arabs into the country.

Speculative Excess

A bit later, Peters erects another tower of speculation on the same theme: According to a report from the Rishon l’Tsion settlement, by 1889 the forty Jewish families there “had attracted ‘more than four hundred Arab families,’ most of them ‘Bedouin and Egyptian’ [p. 252].” On the basis of this one-to-ten ratio, Peters speculates that by 1893 the 900 Jews in the other settlements might have attracted 9,000 more Arabs [p. 253]. She then wonders whether the settlements may have continued to attract Arabs by at least a rate of immigration similar to the Jews’, so that by 1914 the 7,700 Jews on settlements would have been surrounded by 77,000 Arabs. Thus she concludes that her own study may have “counted many thousands–anywhere from 45,000 to 350,000–of Arabs as long-time ‘settled’ population of 1893-and-their-descendants present in 1947, when in reality that group may have followed the Jewish settlers into Jewish-settled areas of Palestine [p. 254].”

Peters does not indicate how many of the Arabs near Rishon l’Tsion were former peasants who had farmed the area before the Jews had bought the land.13 Indeed, she misrepresents her source, which does not say that most of the families were Bedouin and Egyptian, only that many of them were [p. 201].

Even if most of the Arabs near Rishon l’Tsion came from elsewhere, Peters’ own citations do not support speculating on the basis of a one-to-ten ratio of Jews to Arabs. Earlier she had provided examples of two other settlements where the ratio of Jews to Arabs was closer to one-to-one [p. 200].14 Clearly the one-to-ten ratio of Rishon l’Tsion is not generally applicable, and Peters herself knows better.

In sum, Peters has no basis for supposing that the Jewish settlements had attracted even 11,000 Arab immigrants by 1893, let alone the 82,000 she had argued for earlier.

Peters compounds the distortion with her claim that by 1947, the descendants of these alleged immigrants would have numbered between 45,000 and 350,000. Based on the rate of natural increase from her own population study, the descendants of 11,000 Arabs in 1893 would have numbered only 30,700 in 1947.15 Peters is grossly exaggerating her numbers; her claim that early Jewish settlement attracted significant numbers of Arab immigrants is unfounded.16

A Jewish Majority?

Now consider Peters’ claim that “Jews were perhaps a marginal majority of the population” in the Jewish-settled areas of Western Palestine in 1893 [p. 251]. (By “marginal majority” Peters means a plurality, as her numbers show.) Ten pages later, the “perhaps” is gone: “Jews were actually the largest religious group in the areas that they settled near the end of the nineteenth century [p. 261].” But Peters’ support for this claim does not come from the official Ottoman census figures; instead, she uses a source that she knows undercounts Muslims significantly.17

One might be forgiven for understanding Peters as arguing that Jews formed a plurality in the area that became Israel. But Peters’ claim applies only to an area within Palestine she calls “Area I,” whereas 1948 Israel also included her Areas II and IV. If the Arab populations of those areas are added in, the Jews remain a minority [p. 425]. And even within Area I, the Jewish population was mainly concentrated in four cities, with only a small number on agricultural settlements–around which the number of Arabs was roughly the same as, if not greater than, the number of Jews.

In sum, Peters has gerrymandered Palestine so as to be able to point to a geographical area where Jews may have constituted a plurality, but the area is geographically insignificant and has nothing to do with the region that later became Israel.18


The issues mentioned in this section are not central to Peters’ thesis; it makes little difference to her overall point whether or not Jewish development in the late nineteenth century attracted Arab immigration, or whether or not Jews constituted the largest religious group in the areas where they settled. Yet the way she handles these issues shows how tendentious she can be in her use of evidence. We have seen her:

  • choose only the number that suits her thesis out of a range of figures for the 1882 Arab population

  • maintain in passing that Palestine’s population declined by over a third in seven years, on the strength of a single vague quote and the desire to accept two conflicting population estimates

  • entertain wildly exaggerated speculation about the number of Arabs attracted by Jewish settlements, disregarding evidence she herself had cited earlier

  • suggest a number for the descendants of those immigrants inflated far beyond what even her speculative premises would allow

  • support her reference to a Jewish majority using a source she knew to undercount Muslims

  • exaggerate the proportion of Jews in the region that became Israel by considering only the small area where Jews were most concentrated

If these were the book’s only flaws, they would be relatively minor. However, as we will see, they form part of a larger pattern that includes the book’s principal contentions.


1 Israel Zangwill, “The Return to Palestine,” New Liberal Review 2 (Dec. 1901) p. 627.

2 Neville Mandel, The Arabs and Zionism Before World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), p. 31 . Peters refers to Mandel several times in chapters 8 and 9 and throughout chapter 10, but never cites this passage.

3 Yehoshua Porath, “Mrs. Peters’s Palestine: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, March 27, 1986 (online at <>). I have been unable to verify Porath’s claim about the passages in Druyanov’s work referring to the presence of Arabs, as the letters in the book are mainly in Hebrew, with some in Russian and German. Peters cites Druyanov’s book several times: see her note 53 for p. 201, p. 503 note 74, note 81 for p. 204, and note 64 for p. 252.

4 The essay has apparently not been translated into English, but besides the Hebrew (in Kol Kitve Ahad Ha-am) there is a German translation, on which the translation above was based. Achad Haam, Am Scheidewege: Gesammelte Aufs

Paul Blair is former editor of The Intellectual Activist.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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