On the 4th of November 1923 the Jewish-Russian newspaper Rassvet (“Dawn”) published a short essay by the conservative Zionist writer Ze’ev Jabotinsky titled “O zheleznoi stene (mi i araby)“. In the article the Odessa-born campaigner for a revived nation of Israel argued that the Arab “natives” of Palestine would never voluntarily agree to a Jewish “colonisation” of their country. Therefore it would require a form of military conquest, the creation of armed Jewish settlements, to change Arabic opinions and foster a willingness to compromise. Jabotinsky’s brutally honest – if partisan – assessment reflected both his own growing militancy and a recent decision by Britain’s secretary for the colonies, Winston Churchill, to deny the creation of Jewish – and specifically, Zionist – settlements on the east bank of the Jordan River.
Later translated into English as “The Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)” for the Jewish Herald, South Africa, the essay is a remarkably prophetic document, for good or for ill, which still speaks of a certain strand of Israeli nationalism. Below is a revised version of the original Jewish Herald article which was published on the 26th of November 1937.
THE ARAB PROBLEM
The Iron Wall – (We and the Arabs)
Contrary to the excellent rule of getting to the point immediately, I must begin this article with a personal introduction. The author of these lines is considered to be an enemy of the Arabs, a proponent of their expulsion, etc. This is not true. My emotional relationship to the Arabs is the same as it is to all other peoples – polite indifference. My political relationship is characterised by two principles. First: the expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine is absolutely impossible in any form. There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority. Second: I am proud to have been a member of that group which formulated the Helsingfors’ Program. We formulated it, not only for Jews, but for all peoples, and its basis is the equality of all nations. I am prepared to swear, for us and our descendants, that we will never destroy this equality and we will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs. Our credo, as the reader can see, is completely peaceful. But it is absolutely another matter if it will be possible to achieve our peaceful aims through peaceful means. This depends, not on our relationship with the Arabs, but exclusively on the Arabs’ relationship to Zionism.
After this introduction I can now get to the point. That the Arabs of the Land of Israel should willingly come to an agreement with us is beyond all hopes and dreams at present, and in the foreseeable future. This inner conviction of mine I express so categorically not because of any wish to dismay the moderate faction in the Zionist camp but, on the contrary, because I wish to save them from such dismay. Apart from those who have been virtually “blind” since childhood, all the other moderate Zionists have long since understood that there is not even the slightest hope of ever obtaining the agreement of the Arabs of the Land of Israel to “Palestine” becoming a country with a Jewish majority.
Every reader has some idea of the early history of other countries which have been settled. I suggest that he recall all known instances. If he should attempt to seek but one instance of a country settled with the consent of those born there he will not succeed. The inhabitants (no matter whether they are civilised or savages) have always put up a stubborn fight. Furthermore, how the settler acted had no effect whatsoever. The Spaniards who conquered Mexico and Peru, or our own ancestors in the days of Joshua ben Nun behaved, one might say, like plunderers. But those “great explorers,” the English, Scots and Dutch who were the first real pioneers of North America were people possessed of a very high ethical standard; people who not only wished to leave the redskins at peace but could also pity a fly; people who in all sincerity and innocence believed that in those virgin forests and vast plains ample space was available for both the white and red man. But the native resisted both barbarian and civilised settler with the same degree of cruelty.
Another point which had no effect at all was whether or not there existed a suspicion that the settler wished to remove the inhabitant from his land. The vast areas of the U.S. never contained more than one or two million Indians. The inhabitants fought the white settlers not out of fear that they might be expropriated, but simply because there has never been an indigenous inhabitant anywhere or at any time who has ever accepted the settlement of others in his country. Any native people – its all the same whether they are civilised or savage – views their country as their national home, of which they will always be the complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not only a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. Compromisers in our midst attempt to convince us that the Arabs are some kind of fools who can be tricked by a softened formulation of our goals, or a tribe of money grubbers who will abandon their birth right to Palestine for cultural and economic gains. I flatly reject this assessment of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are 500 years behind us, spiritually they do not have our endurance or our strength of will, but this exhausts all of the internal differences. We can talk as much as we want about our good intentions; but they understand as well as we what is not good for them. They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervour that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie. To think that the Arabs will voluntarily consent to the realisation of Zionism in return for the cultural and economic benefits we can bestow on them is infantile. This childish fantasy of our “Arabophiles” comes from some kind of contempt for the Arab people, of some kind of unfounded view of this race as a rabble ready to be bribed in order to sell out their homeland for a railroad network.
This view is absolutely groundless. Individual Arabs may perhaps be bought off but this hardly means that all the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael are willing to sell a patriotism that not even Papuans will trade. Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement.
That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel”.
Some of us imagined that a misunderstanding had occurred, that because the Arabs did not understand our intentions, they opposed us, but, if we were to make clear to them how modest and limited our aspirations are, they would then stretch out their arms in peace. This too is a fallacy that has been proved so time and again. I need recall only one incident. Three years ago, during a visit here, Sokolow delivered a great speech about this very “misunderstanding,” employing trenchant language to prove how grossly mistaken the Arabs were in supposing that we intended to take away their property or expel them from the country, or to suppress them. This was definitely not so. Nor did we even want a Jewish state. All we wanted was a regime representative of the League of Nations. A reply to this speech was published in the Arab paper Al Carmel in an article whose content I give here from memory, but I am sure it is a faithful account.
Our Zionist grandees are unnecessarily perturbed, its author wrote. There is no misunderstanding. What Sokolow claims on behalf of Zionism is true. But the Arabs already know this. Obviously, Zionists today cannot dream of expelling or suppressing the Arabs, or even of setting up a Jewish state. Clearly, in this period they are interested in only one thing – that the Arabs not interfere with Jewish immigration. Further, the Zionists have pledged to control immigration in accordance with the country’s absorptive economic capacity. But the Arabs have no illusions, since no other conditions permit the possibility of immigration.
The editor of the paper is even willing to believe that the absorptive capacity of Eretz Yisrael is very great, and that it is possible to settle many Jews without affecting one Arab. “Just that is what the Zionists want, and what the Arabs do not want. In this way the Jews will, little by little, become a majority and, ipso facto, a Jewish state will be formed and the fate of the Arab minority will depend on the goodwill of the Jews. But was it not the Jews themselves who told us how ‘ pleasant’ being a minority was? No misunderstanding exists. Zionists desire one thing – freedom of immigration – and it is Jewish immigration that we do not want.”
The logic employed by this editor is so simple and clear that it should be learned by heart and be an essential part of our notion of the Arab question. It is of no importance whether we quote Herzl or Herbert Samuel to justify our activities. Colonisation itself has its own explanation, integral and inescapable, and understood by every Arab and every Jew with his wits about him. Colonisation can have only one goal. For the Palestinian Arabs this goal is inadmissible. This is in the nature of things. To change that nature is impossible.
A plan that seems to attract many Zionists goes like this: If it is impossible to get an endorsement of Zionism by Palestine’s Arabs, then it must be obtained from the Arabs of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and perhaps of Egypt. Even if this were possible, it would not change the basic situation. It would not change the attitude of the Arabs in the Land of Israel towards us. Seventy years ago, the unification of Italy was achieved, with the retention by Austria of Trent and Trieste. However, the inhabitants of those towns not only refused to accept the situation, but they struggled against Austria with redoubled vigour. If it were possible (and I doubt this) to discuss Palestine with the Arabs of Baghdad and Mecca as if it were some kind of small, immaterial borderland, then Palestine would still remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the centre and basis of their own national existence. Therefore it would be necessary to carry on colonisation against the will of the Palestinian Arabs, which is the same condition that exists now.
But an agreement with Arabs outside the Land of Israel is also a delusion. For nationalists in Baghdad, Mecca and Damascus to agree to such an expensive contribution (agreeing to forego preservation of the Arab character of a country located in the centre of their future “federation”) we would have to offer them something just as valuable. We can offer only two things: either money or political assistance or both. But we can offer neither. Concerning money, it is ludicrous to think we could finance the development of Iraq or Saudi Arabia, when we do not have enough for the Land of Israel. Ten times more Illusory is political assistance for Arab political aspirations. Arab nationalism sets itself the same aims as those set by Italian nationalism before 1870 and Polish nationalism before 1918: unity and independence. These aspirations mean the eradication of every trace of British influence in Egypt and Iraq, the expulsion of the Italians from Libya, the removal of French domination from Syria, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco. For us to support such a movement would be suicide and treachery. If we disregard the fact that the Balfour Declaration was signed by Britain, we cannot forget that France and Italy also signed it. We cannot intrigue about removing Britain from the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf and the elimination of French and Italian colonial rule over Arab territory. Such a double game cannot be considered on any account.
Thus we conclude that we cannot promise anything to the Arabs of the Land of Israel or the Arab countries. Their voluntary agreement is out of the question. Hence those who hold that an agreement with the natives is an essential condition for Zionism can now say “no” and depart from Zionism. Zionist colonisation, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonisation can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population – an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.
Not only must this be so, it is so whether we admit it or not. What does the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate mean for us? It is the fact that a disinterested power committed itself to create such security conditions that the local population would be deterred from interfering with our efforts.
All of us, without exception, are constantly demanding that this power strictly fulfil its obligations. In this sense, there are no meaningful differences between our “militarists” and our “vegetarians.” One prefers an iron wall of Jewish bayonets, the other proposes an iron wall of British bayonets, the third proposes an agreement with Baghdad, and appears to be satisfied with Baghdad’s bayonets – a strange and somewhat risky taste’ but we all applaud, day and night, the iron wall. We would destroy our cause if we proclaimed the necessity of an agreement, and fill the minds of the Mandatory with the belief that we do not need an iron wall, but rather endless talks. Such a proclamation can only harm us. Therefore it is our sacred duty to expose such talk and prove that it is a snare and a delusion.
Two brief remarks: In the first place, if anyone objects that this point of view is immoral, I answer: It is not true; either Zionism is moral and just or it is immoral and unjust. But that is a question that we should have settled before we became Zionists. Actually we have settled that question, and in the affirmative.
We hold that Zionism is moral and just. And since it is moral and just, justice must be done, no matter whether Joseph or Simon or Ivan or Achmed agree with it or not.
There is no other morality.
All this does not mean that any kind of agreement is impossible, only a voluntary agreement is impossible. As long as there is a spark of hope that they can get rid of us, they will not sell these hopes, not for any kind of sweet words or tasty morsels, because they are not a rabble but a nation, perhaps somewhat tattered, but still living. A living people makes such enormous concessions on such fateful questions only when there is no hope left. Only when not a single breach is visible in the iron wall, only then do extreme groups lose their sway, and influence transfers to moderate groups. Only then would these moderate groups come to us with proposals for mutual concessions. And only then will moderates offer suggestions for compromise on practical questions like a guarantee against expulsion, or equality and national autonomy.
I am optimistic that they will indeed be granted satisfactory assurances and that both peoples, like good neighbours, can then live in peace. But the only path to such an agreement is the iron wall, that is to say the strengthening in Palestine of a government without any kind of Arab influence, that is to say one against which the Arabs will fight. In other words, for us the only path to an agreement in the future is an absolute refusal of any attempts at an agreement now.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky was an interesting, if controversial, character whose influence on Jewish history is largely unknown outside of Israel, though he never lived to see its foundation. His pursuit of the Zionist dream brought him to Ireland in 1938, as recounted by the Irish Story:
It was not only the most radical Zionists, however, who saw a parallel with Ireland. Moderate Zionists also took a strong interest. This was partly because of Ireland’s presidency of the League of Nations, under whose auspices British rule in Palestine was supposedly granted. Even if the League of Nations remained something of a paper organisation this did create the amusing situation that Britain was, in theory, answerable to a body headed by a de Valera appointee. It also meant that Ze’ev Jabotinsky, a right-wing Zionist, though one who was never as radical as his followers, was in Dublin in early 1938, seeking diplomatic support for his movement.
He was introduced to de Valera by Robert Briscoe, himself of Jewish background as well as a supporter of right-wing Zionism. Jabotinsky visited the Dáil, met leading members of the small Dublin Jewish community and at the end of his visit pronounced that ‘I have always been an admirer’ of de Valera, ‘and I think he has a most striking personality.’ Indeed Robert Briscoe, in his 1958 autobiography, provides a fanciful account of Jabotinsky’s meeting with de Valera. The Taoiseach was apparently skeptical of the justness of the Zionist project, a situation that his visitor had a ready-made response:
‘”Mr. de Valera” said Jabotinsky, “I have been reading Irish history. As a result of the great famine of 1847 and 1848, I believe the population fell from eight million to four million. Now supposing it had been reduced to fifty thousand and the country had been resettled by the Welsh, Scots and English, would you then have given up the claim of Ireland for the Irish?”
When de Valera replied that the Irish would never relinquish Ireland, Jabotinsky said neither could the Jews give up their claim to Palestine. Briscoe records that ‘I am not sure, but I think the Chief was convinced by these arguments. Certain it is that I was.’