In the Middle East most adults are impoverished and wretched. A new scale of priorities is needed, with weapons on the bottom rung and a regional market economy at the top. Most inhabitants of the region—more than 60%—are under the age of eighteen. A new future can be offered to them. Israel has computerized its education and has achieved excellent results. Education can be computerized throughout the Middle East, allowing young people to progress not just from grade to grade, but from generation to generation. Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival. Writes Efraim Karsh
From its earliest days, the Zionist leadership, dominated for first three quarters of the 20th century by the Labor movement, held the hope that the vast economic gains attending the Jewish national revival would ameliorate the hostility of the local Arab populace and make it permanently reconciled, if not positively well disposed, to the idea of Jewish self-determination.
As early as 1915, the 29-year-old political activist David Ben-Gurion argued that “the Hebrew settlement is not designed to undermine the position of the Arab community; on the contrary, it will salvage it from its economic misery, lift it from its social decline, and rescue it from physical and moral degeneration. Our revival in the Land of Israel will come through the country’s regeneration, that is: the renaissance of its Arab inhabitants.”3 In December 1947, shortly after the Palestinian Arabs had initiated a violent effort to subvert the UN resolution partitioning Mandatory Palestine into two states, Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, argued that despite appearances of implacable enmity, “If the Arab citizen will feel at home in our state and his status will not be in the least different from that of the Jewish [citizen]… if the state will help him in a truthful and dedicated way to reach the economic, social, and cultural level of the Jewish community, then Arab distrust will correspondingly subside and a bridge will be built to a Semitic, Jewish-Arab alliance.”
Five decades later, Ben-Gurion’s foremost disciple, Shimon Peres, still espoused this hopeful outlook. In his acceptance speech upon receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, the then-foreign minister presented Israel’s economic, technological, and educational prowess as the key not only to Palestinian-Israeli peace but to the advent of a “New Middle East” that would serve as “a spiritual and cultural focal point for the entire world”:
In the Middle East most adults are impoverished and wretched. A new scale of priorities is needed, with weapons on the bottom rung and a regional market economy at the top. Most inhabitants of the region—more than 60%—are under the age of eighteen. A new future can be offered to them. Israel has computerized its education and has achieved excellent results. Education can be computerized throughout the Middle East, allowing young people to progress not just from grade to grade, but from generation to generation. Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival.
When this pipe dream collapsed six years later amid a horrendous war of terror waged by Peres’s “peace partner” and co-recipient of the Nobel Prize, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, an official Israeli state commission of inquiry headed by deputy chief justice Theodore Orr, appointed to investigate the mass riots launched by Israel’s Arab citizens in support of this terror war, ascribed the rampaging to the Arab community’s supposed socioeconomic deprivation in the Jewish state. “The state and successive generations of its government have failed to address in a comprehensive and deep fashion the difficult problems created by the existence of a large Arab minority inside the Jewish state,” read the commission’s report. “Government handling of the Arab sector has been primarily neglectful and discriminatory. The establishment did not show sufficient sensitivity to the needs of the Arab sector, and did not do enough to give this sector its equal share of state resources.”
Even Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of the branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party, who maintained that Arab acquiescence in the Jewish national revival would only follow upon the establishment of an impregnable Jewish “Iron Wall,” overestimated the importance of the socioeconomic factor for Arab-Jewish reconciliation once the Arabs had disabused themselves of the hope to destroy the Jewish national home. Asked by the Peel commission whether he still subscribed to the view that “on a long view the Jewish village cannot prosper unless the Arab village prospers with it,” he replied: “Yes. I think on the whole it is true and I think Palestine, such as I dream of it, should be a country of very happy Arabs…. When we shall become a majority and make the country rich and develop all its possibilities and utilize all its resources, then it will be a prosperity in which the Arabs will be happy.” Meir Grossman, Jabotinsky’s right-hand man, put the matter in similar terms. “It is nonsense to say that we want to keep the Arabs down,” he stated. “It is in the interests of the Jews that the Arab population should rise from its present low economic level, become a prosperous element, and thus make possible the development of trade and industry on a large scale.”
The historical record doesn’t support this thesis. During the Mandate years (1920-48), for example, the inflow of Jewish people and capital revived Palestine’s moribund condition and raised the well-being and standard of living of its Arab residents well above that of the neighboring Arab states. The expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially in the field of citrus-growing, Palestine’s foremost export product, was largely financed by the capital thus obtained; and Jewish know-how did much to improve Arab cultivation methods. As a result, Arab-owned citrus plantations grew six-fold in 1919-39 as did vegetable-growing lands, while the number of olive groves quadrupled and that of vineyards increased threefold.
More broadly, the vast expansion of the country’s public infrastructure attending the Jewish national revival—from health services, to water supply and sanitation, to reclamation and anti-malaria work, among other fields—slashed Arab mortality and led to the doubling of the Arab population after decades of steady decline. Life expectancy among Muslims rose from 37.5 years in 1926-27 to 50 in 1942-44 (compared to 33 in Egypt), while child mortality was reduced by 34% in the first year of age, by 57% in the third, and by 67% in the fifth. Malaria, which in 1918 killed 68 of 1,000 people in the Beit Jibrin region alone, was effectively eradicated, with three people in the entire country dying of the disease in 1942. Small wonder that the largest increases in Arab population took place in localities where Jewish development was most pronounced: in Haifa, the Arab population grew by 86% in 1925-31; in Jaffa by 62%; and in Jerusalem by 37%. By contrast, in purely Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron, population growth was only 7%, and in Gaza there was a 2% decrease.
Yet rather than promote Arab-Jewish coexistence, these vast socioeconomic gains served to fuel Arab extremism. Having inculcated its constituents with an abiding hatred for their Jewish compatriots, the Palestinian Arab leadership, headed from the early 1920s to the late 1940s by Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin Husseini, unleashed repeated waves of anti-Jewish violence—in 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1936-39. These culminated in the 1947-48 genocidal attempt to destroy Palestine’s Jewish community and to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state—leading to the collapse and dispersal of Palestinian Arab society.
End of Part Two
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