Author Archives: Scott Copeland

Scott Copeland

About Scott Copeland

Scott Copeland is an Israeli educator and travel guide. He serves as the program coordinator for the Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem.

A Pragmatic Approach

David Ben Gurion was not only an ideologue; he was also a statesman and nation-builder. Ben Gurion molded the image of the nascent state with a forcefulness unmatched by any other Israeli leader. 

Even before the creation of the state of Israel, through the 1920s and 1930s, Ben Gurion held the reigns of power in the Yishuv (the central authority of early Zionist settlement in Palestine) through his central roles in the Histadrut (the labor union), the World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish Agency. He stood as the head of the Zionist labor movement–the dominant political, social, and cultural stream from before statehood until 1977–and served as Israel’s first prime minister.

Shifting Politics

Throughout the long period that Ben Gurion stood in the wheelhouse of the Zionist ship, his tactics and strategy vis-à-vis the Arab question veered according to the shifting political waters. However, several key principles guided his strategy for the nation-in-the-making.

david ben gurionThe scholar Yosef Heller aptly summarizes Ben Gurion’s ideological constants in the following points (“The Positions of Ben Gurion, Weizman, & Jabotinsky on the Arab Question,” Shapira, Reinharz, & Harris, eds. The Age of Zionism, 2000, p. 213):

1. The Arabs may possess rights of residence, but they do not possess rights of collective ownership over the Land of Israel.

2. Jewish settlement and immigration do nothing to injure or impinge on the interests and status of the non-Jewish residents of the country.

3. The Arabs of the Land of Israel are a small part of the larger Arab nation, and Palestine is but a small holding within the vast Arab world. The Jewish people have no other place that can serve as a platform for national independence. Arab nationalist aspirations can be fulfilled beyond the borders of Palestine.

4. All Zionist policy depends on the “meticulous protection of the civil, political, and the national rights of the Arabs living in the Land of Israel.”

Ben Gurion’s position, like many others in the Zionist movement, was a position fraught with tensions. Anita Shapira describes Ben Gurion’s position in 1936 on the eve of the outbreak of the Arab Revolt:

Clash of Nationalisms

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, two competing national movements began to take shape: Zionism and Arab nationalism. Zionism called for some form of Jewish sovereignty in at least some part of the Land of Israel as a Jewish necessity and right. Arab nationalism saw the Arab world as a unified whole. As individual countries gained independence, they sought to balance a specific, local identity with a broader pan-Arab affiliation. 

The nascent nationalist movements were on a collision course. At the root of the conflict were complex networks of identity construction and competition over natural resources, such as territory and water, and psychic resources, such as pride, honor, and power.

Arab man living in Israel

The Zionist movement in the years prior to and continuing after Israeli independence in 1948 had to face the question: Are the Arab inhabitants of the Land of Israel a unique ethnic-national community with distinct political rights? For its part, the Arab national movement asked: Do the Jews have moral and political rights to some form of sovereignty in Palestine?

Arabs in Palestine?

Among the early Zionist thinkers, there were those who were ignorant regarding the indigenous population of Palestine. Others believed that the modernizing results of Jewish presence in Palestine would benefit the Arabs.

Amos Elon, author and veteran Israeli journalist, relates a telling anecdote about Theodor Herzl, the “father” of modern Zionism. Max Nordau, Herzl’s chief lieutenant, once approached Herzl in a flurry, saying: “But there are Arabs in Palestine! I didn’t know that! We are committing an injustice.”

Whether or not this story is legend or history, it is fair to say that Herzl did not regard the Arab population of the Land of Israel as a significant obstacle to the fulfillment of the Zionist enterprise. In The State of the Jews, Herzl’s political program for Jewish statehood, there is no mention of the Arabs. However, in his utopian novel, Altneuland, Herzl’s representative Arab character, Reschid Bey, thanks the Jews for bringing European style progress and economic prosperity to the desolate and decrepit Middle East.