The Arab-Israeli conflict is so old now that generations have grown up, used to constant news coverage of killings and bombings in this area, almost ready to take the conflict for granted. Yet, the societies that live in the ‘hot spot’ as well as political and scholarly community continue to explore the origins of the conflict in the belief that knowing the origins will be instrumental to finding a solution. “From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine” by Joan Peters is another such attempt to explore the roots of the most burning controversy of today’s world.
The book by Joan Peters is different from regular historic accounts of the conflict. She is highly emotional in her descriptions, ready to challenge conventional perceptions and eager to explore things in her own way. Remarkable is the load of information she incorporates in her work, including the studies of the Ottoman records by Kemal Karpat. Drawing on this work, Joan Peters strives to produce a demographic picture of the area’s population and its breakdown into ethnic groups, divided in her book into Jewish and non-Jewish. Comparing growth rates of non-Jewish populations in areas against the level of Jewish settlement of these areas, she concludes that “the Arab population appears to have increased in direct proportion to the Jewish presence.”
Ms Peters explains the explosive growth of Arab population in areas populated by the Jews through immigration. In her interpretation, Arabs followed the Jews to a great extent, although this phenomenon remained undocumented and disregarded by the Turkish and British administrators. In Joan Peters’ explanation, vast masses of Arabs gravitated towards the land that attracted Jews, most of them from Europe, in search of better living standards. The Jewish settlers brought with them skills that were far beyond the level of Middle Eastern societies and like European settlers in other parts of the world, they created areas of prosperity. Naturally, Arabs, too, wanted to get some of this prosperity in particular through employment opportunities. Zionist movement, if one believes Ms Peters, did not only serve to grab the land from Arabic population; instead, it offered opportunities through advanced skills and resources imported by the settlers.
Surely the book sounds as condemning Arabs for exploiting the lie about their oppression by Zionists. Joan Peters also claims that a somewhat loose definition of refugee when applied to those who moved out of Palestine gives many Arabs the right to count as refugees while they would be denied this right under the usual definition. It is hard to agree that the Zionist movement was a boon for Arabs, knowing all the later events. One is really tempted to treat the whole book as pro-Jewish propaganda given its emotional tone.
However, Peters can be given credit for relying on solid facts to support her thesis about immigration, facts that can only be disproved through scholarly research that will produce alternative conclusions based on the same or different facts and/or methods. She does well, in my opinion, in pointing out that Jewish settlers did indeed attract Arabic populations to the land. However, some of her facts seem to be a little overdrawn, such as indication that Jews were “the largest religious group in the areas that they settled near the end of the nineteenth century [p. 261].”
What one thinks of the book can often depend on the perspective one takes on the conflict. On my part, I side with neither group since I believe that in conflicts that have such a long history to look back upon, both parties have made enough mistakes in their actions. In addition, I do not think that talking about the attraction of the Zionist movement and economic benefits they brought to local Arabs is the same as equating these things with justification of whatever actions the Jews could undertake later on. Objectivity is the rule when it comes to sorting out complex historic issues, and informative books like this one can help an individual make more informed decisions.
Peters, Joan. (1984). From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict Over Palestine. Harper and Row.