Popular Perceptions and Dehumanization in the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Friday, April 10, 2015

by Alex Shelby

During the Gaza War in the summer of 2014, Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv chanted "There's no school in Gaza, there are no more kids left” and concluded their chant with "Gaza is [now] a cemetery."[1] Similarly, a New York Times study found that 93 percent of Palestinians hold anti-Semitic views.[2] The consensus is that Arabs and Jews have always held these views and since the conflict has raged for so long there is nothing that can be done. However, Arabs and Jews have not always held these opinions and the loss of human values, such as the respect for human life between them, began in the early 20th century. Disengagement from the conflict serves the cultural forces of dehumanization. It is the responsibility of an engaged citizenry to recognize the necessity for context building in order find a way back to humanity. 

The historic perception is that Arabs and Jews have been fighting for three thousand years, but, in truth, the Arab-Jewish struggle for the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River—a territory the size of New Jersey—began with Theodor Herzl’s appeal for the establishment of a Jewish State in the Middle East. Herzl’s plea gave birth to Zionism and triggered a protracted clash between Arabs and Jews that has turned into an ideological fight based on racism and dehumanization.[3]

The Zionist decision to immigrate to Palestine[4]  in the late 1800s ended thirteen centuries of Jewish-Muslim cooperation and peaceful coexistence in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Jews had suffered centuries of persecution under Roman and Byzantine rule (66 CE-1453CE). But with the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Jews were given protective status leading to the Jewish Golden Age that helped launch a renaissance that gave rise to the great Jewish intellectuals Solomon Ibn Gabrirol, Ibn Esra, Sa’adya Gaon, Miamondies, Yuhuda Halevi, Yehuda al-Harizi, and Samuel ha-Nagid.[5] Additionally, MENA became a refuge for European Jews escaping persecution and anti-Semitism.[6]

Hostilities between Arabs and Jews started with the Second Aliya (Jewish immigrants who arrived in Palestine between 1904-1914). Leaders of the Second Aliya set up the Palestine Zionist Executive (PZE), a quasi-Jewish government within Palestine and promoted two principles: the “conquest of land” and "conquest of labor.”[7] Echoing the American pioneers who used Manifest Destiny to conquer the American West in the 1800s, the Zionists of the Second Aliya stressed that Palestine was a wilderness that needed to be tamed. Consequently, Arabs were seen as savages who could not be trusted and needed to be civilized or expunged. Even Moshe Similansky, the liberal Zionist who argued for peaceful coexistence with Arabs, espoused this view:

[Arabs are] akin to the mule, who do not see or understand what is happing around him. . . . We must not forget that we are dealing here with a semi-savage people, which has extremely primitive concepts. And this is his nature: if he senses in you power—he will submit and will hide his hatred for you. And if he senses weakness—he will dominate you…. Moreover …owing to the many tourist and urban Christians, there developed among the Arabs base values which are not common among other primitive people. . . . to lie, to cheat, to harbor grave [unfounded] suspicions and to tell tales. . . and a hidden hatred for the Jews. These Semites—they are anti-Semites.[8]


 In addition to the conquest of land and labor, the PZE advocated and enforced economic nationalism among Jews through “buy Jewish” campaigns, which promoted trade among Jews and discourage trade with Arabs.[9] PZE policies of economic segregation isolated the two communities and introduced the process of racism and dehumanization.

Due to the PZE’s efforts to implement economic nationalism, Muslim and Christian Arabs formed the Muslim-Christian Association (MCA) to counter the PZE’s policies. Similar to the PZE, the MCA promoted economic nationalism with “buy Arab” campaigns and promoted the establishment of a Palestinian Arab domestic industry.[10]

The MCA also attempted to persuade British authorities to reverse their policies towards Jewish immigration. [11] Fearing that the Zionists would lay claim to Palestine and reduce Arabs to second class citizens, the MCA urged Britain to end all Jewish immigration to Palestine. When London did not respond the way the MCA expected, Arab nationalists became convinced that Britain conspired with the Zionists to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. As a result, the MCA established resistance organizations such as “the Black Hand” with the aim to “kill Zionism” and “push the Zionist back into the sea” before it was too late.[12] At first, MCA resistance materialized as occupying Jewish land or vandalizing Jewish property, but acts of vandalism soon turned into random attacks against Jews in the streets of Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and the Upper Galilee.[13]

Two influential Zionist leaders Mencachem Ussishkin and Ze’ev Jabotinsky defined the PZE’s response to the MCA’s Palestinian Arab nationalism.  Mencachem Ussishkin, a Russian immigrant who headed the Jewish National Fund,[14] declared “the Arabs respect only force” and the best response was with force.[15] Ze’ev Jabotinsky, an influential Zionist leader who emigrated from Russia, argued that reconciliation and peace with the Arabs was foolish because the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. In 1923, Jabotinsky published an article entitled the “On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs)” where he argued that:

A voluntarily agreement between us [Jews] and the Arabs is inconceivable…. Every indigenous peoples will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent Palestine from becoming the Land of Israel.[16]


Jabotinsky argued the only solution to the Arab problem was to erect an impenetrable “iron wall” around the Jewish state backed by military force. Jabotinsky added that Jews must impose peace on the Arabs from behind this wall.[17]  

The loss of humanistic values and the start of dehumanization in Arab-Jewish relations began with the rise of Zionism and PZE’s economic nationalism. In response to the PZE’s policies, Palestinian Arabs formed the MCA to neutralize Jewish immigration, but when Britain did not respond the way the MCA leadership expected, they formed organizations such as Black Hand and began an anti-Semitic campaign to expunge Jews from the land. Zionist leaders countered the MCA by encouraging the militarization of Jewish society and discouraging peaceful coexistence. For Palestinians and Israelis, dehumanization became a national obsession that has turned a national struggle for land into an ideological one about racism and dehumanization. Centuries of cooperation and coexistence between Arabs and Jews ended in the early 20th century to satisfy national objectives. The dangers of disengagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict are evident, and it is—therefore—obligatory for an engaged citizenry to recognize and assist in the recovery of human values in the struggle before it is too late.    



[1] Paul Vale & Elliot Wagland, “Marching Israelis In Tel Aviv Chant 'There's No School In Gaza, There Are No More Kids Left,'” The Huffington Post, July, 14, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/07/29/israelis-chant-there-are-no-children-left-in-gaza_n_5630601.html.

[2] Rick Gladstone, “26 Percent of World’s Adults Are Anti-Semitic, Survey Finds,” The New York Times, May 13, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/14/world/26-percent-of-worlds-adults-are-anti-semitic-survey-finds.html?_r=1.

[3] Zionism, a Jewish nationalist movement, aimed to establish a Jew state in Palestine.

[4] Ottoman Velayet (province) of Syria was divided into smaller districts for administration purposes. Palestine consisted of two Ottoman districts of Beirut and Jerusalem, which was part of the Syrian province. The province later became the British Mandate of Palestine after the First World War. After the Israeli War of Independence in 1947-48, the name changed to Israel.

[5] David J Wasserstein, “So, What did the Muslims do for the Jews?” The Jewish Chronicle Online, May 24, 2012, http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/comment/68082/so-what-did-muslims-do-jews accessed 3/4/2015.

[6] Jews and Christians were considered dhimmi, which in the Islamic system gave Jews and Christains protected status. Although under the dhimmi system they were second class citizens, Jews had more rights as second class citizen than they did in Europe.

[7] The First Aliya Zionist lived in peace with the Arabs and both ethnic groups shared agricultural skills for the benefit of both communities.   

[8]   Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999 (New York: Knopf, 1999), 42

[9] Hizky Shoham, “’Buy local’ or ‘Buy Jewish’? Separatist Consumption in Interwar Palestine” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2013): 471.

[10] Ibid.

[11] By the end of the First World War, Britain became the protector of the Ottoman territory of Palestine.

[12] Morris, Righteous Victims, 90-91.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The Jewish National Fund bought land and setup settlements in Palestine.

[15] Morris, Righteous Victims, 90-91.

[16] Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 12.

[17] Ibid.

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