In the Western imagination, Palestine of the 19th century was a dreary and uninviting place, a “desolate backwater” devoid of resources or economic potential.
“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince,” Mark Twain wrote in particularly glum dispatch in 1867, after travelling to the Middle East. “The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent.… It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.”
Though these depictions all but ignore the presence of a diverse and deeply-rooted Arab society that existed between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea, they became the basis for a now-infamous slogan invoked by many early Zionists to justify the efforts to settle the land of Palestine.
“A land without a people for a people without a land.”
Israel Zangwill – an early British Zionist who later rejected the search for a Jewish homeland in Palestine – neatly expressed the racist and Eurocentric notions that underlie the phrase during a debate in 1901: “Palestine has but a small population of Arabs and fellahin and wandering, lawless, blackmailing Bedouin tribes,” he was quoted as saying. “Restore the country without a people to the people without a country.”
Of course, the narrative of an empty Palestine – a narrative that ignores the deep religious and cultural history of the region, not to mention the cultivation of olive groves, which dates back thousands of years – has been contested and debunked by historians.
“Palestine during the Ottoman period was a society like all the other Arab societies around it,” writes Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his book “Ten Myths About Israel. “The very opposite of a desert, Palestine was a flourishing part of Bilad al-Sham (the land of the north), or the Levant of its time. At the same time, a rich agricultural industry, small towns and historical cities served a population of half a million people on the eve of the Zionist arrival…Despite there not being a Palestinian state, the cultural location of Palestine was very clear.”
And yet the myth of an empty Palestine – a myth rooted in colonial dichotomies of civilized versus uncivilized; modern versus pre-modern – persists and is propagated well into the 21st century, where it is frequently invoked in support of Israel.
Take, for example, a 2023 speech by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen marking 75 years of Israeli independence, in which she used the controversial phrase that Israel had “made the desert bloom” – a trope steeped in the idea that Palestine was underdeveloped or uncivilized prior to the arrival of Zionist settlers; a trope that critics say erases the history of the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine that began in 1948.
This view has been expressed even more explicitly within the ranks of Israel’s current far-right government. Last March, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich questioned the existence of Palestinian history and culture, claiming that there is “no such thing as a Palestinian nation” (the statement drew rebuke from U.S. officials, including U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.)
It is within this context that we might best understand the recent remarks made by former B.C. cabinet minister Selina Robinson, who set off a firestorm of controversy this week after publicly suggesting that the modern state of Israel was founded upon a “crappy piece of land with nothing on it.”
NDP minister @selinarobinson justifying genocide by calling Palestine “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it”. Hateful, bigoted remarks that should result in her immediate resignation @Dave_Eby pic.twitter.com/0C526AwP1y— SEAN ORR (@seanorr) February 1, 2024
Robinson, who was speaking on a panel organized by Jewish advocacy group B’nai Brith, continued: “You know, there were several hundred thousand people but other than that, it didn’t produce an economy.”
Palestinian groups, faith associations and a broad range of other stakeholders swiftly lined up to criticize Robinson's remarks, which were widely condemned as dehumanizing and racist. Facing mounting pressure and a final push from BC Premier David Eby, Robinson resigned from her position as the minister of post-secondary education on Monday, though she will remain a member of the NDP caucus.
Prior to her resignation, Robinson issued an apology for what she described as a “significant mistake.” However, many critics argue that Robinson’s remarks were not a slip-up or an error, but simply an echo of the often-repeated myth of an empty Palestine.
Ricochet spoke to several experts who say that Robinson’s comments reveal the persistence of a colonial perspective that acts to erase or obscure the history of the indigenous population that existed prior to the founding of the modern state of Israel.
“I was certainly not surprised by (Robinson’s) comments,” Corey Balsam, the National Coordinator of Independent Jewish Voices, explained. “This idea of making the desert bloom, and the idea that Jewish settlers were ‘civilizing’ the land by bringing Western methods of agriculture to it … this is a narrative that I grew up with, and that has permeated our community in so many ways.”
Dania Majid, the president of the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, said that Robinson’s rhetoric has been employed by politicians for decades.
“Falsely suggesting that Palestine was empty or underdeveloped is textbook anti-Palestinian racism,” she explained. “It is a common smear used to dehumanize Palestinians and erase any connection they have with their land.”
To better understand the narrative that these critics are describing, it is worth revisiting the underlying notion of settler colonialism, and how it intersects with some understanding of Zionism.
What is settler colonialism?
In political theory, settler colonialism is understood as a type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations by a settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty.
Historically, settler colonialism takes various forms. According to Michael Lynk – professor emeritus of law at Western University, who previously served as the United Nations special rapporteur in Jerusalem – there are, broadly, three main approaches among colonial powers.
The first is extermination, which involves replacing indigenous populations through violence. This approach, Lynk explains, was used in North America, where the Indigenous population was reduced to a tiny fraction of the general population over the course of centuries.
The second approach is domination, an approach seen in South Africa, where the settler population used native inhabitants as a form of labour, forcing them to become “tillers of the fields.”
The third approach is that of expulsion, in which a settler population forcibly displaces an indigenous population through force.
This final approach, Lynk says, can be used to understand the history of the Zionist project in Palestine, and particularly the Nakba – a term that means “the catastrophe,” which refers to the mass displacement and dispossession of some 750,000 Palestinians following the Arab-Israeli War and the creation of Israel in 1948. This paradigm is commonly employed by scholars such as Patrick Wolfe, Edward Said, and Rashid Khalidi to describe the modern state of Israel’s ongoing settlement of the occupied Palestinian territories, along with other state policies to displace Palestinians from their ancestral lands.
Of course, many Jewish groups reject the controversial notion that Israel is a settler-colonial state, based on the fact that many of the Jewish settlers who arrived in Palestine were not citizens of a separate nation-state looking to expand their empire, but stateless refugees who were escaping persecution, and later, the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust.
Lynk acknowledges the fact that many Jewish settlers arrived in Palestine impoverished, displaced, and subject to “the most extreme form of genocide.”
“But none of that takes away from the fact that they were driven by an ideology that considered the land empty or without value,” he added. “Besides seeking refuge, there was a righteousness in their claim – that they found land that was unproductive and they ‘made the desert bloom.’”
“It’s the same with respect to many of the small religious sects who left Europe three or four centuries ago and landed in North America,” Lynk added. “They may have left as persecuted religious minorities, as refugees leaving Holland or France or Britain. But when they arrived, they arrived as settlers.”
Other historians contest the settler-colonial paradigm on the basis that Jews were also indigenous to the region. But for Lynk, this fact also does not contradict the colonial description of Zionism, which sought to turn an existing Arab society into a Jewish one.
“There are different stratas of Zionism, and they do exist along a continuum,” Lynk added. “Not every person who ascribed to Zionism believed the same thing, but this belief was at the core of what most Zionists believed.”
‘Terra nullius’ in the context of Palestine
In colonial discourse, the idea of terra nullius – literally “nobody’s land” – refers to a territory that can be inhabited but that does not belong to a state or a people.
In the North American context, the term was closely associated with the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a line of reasoning rooted in Christian conceptions of international law. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, land was considered terra nullius, or vacant, if it had not yet been occupied by Christian nations. This doctrine allowed European powers to declare sovereignty over lands despite the presence of Indigenous nations, which had existed there since time immemorial.
Megan Scribe, an Ininiw from Norway House Cree Nation, and assistant professor of sociology at Toronto Metropolitan University, describes the Doctrine of Discovery as a tool of dehumanization in service of colonialism.
“When settlers landed in my territory, they described it as empty land,” she explains. “There was nothing but ice and snow and some Indians, not a human in sight.”
Over time, as views regarding Indigenous populations evolved, the idea of terra nullius shifted, Professor Lynk explained. Instead of “empty” or “vacant” land, the concept was increasingly understood in terms of a land’s extractive value.
Put plainly, colonial powers viewed the Indigenous populations as uncivilized, and incapable of making productive use of the land. The arrival of settlers, so the argument goes, would lead to the productive use of land, benefitting both settlers and Indigenous populations.
“Whenever you examine claims by settlers arriving to a region populated by another people – be it South Africa, North America, or the Middle East, there will always arise a narrative, a way of telling a story to ourselves, as to why our claim is justifiably, stronger than those who live there,” Professor Lynk explained.
“But there's no single example in history where Indigenous peoples willingly surrendered their homeland to a settler population coming to inhibit it. These settlers did not come to integrate into the existing society. They came to replace it.”
It was this logic that underpinned common understandings of early Zionism, according to Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi, author of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017.”
In the books’ introduction, Khalidi quotes Theodor Herzl, widely considered the founder of modern Zionism, to demonstrate his belief that Jewish immigration would benefit the Indigenous people of Palestine: “It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own,” Herzl wrote.
“In allowing immigration to a number of Jews bringing their intelligence, their financial acumen and their means of enterprise to the country, no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.”
Herzl’s view, Khalidi writes, “would become a staple argument of the Zionist movement.”
Decades later, the myth of an empty Palestine persists among Jewish communities, Balsam, the program coordinator for IJV, explained. “This is a narrative that I grew up with,” he said, “one that was communicated mainly through the Jewish National Fund.”
The idea that Jewish settlers “made the desert bloom” – largely through the planting of pine trees and other non-Indigenous vegetation, is a “ubiquitous” part of Zionist mythology, he added.
“The Israel of the bible was like a ‘fertile garden,’ but since the Jewish exile some 2000 years ago it had turned into swampland and desert as a result of apparent misuse and neglect by its Arab inhabitants,” Balsam wrote in an academic paper on diaspora Zionism in Canada.
“Palestine was understood to be uninhabited and uncultivated in the absence of the Jews, and Zionists of all political stripes believed that the return of the Jews redeemed the land as it redeemed the Jewish people. It is thus believed that the Jews brought the land back to life, returning it to its prior glory through, amongst other things, their unique love and biological connectedness to the land.”
In reality, the extensive planting of non-native forests — some of which are located on top of the remains of Arab villages that were depopulated during the Nakba – has caused extensive damage to the region’s ecosystems and animal life.
Unpacking Selina Robinson’s comments
The remarks that cost Selina Robinson her cabinet position occurred during a panel advocating for the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism – a definition that critics say chills legitimate criticism of Israel.
Her remarks, which arrived in the midst of what many observers are calling an ongoing genocide in Gaza, struck a particularly sour note among groups monitoring anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.
In a statement, the National Council for Canadian Muslims described Robinson’s remarks as “horrendous, especially in the midst of ongoing war crimes where thousands of children have been killed in Gaza. It evokes the language of terra nullius, where the people of Palestine are imagined to be non-existent.”
Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, said that Robinson’s description of Palestine as a “crappy piece of land,” followed by her clarification that there “were people on the land,” but they “didn’t produce economy,” reveals the “heart of anti-Palestinian racism.”
“It was insulting, especially if you know how much Palestinians love their land,” Bhabha explained. “(Robinson’s comments) not only insulted the land, but she only remembered the people who lived there as an afterthought. It’s these two things put together that leaves a real lasting impression.”
“One of the tools that Zionism has used is to try to erase the Palestinian. Another tool has been to delegitimize Palestinian claims to their land,” he added. “This was not some random act of ignorance. These were two separate, but deliberate rhetorical moves.”
Indeed, for Bhabha, exposing the historical inaccuracy Robinson’s claims reveals a fundamental challenge to a conception of Zionism that sees Israel as a state with exclusive claim to its land.
“Zionism on its own is not objectionable. It could be a liberatory movement. The problem is that it completely ignores the existence of the people on the land that it wishes to seize to build the Jewish state,” he says. “Zionism can never be realized as an exclusivist project, because the land was not empty.”
Islamophobia versus anti-Palestinian racism
In her statement of apology, Robinson acknowledged the harm of her remarks, and vowed to undergo anti-Islamophobia training.
Though many welcomed this decision, critics like Dania Majid were quick to point out that such training fails to address the separate, if overlapping qualities that define anti-Palestinian racism.
According to a recent report by the Arab Canadian Lawyers Association, anti-Palestinian racism is “a form of anti-Arab racism that silences, excludes, erases, stereotypes, defames or dehumanizes Palestinians or their narratives… It takes various forms including: denying the Nakba and justifying violence against Palestinians; failing to acknowledge Palestinians as an Indigenous people with a collective identity, belonging and rights in relation to occupied and historic Palestine.”
“When you conflate Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian racism, it generally is done in a way that erases anti-Palestinian racism from the discourse,” Majid explains. “If you don't acknowledge that anti-Palestinian racism is at the root of the problem, then the solutions proposed don't address the problem.”
Still, Majid says she is heartened by the fact that the controversy surrounding Robinson has sparked widespread discussion about both anti-Palestinian racism and settler colonialism.
For this development, Majid credits Indigenous land defenders, those who worked on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and activists who have protested the building of pipelines on sovereign land.
“The work that these groups have done in Canada to raise awareness about how settler colonialism operates, what its impacts are, and the various ways it manifests – I don’t think we would be having this conversation a few years ago,” she says.
“Because of this, I think we f have a better understanding of how anti-Palestinian racism itself operates in Canada, and how it is used in order to uphold settler colonialism,” Majid added.
“I think people are becoming less afraid to speak up and call it out when it does appear.”
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