The term “Zionism,” coined in 1890 by Nathan Birnbaum, refers to “the national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.” As the Jewish Virtual Library explains, “Jews of all persuasions, left and right, religious and secular, joined to form the Zionist movement and worked together toward these goals.”
From the middle of the 19th century onward, Jewish pioneers began their work of building a homeland in what was then the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, by their purchase of land from the Turkish Crown and from Arab landowners (Effendi). Unarmed and with no military, the Jews bought so much land that in 1892 a group of Effendi sent a letter to the Turkish Sultan, requesting that he make it illegal for his subjects to sell any additional land to Jews. Their successors made the same request in 1915.
Nevertheless, no one at the time complained that the Jews had “stolen” any land, because clearly no theft had taken place. No Arabs were driven from their homes. In fact, as a demographic study published by Columbia University demonstrates, the Arab population of the area grew tremendously during the Zionist period, in part because of the economic development that the Jews helped to generate. Between 1514 and 1850, the Arab population of this region of the Turkish empire was more or less static at about 340,000. It suddenly began to increase around 1855, and by 1947 it stood at approximately 1.3 million -- quadrupling in less than 100 years.
Far from driving out any Arabs, stealing their land, or ruining their economy, the work of the Jewish pioneers in the 19th and early 20th centuries actually enabled the region’s economy to enter the modern era, and the society to slough off the shackles of serfdom that had typified the Effendi-Fellah (land-owner/serf) relationship of the Ottoman era. An Arab working in a Jewish factory or a farming community could earn in a month what his father earned in a year as a subsistence-level farmer using medieval technology. Arab infant mortality rates plummeted and life expectancy increased as the Jews shared their modern medical technology with their Arab neighbors.
Much of the land that the Zionists purchased was desert and swamp, uninhabited and deemed uninhabitable by the Arabs. Modern agrarian techniques and the hard labor of thousands of idealistic Jews reclaimed that land and turned it into prime real estate with flourishing farms and rapidly growing communities sporting modern technology and a healthy market economy. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Arab migrants poured into the region from surrounding states, seeking a better life and greater economic opportunity. A significant plurality, if not a majority, of Arabs living in Israel today owe their very existence to the Zionist endeavor.
But it was precisely the success of that endeavor that raised the ire of Arab leadership. Zionist progress, technology, economic advances -- coupled with the Jews’ willingness to share these things with their Arab neighbors -- radically threatened the medieval stranglehold of the Effendi over the peasantry.
Excerpted from "Occupation and Settlement: The Myth and the Reality," by David Meir-Levi.