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By Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf | Series: | Level:

A myth that has become accepted as common knowledge goes like this: The Jewish effort to populate Palestine necessarily involved the depopulation of its age-old Palestinian Arab community. Thus, the more the Jews came, built, and developed, the more the Arabs were displaced, and the worse off they became. Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s take a look.

1. When the Muslims first conquered Palestine in 638, the inhabitants of the land were primarily Christians and Jews. At that time, Arabs lived in Arabia (Saudi Arabia), and the conquest of Palestine was just one piece of a much broader series of conquests. Following the Muslim conquest, no attempt was made to impose an Islamic or Arab identity on Palestine, and no significant influx of Arabs into the land occurred.

“During the first century after the Arab conquest the caliph and governors of Syria and the land [Palestine] ruled almost entirely over Christian and Jewish subjects. Apart from the Bedouin, in the earliest days the only Arabs west of the Jordan were the garrison.”

Reverend James W. Parkes, Whose Land?
A History of the People of Palestine

Over the centuries, Palestine’s primary attraction was as a place of pilgrimage. Christians from around the world came to visit the holy sites of Christianity, and many ended up staying. For Muslims who were unable to make the Hajj to Mecca, Jerusalem sometimes became a place of secondary pilgrimage.* Palestine, due to frequent invasions, coupled with it being a place of pilgrimage, became a land whose population reflected a vast mix of ethnic origins.

“Among the people who have long been counted as ‘indigenous Palestinian Arabs’ are Balkans, Syrians, Latins, Egyptians, Turks, Armenians, Italians, Persians, Kurds, Afghans, Sudanese, Algerians, and Tartars.”

Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial

2. By the year 1500, almost nine hundred years had passed since the first Arab conquest, and in all of Palestine there were only 49,000 families representing a total population of 200,000. Two hundred thousand is not even a third of the population of Jerusalem today and is less than a quarter of the present population of Amman, Jordan. When the Ottoman Empire arrived in 1517, it had been fifteen centuries since the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jews. Throughout that entire period, though Palestine became religiously significant to both Christianity and Islam, its population was always in a great state of flux, and no distinctly recognizable ethnic group considered the area of Palestine to be their natural or ancestral homeland. The closest anyone came to establishing any kind of independent presence in the land were European Catholics who established the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem during the Crusader period.

3. The years 1800-1840 were a time of upheaval for the population of Palestine. During that period, Palestine was invaded by both Napoleon and the Egyptians. From 1831 to1840, Palestine was ruled by Muhammad Ali (no, not the boxer) of Egypt.

“The conquest did establish law and order in the country, but caused many old inhabitants to flee and new elements to settle in the land… the Egyptian settlers scattered to many urban and rural points, appropriated large tracts of land, and lent variety and numbers to the existing population… According to the British Palestine Exploration Fund regional map of Jaffa, most of the city was made up of Egyptian populated districts.”

Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession

Additionally, throughout the mid-1800s incessant little wars broke out between villages and rival clans in Palestine. It was often the case that one village would decimate another, destroy their property and cultivated acreage, and drive the inhabitants into exile.

4. The century from 1850 to 1948 is fascinating, significant, and telling. We have already looked at this period from the point of view of the development of Zionism, the return of the Jews to Israel, and the British mandate. We are now going to look at the population of Palestine during this pre-state century, and consider the implications that population had for the birth of Israel. First we’ll look at the numbers, and then we’ll explain them.

(Note: The figures for the Arab population include both Muslims and Christians. Christians were about 8-10 percent of the total, but for our purpose it’s easier to just view them together.)

Year Arab Population Jewish Population
1600 250,000 5,000
1850 480,000 17,000
1890 530,000 43,000
1922 590,000 84,000
1931 760,000 174,000
1939 900,000 450,000
1948 980,000 650,000
1954 192,000 1,530,000
1969 423,000 2,500,000
1989 843,000 3,700,000
1997 1,120,000 4,640,000

From 1850 until 1948, the Arab population of Palestine doubled, while the Jewish population increased forty times. Leaving birthrates aside, the question is this: What transformed Palestine, for the first time in almost twenty decades, from a place of limited, unstable, and fluctuating population to the hottest new suburb in the Middle East? The answer for both the Jews and Arabs is the same: immigration. The stimulus for immigration, however, was drastically different. The Jews came to Palestine to rebuild their homeland, and the Arabs came because Jewish development (along with British development after World War I) created a whole new economic reality filled with unprecedented opportunities. As the British and the Jews built new infrastructure in Palestine, as the business sector began to grow, and as the Jews developed an agricultural economy that went way beyond subsistence to export, Arabs flowed into the area in search of employment, stability, and opportunity. In addition to a surge in the agricultural sector, between 1917 and 1947 over 140,000 Arabs were employed by the British government in Palestine. Similarly, as the Jewish people further developed and modernized the economy and the country, the quality of life dramatically increased throughout Palestine.

“The Arab population of Palestine was small and limited until Jewish resettlement restored the barren lands and drew to it Arabs from neighboring countries… the Arab population in recent decades were recent newcomers-either late immigrants or descendants of persons who had immigrated into Palestine in the previous seventy years.”

Dr. Carl Herman Voss, 1953
Voss was chairman of the American Christian Palestine Committee.

“The Jewish-generated economic boom prompted Arab in-migration and immigration into the Jewish settled areas of Western Palestine beginning in the 1870s and continuing throughout the British administration of Palestine until 1946 or 1947.”

Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial

“During those twenty-four years [1922-1946] approximately 100,000 Arabs entered the country from neighboring lands. The influx could be traced in some measure to the orderly government provided by the British; but far more, certainly, to the economic opportunities made possible by Jewish settlement… by opening new markets for Arab produce and new employment opportunities for Arab labor.”

Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel

“The most profitable branch in agriculture between the two World Wars was citriculture. The other branch of intensive agriculture in the expanding economy was the growing of vegetables. In 1922 Arab farmers cultivated 30,000 dunam [7,500 acres] and produced 20,000 tons of vegetables. In 1944/45 Arabs farmed 239,733 dunam [60,000 acres] and supplied 189,804 tons of vegetables to the market. In 1931, there were 339 factories owned by Arabs and in 1942-1,558 factories. The rapid development of the Arab economy, with a concomitant rise in the standard of living, gave rise to demands for a higher quality of health and educational services. As a result, health facilities were expanded, and the scope and level of educational opportunities were also far beyond those prevailing in the neighboring Arab countries.”

Arieh L. Avneri, The Claim of Dispossession

“As the most visible Arab-American critic of Yasser Arafat, I get a lot of hate mail… Let me state this plainly and clearly: The Jews in Israel took no one’s land. As the Jews came, something interesting happened. Arabs followed. I don’t blame them. They came for jobs. They came for prosperity. They came for freedom. And they came in large numbers.”

Joseph Farrah,, April 23, 2002
Joseph Farrah is a columnist for the international edition of The Jerusalem Post, and founding editor of WorldNetDaily,com.

For the sake of perspective, we should not forget the basic fact that from 1917 to 1948 the British kept tight controls over Jewish immigration to Palestine, while there were virtually no restrictions on Arab immigration.

The truth about Jewish emigration to Palestine is that not only did the Jews not displace a large indigenous Arab population that had been there for millennia but that it was Jewish efforts to develop Palestine that directly resulted in a dramatic rise in Palestine’s Arab population. It wouldn’t be true to say that there weren’t Jews who, as statehood approached-and particularly after the Arab riots in the twenties and thirties-hoped that a way could be found to establish a Jewish state that had as few Arab citizens as possible. Nonetheless, it was never a matter of policy or practice for the burgeoning Jewish community in Palestine to seek to drive the Arabs out of their homes.

As we have seen, the Arabs repeatedly rejected the option of living in peace with their Jewish neighbors and instead opted for war. This brings us to the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Shimon Apisdorf is the co-founder and educational director of the Jewish Literacy Foundation (JLF). Mr. Apisdorf has authored eight of the foundation’s books, including the popular Jewish Holiday “Survival Kit” series. Under Mr. Apisdorf’s leadership, JLF has distributed more than 67,000 books to unaffiliated and marginally affiliated Jews across the continent in an effort to educate Jews about their heritage and bring them closer to Judaism.

Most recently, Mr. Apisdorf completed Israel in a Nutshell, a book that discusses the history of the creation of the State of Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel in a Nutshell is the first book to launch JLF’s continent-wide campaign to provide every Jewish home with a Jewish library. This book is part of a series of twelve books entitled Judaism in a Nutshell that addresses modern-day Jewish issues such as God, spirituality, holidays, and interpersonal relationships in a concise format.

In 1999, Mr. Apisdorf received the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Publishers Marketing Association for Chanukah: Eight Nights of Light, Eight Gifts for the Soul, and in 1993 he received the same award for the best-selling Rosh Hashanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit series.

Before joining JLF, Mr. Apisdorf was the first Judaic studies teacher hired at the newly founded Columbus Torah Academy High School in 1992 where he taught for three years. From 1991-1993, Mr. Apisdorf was the educational director for the Jewish outreach organization, Aish HaTorah, in Columbus, Ohio. From 1987-1990, Mr. Apisdorf served as the director of special programs for Aish HaTorah in Toronto where he was instrumental in the development of Canada’s largest Jewish adult education program. Today, Mr. Apisdorf resides in Baltimore, MD with his wife, Miriam and their four children.

Mr. Apisdorf attended the University of Cincinnati and then went on to study at the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. In addition, Mr. Apisdorf studied at the Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for five years where he received his Rabbinic Ordination in 1995. Mr. Apisdorf is also the author of The Passover Survival Kit, The Survival Kit Family Haggadah, The One Hour Purim Primer, and the co-author of The Death of Cupid: Reclaiming the Wisdom of Love, Dating, Romance, and Marriage.

Shimon Apisodorf can be reached at [email protected]

Enjoyed Israel in a Nutshell?
Other books by Shimon Apisdorf, available online at The Jewish Literacy Foundation.