Zionist Israel at 60 – Palestine before the Zionists

In May of this year, Zionists the world over will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the establishment of a state-for-Jews-only in Palestine.

One of the myths that was (and still is) propagated by Zionists is that Palestine was basically an unpopulated desert before the influx of European Jews who arrived to colonize the area and turn it into a blooming Jewish paradise.

It’s an inspiring image, but a complete and utter lie. Fortunately, one can still find the truth by turning to accounts of Palestine written by Western visitors more than a century ago. They saw this land through the eyes of scholars, pilgrims and curious travelers, rather than through the selective vision of politics and ideology.

I can recommend two fascinating books on pre-Zionist Palestine, both published within a quarter-century of one another – "Lands of the Bible" (1880) by J.W. McGarvey, an American professor of Biblical History, and "Glimpses of Bible Lands," (1905) collectively authored by a group representing The Christian Herald in New York.

While Prof. McGarvey’s book combined academic analysis, travel journalism and his own eye-witness accounts, The Christian Herald group of New York City documented a major trip made by hundreds of delegates to the world’s Fourth Sunday School Convention through a fascinating collection of 288 photos and detailed travel commentary.

"Eight hundred Sunday-school workers from North America journeyed together to Jerusalem by way of the mission fields of the Mediterranean, there to hold the World’s Fourth Sunday-School Convention, and to study the Fifth Gospel, the Land," said the book’s introduction.

The Christian Herald volume also boasted several full-page colored plates, "rare and costly reproductions of water-color paintings of Palestine flowers by Mrs. Bertha Spofford Vester of the American colony in Jerusalem. There are 3,500 flowering plants in Syria and 1,700 in Palestine alone."

The flowers noted as the subjects of Mrs. Vester’s paintings were the Anemone, "a brilliant, red, cap-shaped flower"; the mustard, (Lat. Adonis Palestina); an unnamed "small, almost globular flower of a deep brilliant red"; and Chrysanthemums "which grow wild in Palestine."

Palestine then was a province of Syria, which was in turn part of the Ottoman Empire. Three main groups of Western travelers were drawn to pre-Zionist Palestine: some went as pilgrims; others went as missionaries representing a number of Christian denominations; and the last group – most, in fact, European Jews — went there in old age, hoping to die in the Holy Land.

Prof. McGarvey writes about this latter group that "Many of the resident Jews retain their citizenship in the countries of Europe from which they emigrated, and are therefore under the protection of their respective consuls … Many of them are exceedingly poor, and are fed by contributions from their more prosperous brethren in Europe and America."

It is interesting to note that Western missionaries to Palestine and Syria were often quite specialized; some were sent to convert the Muslims and others to convert the Jews. For example, a Rev. G.M. Mackie was "in charge of the Scotch Mission to the Jews" and was stationed in Beirut, while Rev. J. Carnegie Brown was "superintendent of the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews" and was stationed in Jerusalem. Both Reverends addressed the visiting delegation of 800 Sunday-school workers during their Christian Herald visit to the Holy Land in 1904.

A large section of McGarvey’s 619-page book is devoted to agricultural products of the area, for Palestine enjoyed almost total self-sufficiency during the late 19th century and was a significant exporter to Europe and the rest of the Middle East. Many products were "shipped to the ports of the Mediterranean every year," wrote McGarvey, "and great quantities are transported on camels to the towns and villages of the interior."

According to Prof. McGarvey, traditional olive groves were seen around nearly all Palestinian towns and villages, sometimes extending over many square miles. Olive oil was an indispensable household basic, for it was used in lamps, for cooking, for soap-making and for a variety of other purposes, including medicinal. In 1871 an estimated 25% of the olive crop was exported, another 25% used domestically, and the remaining 50% was used to manufacture soap.

"While the olive, the fig, and the grape are by far the most common and abundant fruits of Palestine," noted McGarvey, "bananas, date-palm [and] pomegranate are common … and wheat, which is by far the most important product of the soil and the most extensively cultivated."

Prof. McGarvey even mentioned Palestinian-grown watermelons, recording that he "… saw boats loaded with them in the harbor of Larnika in Cyprus and great piles of them on the streets of that city, on the 8th day of July, 1879."

So much for the Zionist lie that they have made the Palestinian "desert" bloom. History offers a true and picturesque eyewitness to the contrary.