Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, it is wise to assume that the "good ole' days" never existed. Nostalgia, American diplomat George Ball once noted, is a seductive liar. One would think academic historians would know this, but it seems not all do.
LeVine, assistant professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California, Irvine, believes that Arab peasants in 1920s Palestine had it good until the Zionists sneaked in, bringing with them modern technology and loads of cash. The end result was the destruction of Arab economic well-being. LeVine does not mince words: In the setting of Jaffa and Tel-Aviv, Zionists "pulverized" the Arabs with "the power of penetrating modernity." The founding of Tel Aviv, he claims, "erased" numerous surrounding villages. He provides maps, tables, figures, posters, poems, drawings, and archival excerpts to make the point.
Except that he fails to make his point. The maps he offers, in fact, undermine his contention. He tries to show that Tel Aviv was not founded upon sand, as Zionist history would have it, but on lands that Arabs had long cultivated. Yet his fourth map—like every other map of the region for that time—distinctly identifies the founding area as a "sand hill." That some parts of surrounding areas had been under some sort of cultivation, which that map also shows, is no evidence of the thriving agriculture that LeVine pretends. His third map—showing the same area pre-1909—further damages his argument. Here, we see overwhelming sections of sand dunes and other areas of mixed sand with vineyard.
It would have been helpful if LeVine had provided even minimal data identifying what was produced and in what quantities, circa 1909, in the Jaffa region. But no such data accompanies the maps. What we have instead is Table 1: 1893-1913 with data on total Palestinian exports, not of Jaffa, but through the Jaffa port.
That Zionists bought parcels of land on the outskirts of Jaffa to enlarge Tel Aviv and to create the beginnings of a Jewish economy—a crime, according to LeVine—is, of course, a matter of record. That some Arab peasants who had used the land prior to the Zionist purchase became landless has been acknowledged by every historian of the region and by the British Mandatory government.
One would suppose LeVine had researched (1) the number of peasants displaced by the purchase, (2) the percentage of total peasantry that became displaced, (3) the numbers and percentage of those displaced that were compensated, (4) the percentage of those displaced that were resettled elsewhere, either as peasants or as additions to urban population, and (5) the comparative incomes (or some equivalent) of those remaining in villages and those displaced and resettled. After all, that information should have been an integral part of his "pulverizing" thesis. But he provides nothing of the kind.
Particularly surprising is the contradiction between his charge that the founding of Tel Aviv "erased" numerous surrounding villages and Table 5, which unwittingly shows that population more than doubled between 1922 and 1931 in the five Arab villages surrounding Tel Aviv—Jammasin Gharbi, Jerisha, Summel, Salama, and Sheikh Muwannis. The author does not ask why Arabs would migrate into and not away from these villages.
That is probably because LeVine views Palestinian economic history through the post-modern prism of Edward Said, Fredric Jameson, Michel Foucault, et al. His narrative is not really anti-Jewish per se; it is mainly anti-capitalist, anti-West, and particularly anti-modernity. He even uses the phrase "modernity-as-disease" in the opening page to describe the inability of the indigenous population to protect itself against contact with Western modes of modernization. He refers to "Euro-modernity" whose penetration he states caused "symptoms of a disease" that Palestinians were unable to resist.
Disease is a key word. "My point," he writes, "is that only by taking full analytical and ethical cognizance of non-modernity can we uncover the 'mask' of modernity and challenge its existing spatializations." In this sense, he champions the war against twentieth-century modernity to argue in favor of a fanciful pristine pre-modern Jaffa. So we are back to the idea of nostalgia as a seductive liar and the fantasy of the good old days.