Many college students, and all of the anti-Israel protesters, erroneously believe that a country called "Palestine" was populated by a people called "Palestinians" until World War II, after which Jews who escaped the Nazi Holocaust began migrating there as "settlers" and took the land from Arabs. Today, so the narrative goes, they are colonial occupiers of "stolen Palestinian land," as the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) "Day of Resistance Toolkit" puts it.
There are many things wrong with these claims, most glaringly the fact that there has never been a country called "Palestine," and that Jewish people were the original inhabitants of this territory.
While it's true that many Jews migrated to the British Mandate Palestine in the aftermath of pogroms in the 1930s and then the Holocaust in the 1940s, there has been a continuous Jewish presence in Israel since the beginning of recorded history – centuries before the birth of Muhammad and the advent of Islam. Jerusalem is mentioned 667 times in the Hebrew Bible and zero times in the Koran. Not once.
The further back in history one goes, the less accurate the term "settler" is when applied to Jews living in Israel. King Solomon's Temple, built sometime between the tenth and sixth centuries B.C., was destroyed by Babylonian invaders in 586 B.C., completely rebuilt between 30 and 20 B.C., and then destroyed again by the Romans in 70 A.D.
Islam ventured into the land of Israel as a colonial force in the seventh century. Muslims built the Al-Aqsa mosque on the site of Solomon's temple as an expression of their triumphalism. Academics who universally condemn European colonialism and American imperialism rarely acknowledge Islamic imperialism, especially when it comes to Israel.
For most of the nineteenth century, the land was sparsely populated and in ruins. When Mark Twain traveled there in the1860s, he found it largely abandoned. In his book Innocents Abroad (1869), he called it "desolate and unlovely," declared it "a silent wilderness," and mourned that "renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its ancient grandeur, and is become a pauper village."
The various Islamic caliphates occupied the land until the Ottoman Empire lost it in World War I. The League of Nations then turned the land over to Britain in order to re-establish the Jewish national homeland and renamed it "British Mandate Palestine." It stretched from Egypt in the west, Syria in the north, Iraq in the east, and Saudi Arabia in the south. In 1922, Britain cut three quarters of the land off and unilaterally established a new country called Jordan.
Yet another overlooked component to the simplistic claim that "the Jews took the Arabs' land" is that many hectares of land in Israel were purchased by Jews from Arabs. As Robert Spencer points out, Jews who returned to Israel "in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries didn't come as armed marauders, seizing land from its owners by force. They obtained the land in a far more conventional and prosaic way: they bought it." Spencer quotes one British government report from 1930 that smugly notes they overpaid for it.
After World War II, the United Nations voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. No Arabs called themselves "Palestinian" at this time. Palestinian nationalism may have begun in 1920, but not until after the Six Day War in 1967 did Arabs begin calling themselves "Palestinians."
As a result of the UN vote, Resolution 181, many thousands of Jews living throughout the Middle East and North Africa were expelled from their homes. Few were permitted to take their belongings with them. They were forcibly exiled and sent to the nascent state of Israel, which the new occupiers of their homes and property said would soon become "the big graveyard of the Jews" in the war to come as five Arab nations invaded and sought to strangle the Jewish state in its cradle. But the Arab nations lost the war. The victorious Jewish fighters called it their War of Independence, and the Arabs began referring to their loss as the "nakba" or great disaster. However, for many Jews living in Arab, Muslim-majority countries, the UN partition vote and subsequent war became their disaster too.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library, "Throughout 1947 and 1948, Jews in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Morocco, Syria, and Yemen (Aden) were persecuted, their property and belongings were confiscated, and they were subjected to severe anti-Jewish riots instigated by the governments. In Iraq, Zionism was made a capital crime. In Syria, anti-Jewish pogroms erupted in Aleppo and the government froze all Jewish bank accounts, In Egypt, bombs were detonated in the Jewish quarter, killing dozens. In Algeria, anti-Jewish decrees were swiftly instituted and in Yemen, bloody pogroms led to the death of nearly 100 Jews." While some left to start new lives in Europe and the U.S., "586,000 were resettled in Israel – at great expense to the Israeli government, without any compensation from the Arab governments who had confiscated their possessions. The majority of the Jewish refugees left their homes penniless and destitute."
These hundreds of thousands were genuine refugees.
In spite of the charge that Israel is "occupying Palestine," nearly all (over 90 percent) of the Palestinians who live in the West Bank are governed by the Palestinian Authority. Referring to this territory as the "occupied West Bank" is as nonsensical as referring to the Arabian Peninsula as being "occupied" by Arabs, or France as being "occupied" by Gauls.
The United Nations is the most egregious proliferator of the idea that Israel is a settler-colonial state that occupies the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. A 2016 Wall Street Journal article documented 530 General Assembly references to Israel is an "occupying power" versus zero for Indonesia (East Timor), Turkey (Cyprus), Russia (Georgia, Crimea), Morocco (Western Sahara), Vietnam (Cambodia), Armenia (Azerbaijan), Pakistan (Kashmir), or China (Tibet). UNESCO's "Occupied Palestine" document uses the phrase "Israel, the occupying Power" thirteen times.
The most vocal protesters, especially college students, are blissfully ignorant of this history. They have been conditioned to respond to the terms "colonial" and "settlement" with images of white Europeans encroaching on the ancestral territories of red, brown and black peoples. But, as Elliot Abrams put it, "the term 'settlement' loses meaning when applied to Jews building homes in their nation's capital city."
Coming next week: "Part 3, Israel Is an Apartheid State"
A.J. Caschetta, a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, is a Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.