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"A Question That Outweighs All Others": Yitzhak Epstein and Zionist Recognition of the Arab Issue

From: Israel Studies
Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 34-54 | 10.1353/is.2001.0003

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Israel Studies 6.1 (2001) 34-54



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"A Question That Outweighs All Others": Yitzhak Epstein and Zionist Recognition of the Arab Issue

Alan Dowty


THE 1907 PUBLICATION OF YITZHAK EPSTEIN'S "A Hidden Question" 1 is generally regarded as the beginning of serious debate in the Zionist movement about relations with the Arab population of Palestine. Closer examination of the article--translated here into English for the first time--reveals that it is indeed remarkable in several respects: as a more sensitive analysis of Arabs in Palestine than previous Zionist writings, as a projection of the ultimate dimensions of the issue decades before these dimensions took final shape, and as a provocative statement that was instrumental in framing the debate within the movement.

Epstein was a Russian-born teacher and writer who immigrated to Palestine/Eretz Israel in 1886 and settled in Rosh Pina, the first Zionist settlement in the Upper Galilee. Most of his public activity was in the educational arena rather than in politics; he was active, in particular, in the movement to teach Hebrew in Hebrew.

Zionists of the First Aliyah (wave of immigration to Palestine, from 1882 to 1905), did--contrary to some claims--"see" the Arabs there, but they did not see an Arab problem. They also paid remarkably little attention to the Arab population, simply noting their presence as one facet of the new environment with which they contended. For their own sanity, the new settlers needed to minimize the difficulties they faced and, in the case of the Arabs, it was also ideologically crucial to avoid any suggestion that they were simply replicating the Diaspora pattern of a Jewish minority existing at the sufferance of a majority non-Jewish host population. 2 The first to challenge this complacent mindset was Ahad Ha'am, Zionism's most prominent internal critic, whose report on his first visit to Palestine, in 1891, included a sharp reminder of the obstacle posed by the Arab presence. 3 Ahad Ha'am confuted the notion that Palestine was "empty" or "abandoned," credited the Arabs with a collective identity that others had ignored, [End Page 34] and condemned overbearing and sometimes violent Jewish behavior toward Arabs. In basic respects, however, his perception of the problem still fit the First Aliyah pattern: the Arabs were not a political problem, in that the success of the Zionist enterprise would in itself resolve the seeming conflict by providing the local population with the benefits of European civilization and, in the final analysis, by simply overwhelming them. Ahad Ha'am's warning--only two paragraphs of a much longer critique that focused on other issues--was essentially the exception that proves the rule. 4

Nor did Ahad Ha'am's broaching of the issue trigger a public debate. In the storm aroused by his 1891 broadside, the mention of the Arabs was a secondary issue. Nor did Ahad Ha'am himself return to the subject in a second "Truth from Eretz Israel" published in 1893. 5 Others who dealt at all with the Arab question during these years--Menachem Ussishkin, Leo Motzkin, Theodor Herzl (in Altneuland, published in 1902), Max Nordau (in attacking Ahad Ha'am for his scathing critique of Altneuland), Ber Borochov--continued to rely in one version or another on the tremendous benefits that Arabs would reap from the modernization and Westernization that Jews would bring to Palestine. 6 (One interesting variant was an 1899 article by Eliyahu Sapir, who blamed Arab hostility toward the Zionists not on Zionist settlement, but rather on the insidious influence of Catholic anti-Semites. 7 )

When the Zionist movement divided in the early 1900s over the issue of pursuing a Jewish homeland outside of Palestine, those who favored such an option--the "Territorialists"--stressed the Arab presence as one of the major obstacles to building Zion in Zion itself. 8 This raised the issue's visibility, but it was a 1905 speech by Yitzhak Epstein, a Zionist living in Zion, that first moved it to center stage in the movement. Epstein...