Israel’s History of Settlements

May 1, 2004
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by Mitchell B. Hart

S. Ilan Troen, Imagining Zion: Dreams, Designs, and Realities in a Century of Jewish Settlement (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), $35, 320 pp.

IN A 1945 LETTER to President Truman, Chaim Weizmann wrote that “Palestine, for its size, is probably the most investigated country in the world.” Ilan Troen’s masterful work is a history of this investigation by a host of scientists, engineers, urban planners, and other professionals, and an exposition on the political and practical uses to which this knowledge was placed. Troen has written the history of Zionism and the State of Israel through, as he writes, the “prism” of the various sorts of settlements created in the land. He identifies three major concerns that dictated the sort of settlement constructed at a particular time and place: political and social ideology; economic motives (productivity and independence); and security objectives. Troen demonstrates how — almost from the outset of the Zionist project — ideology, though it mattered, was in important ways modified or abandoned in the face of economic and/or strategic necessity. Although he writes in an optimistic key, he is hardly Pollyannaish. He succeeds in reminding us at one and the same time of just how remarkable the Zionist experiment was, of its myriad achievements, but also, in the end, of its misjudgments, missteps, and failures.

Troen structures his work chronologically, moving from the earliest Jewish settlements in the last third of the 19th century to the present. He argues that what characterized the early Jewish settlements was their communitarian, anti-individualist impulse. It is this desire to create communities that Troen stresses and analyzes in depth in the first part of his work. He calls these settlements “miniature commonwealths” or, following the Puritans, “covenantal societies.” His invocation of the Puritans is not accidental. While he acknowledges that most accounts of early Zionist settlement trace the communitarian impulse back to European socialist or communist roots, Troen argues that Zionist communal thinking had its origins in the “religious experience, imaginations, and predilections of early planners and pioneers” (p. 6).

From the outset, then, Zionist colonization schemes held to one central, stable ideal: “a Middle Eastern countryside dotted with modest communities of pioneers engaged in agriculture” (p. 16).

This form of settlement, Troen argues, was fairly unique for the time. Throughout, he draws our attention to the ways in which Zionist settlement either paralleled or drew directly upon European and North American models. Troen’s book compels us to look at the Zionist vision and experiment again with fresh eyes, in the immediate context, and to recognize the “audacity” of the project of transforming Jews into farmers and colonial settlers. The story of early Zionist settlement, then, becomes in large measure the story of how this transformation occurred. Like Derek Penslar before him, Troen focuses on the technocrats — the “engineers, hydraulic mechanics, botanists, and agronomists.” From the 1870s, “the outside planner, the expert, and the administrator became permanent fixtures of Zionist colonization” (p. 19).

What drives Troen’s story, however, is the failure of the Zionist settlements to achieve economic independence, and then, increasingly beginning in the 1930s, the growing need for security in the face of Arab hostility. While Zionists engaged in numerous discussions about how to negotiate the Arab presence economically and socially, Jewish society developed almost wholly apart from Arabs. Troen details the extraordinary material development of the Yishuv and points to the fact that Jewish production and consumption remained almost wholly a Jewish phenomenon. All aspects of Jewish and Arab life, from the economy to education, were separate and unequal. At all levels, the Jews far outstripped the Arabs, as all the studies done during these decades demonstrated. This growing inequality, together with growing Jewish immigration, only heightened the Arab sense of resentment.

Discussing how Jewish settlement intentionally displaced the local Arab/Palestinian population, Troen is hardly condemnatory. On the whole, his narrative suggests an inevitability that followed from the brute fact that the European Jews were, by dint of their Europeanness, “ahead” of the local Arabs technologically. This instrumental and material superiority allowed the Zionists to conquer the land and to remake it in their own image. “The historic tragedy is that Arabs did not recognize the authenticity and legitimacy of this movement and of what it had accomplished” (p. 159).

Historians of Zionism, as Troen points out, have focused disproportionately on Jewish agricultural settlements and their achievements, producing its own well-known romanticism and mythology. Yet, despite Zionist romanticism, most Jews in Palestine in fact settled in cities. Troen devotes a significant part of his work to “urban pioneering,” especially during the period of the British Mandate. Troen’s demonstration of just how extensive the British input and influence were in the building up of Jewish Palestine, and the city of Haifa in particular, is most engaging. Every new and innovative technique or discovery that improved life in London or Manchester made its way to Palestine. The Mandatory period, Troen argues, was key to the Yishuv (and then the State of Israel) becoming a fully modern industrial and technological society.

In his analysis of the period of statehood, Troen looks at how Zionist state planners departed radically from established Zionist ideology and practice. The new state started up a massive urban building project that minimized, even negated, the classical Zionist goal of turning Jews into “peasants.” “In large measure, the face of Israel at the beginning of the 21st century has been determined by this plan” (p. 167). Troen’s original study helps us better understand and appreciate the history of Zionist settlement, and it provides perspective on Israel’s current and future challenges.

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Mitchell B. Hart is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish History at the University of Florida and author of Social Science and the Politics of Modern Jewish Identity.

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