A Slogan without Reality for an Argument without Merit

A Slogan without Reality for an Argument without Merit
Amb. Peter Rodgers

The Canberra Times today published this letter which I wrote in response to a particularly ill-informed piece by former Australian Ambassador Peter Rodgers arguing for an Australian ‘yes” vote on the Palestinian bid to have the existence of a Palestinian state unilaterally recognised at the UN.


Peter Rodgers’ piece on the United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood (”PM takes wrong course on Palestinian statehood”, September 8, p19) contains a telling historical error.

He claims that ”Zionism was founded on the myth of a land without people for a people without land”. This is a staple of Palestinian propaganda, but is untrue. As Dina Muir demonstrated in an academic article in 2008, there is no evidence this phrase was ”ever the slogan of any Zionist organisation or that it was employed by any of the movement’s leading figures”.

Why is this error telling?

Because the adoption of this incorrect Palestinian talking point helps explain the larger error underpinning Rodgers’ broader argument in his article – his assumption that the barrier to the Palestinians achieving statehood is that Israel refuses to give it to them.

Not only have Israeli governments offered them statehood three times in the past 12 years, only to be rejected, but all of Israel’s three major parties today agree that Palestinian statehood should be part of a genuine peace, as does a large majority of Israeli opinion.

Rodgers argues that the UN vote to recognise a Palestinian state will merely ”signal to Palestinians that the world sees them as real people with real claims to land”.

If this were true, the vote would indeed be unobjectionable, as the UN has previously signalled this repeatedly. However, in fact, by recognising a state which does not meet the criteria for statehood under the relevant international conventions, what the UN will instead signal is that the Palestinians can and should claim a state without making peace with Israel.

This is a recipe for intensifying, rather than resolving, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and should be opposed by anyone wanting a genuine two-state peace outcome.

Tzvi Fleischer, South Melbourne, Vic.

While I could go on at length debunking Rodgers point by point, I think the letter does a reasonable job of answering his main argument, which is based on the historically absurd assumption that Israel is refusing to recognise Palestinian aspirations for statehood. But I did want to say a little more about the point I make in the second paragraph about the supposed Zionist slogan quoted by Rodgers “A land without people for a people without a land.”

First of all, this is a misquote of the slogan in question. The slogan in question was actually “A land without a people for a people without a land.” It’s only a small omission but it makes a significat difference. The actual slogan merely implies that there was no recognised national people inhabiting Palestine. The altered version implies that the “Zionists” (though, as I discuss below this was not actually a significant Zionist slogan even in the corrected form) believed either that the land was completely empty or thought Palestinians were not “people.” It was the noted Palestinian intellectual Edward Said who has spread the distorted version of the slogan, using it to bolster his arguments about how Zionism was supposedly racist and colonialist because it treated the Arab inhabitants as if they did not exist.

Further, as I note this was not actually a significant Zionist slogan even in the correct quotation with the missing “a” – it was primarily a slogan employed by some 19th century Christian supporters of Zionism in the UK and US, originally coined by British statesman and social reformer Lord Shaftesbury in 1853. But it was not used by Zionists leaders or organisations to any great extent – the only minor exception was British pro-Zionist writer and activist Israel Zangwill, who employed the phrase in 1901. It seems to have disappeared from virtually all Zionist communications a few years thereafter.

I am going on at length about this point because Rodgers epitomises the uses to which this supposed “Zionist slogan” is constantly put to supposedly prove the inherent racism against Palestinians endemic in the movement. I would urge anyone interested in this debate to read Dina Muir’s 2008 article “A Land without a People for a People without a Land” which I cite in my Canberra Times letter and which thoroughly investigates and documents the actual history of the slogan and the way in which it has been misrepresented and abused.

Tzvi Fleischer