"Making the desert bloom," re-visited

Challenging another false Zionist Myth
April, 2000

One of the Zionist myths is that before they arrived in Palestine there was nothing but barrenness and emptiness. In essence, so the myth goes, it was a desert. But due to their efforts that desert blossomed like a rose to become what it is today. In a recent letter (April 29/00) written to National Public Radio (Rev.) G. Simon Harak challenges this myth when it was once again mentioned by Maxine Davis on the radio show "The Savvy Traveler." Below you can read Mr. Harak's letter.

Dear Savvy Traveler,

In her Feature Story "postcard" which is mostly about India, Maxine Davis wrote about her parents' travels, reminiscing, "My parents saw Israel when it was still desert and Japan before cars."

I can understand the part about Japan without cars, but at exactly what point in time did her parents see Israel when it was "still desert?"

It couldn't have been in 1946. That was the year that Walter C. Lowdermilk, Assistant Chief of US Soil Conservation Service, examined Palestine, and compared it to California, except that "the soils of Palestine were uniformly better" [_Palestine's Economic Future: A Review of Progress and Prospects_ (London, UK: Percy Lund Humphries and Co., Ltd., 1946), 19-23.

It couldn't have been in 1945, when Palestine had over 600,000 dunums of land planted with olive trees, producing nearly 80,000 tons of olives, and accounting for 1 percent of the olive oil production for the WORLD [_Statistical Abstract of Palestine, 1944-45_ (Department of Statistics, Government of Palestine), 225], and produced nearly 245,000 tons of vegetables [_A Survey of Palestine_, for the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, Vol.I, 325-26].

It couldn't have been in 1943, when Palestine produced 280,000 tons of fruit, excluding citrus fruits [_Statistical Abstract of Palestine, 1944-45_, 226].

It couldn't have been in 1942, when Palestine produced nearly 305,000 tons of grains and legumes [_A Survey of Palestine_, Vol.I, 320].

It couldn't have been in 1939, when Palestine exported over 15 million cases of citrus fruit [ _A Survey of Palestine_, Vol. 1, 337].

But maybe Ms. Davis's parents went to Israel/Palestine more than 60 years ago. Could it have been "a desert" then, I wonder.

Well, they couldn't have gone in the early 1900s and found a desert, because Moshe Dayan pointed out that "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages . . . There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population" [_Ha'aretz_ Interview, April 4, 1969_].

It couldn't have been in 1893. That was the year the British Consul advised his government of the value of importing trees from Jaffa to improve production in Australia and South Africa [quoted in Marwan R. Beheiry, "The Agricultural Exports of Southern Palestine, 1885-1914," _Journal of Palestinian Studies_ Vol. 10, No. 4, 1981, p. 67]

It couldn't have been in 1887, when Lawrence Oliphant's visit to the Esdralon Valley prompted him to marvel at the "huge green lake of waving wheat, with its village-crowned mounds rising from it like islands; and it presents one of the most striking pictures of luxuriant fertility which it is possible to conceive" [quoted from Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, ed., _The Transformation of Palestine_ (Chicago, IL: Northwestern Press, 1971), 126].

It couldn't have been any time between 1856 and 1882, because the German geographer Alexander Scholch found that in those years, "Palestine produced a relatively large agricultural surplus which was marketed in neighboring countries," and to Europe [Alexander Scholch, "The Economic Development of Palestine, 1856-1882," _Journal of Palestinian Studies_ Vol 10, No. 3, 1981, 36-58]. And in 1859 a British missionary described the southern coast of Palestine as "a very ocean of wheat," observing that "the fields would do credit to British farming" [quoted from James Reilly, "The Peasantry of Late Ottoman Palestine," _Journal of Palestine Studies_, Vol. 10 No. 4, 1981, p. 84].

It couldn't have been in 1856, when Henry Gillman, the American consul in Jerusalem, suggested that Florida citrus growers could learn from Palestinian grafting techniques [Beheiry, 75-76].

And really, it couldn't have been any time during the 18th or 17th centuries. French economic historian Paul Masson acknowledges that during that time, imports of wheat from Palestine saved France from numerous famines [Beheiry, 67].

Could it have been earlier then? Apparently not.

In 1615, Englishman George Sandys described Palestine as "a land that flows with milk and honey," with "no part empty of delight or profit" [quoted in Richard Bevis, "Making the Desert Bloom: An Historical Picture of Pre-Zionist Palestine," _The Middle East Newsletter_, Vol. 2, Feb.-Mar., 1971, p.4].

In the late 10th century, a visitor wrote, "Palestine is watered by the rains and the dew. Its trees and its ploughed lands do not need artificial irrigation. Palestine is the most fertile of the Syrian provinces" [Guy Le Strange, _Palestine under the Moslems_ (Beirut, Lebanon, Khayat, 1965), 28.]. Before he died in 986 AD, Muqqadisi, who lived in Jerusalem, told of Palestine produce that "was particularly copious and prized: fruit of every kind (olives, figs, grapes, quinces, plums, apples, dates, walnuts, almonds, jujubes and bananas), some of which were exported, and crops for processing (sugarcane, indigo and sumac)" [quoted in Walid Khalidi, _Before Their Diaspora_ (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984), 28-29.

It seems, then, that Ms. Davis is "remembering" a "desert" land that never existed.

The point is, of course, that she (and with her, you) are just propagating a Zionist fabrication that the Zionists "made the desert bloom," and so "deserve" the land from which they expelled the Palestinians.

I hope that next time, you will not inadvertently invite us to travel to lands that never existed, and uncritically accept a mythology that underwrites ethnic cleansing.

We travelers need to be more "savvy" than that, don't you agree?*

*Most of this information can be found in Issa Nakhleh, _Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem_ (New York, NY: Intercontinental Books 1991).

Sincerely yours,

(Rev.) G. Simon Harak, S. J. <gsharaksj@hotmail.com>

Baltimore, MD