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"A Land Without a People for a People Without a Land"

According to the late Edward Said the phrase the ‘A land without people for a people without a land,’ was coined by a Zionist named Israel Zangwill for the purpose of making the false claim that Palestine was empty. Other scholars, most notably Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University in his book “Palestinian Identity,” have explained that the phrase became a widely-propagated Zionist slogan summing up the assertion that Palestine was empty.

It ain’t necessarily so.

The phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land,” was not coined by a Jew, was never widely propagated by Zionists, and was not intended by the Victorian-era Christians who did use it to imply that Palestine was empty. It meant, quite specifically, that in the nineteenth century there was no self-identified Palestinian people in the land that would become Israel.

Edward Said even cited the phrase incorrectly, omitting the definite article to turn, “A land without a people,” into “A land without people,” and more effectively charge Zionists with falsely claiming that the land was empty.

But if Israel Zangwill didn’t coin this familiar phrase, who did?

A Scots Presbyterian in a frock coat, the Rev. Dr. Alexander Keith, who was sent to the Holy Land by the Church of Scotland on an 1839 fact-finding mission. His task: to determine whether the land was ready for the Jews to return (he thought that it was.) Keith published a book describing his trip and urging Christians to help the Jews, “a people without a country,” return to Israel, “a country without a people.”

An unsigned review of Keith’s book immediately put the phrase into the familiar “land without a people” wording.

Keith and the other Christians who used the phrase perceived the Holy Land as being the homeland of the Jews in the way that Greece was the homeland of the Greeks, and Scotland was the land of the Scots. They did not perceive the Arabs who lived in Palestinian as having a separate Palestinian ethnic or national identity, rather, they saw them as part of a larger Arab people. In this they were correct. The idea of a Palestinian people would not be proposed by Arab intellectuals until the twentieth century.

Rev. Keith urged Britain to “give Judea to the Jews” just as “Greece was given to the Greeks” in 1829. Greek independence was a wildly popular cause, idealistic young men sailed to Greece to join the fight. But even with Lord Byron and other romantic European volunteers shouldering rifles, the Greek rebellion would certainly have been put down by the Ottomans if Britain had not also sent the Navy, which secured Greek independence by defeating the combined Ottoman and Egyptian navies at the battle of Navarino. To many European and American Christians, the idea of creating a Jewish State seemed just as compelling as Byron’s dream that Greece might yet be free.

Keith’s political proposal failed to come to immediate fruition, but his slogan lived on, used by a fair number of Victorian-era Christians interested, like Keith, both in fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the return of the Jews to Israel and in relieving the oppression Jews suffered in Eastern Europe and in Ottoman lands.

Zionism, meanwhile, suffered no shortage of widely-propagated slogans. Read enough early Zionist literature and you may begin to suspect that there were once more Zionist slogans than there were Zionists. “Land without a people…,” however, was not a Zionist slogan.

Many of the most popular Zionist slogans used the phrases Jewish homeland or Jewish national home. The Zionist argument, after all, is not that Palestine was empty, but that Arabs, who have many holy cities and many homelands, have a lesser moral claim to Israel than the Jewish people, which has only this one national home.

We are left with a puzzle, how did the world persuade itself that a phrase once used by nineteenth-century Christians, was, as Professor Khalidi writes, “a widely-propagated Zionist slogan?”

The answer is that shortly after its founding in 1964, the PLO revived the old Christian slogan for the purpose of accusing Jews of falsely describing Palestine as empty. It is often quoted with the misleading wording employed by Edward Said “a land without people.” Thousands of books and articles have used the phrase in this way, many describing it at the most popular of all Zionist slogans. The truth is that it was only as a modern, anti-Israel propaganda tool that the phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land” ever became a “widely-propagated” slogan.