Zionism and the 'Married to Another Man' Story

In the introduction to his popular and influential history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (2000), Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim tells the following story: "The publication of [Theodore Herzl's] The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish com­munity, some strongly favorable, some hostile, and some skeptical. After the Ba­sel Congress [i.e., the First Zionist Congress in 1897,] the rabbis of Vienna sent two representatives to Palestine. This fact finding mission resulted in a cable from Palestine in which the two rabbis wrote, 'The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.'"

While the story lacks a primary source and there has been no basis for recounting it as a historical event that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement, versions of it continue to appear in a host of books and articles.  University of Exeter Professor Ghada Karmi, for instance, based the title of her 2007 Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine -- in which she argues for the dissolution of the Jewish state -- on the story.  More recently, former Swedish diplomat Ingmar Karlsson followed suit with his 2012 anti-Israel work, Bruden är vacker men har redan en man: Sionismen -- en ideologi vid vägs ände? (The bride is beautiful but there is already a husband: Zionism -- an ideology at the end of the road?)

Regardless of its different details, the "married to another man" story's central point is often the same.  Already in the early years of the Zionist movement, the argument goes, Jews recognized that it would be wrong for them to try to claim the Land of Israel/Palestine, as it was already inhabited by Arabs.  Despite this, the Zionists proceeded with their plans for Jewish statehood there.  From the outset, therefore, Zionism was resolutely immoral, and at its core the estab­lishment of the state of Israel was an act of willful injustice.

This anti-Zionist potential, inherent in the "married to another man" story, makes it irresistible to certain writers and accounts for much of its literary popularity, despite its lack of historical authenticity.  In this way, the sto­ry resembles another commonly repeated anecdote, involving Herzl and his right-hand man Max Nordau, which is meant to demonstrate the Zionist leadership's early awareness of the immorality of its program: when the prominent Zionist leader Max Nordau first learned that there was a sizable population in Palestine, he ran to Herzl, crying, "I did not know that; but then we are committing an injustice."

Although the "married to another man" and Herzl/Nordau stories are themselves unsupported, arguments about the justice of Zionism did preoccupy various Jewish and Arab leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as they do at present.  In contrast to much of today's official anti-Zionist propaganda, Arabs leaders of one hundred years ago or so were quite willing to acknowledge that the Jewish nation had formerly dwelled and thrived in Palestine.  Compare that bygone honesty with, for example, former Palestinian Authority Mufti Ikrima Sabri's May 11, 2012 assertion on Al-Arabiya TV that there are no places holy to the Jews in Jerusalem and that no archeological remains pertaining to Jewish holy places have ever been found there.  Those old opponents of Zionism argued, though, that since Arabs currently inhabited the land, Jewish history was immaterial.

In an 1899 letter to Rabbi Zadok Khan (the chief rabbi of France), for instance, Khalidi Yusuf Dia al-Khalidi wrote: "Who can challenge the rights of the Jews on Palestine?  Good Lord, historically it is really your country."  Nonetheless, al-Khalidi urged the Jews to look elsewhere for a homeland: "Good Lord, the world is vast enough, there are still uninhabited countries where one could settle millions of poor Jews who may perhaps become happy there and one day constitute a nation.  That would perhaps be the best, the most rational solution to the Jewish question.  But in the name of God, let Palestine be left in peace."  Even the notorious Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini later tacitly acknowledged Jewish history in the Land of Israel, urging the British government in November 1936 to look on Palestine as a purely Arab country by arguing that the Jews left Palestine 2,000 years ago and should now go to other parts of the world, where there are wide vacant places.

Zionist leaders, however, argued that Jewish history in the Land of Israel/Palestine was indeed relevant, and that Jews had a right to return to the land of their forefathers and foremothers, and to the cradle of their religion, even if Arabs were currently in the majority there.  In his 1923 essay "The Ethics of the Iron Wall," for example, Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote: "There are no more uninhabited islands in the world[.] ... The whole earth has been allocated[.] ... [It is said that] if homeless Jewry demands Palestine for itself it is 'immoral' because it does not suit the native population.  Such morality may be accepted among cannibals, but not in a civilized world."  Jabotinksy stressed that Arabs possessed immense stretches of land, while the Jews, who were in desperate need of a country, possessed none: "It is an act of simple justice to alienate part of their land from those nations [i.e., the Arab peoples] who are numbered among the great landowners of the world, in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people [i.e., the Jews]."

The debates about the justice of re-establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East are likely to continue for as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict persists.  There is nothing to be gained in such discussions, however, from relying on baseless stories and on fabrications, as have Ghada Karmi and Ingmar Karlsson.  The disagreements involving the Land of Israel/Palestine are complex enough without adding unsubstantiated stories into the mix. 

Shai Afsai's article "'The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man': Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth" appears in the latest issue of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.

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