Salman Masalha
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 19, 2011 - 1:00am

The Arab attempt since the start of the 20th century to understand the Zionist movement has long produced mixed feelings. A new Arabic monthly, Lughat al-Arab ("the Arabic language"), began publication in Baghdad 100 years ago. The third issue, from September 1911, contains an investigative report by the editor called "The Founder of Zionism."

"Many talk about Zionism nowadays, but most of the people don't know what it's about," he wrote. To enlighten his readers the editor quoted an article published three months earlier in a French newspaper, by a writer from Istanbul: "Before the group came to be known as 'Zionists' the Turks called them Donmeh [Turkish crypto-Jews] ... "

The article in the Baghdad journal connected Zionism to the Sabbateans and divulged for its readers details from the life of their leader, Shabbetai Zvi, who claimed he was the Messiah and that all twelve tribes of Israel would soon return to Palestine. In Cairo, the author relates, Shabbetai Zvi met a beautiful Jewess who acted oddly and purported to be the "Queen designated for the Messiah."

They married and traveled throughout the Orient; Shabbetai Zvi continued to spread his message until his imprisonment and conversion to Islam. His followers, emulating him, also converted. Shabbetai Zvi was exiled to Albania, where he died in 1676, because he continued to engage in mysticism. After the death of the "scoundrel," the article said, his followers continued in his path and their descendants now "live in Salonika and Edirne."

"Those are the Zionists and their roots. Heads of state and officials fear them as men fear lions. That is because the Zionists are serious, industrious people, cunning and alert, and they exert considerable influence on their surroundings," the article explained. It isn't hard to guess what was considered the source of the influence. The writer elaborated: "Because of the gold they hold in their hands ... Thus, in meetings with delegates, some fawn over them, while fearing machinations. For these reasons, honest state officials talk about the 'Zionist danger.'"

In fact, officials from far-flung areas in the region warned of this danger. They reported an increased Jewish presence in Iraq and in parts of Greater Syria. They alluded to the proliferation of agricultural and industrial machines and facilities, and even talked about the "routines and organization on their colonies." The official in Jerusalem wrote, "80,000 Jews live in the city, while the number of Muslims does not exceed 9,000." A Syrian official confirmed this estimate, adding, "The activities undertaken by these people are those of a nation; during holidays they wave a blue flag that has 'Zion' written on it."

On one hand, the writer tried to reassure his readers: "Whatever happens with this Zionist issue, there's no reason to worry that the Zionists will ever turn into a nation." On the other hand, he did not attempt to conceal his concerns: "You have to bear in mind that these foreigners compete with natives of the land, and so struggles and disputes about the land erupt." The Baghdad journal found reason to underscore the tight bonds that unite Jews, and referred to the "ethos of solidarity among them, which has reached the highest level."

This report projected anxieties about the unknown, alongside admiration. In conclusion, the author suggested there was something to be learned from the Zionists: "They should serve as exemplary models to others," he wrote. One hundred years have passed. It seems that nothing has changed since then, and life in the East continues as always.


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