The erasure of the Palestinians on display this week as President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a one-sided “vision for peace” might have been an unusually blatant act of disregard, but it was in no way new. The omission is the essence of the conflict. I was reminded of this back in the early 1990s, when I lived in Jerusalem for several months at a time, doing research in the private libraries of some of the city’s oldest families, including my own. I spent over a year going through dusty worm-eaten books, documents, and letters belonging to generations of Khalidis, among them my great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi.
Through his papers, I discovered a worldly man with a broad education acquired in Jerusalem, Malta, Istanbul, and Vienna. He was the heir to a long line of Jerusalemite Islamic scholars and legal functionaries, but at a young age, Yusuf Diya sought a different path for himself. After absorbing the fundamentals of a traditional Islamic education, he left Palestine at the age of 18 — without his father’s approval, we are told — to spend two years at a British Church Mission Society school in Malta. From there, he went to study at the Imperial Medical School in Istanbul, after which he attended the city’s Robert College, recently founded by American Protestant missionaries. For five years during the 1860s, Yusuf Diya attended some of the first institutions in the Middle East that provided a modern, Western-style education, learning English, French, German, and much else.
With this broad training, Yusuf Diya filled various roles as an Ottoman government official: translator in the Foreign Ministry, consult in the Russian Black Sea port of Poti, governor of districts from Kurdistan to Syria, and mayor of Jerusalem for nearly a decade. He was also elected as the deputy from Jerusalem to the short-lived Ottoman parliament established in 1876, and he did stints teaching at the Royal Imperial University in Vienna.
Yusuf Diya would have been more aware than most of his compatriots in Palestine of the ambition of the nascent Zionist movement, as well as its strength, resources, and appeal. He knew perfectly well that there was no way to reconcile Zionism’s claims on Palestine and its explicit aim of Jewish statehood and sovereignty there with the rights and well-being of Palestine’s Indigenous inhabitants. On March 1, 1899, Yusuf Diya sent a prescient seven-page letter to the French chief rabbi, Zadoc Kahn, with the intention that it be passed on to the founder of modern Zionism.
The letter began with an expression of Yusuf Diya’s admiration for Herzl, whom he esteemed “as a man, as a writer of talent, and as a true Jewish patriot,” and of his respect for Judaism and for Jews, whom he said were “our cousins.” He understood the motivations for Zionism, just as he deplored the persecution to which Jews were subject in Europe. In light of this, he wrote, Zionism in principle was “natural, beautiful, and just.” He added, “who could contest the rights of the Jews in Palestine? My God, historically it is your country!”
Herzl replied—and quickly, in a letter on March 19. His letter was probably the first response by a leader of the Zionist movement to a cogent Palestinian objection to its embryonic plans for Palestine. Herzl simply ignored the letter’s basic thesis, that Palestine was already inhabited by a population that would not agree to be supplanted. Although Herzl had visited Palestine once, in an 1898 visit timed to coincide with that of German Kaiser Wilhelm II, he (like most early European Zionists) had not much knowledge of or contact with its native inhabitants.
Glossing over the fact that Zionism was ultimately meant to lead to Jewish control of Palestine, Herzl deployed a justification that has been a touchstone for colonialists and that would become a staple argument of the Zionist movement: Jewish immigration would benefit Palestine’s Indigenous inhabitants. “It is their well-being, their individual wealth, which we will increase by bringing in our own,” Herzl wrote, adding that “no one can doubt that the well-being of the entire country would be the happy result.”
Herzl’s letter addressed a consideration that Yusuf Diya had not even raised: “You see another difficulty, Excellency, in the existence of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. But who would think of sending them away?”
But Herzl had underestimated his correspondent. From Yusuf Diya’s letter, it is clear that he understood perfectly well that at issue was not the immigration of (as Herzl put it) “a number of Jews” into Palestine, but rather the transformation of the entire land into a Jewish state. Instead, Herzl offered the preposterous inducement that the colonization, and ultimately the usurpation, of their land by strangers would benefit the people of that country. Herzl’s reply to Yusuf Diya appears to have been based on the assumption that the Arabs could ultimately be bribed or fooled into ignoring what the Zionist movement actually intended for Palestine.
This condescending attitude toward the intelligence, not to speak of the rights, of the Arab population of Palestine was to be serially repeated by Zionist, British, European, and American leaders in the decades that followed, down to the present day. As for the Jewish state that was ultimately created by the movement that Herzl founded, as Yusuf Diya foresaw, there was to be room for only one people, the Jewish people. As for the others, “sending them away” was indeed what happened, despite Herzl’s disingenuous remark.
Herzl’s letter referred to Palestinian Arabs, then roughly 95% of Palestine’s inhabitants, merely as its “non-Jewish population.” The Jewish state, Herzl wrote in “Der Judenstaat,” would “form a part of a wall of defense for Europe in Asia, an outpost of civilization against barbarism.” Herzl’s imperious disregard of the Palestinians has been replicated over the decades in much discourse in the United States, Europe, and Israel; indeed, it was clearly audible from the White House as recently as this past week.