Film review: A Zionist state where “The Land Speaks Arabic”

A still from The Land Speaks Arabic.


Maryse Gargour’s 61-minute film The Land Speaks Arabic documents the founding of the Zionist movement and the expulsion of Palestinians in the early part of the 20th century. The historical narrative is reconstructed by weaving archival materials such as photographs, films, news reels and official documents, with the testimonies of Palestinian survivors of the forced expulsion of 1947-48, referred to as the Nakba, and the findings of British-Palestinian historian Nur Masalha.

Beginning with Masalha’s thesis emphasizing the idea of “transfer” as the rudimentary motive of Zionism, the film chronicles the establishment of the Israeli state through the initial proposals of European Zionists in the late 19th century and the terrorist tactics of Jewish settlers in Palestine under the British Mandate. Acting as the historical anchor of the film, Masalha first describes how he came upon innumerable records in Israeli archives outlining the transfer of European Jews to Palestine with the simultaneous ejection of local Palestinians to neighboring countries. He then places this policy within the European colonial mindset of the time, one based on racist, supremacist notions.

As its early leaders and lobbyists were based in European capitals in the 1800s, the Zionist movement gained momentum with the support of local officials prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1917, the British government expressed support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Known as the “Balfour Declaration,” the terms of the letter, written by then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a prominent member of the Jewish community in England and financial backer of Zionist settlement in Palestine, were incorporated into the British mandate for Palestine.

According to Masalha, the origins of Zionism in Europe were secular, with many of its early leadership comprised of atheist nationalists. He outlines a kind of “tribal nationalism — blood and race and land, all mixed together,” which can only be “exclusive” and “ethnic,” that dominated the beginnings of the movement for a national Jewish homeland. In order to appeal to an international consciousness, Masalha contends that Zionism had to reinvent Judaism, using the Bible effectively to create a “blood connection” between ancient Israelites and modern European Jews.

Gargour expands on Masalha’s discussion by utilizing a historical propaganda film clip that asserts Jewish immigrants created metropolitan centers like Tel Aviv on desert and swampland. These myths helped to create a notion of Zionist colonization as a legitimate “pioneering” movement, one similar to European endeavors in the Americas, that although rooted in racist imperialist notions, are still justified in the West.

Masalha details the demographic composition of Jewish settlement in Palestine as well as the ideals of Labor Zionism. The predominant strain of Zionism in the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine), Labor Zionism sought the gradual establishment of a national state through immigration into Palestine, and the “redemption of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel)” through “Jewish Land and Jewish Labor.” Gargour contrasts the images of Zionist newspapers chronicling the steady migration of Jews into Palestine with those of the Arab media agencies describing the impact of thousands of European immigrants descending on Palestinian cities and villages. This demographic change occurred most dramatically in the early 1930s.

The radical transformation of the demographic characteristics of Palestine under British rule instigated widespread unrest among Palestinians who realized the threat of the introduction of this new population, which set out to expel the indigenous population. Perhaps the strongest point of The Land Speaks Arabic is the use of first-hand accounts of Palestinians living under the British mandate. These include the testimonials by Hussein Fayad Zaydan of Balad al-Sheikh and Abu Mohammed Younis of Safsaf village, who described the rise of the resistance and were injured during clashes. These oral histories serve to substantiate Masalha’s historical narrative and the media of the time.

The increase in Zionist immigration in the 1930s led to Palestinian worker strikes, youth demonstrations, and eventually the Great Revolt of 1936. As British forces were brought in to pacify the uprising, Jewish political leaders proposed the idea of transfer as the singular resolution to ending Palestinian resistance. To personalize the impact of Zionist immigration, Gargour draws on the testimony of Palestinians describing life in villages and cities during this period. Adding greater weight to the implication of Zionist immigration, is a narrator-read statement by Yosef Weitz, then Director of the Jewish National Fund, who asserts that the Palestinian population will not be eradicated through gentrification but through relocation out of the country.

By 1939, British forces were able to crush the Arab Revolt, with grave implications for the Palestinian community. Masalha asserts that by the 1940s, Palestinian military force had already been significantly disarmed. In contrast, the Yishuv was created as a “military civilian community,” with settlers acting as a powerful military force. Zionist terrorist groups sought to destabilize British forces through assassinations but also focused on planting bombs in areas populated by Palestinians.

Terrorizing Palestinian communities meant disrupting local Arab society. Often dressed as Arabs, members of Zionist terrorist organizations such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun, set out to disrupt Arab urban centers by initiating these explosions and intimidating Palestinian leaders. These attacks are detailed through interviews with a number of Palestinians who lost family members and friends in several bombings. Gargour utilizes British archival footage to demonstrate the damage of these terrorist acts and the arrests of several members of Zionist terrorist gangs who had stock piles of arms in synagogues. By 1948, the terror campaigns turned to large-scale massacres and attacks on villages, leading to the mass explosion of Palestinians that culminated in the Nakba. The film ends with several eyewitness accounts by Palestinians who experienced and survived the Nakba.

Employing a team of researchers who scoured through archives in Europe, the US, and the Middle East, The Land Speaks Arabic is thoroughly researched, nuanced and well-made. Gargour’s film is a significant contribution to the historical recording of the Palestinian narrative and is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of Palestine and the Palestinians.

Maymanah Farhat specializes in modern and contemporary Arab art. Her collected writings can be viewed online at http://maymanahfarhat.wordpress.com.

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