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, held 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 “married to another man” story lacks a primary source and there is no basis for recounting it as a historical event that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement, different versions of it have appeared in a host of books and articles for decades. Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi of the University of Haifa recounted a version of the story in his Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (1992). University of Exeter professor Ghada Karmi 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 quite 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 beginning, they posited that 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 writers like Karmi and Karlsson, and accounts for much of its popularity, despite the lack of a primary source or a historical basis. The story resembles another commonly repeated anecdote, involving Theodor 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 Nordau first learned that there was a sizable Arab population in the Land of Israel/Palestine, so goes the story, 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 today. In contrast to much of current official anti-Zionist propaganda, however, Arab leaders a century 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. Unlike Sabri, the early Arab opponents of Zionism did not deny Jewish history in the Land of Israel/Palestine, but rather argued that since Arabs currently inhabited it, such 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 . . . But in the name of God, let Palestine be left in peace,” he wrote. Even the notoriously antisemitic and Nazi-allied Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini 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 the land 2,000 years ago. Instead of returning to Palestine, they should now go to other parts of the world, he said, 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 their ancestral land 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 who are numbered among the great landowners of the world [i.e., the Arab peoples], in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people [i.e., the Jews],” he wrote.
The debates about the justice of reestablishing 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—as have Ghada Karmi and Ingmar Karlsson — on baseless narratives like the “married to another man” story. The disagreements involving the Land of Israel/Palestine are complex enough without adding these 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 volume 30 of Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.