The "Married to another Man" Story

By Shai Afsai
Friday, October 12, 2012

In the introduction to his popular and influential history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Oxford professor Avi Shlaim tells this story:

The publication of [Theodor Herzl's] The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish com­munity, some strongly favorable, some hostile, and some skeptical.  After the Ba­sel Congress [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."

Though the story lacks a primary source and no basis has emerged for describing it as a historical event that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement, versions of the story have continued to appear in many books and articles.  Ghada Karmi, for instance, used it as the basis for the title of her 2007 book, Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine, in which she argues for the dissolution of the Jewish state.  Former Swedish diplomat Ingmar Karlsson recently followed suit with his 2012 anti-Zionist 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?)

Often, as with Shlaim and Karmi, no source is cited for the story.  Other times, the source presented is an erroneous one.  For example, the opening paragraph of Mustapha Marrouchi’s 2011 article, "Cry No More for Me, Palestine—Mahmoud Darwish," cites Henry M. Christman’s The State Papers of Levi Eshkol as a source for the story; but no such story appears in Christman’s book.

In some versions of the story, it is the First Zionist Congress, rather than the Vienna rabbinate, that dispatches the two representatives.  In others, it is Herzl himself who sends the representatives and receives their reply.  Regardless of the differing details, the point of the "married to another man" story is generally the same:  Even in the early years of the Zionist movement, Jews recognized that it would be wrong for them to try to claim the Land of Israel/Palestine because it was already inhabited by Arabs.  Yet, despite this recognition, the Zionists proceeded with their plans for Jewish statehood there.  From the outset, in other words, Zionism was inherently immoral; the establishment of the state of Israel was at its very core an act of willful injustice.

The anti-Zionist potential inherent in the "married to another man" story has made 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, meant to demonstrate the Zionist leadership's early awareness of the immorality of its program.  It is said that when Nordau first learned there was already a sizeable 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 unsupported, arguments about the justice of Zionism preoccupied Jewish and Arab leaders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they do today.  But in contrast to much of today's official anti-Zionist propaganda, Arab leaders of a hundred years ago or so were quite willing to acknowledge that the Jewish nation had formerly dwelled and thrived in Palestine.  Compare that bygone approach 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 no archeological remains pertaining to Jewish holy places have ever been found there. 

Those older opponents of Zionism merely argued that since Arabs currently inhabited the land, Jewish history was immaterial.  For instance, in an 1899 letter to Zadok Khan, Chief Rabbi of France, 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:

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 a Nazi collaborator, tacitly acknowledged Jewish history in the Land of Israel.  In November, 1936, urging the British Government to treat Palestine as a purely Arab country, he argued not that Jews had never been there but merely that they left it 2,000 years ago and, therefore, should now go to other, uninhabited parts of the world.

Zionist leaders, for their part, argued that Jewish history in the Land of Israel/Palestine was undeniably relevant and that Jews had a right to return to their ancestral land and the cradle of their religion even if Arabs were currently a majority there.  Ze'ev Jabotinsky, in his 1923 essay, "The Ethics of the Iron Wall," wrote, "There are no more uninhabited islands in the world."  Jabotinsky noted the anti-Zionist argument that "if homeless Jewry demands Palestine for itself it is 'immoral' because it does not suit the native population.  Such morality," he answered, "may be accepted among cannibals, but not in a civilized world."  Jabotinksy stressed that Arabs possessed immense stretches of land, while Jews, 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, in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people."

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, however, from relying on fictions.  The disagreements remain complex enough without adding unsubstantiated stories into the mix.

Shai Afsai is a writer and teacher whose works have appeared in a number of literary and historical journals.   A version of this article first appeared in American Thinker.

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