Zionism’s material and cultural conquest is a manifestation of the axiom long voiced by its partisans: the Arabs may have rights on the land but only Jews have rights to the land. Every movement needs its propaganda and Zionism has been the colonial master of marketing. Certainly the French in Algeria and the British in India never came close to crafting the agitprop that early Zionists so skillfully produced in abundance. While their overbearing power was sufficient to establish dominance, neither France nor Britain sought to wholly re-imagine their colonial possessions as revived kingdoms linking past and present. Absent tangible power, Zionists had to win an ideological war prior to the ground war. Their propaganda thus had two dual threads: A Biblical narrative suited to the sensibilities of Western patrons of a Jewish “return” to the Holy Land; and, to assuage the minor concern, if any, that Zionism might harm existing indigenous communities in Palestine, they had to present the land as an empty desert whose settlement would prejudice no being—encapsulated in the notorious phrase, “a people without a land for a land without a people.”
Simultaneously, Zionist propaganda had to rally European Jewry to immigrate to Palestine in the name of “redemption” and then indenture the Jewish settler community, the Yishuv, to lay the groundwork for an eventual state. Its colorful posters presented a hardy people tilling the soil (“making the desert bloom”) and encouraged a self-sufficient economy of so-called “Hebrew labor” and “Hebrew produce” necessary for constructing a proto-state that was independent of the Palestinians and eventually confident enough to subjugate them. Anchored in a powerful story, Zionism enlisted Western benefactors and molded a discrete community whose only commonality was a shared faith tradition into a linguistically and culturally unified nation capable of establishing a cogent state.
By 1947, the Yishuv bore all the hallmarks of a nation-state and deployed militias better equipped and trained than their Arab antagonists, but propaganda was essential to Zionism’s conquest of Palestine. In that sphere, its victory was hegemonic in comparison with its meager landholdings on the eve of the Nakba (less than a tenth of Palestine).
As Edward Said observed, Israel won the war in part because it had already won the “political battle for Palestine in the international world in which ideas, representations, rhetoric, and images were at issue.” That political battle, that propaganda victory, was the ultimate triumph over the Palestinians. Injustice unresolved but acknowledged has been the fate of many people, but for a time Palestinians suffered injury and erasure. “They did not exist,” in the infamous words of one Israeli prime minister.
Today, even ardent backers of Israel acknowledge the existence of the Palestinians if only to continue to deny past injustice and curse them in the same breath. The old tropes of Zionism, however, remain stubbornly common in American discourse. That Palestine had few inhabitants, that the Jewish settlers really did perform agrarian miracles in the desert, and (for fundamentalist Christians) that the Jews were only reclaiming the land they had been promised all along. Israel still promotes a glorified image of Hebrew labor and goods, albeit in amended form as part of its “Brand Israel” campaign. While, in the past, Hebrew labor and goods were promoted to expand the Yishuv’s resources, today Israel parades its artists and celebrities along with its innovative technologies to derail attention from its occupation and win public sympathy by marketing its putatively glamorous lifestyle.
Narratives repeated long enough will always find credulous believers, and the narratives instrumentalized by the modern State of Israel are rooted in pre-state Zionist propaganda campaigns. Jewish settlers and, later, Israelis manufactured posters in order to recount their ambitions and affirm their presence on the land, legitimizing claims not only to tracts of property but to the very “land of Israel,” and utilizing propaganda in the cause of nation-building. Edward Said famously remarked that the Palestinians have been denied “permission to narrate.” Telling the Palestinian story (which has no need for fiction) and winning the “political battle” requires taking stock and discrediting the myths of Zionism. In order to understand the potency and longevity of Zionist propaganda, unraveling its source is crucial.