“1913: Seeds of Conflict”: New Doc Explores Little-Known History of Palestine

A still from the 1913 film, "Jews of Palestine."

In his 1967 book Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to “the jungle of history.”

An interesting locution, and apt. A jungle is a place where things seem to co-exist against all odds—nature at its best and most beautiful, but also at its worst and most vicious.

If history is a “jungle”—nature at its most beautiful but also its most unforgiving—then an historian is an explorer: she must try to make order of chaos and find meaning in dense overgrowth. It is thus appropriate that Ben Loeterman’s new film “1913: Seeds of Conflict” deploys an agricultural metaphor.

History is a jungle.

The film, premiering June 30 on PBS, consists of rare and often striking footage of early twentieth-century Palestine, mostly taken from a newly discovered film from 1913: Noah Sokolowsky’s, “The Life of Jews in Palestine.”

Loeterman’s film offers this footage along with interviews with a team of experts and short dramatizations featuring significant individuals of the time. The script of these dramatizations is taken directly from letters, court cases, and speeches, all in their original languages (with subtitles). While such dramatizations can often seem trite or contrived, they are used quite effectively in the film. Even hearing the Arabic, German, French, Hebrew and Turkish gives one a feel for the multiethnic dimension of this particular corner of the jungle.

1913 is not a year many point to as the germ-cell of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Loeterman suggests that it is; not in any obvious way, no seismic event, national conflict or political edict. Rather, three things happened in 1913 that frame this film.

First, Sokolowsky’s film “The Life of the Jews in Palestine” was made, containing the earliest moving images of Palestine; second, Arthur Ruppin’s speech at the Zionist Congress that year focusing on “conquest of the land” through land purchasing that set the Zionist nationalist agenda on a new course; and third, a local skirmish between an Arab who stole some grapes near the Jewish colony of Rehovot on his way to selling his produce and a Russian-Jewish guard who beat him brutally not for, as the guard later said, “stealing grapes from a Jewish colony but stealing grapes from the Jewish people.” Two people died: one jew and one Arab.

Loeterman’s film argues that this local skirmish was a match that ignited a fire. But to understand why Loeterman argues we must return to the jungle of history that is Ottoman Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The story of “1913: Seeds of Conflict” begins on a politically mundane, yet artistically fascinating, note. Film archivist Yaakov Gross is informed that in a warehouse in France a few boxes of old films of Palestine were discovered. In those boxes was a film that depicts Jewish life there in 1913. It is one of the earliest moving images from Palestine. After World War I the film had vanished and was thought lost.

Like many propaganda films made after it, Sokolowsky’s film depicts burgeoning life in the Jewish colonies, or small agricultural towns, that dotted the lower plains at that time (the more fertile land was in the mountains where most of the Arab population lived). It also shows a bustling multiethnic and largely peaceful Jerusalem at a time before the four quarters (Armenian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim) separated its inhabitants into veritable enclaves.

And like many of the films that would come later, it rarely depicts Arabs—who at that time were the large majority of the population.

These were films meant to promote the common Zionist myth first coined by the British Jew Israel Zangwill, “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

Examining one clip of a bustling Jewish colony in the film, the narrator stops to ask Gross, the archivist, about figures in the distance at the top of the frame, almost silhouettes, standing on a hill. “Who were they?” the narrator asks. Gross answers, “I don’t know.”

Of course, they were Arab villagers watching the filming from a safe distance. Gross’s  “I don’t know” echoes throughout the film. And thus the story begins.

The film does a good job going through the various Jewish immigrations that took place from the 1890s—beginning with the pogroms in the aftermath of Czar Alexander’s assassination in Russia in 1881, through the First World War, as Jews left Europe in increasing numbers. During this period, Zionism was still a nascent movement (during this period of immigration only 5% of Jews ended up in Palestine. Most immigrated to the US).

Yet slowly Zionism begins to take hold of a Jewish population, many of whom did not have nationalist aspirations, wishing simply to live a relatively secure life in the Holy Land. But the worse things got in Europe the more Zionism became a viable alternative—itself an expression of the density of this historical jungle, where things feed on that which seeks to destroy them.

Theodore Herzl knew this quite well when he wrote in his The Jewish State (1896) that “the misery of the Jews will be Zionism’s propelling force.”

Interspersed with both Jewish and Muslim academic experts on Zionism, the Arab Middle East, and the Ottoman Empire, this film offers a complex picture of a situation that went very wrong for reasons that all-too-often had nothing to do with either Jews or Arabs (later called Palestinians).

In this early period they were all simply Ottomans, subjects of a dying kingdom.

The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 transformed the empire, already crumbling, from a centralized system of government to one that viewed the French Revolution as its model.  Jews and Arabs in Palestine largely welcomed this revolution and viewed it as a positive step toward self-expression (not yet self-determination).

But something else began to happen. The mostly Sephardic Jews who lived in Palestine before the second large Jewish European immigration (known as the Second Aliyah) in 1904-1914 were suspicious of these European Jews with their “Zionist” ideas who did not want to integrate into the empire.

Zionists, and also Palestinian Arabs, began to see the 1908 revolution as an opportunity to distance themselves from the empire altogether. As an illustration of this we meet an important figure, Albert Antébi, a Syrian Jew who played a crucial role in mediating between the Ottomans, the Sephardic communities, and the Zionists.

Antébi was a devoted subject of the sultan, a proud Jew who identified as an Ottoman who encouraged the new Jewish immigrants to do the same. Like the Arabs, he saw what was happening as the first decade of the twentieth century progressed: Jewish self-expression was becoming Jewish self-determination.

The Young Turk Revolution helped create the space for Zionism to take root in Palestine. But that same social context also gave rise to new Arab newspapers such as El Carmel and El Palestine, around which coalesced a collective Palestinian identity.  These papers openly challenged the Zionist project (not the “Jews”) and warned the Arabic-reading public of an ensuing confrontation.

As Rashid Khalidi argues in his book Palestinian Identity (2009) Loeterman suggest that Zionist and Palestinian identity emerge simultaneously in Palestine as the Ottoman empire experienced upheaval and eventual collapse.

The film depicts the turn from self-expression to self-determination among Zionists in three areas: Jewish purchase of Arab land from largely absentee land owners, the “Jewish labor” movement of the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), and the increasingly demeaning attitude many of the Zionist colonists had toward the indigenous Arab population  (perhaps more a legacy of their identity as Europeans than their Jewish pedigree).

The central figure in the first case was German-Jewish immigrant Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943) who developed an intricate plan of Jewish colonies that would create an infrastructure of a future state. In 1890 this came to a head with a land dispute between members of the Jewish colony of Rehovot and Bedouins who had been living and farming that land (but had no Ottoman deed to prove ownership). The Jews bought the land outright and demanded the Bedouins leave without compensation. The Bedouins refused.

The case went to the Ottoman courts in Istanbul, but jurists threw it out of court deeming it a local dispute not worth addressing. The Bedouins had to leave and Rehovot continued to expand.

And thus seeds of conflict were sown. The Arabs began to realize what was happening and they knew the Ottomans had no real interest in intervening. The Arab press in Palestine lambasted the absentee Arab land owners who were selling the land to the Jews at an inflated price, but to no avail. Those landowners had mostly left before the birth of any real national consciousness among the Arabs in Palestine.

The Jewish labor movement was largely the brainchild of the Second Aliyah immigrants, the first “Zionist” immigration that gave rise to the Kibbutz movement. They wanted to create a society where the Jewish, and not Arab, worker created the infrastructure for their Jewish society. While done with ostensibly moral intentions, as Edward Said notes in The Question of Palestine, it also marginalized the Arab worker who stood by and watched a modern society blossom while he remained mired in a largely pre-industrial world.

As important, the film argues that the Jewish labor movement changed the relational dynamic from local to national. Arabs rightly felt that their land was no longer being used for Jewish colonies; it was now being used for a national project. Ruppin knew this and it greatly concerned him. His speech at the Zionist Congress in 1913 about “conquest of the land” through practical means contributed to a shift in emphasis of the Zionist movement. Pragmatics trumped co-existence. Ruppin wrote about the dangers of alienating the Arab majority, in one letter even suggested he “may have gone too far.”

But in the jungle once things start to grow it is very difficult to stop them.

The attitude toward the Arab is the third major focus of the film. As one expert noted, in the early Zionist imagination, the Arab was not a person but a part of nature (a part of the jungle). There was a stone, a tree, and an Arab. They were part of the landscape, considered nomadic, and not a functioning society.

One can see this is some of the early collections of photographs of Palestine published by Jewish photographers. It is what we would later call Orientalism. Zionists such as Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Zvi Ginsberg 1856-1927) wrote passionately against this, not only on moral grounds but also because, like Ruppin and even like Antébi, he knew its consequences. Unless things change, Ahad Ha-Am argued, the Arab will become the enemy.

The film gives us a very cogent view of all these moving pieces that culminates in the 1913 theft of grapes that resulted in the deaths of an Arab and a Jew. The national struggle had its first casualties. Both sides knew it. And both sides wanted a peaceful resolution. They knew the Ottomans didn’t care anymore, they had bigger problems.

Negotiations began —it was a real moment of communication.

But then something came to disrupt this opportunity: World War I began. All attention turned elsewhere. It had been an opportunity, perhaps, a way to stop the ball from rolling out of control. Instead, like the 1913 film, it was a forgotten shrub, trampled on by the boot heels of history.

From our vantage point in 2015, many wars later, many deaths later, many failed attempts at resolution later, this film has an arresting quality. All sides are to blame. No sides are to blame. Fate is to blame. History is to blame.

The lack of hindsight on all sides was only a little worse than the lack of foresight. Things just happened too fast. From the Young Turk revolution in 1908 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 is only six short years. Yet in that brief span contingencies narrowed, ideologies took root in the rocky soil, local became national, and communal self-expression became national self-determination.

The film shows that all the major parties (except perhaps the Ottomans who were busy managing their own demise) knew what was happening. And yet nothing was done, or could have been done, to stop it.

The film, I think, invites us to take a closer look at the Arab fellahin standing in the distant hills in the top of the frame of Sokolowsky’s 1913 film. This is not to take sides, and I think the film does an excellent job not taking sides; it is rather to see how things could have been before they became what they were. Things could have been different, and along the way many on both sides knew it and futilely tried to warn the parties involved.

But history is a jungle and rarely yields to reason. Somewhere toward the end of the film, Amy Dockster-Marcus says in passing “we can’t control history.” Is that true? We make history, we are history.

Perhaps it is because history is only after-the-fact; history only enters when the damage is already done.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik once wrote, “The past is indeterminate, a closed book. It is only the present and future that can pry it open and read its meaning.” History is a crowbar. Marcus asks early on in the film, “was there a turning point, a moment in time…when things could have been different?”

The answer, of course, is yes; it is always yes. But why does that matter? I’m not quite sure. “1913: Seeds of Conflict” forces us to take a serious look at that question.

  • Israel – Judea and Samaria is Jewish territory – No annexation is required

    Let me pose an interesting scenario.
    If you had a country and it was conquered by foreign powers over a period of time.
    After many years you have taken back you country and land in various defensive
    wars. Do you have to officially annex those territories. It was always your
    territory and by retaking control and possession of your territory it is again
    your original property and there is no need to annex it. The title to your
    property is valid today as it was many years before.

    Annexation only applies when you are taking over territory that was never yours to begin with, just like some European countries annexed territories of other countries.

    YJ Draiman

  • Fired, Aren’t I

    Meh, your holy book might tell you that but it has no basis in modern rational secular society. But whatever, keep burning down their olive groves, THAT’LL hasten the coming of the messiah.

  • pegleggreg

    Wasn’t this area Canaanite territory?

  • Don

    I wonder you don’t mention Amy Dockser Marcus’ book “Jerusalem 1913” . I haven’t seen the film, but I wonder if the movie is based on this book? It would seem to have the same ideas as the book, and the movie interviews her…

  • Craptacular

    “The title to your property is valid today as it was many years before.” – YJ Draiman

    No, it’s not. When the political force behind the title ceased to function, so did the title.

  • Craptacular

    “Annexation only applies when you are taking over territory that was
    never yours to begin with, just like some European countries annexed
    territories of other countries.” – YJ Draiman

    And this sentence deserves a special take down all on it’s own…because you refute your own definition in the very next phrase of the same sentence. Were you trying to be ironic? Because it came across as idiocy instead of irony.

  • cmbennett01

    But the title was issued by the omnipotent real-estate agent in the sky.

  • yossi

    Says from the 1980s- should be 1880s I think

  • Judith Maxfield

    Some – maybe – not connected ruminations:
    First, PBS is premiering “Seeds of Conflict” tonight., (June 30)
    Reading this, I am not sure I can watch the film. Belonging to a group of peace activists, (from all 3 religious culture), I got to a point of too much grief, for the events over there, the yrs 1997-present. To me, it was also an extension of WWII and Germany. Prejudice just doesn’t seem to stop, no matter what you’ve been through.

    Where I live – in a very supposed progressive/libreal community, you couldn’t speak up about the Israeli actions against the Palestinians without being called an anti-semite, even if you were careful to not generlize about “Jews”. Here, the opposition was very organized. I struggled against my building anger, even on behalf of the Jewish IDF resistors who came to witness about their experience.

    I strongly believe, no, its knowledge, that our news media is horribly slanted on the side of the Israeli government voices. Though I know full well the evangelical fake religion is in charge here, the Biblical claim of Israel at the cost of the “Other” is immoral and secular based. There is no defense for taking land and expecting the Other to just disappear. I believe Ghandi and A. Einstein both spoke up about this in 1949. As an amateur historian, I an acquainted with the history on both sides. For now, it helps that in Israel there are many, but not widely known Jews who work for peace, rabbbis to bring in the olive harvest for displaced Palestinian owners of orchards they can’t reach, the IDF resistors, and I’m sure others in acts of compassion.

    Of course, here we will not know about it unless we take the time. White phosperous was used in the last main fighting with the Palestinians, something banned by international standards. The U.S. we, are paying for the occupation and terror into the billions and don’t seem to mind. I recommend watching “Four Cameras” available online. We need to see the faces and the stories on BOTH sides. Another is “A Bottle In the Gaza Sea”, a movie about youthful curiosity and caring. These two films beautifully depict personal stories about the harm, sadness and hope for those trying to put a human face back into a human perspective.

    And of course there is the violence directed from the other side. Even their peaceful protests receive the full brunt retailiation from the Israeli government forces. I admit I am now prejudiced. I expect Isreal to act in brute force and don’t see any hope for the future except for the annilation of Palestinians. To me, Israel has lost its legitimacy and ethos for being. Being a nation cannot protect you. We saw that in the Trade Towers and armed forces based all over the world that did not matter on 9/11/2001. Its only in fair play to have any hope for change. This is not a pollyanna statement but one of truth. Its happening in Ireland and South Africa. Its hard work. Its about the now and not yet, but it the only avenue we have.

  • Jim Reed

    Maybe that is why the Bible talks of total genocide, kill every man, woman, child, and animal. If your population is completely eliminated, then you forfeit any previous claim you had to the land.

  • Alencon

    I could make the same argument for the Sioux, the Cherokee, the Apache, the Comanche and the hundreds of other Native American tribes. One could make that same case for Mexico and the Southwestern US if the Native American tribes didn’t have the prior claim.

    The fact is that the annihilation of political jurisdiction in an area pretty much undoes legal claims to land.

    The simple fact is both the British and the UN failed to abide by the Palestine Mandate which called for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”

    The UN partition plan called for the Jewish state to be allocated 53% of the land despite Arabs outnumbering the Jews by 2-1 in 1948 Palestine. The rationale was the anticipated Jewish migration from a war and holocaust ravaged Europe. The Arabs, understandably in my opinion, questioned why their land was to be used as compensation for the crimes committed against the Jews in Europe.

    Of course all this stuff is water long passed under the bridge. While understanding the source of an issue is often useful, we need to stop blaming the past for the failure to resolve the issues of the present.

  • Jill Pietra

    So ask Israel to give up the coast between Ashdod and Ashkelon, that was never-ever Israelite for 1 single day in its history. Otherwise you risk to be selective.

  • Rev. Jake Harrison

    Why fear the term “anti-Semite”? To be “anti- Semite” is NOT hating the “Jews”. The “Jews” are not the only people who speak a “Semitic language”. Lacking a distinctive DNA the “Jews” cannot claim status as a race; only a “religion”. Being a member of a religion is a choice. All of t he Jewish Religion’s many denominations are simply ‘deeper choices’—–of aspects of a “belief” system that sets its members “above” those who do not practice the same religion—-which is exactly the same thing that all other religions have in common.
    The fact that the Jews, Christians and Muslims ‘worship’ the same Deity—invented by the Jews approximately 2300 years ago should be amusing to any researcher. The original belief—belonged to the Jews who’s deity not only revealed himself in the narrative fiction of their Torah/Old Testament–but his first commandment to his followers reflects his “jealousy” —-an emotion that reveals severe insecurity. After that “he” reveals his bigotry by “selecting the Jews” over all other people—–and the idiocy of all three religions—the Christians believing for example if they simply invite “Jesus into their lives” and participate in a ritual where they “drink his blood and eat his flesh” (some of them every day—as with the Catholic Mass) they will spend an eternity with him in a far off place where they will all live in mansions —–or as with the Muslims—“paradise” where they will have 77 virgins along with all that wealth—-should be viewed by intelligent people as amusing: except that millions of our fellow human being have been slaughtered by those believers—-my own Native American ancestors an excellent example who’s Holocaust of as much as 90% of their “pre-discovery numbers” makes the Jewish Holocaust of the mid twentieth century look like a picnic in comparison. Indeed, all of these religions are mean and ugly figments of the imagination of human beings——who believe in a deity that according to the narrative fiction of their text—-could create the entire universe (and even the things we have not discovered about it yet) in just six days; but can’t write his own book much less publish it.
    All religions are simply human inventions built up around “deities” that those human beings invented. Nothing more.

  • Rev. Jake Harrison

    You take all of your authority from fiction. Indeed, the fiction reflects that the “Jewish People Wandered” for 40 years which makes them interlopers/invaders from their beginning. Taking authority from fiction is a fools folly that leads to a fools parade.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Dear Sir: It seems to me you have a lot of claims driving in many separate directions arriving in fog. This seems to be your particular take on both history, religion, and psychology. Simply human inventions? There we part. Maybe we did imagine a god but so what. My god is a loving god that gave me love, hope and a great community for a family – a healthy and life caring family one that opened me up to the possibility of a better world.

    Sounds like you take things literally and generalize about religions – especially mine. I dont know the Christianiity you refer to and don’t care to.

  • Rev. Jake Harrison

    It is so often the Jews who make such justification as you do here; but the fact of the matter is simple. ANY “Jewish” claims to any part of Palestine are based entirely upon the fiction of the Torah and scientific evidence reveals that the “Jews” are simply a “Religion”—albeit a negative, bigoted, narrow, mean religion that is based upon the fictional invention of the “Patriarchal Deity” Jehovah, Yahweh, “Big Daddy” who clearly is a jealous, weak ,vain reflection of the human beings that INVENTED HIM. But then this can be said of “ALL Deities, Patriarchal or Matriarchal. A short course in comparative religion will reveal this to any student.
    Using the “authority” of a “Deity”, a human invention, to practice Genocide against others is of course as old as all of the religions. Indeed that behavior is common with all of the religions of the world and those of history.
    Not until humanity is able to shed the need for “deities” will they STOP inventing them and learn to live in harmony and peace with their fellow creatures including the other human beings and the rest of nature.