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Truth Hurts: Fall of Canada’s Selina Robinson Over ‘Crappy’ Palestine Comment

My Aunt, Penina (Polly) starting the dairy farm at Kibbutz Na'an in 1929-30
My Aunt, Penina (Polly) (R.) starting a dairy farm at Kibbutz Na'an with seven cows in 1929-1930

The provincial education minister of British Columbia (B.C.), Canada, Minister Selina Robinson made the following comments about pre-1948 Palestine on Jan. 30: “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it”.

Then all hell broke loose.

Minister Robinson: “I want to apologize for my disrespectful comment referring to the origins of Israel on a ‘crappy piece of land. I was referring to the fact that the land has limited natural resources.”

Her apology was not accepted.

Criticism followed. One of her colleague Members of parliament said that Robinson had shown “an appalling disregard for the horrific violence being inflicted on Palestinians.” Their homeland wasn’t “a crappy piece of land with nothing on it“, he wrote. “People lived on it. Families lived on it. Villages flourished. They loved this land.”

She apologized twice more, saying her remarks, diminished “the connection that Palestinians also have to the land,” and she apologized unreservedly. She offered to take anti-Islamophobia training.

According to a University of Victoria (B.C.) history professor, calling historic Palestine “a crappy piece of land” was not just insensitive, but also inaccurate.” Another B.C. professor at Simon Fraser University proclaimed, “I was surprised and flabbergasted by the comments because they are both incredibly ahistoric and inaccurate by every measure of knowledge.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims called them “horrendous; Palestine had a thriving economy, as well as a complex network of trade and commerce which contributed to the economic vibrancy in the region prior to 1948.” For this group, Robinson’s remarks apparently reflect a Zionist lie used by the nascent Zionist movement, they said.

Then Minister Robinson’s life was threatened, and her office, trashed.

Her boss, B.C.’s Premier, David Eby said her comments were unacceptable, hurtful, and offensive. The big boss, Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh rejected Robinson’s comments calling  them “offensive,” and “harmful, horribly wrong and factually incorrect.”

Then, she was fired.

Looks like she hit a nerve.

Jagmeet Singh, MP, Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada (Photo:ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Yeh, it was a dumb thing to say; unwise, unnecessary. It played into the colonial settler narrative and other labels used by pro Palestinian activists to disparage the state of Israel. Wasn’t very diplomatic. I can see that. Certainly, politically incorrect.

But … it was factually correct. Indeed, Palestine WAS a “crappy piece of land” despite what the quoted professors said, despite what the Provincial Premier said, despite what the Federal NDP leader, Mr. Singh has said. They are all, sadly, ignorant.

Serious, objective, scholars of history would refute this ignorance.

Let’s define “crappy”.

Oxford Dictionary: crap-py, adjective (slang/vulgar): of extremely poor quality. “crappy wine;” ill: in poor physical condition

Pre-1948 Palestine was all those things. One can try to obscure the facts, but cannot change them. They may be indelicate in political discourse, but they remain facts. here’s 15 of them.

Fact 1: Zionist Pioneers drove Economic Awakening of Palestine

Palestine was sparsely populated and economically inactive and stagnant until the 1880s when the first Zionist pioneers arrived to re-establish a Jewish homeland. They augmented a Jewish population in the “Holy Land,” whose presence there was continuous since biblical times. Jewish development of the country also attracted large numbers of other immigrants – both Jewish and Arab.

Fact 2: Early Jewish Investment = Economic Renaissance of Palestine

Beginning in 1856, Jewish investment in Palestine commenced with Sir Moses Montefiore’s acquisition of land outside Jerusalem, aimed at promoting agricultural education among the local Jewish population. This initiative marked the inception of targeted efforts to develop the region. Subsequently, from approximately 1878 onwards, Edmond de Rothschild significantly contributed by financially supporting the creation of (modern) Jewish agricultural colonies. This period heralded the start of a sustained influx of Jewish capital and immigrants into Palestine, catalyzing an economic revival. The ensuing prosperity attracted Arab migrants from neighboring countries, drawn by the burgeoning opportunities.

Fact 3: Jewish Agricultural Settlements, Growth of Jerusalem

The first enduring Jewish agricultural settlement in modern Palestine was founded not by European refugees, but by a group of old-time families, leaving the overcrowded Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. The Turkish census of 1875 records that Jews constituted a majority of the population of Jerusalem and by 1905 comprised two-thirds of its citizens. The Encyclopedia Britannica of 1910 shows the Jerusalem population as 60,000, of whom 40,000 were Jews.

Fact 4: Population Growth and Economic Development Under Ottoman Rule and After

The Land was at that time under Turkish Muslim rule, Arabs throughout the Middle East had unrestricted access to Palestine and the Arab population increased. In spite of restrictions on Jewish immigration, Jews also continued to come into the Land. Jewish financial investments and immigration – together with laborious cultivation of the land – had put the Land of Israel on the economic map.

Fact 5: Realities and Land Ownership in Palestine post-World War I

At the close of World War I, some of Palestine’s land was owned by absentee property owners who lived in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. About 80% of the Palestinian Arabs were debt-ridden peasants, semi-nomads and Bedouins. Land purchases from 1880 to 1948 show that 73% of Jewish plots were purchases from large landowners, not poor fellahin.”- The Peel Commission (1937)

Fact 6: Swamp and Sand Dunes

The First Aliyah, also known as the agriculture Aliyah, between 1882 and 1903. Jews who migrated to Ottoman Palestine in this wave, came mostly from Eastern Europe and from Yemen. (Photo by: Universal History Archive via Getty Images)

According to the Peel Commission’s report in Land Ownership in Palestine, 1880-1948:

“Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when purchased…there was at the time at least of earlier sales little evidence that the owners possessed either the resources or training needed to develop the land. Jews paid more than $20 million (at 1936 rates) to Arab landowners, mostly estate holders.”

Let us hear facts from Arab Leaders of that time:

A Surprising Endorsement: Syrian Alawi Notables Back Zionism in 1936

Letter sent to the French Prime Minister in June 1936 by six Syrian Alawi notables (the Alawis are the ruling class in Syria today) in support of Zionism.

“Those good Jews brought civilization and peace to the Arab Muslims, and they dispersed gold and prosperity over Palestine without damage to anyone or taking anything by force. Despite this, the Muslims declared holy war against them and did not hesitate to massacre their children and women… Thus, a black fate awaits the Jews and other minorities in case the Mandates are cancelled, and Muslim Syria is united with Muslim Palestine.” (Source, Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria, Oxford U Press, p. 179)

Al-Ahram’s Barakat Recognition of Zionist Value

From Dawood Barakat, editor of the Egyptian paper Al-Ahram:

“It is absolutely necessary that an entente be made between the Zionists and Arabs because the war of words can only do evil. The Zionists are necessary for the country: The money which they will bring, their knowledge and intelligence, and the industriousness which characterizes them will contribute without doubt to the regeneration of the country.”

Hussein’s Vision: Embracing Jewish Contribution to Palestine’s Growth

From Grand Sharif Hussein bin Ali, A key Arab nationalist, and the guardian of the Islamic Holy Places in Arabia (b.1853):

“The resources of the country are still virgin soil and will be developed by the Jewish immigrants. We have seen the Jews from foreign countries streaming to Palestine from Russia, Germany, Austria, Spain, America. The cause of causes could not escape those who had a gift of deeper insight. They knew that the country was for its original sons (abna’ihi-l-asliyin), for all their differences, a sacred and beloved homeland. The return of these exiles (jaliya) to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually [to be] an experimental school for their brethren who are with them in the fields, factories, trades and in all things connected with toil and labor.”

Fact 7: Arab Exodus Reversed: Jewish Influx actually Sparked Palestine’s Resurgence

Before Jewish immigration and Jewish investments spawned massive Arab immigration, Arabs were actually leaving Palestine. Then the flow of traffic reversed. Between the World Wars, Jewish population grew by 470,000 while non-Jewish population increased by 588,000. Factors included immigration from neighboring countries and Jewish-led improvements in living standards, healthcare, and sanitation.

Fact 8: Jewish Economic Centers in Palestine led to a Transformation from a Region experiencing Arab Emigration to one of Arab Immigration.

The Arab population increased the most in cities with large Jewish populations that had created new economic opportunities. From 1922-­1947, the non-Jewish population increased 290 percent in Haifa, 131 percent in Jerusalem, and 158 percent in Jaffa. The growth in Arab towns was far more modest.

“…Palestine changed from a country of Arab emigration to one of Arab immigration. Arabs from the Hauran in Syria as well as other neighboring lands poured into Palestine to profit from the higher standard of living and fresh opportunities provided by the Zionist pioneers.” (source: Frankenstein, Justice for My People (London: Nicholson & Watson, 1943)

This phenomenon is confirmed by the Palestine Royal Commission Report which observed that in the period between the Balfour Declaration and the United Nations Partition Resolution of 1947, Palestine became a land of Arab immigration. As further documented by Frankenstein, substantial Arab immigration was a recent phenomenon:

“The early ‘lovers of Zion’ began the stimulation of Arab immigration. Some writers have come out with the conclusion that in 1942, 75 percent of the Arab population were either immigrants or descendants of immigrants into Palestine during the preceding one hundred years, after 1882.”

This of course begs the question around how indigenous the present-day Palestinians are, but that is perhaps, for another conversation.

Fact 9: Emir Feisal’s Support: A Pro-Israel Stance Ahead of Its Time. 

In March 1919, The Emir Feisal wrote to Felix Frankenstein:

“We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement… We will wish the Jews a hearty welcome home… We are working together for a reformed and revised Near East, and our two movements complement one another. The movement is national and not imperialistic. There is room in Syria (note: aka Palestine) for us both. Indeed, I think that neither can be successful without the other.”

Note: Faisal bin Al-Hussein bin Ali Al-Hashemi (1885 – 1933) was King of Iraq from August 1921 until his death in 1933. A member of the Hashemite family, he was a leader of the Great Arab Revolt during the First World War, and ruled as the unrecognized King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria in 1920 when the French expelled him. Emir Faisal was referring to all of Palestine including the “West Bank” territory (provinces of Samaria and Judea) – which the British-led army of King Abdullah of Transjordan occupied in 1948, and which Israel liberated in 1967. The Kingdom of Jordan today occupies 77% of the country (Palestine Mandate) which, according to the Balfour Declaration was to be the Jewish National State. The Arabs emerged with the lion’s share. But that also is another conversation.

Fact 10: Mark Twain’s Truth: Unveiling Palestine’s “Crappiness”

Then, there is the published diary of Mark Twain travels in 1867 Palestine. His book, “The New Pilgrim’s Progress,” became the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, and one of the best-selling travel books of all time. Twain described Palestine:

“…[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse….A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action….We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

In attempts to discredit Twain, Palestinian critics of Twain’s comments have produced a few explanations, like, it was summer and hot when Twain was there. Another favorite critique was that Mark Twain was a humorist, and this was a joke, a satire. Others believe that foreign travellers to Palestine in the nineteenth century arrived with certain “attitudes” about the land, its history, and people. I say this sounds more like a “nice try.”

Most reasonable people would simply say that Mark Twain, one of America’s greatest writers, saw what he saw, and wrote about it. Period.

Fact 11: The Brits and Americans Observed the Stagnancy

During the Annual General Meeting of the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in 1875, the Earl of Shaftesbury said of Palestine, “We have there a land teeming with (potential) fertility and rich in history, but almost without an inhabitant.”

As late as 1880, the American consul in Jerusalem reported the area was continuing its historic decline. “The population and wealth of Palestine has not increased during the last forty years,” he said.

Fact 12: Palestine 1913 Royal Commission’s “Crappy” Account 

The Report of the Royal Commission quotes an account of the Maritime Plain:

“The road leading from Gaza to the north was only a summer track suitable for (camels and carts)…no orange groves, orchards or vineyards were to be seen until one reached [the Jewish village of] Yavne… (in the non-Jewish areas) Houses were all of mud. No windows …. The ploughs were of wood .. yields were very poor…. sanitary conditions in the village were horrible. Schools did not exist…. The western part, towards the sea, was almost a desert…. villages in this area were few and thinly populated. Many ruins of villages .. owing to the prevalence of malaria, many villages were deserted by their inhabitants.”

Fact 13: Arab Mayor in 1921: Jews could Raise up Palestine

In July 1921, Hasan Shukri, the mayor of Haifa and president of the Muslim National Associations, sent a telegram to the British government in reaction to a delegation of Palestinians that went to London to try to stop the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. Shukri wrote:

“We are certain that without Jewish immigration and financial assistance there will be no future development of our country as may be judged from the fact that the towns inhabited in part by Jews such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, and Tiberias are making steady progress while Nablus, Acre, and Nazareth where no Jews reside are steadily declining.”

Fact 14: Palestine’s Harsh Conditions: Candid Assessment 1931

Lewis French, the British Director of Development wrote of Palestine in 1931:

“We found it inhabited by fellahin who lived in mud hovels and suffered severely from the prevalent malaria….Large areas…were uncultivated….The individual plots…changed hands annually. There was little public security, and the fellahin’s lot was an alternation of pillage and extortion by their neighbors, the Bedouin.”

Fact 15: King Abdullah’s Memoirs

In his memoirs, Transjordan King Abdullah wrote:

“It is made quite clear to all, both by the map drawn up by the Simpson Commission and by another compiled by the Peel Commission, that the Arabs are as prodigal in selling their land as they are in useless wailing and weeping.” (King Abdallah, My Memoirs Completed, London, Longman Group, Ltd., 1978, pp. 88–89)

Note: Abdullah I (born 1882, Mecca—died 1951, Jerusalem) was a statesman who became the first ruler (1946–51) of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Abdullah, the second son of Hussein ibn Ali, the ruler of the Hejaz, was educated in Istanbul, then the Ottoman Empire.

Engaging in century-old debates is futile. Despite emotional resistance, acknowledging objective truths is crucial. We are not re-negotiating Israel and those who have perpetuated myths and delusional expectations, such as UN/UNRWA/PLO/Hamas/Hezbollah, and others have done the Palestinian people and Israel, a continuing, grave, and dangerous disservice. Critics, offended but often devoid of substantive rebuttals, will resort to either outright irrational denial or veiled, deflective insinuations, suggesting that Israel believes that its agricultural achievements somehow validate their purportedly stronger claim to sovereignty over the land and tie that notion into the colonial-settler false accusation. They reject the profoundly deeper claims; that Jewish agricultural energy and pride, was not the cause for sovereignty, but the result of it. But this is all besides the point.

Coming full circle, to the inane remarks by Canadian politicians, No one is saying that individuals Arabs who lived in Palestine were not connected to the land, even “crappy” land. We are all connected to the land in which we are born, work, propagate, and die – any one of the above; and all of the above. The facts presented here are simply to show that Minister Robinson was not imprecise to describe pre-1948 Palestine as a “crappy” place and that it improved for everyone after it became a Jewish state in 1948. Absolutely a correct statement.

It was a tragedy that the UN resolution for Israeli statehood and the subsequent declaration of that statehood was met with combined Arab rejection, religious incitement, intimidation and invasion. Had it not been for the 1948 War of independence initiated by Israel’s Arab neighbors, that entire region which started off as “crappy” would be a paradise today everywhere. Sound familiar? But, again – a separate conversation.

As for Minister Robinson – fire her for being a poor diplomat if you must. But she was telling the truth.

Bottom line – the Truth Hurts

In the fiery fallout of Minister Selina Robinson’s controversial remark about pre-1948 Palestine, truth collided with diplomacy. Her dismissal, a casualty of a volatile and violent debate, underscores the raw nerve of historical realities. Despite the storm, one fact remains unscathed: early Zionist efforts transformed relatively barren soil into a land of promise, attracting waves of immigrants, both Jewish and Arab. Robinson’s saga serves as a poignant reminder of the perilous intersection where politics, history, and truth converge.

About the Author
Teich, based in Toronto, is an international strategy, market growth, and communications consultant for emerging economies and organizations. With a past role as CEO and extensive experience in over 80 countries and cultures, he's now semi-retired, continuing his consultancy, an author of two best-sellers, and an avid follower of history and current affairs.
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