Summary. We investigate the famous story about the "bride is beautiful" and Shai Afsai's alleged debunking of it.
There is a story told of the early days of Zionism. The version published by Avi Shlaim reads as follows.
The publication of [Theodor Herzl's 1896 book] The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish community, some strongly favorable, some hostile, and some skeptical. After the Basel Congress 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." [AS]
The idea of the story is that the bride, Palestine, was already married to the Arabs and so not available for the Jews. Palestinian academic Ghada Karmi based the title of her book "Married to Another Man: Israel's Dilemma in Palestine" on the story [GK]. Many other recent authors have also adopted it, with several variations extant.
In a 2012 article in the academic journal Shofar, journalist Shai Afsai alleged that the story is "fabricated" [SA]. Afsai reported, and we can confirm, that Karmi got the story from Shlaim, while Shlaim got the story from a 1996 book by Egyptian journalist Mohammed Haykal [MH]. Haykal does not give a source for anything in his book, so the trail appears to stop there.
We are rather fond of historical debunking, and would have been delighted if Afsai had found the smoking gun that proves this story to be apocryphal. To our disappointment, he did not. His case for declaring the story to be fraudulent is only that he was not able to find any mention of it prior to Haykal's book. This is not a reason at all, especially when we realise (as we will show below) that Afsai's search was rather superficial.
Afsai implies, without saying so explicitly, that Haykal invented the story. Armed with his proof-by-failure, Afsai then launches into an attack on the motives of everyone who has repeated the story. That is, transparently, the real purpose of his article, but it is not our intention to defend the people he attacks. Rather, we will report our own exploration of the origins of the story.
The story of the beautiful bride is certainly a cute anecdote, but does it teach us anything about history? To put it another way, is there any historical issue of which our understanding rides on the truth or falsity of the story? The only possible answer is that it doesn't matter at all, since the question it addresses is extremely well covered by sources that are not suspect. There is a large body of primary source data regarding the early Zionists and their attitude to the Arabs of Palestine, and this has been studied for decades by many eminent historians.
Not only that, but there are plenty of well-documented stories that contain all the key elements of the bride story except for the bride metaphor itself. A case in point is that of the famous Zionist Ahad Ha'am, who went to Palestine for three months in 1891 to check out the prospects for Jewish settlement. On his return, he published the following.
From abroad, we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy land there can come and buy all he wants. But in truth it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled; only sandy fields or stony hills, suitable at best for planting trees or vines and, even that after considerable work and expense in clearing and preparing them—only these remain unworked, because the Arabs do not like to exert themselves today for a distant future. [AD]
Another example is afforded by the British writer and activist Israel Zangwill. Despite having visited Palestine himself, he believed it to be "almost uninhabited, forsaken and ruined" and for a while at the beginning of the 20th century he liked to call it "a country without a people" [IZ1]. However, within a few years he realised he was wrong and, being the honest fellow that he was, changed his tune:
[W]hen I was first won over to Zionism I was hypnotised by the legend that Palestine was empty and derelict, it was regarded as most disloyal that I should discover and—still worse!—publish that this little territory contained already six hundred thousand Arabs as against one hundred thousand Jews, and that over ninety-eight per cent of its soil was in the hands of non-Jews. Well, consistency may be a political virtue, but I see no virtue in consistent lying. [IZ2]
In support of our claim that the bride story has no historical importance, we can mention that few of the writers who have repeated it claim that it does. They use it only as an entertaining illustration of theses that they consider to be well supported by the historical record. In other words, they don't draw any conclusions from the story that they wouldn't draw anyway. Karmi gives the story in an epigraph at the start of her book but otherwise mentions it only in passing. Shlaim writes that the report of the alleged rabbis "encapsulated the problem with which the Zionist movement had to grapple from the beginning", which is true even if it never happened.
As we mentioned above, Afsai declared the story to be fabricated on the basis of being unable to source it earlier than 1996. However, it is not hard to show that the story with slight variation is older. To start with, we mention that Haykal was already telling the story in 1993.
Heikal then tells me this story: In the early days of the Zionist movement two Rabbis were sent out to this area to find out whether Jews could settle there. And they reported this in substance: The bride is beautiful but the trouble is that she is already married. [DP]
That proves little apart from Haykal's consistency, but the following version published in 1992 by Benny Beit-Hallahmi establishes an earlier date as well as an Israeli pedigree.
There is a famous story, told during a meeting between Prime Minister Golda Meir and a group of Israeli writers in 1970. A Jew from Poland visited Palestine in the 1920s. On his return to Europe, he summarized his impressions by saying: "The bride is beautiful, but she has got a bridegroom already." Golda Meir responded by saying: "And I thank God every night that the bridegroom was so weak, and the bride could be taken away from him." [BB]
Another earlier version was reported in 1977 by The Guardian's veteran Mideast correspondent Eric Silver.
An ageing pioneer was interviewed once on Israeli television. He explained how the elders of his Russian Jewish village had sent an emissary to Palestine to spy out the land. The man reported back: "The bride is beautiful, but she is already married." [ES]
We have no way to check out the ageing pioneer's account, but this evidence proves that Haykal didn't invent the story except, possibly, the two rabbis that appear in his version of it. Indeed, anyone with a knowledge of Herzl would realise that it is quite impossible he would have chosen rabbis for the task. He would have chosen agronomists or other scientific or economic experts.
The existence of multiple slight variations on the story gives it the feel of an urban myth, or more particularly a meme. To expose its possible origin, we return to Israel Zangwill, who was mentioned above. In 1905, after have become disillusioned with Palestine as a possible Jewish homeland, Zangwill founded the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO after its Yiddish initials). The ITO believed in looking for an alternative location, and considered several possibilities in Africa. In 1919, Zangwill recalled an incident that might, just possibly, be the origin of the bride story.
A cartoon in a Jewish comic paper, published in New York, once represented the writer in his capacity of President of the ITO as a bachelor in quest of a bride. Four maidens stood awaiting his lordly choice—three fair enough, but one surpassingly beautiful. This lovely creature was labelled "Zion." The others were marked "Uganda," "Angola," "Cyrenaica." Yet, with a curious want of appreciation, the suitor was turning his back upon the most adorable of them all.
The cartoonist overlooked that "Zion" was not in the marriage market. She was, in fact, already disposed of : a member of the Turk's harem, and very jealously guarded. "Uganda"—by which, of course, was meant British East Africa—was at least virginal.
... To adopt the image of our Yiddish cartoonist, Zion is a bride, who, after her divorce from Israel, has been twice married to Gentiles—once to a Christian and once to a Mohammedan—and when Israel takes her back he will find his household encumbered with the litter of the two intervening ménages. [IZ3]
In this account, Palestine is the beautiful bride and it is Zangwill himself who is judging her to be already married. Due to Zangwill's influence and the widespread distribution of his writings, it is plausible that this is the real origin of the meme of the already-taken bride.
Whatever the exact details of its origin, the bride story is quintessentially Jewish. The presentation of the Land of Israel as a bride has an extensive history with Biblical origins.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My delight is in her, and your land Married. (Isaiah 62:4, ESV)
The scholarly study of such metaphors is traced by Sarah Dille [SD]. The early Zionist pioneers frequently referred to the land, or their own share of it, as a bride. Referring to a study by the psychohistorian Jay Gonen, historian Boaz Neumann writes:
But the first Zionist settlers depicted their return to Zion not only in terms of "returning home" or "rebuilding" but also as a return to the "womb" of history or to Zion, their "bride." They established a libidinal relationship to the land, he maintains. "Mother Zion" was impregnated by the sons who mounted her, who returned to her, who came to her aid. [BN]Neumann gives several examples of this metaphor in use and more can be found elsewhere [DD,SK]. Rachel Brenner commented:
This metaphoric vocabulary indicates that the land has assumed the two-tiered role of the mother, who needs to be rescued and restored from desolation, and the virgin-bride, who waits to be impregnated. It follows that the haluts has assumed the double role of son and husband, in other words, of both cultivator and guardian of the land. [RB]
A modern echo of the same theme appears in the writings of the famous American rabbi Abraham Heschel. When east Jerusalem was captured by Israel during the 1967 war, he wrote:
Jerusalem is not divine, her life depends on our presence. Alone she is desolate and silent, with Israel she is a witness, a proclamation. Alone she is a widow, with Israel she is a bride.
... We, a people of orphans, have entered the walls to greet the widow, Jerusalem, and the widow is a bride again. [AH]
Finally, we would be remiss if we didn't mention Eshkol's own bride metaphor. When Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, it faced the same problem as the Zionists of earlier generations: how to enjoy the land despite the Arabs who already lived there. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol put it like this: "We won the war and received a nice dowry of territory, but it came with a bride we don't like." [AR] Apart from Eshkol's identification of the land with the dowry, rather than with the bride, this is almost the same as the report of the alleged rabbis of 1898. Eshkol used this expression on multiple occasions. Another variation was "Along with a dowry of real estate and perhaps water...—we also are getting a 'bride'—about one million and a quarter non-Jews—this is a heavy bride." [AR]
We have shown that the depiction of Palestine as a beautiful bride who is already married dates back to 1919 at least and is consistent with long term traditions. It is possible that a Yiddish cartoon featuring Israel Zangwill is the origin of the story. On the other hand, the veracity of later versions of the story cannot be ruled out. The existence of true stories of a similar nature shows that independent genesis is perfectly possible.