We can date, pretty accurately, how long Christianity has existed. Given that we are now in December, 2023, we can say without much fear of contradiction that this religion has existed for roughly 2023 years.

What about Judaism? This is a bit rougher to estimate. As a high, the claim is “almost 4,000 years.” A low is “more than 3,000.” We will adopt the shorter estimate to be conservative.

How does Islam register? Estimates vary here, too, but not as widely. According to one source it was the year 610, “following the first revelation to the prophet Muhammad at the age of 40.” In the view of another, it was 622, “the year of the hijra, or ‘emigration,’ which marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.” A third authority claims this religion began “at the start of the 7th century CE,” which is compatible with the other two dates. For round numbers, we will posit that the Muslim religion has been around for 2023 – 600 = 1423 years.

What does this historical record have to do with Israeli versus Arab land claims? According to John Locke, whom we regard as definitive in matters of this sort, the first person to homestead land is its rightful owner. That is, he who “mixes his labor” with virgin territory is deemed the proper owner of the land in question. Most though not all Israelis are Jewish, while the same consideration applies to the other side: most, but not all Arabs are Muslims, adherents of the Islamic religion. We also rely upon Robert Nozick’s insight about “legitimate title transfer” of land: we assume, other things equal, that it passes from parents to children.

Therefore, in any dispute between Arabs and Jews over land titles, the presumption lies with the latter. They were “around” for a longer period of time, and thus had more opportunities to come to be the legitimate owners of property. The Jews were busily occupying the contested land for more than double the time the Muslims were so doing.

To be sure, it is only a presumption that this determines proper ownership titles. It would not apply to land in much of sub-Saharan Africa, or northern Canada, nor much of South America or Australia or Siberia: neither group was known to have occupied any of these areas, historically. However, it certainly does apply to the Middle East, where the two groups contend as to rightful ownership over disputed territory. Which property, specifically? Take, for instance, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the most sacred site for Judaism. The Muslim constructions there came much later, centuries later. The Jews were there first.

But sites as the Temple Mount are small compared to the entire area, so what do we make of that? Jewish presence in the land was almost uninterrupted for 2,000 years. Yes, in small numbers, but still this occurred. The situation began to change at the end of the nineteenth century. By 1890, there were roughly 43 thousand Jews and some 432 thousand Muslims in the area. That of course began to change as time passed. The only reason there was no Jewish majority by 1948 is because the British severely restricted Jewish immigration in the 30's and 40's, thereby condemning millions to be slaughtered in Europe. In any case, only a few years later population in Israel tripled. Jerusalem had a Jewish majority as early as the 1850s, though. Remember, this was west of the Jordan river, comprising an area that now holds about 9.4 million people in Israel, 3 million in Judea and Samaria, and 2 million in the Gaza Strip. And yet, it still is mostly empty (with about two thirds of the territory consisting of desert, the Negev). If that is the case today, imagine what was the case 150 years ago. There was very little evidence of homesteading in most of the land by any group at the beginning of the twentieth century.

As the Jews returned in large numbers, they homesteaded much of their land once again. Their economy, agricultural development and industrial investment was stronger than that which prevailed in the neighboring countries; this attracted Arabs to immigrate as well. Moreover, by 1948 roughly 9% of the land was owned by Jews and 20% nominally by Arabs (including about 3% by those who later became Israeli Arabs). But observe that the latter “Arab lands” were mostly regarded as uncultivable, hence really unhomesteaded. Thus, it was not legitimately owned. In reality, these were titles based mostly on government concessions to absentee (that is non-) landowners. Actually, most of the land was government owned (the Ottomans before WWI, and then the British).

So, if neither Jews nor Arabs owned most of the land, did they have a right to establish a state there? Well, yes, as long as it was a country that intended to build a society that respects and protects individual rights. In this sense, the UN Partition Plan of 1947 proposed two states mainly on the basis of demographic considerations. The Arabs rejected it (although by accepting they would have been in fact creating a second Arab state in the area after Jordan), the Jews accepted. The rest is history. Now the Israel population contains 20% Arab citizens with equal rights, while Arab countries (including Palestinian Arab areas) are quite literally judenrein.

But what if there was an Arab state in Palestine before 1948? After all, it could be argued that there is no single country (with the exception of micro-states such as Lichtenstein or Monaco, or even these) that are based on fully homesteaded territories. So, if neither Arabs nor Jews owned most of the land, that is irrelevant. The relevant point is that there wasn’t an Arab state, it was controlled by the British. Moreover, the charge against Israel is that it stole Palestine. In reality, Jews purchased much of it, and homesteaded much more of it later. And won even more of it in self-defense wars.

The Romans definitely conquered the Jews in Judea between 66 and 135 CE. This demonstrates that members of the Jewish faith were there at that time. The same cannot be said for the Arabs. They came later.

As for the Palestinian Arabs, they were Johnny-come-latelies as a group. And even in the twentieth century, both Jews and Arabs of Palestine were known as Palestinians. Several Jewish organizations, from The Jerusalem Post to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, were then The Palestine Post and The Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, respectively. Once Israel was created, Jews were then known as Israelis. The term “Palestinian” was left for the Arabs by default. Does that mean that there were no Arabs in the area? Not at all. But Palestine was paradoxically not a Palestinian Arab entity, only a historical area (in fact, named by the Romans as such in order to denigrate the expelled Judean Jews).

The present conflagration is not, ultimately, about land titles. It is about the rejection of a Jewish state, even if it consists of a single synagogue in Tel Aviv whose property is deemed as kosher by John Locke himself. But who is the rightful owner of the contested territories? Israel’s critics claim that the Jews were land-stealing “colonizers.” As we have seen, this is not at all the case.

Futerman and Block are co-authors of The Classical Liberal Case for Israel (Springer, 2021, with commentary by Benjamin Netanyahu).