In the prologue to his popular history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (first published by W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), professor Avi Shlaim of Oxford University claimed the following (p. 3):
"The publication of [Theodor Herzl’s] The Jewish State evoked various reactions in the Jewish community, some strongly favorable, some hostile, and some skeptical. After the Basel Congress [i.e., the First Zionist Congress, in 1897] 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.'”
Though stories incorporating the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” lack a primary source, and though there has been no basis for recounting them, including the one above, as historical events that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement, different versions of this story have appeared in many articles, books, and films.
University of Exeter professor Ghada Karmi, for instance, based the title and thesis of her 2007 Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine—in which she argued for the dissolution of the Jewish state—on a version of these stories. Former Swedish diplomat Ingmar Karlsson emulated her with his 2012 anti-Zionist bookBruden är vacker men har redan en man: Sionisme—en ideologi vid vägs ände? (The bride is beautiful but there is already a husband: Zionism—an ideology at the end of the road?), which was funded and distributed by the Swedish Arts Council.
Often, as with Shlaim and Karmi, no source at all has been provided for these stories in the published writings of those who have told them. At other times, a specious one has been put forward: In the opening paragraph of his 2011 article “Cry No More for Me, Palestine—Mahmoud Darwish” (College Literature 38:4, pp. 1-43), for example, Mustapha Marrouchi cited Henry M. Christman’s The State Papers of Levi Eshkol as a source for the version he told, though there is actually no story with the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” in Christman’s book:
Marrouchi wrote: "Shortly after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the Rabbis of Vienna sent two of their own to the then British Mandate of Palestine to explore the possibilities for immigration. 'The bride is beautiful,' they cabled home. 'But she is married to another man' (Christman 2000, 45)."
In 2014, Marrouchi was fired from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas for repeated plagiarism—but when at a loss for a passage to lift about Israel/Palestine, he was also not above making up a reference, too.
Of course, in 1897, the Land of Israel/Palestine was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, not the Arabs. And the British Mandate for Palestine only commenced in 1920, a couple of decades later.
In some versions of stories making use of the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man,” it is the First Zionist Congress, rather than the rabbis of Vienna, that dispatched the two representatives to the Land of Israel/Palestine. In other versions, Herzl himself or his right-hand man Max Nordau sent the rabbis and received their reply.
One of these stories' more frequent tellers, the late Egyptian journalist and public intellectual Mohamed Heikal, made use of them to portray Zionist Jews as unremittingly opposed to conciliation with Palestinian Arabs, suggesting that just as Herzl was unwilling to give up his plans to create a Jewish state in Palestine, even though the “two rabbis” informed him that the land was already possessed by others, it was similarly unlikely that contemporary Zionists will “compromise”—i.e., agree to no longer have a Jewish state in the Middle East—now that their sought after state already exists. Heikal depicted the state of Israel as “something unreal” with which peace was not possible, and whose European Jewish inhabitants were not “Semitic” and lacked a connection to the Middle East.
Rawan Damen’s documentary Al Nakba (Al Jazeera Arabic, 2008/Al Jazeera World, 2013) incorporated a story with the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” in which it is Nordau who dispatched the “two rabbis” to the Land of Israel/Palestine.
The Independent’s Joe Sommerlad repeated that version as part of his plagiarizing article “A brief history of the Israel-Palestinian conflict” (May 13 and May 20, 2021), published during the recent eleven days of fighting between Hamas and Israel in May 2021. Of the start of the Zionist movement, Sommerlad (copying Damen) claimed:
"Austro-Hungarian journalist Dr Theodor Herzl’s book The Jewish State appeared a decade later, envisioning the establishment of such an entity with the coming of the 20th century. Two rabbis were sent by Herzl’s friend Max Nordau to Palestine to investigate the feasibility of the prospect but reported back: 'The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.'"
As a result of my writing about Sommerlad’s online article, The Independent made significant changes to it. It was modified to state that the authenticity of the story about two rabbis being sent by Nordau to Palestine to investigate the feasibility of a Jewish state is contested. An editorial note at its end now includes the following: “This article was amended on 18 June 2021 to include a reference to Al Nakba as a source, and also to say that the authenticity of the quote ‘The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man’ is contested.”
In a much less widespread variant of such “bride is beautiful” stories, the setting is not Western Europe, the lifetime of Herzl, or even the 19th century. In his Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), University of Haifa professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi related the following (p. 78):
"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.'”
As is the case with the two rabbinic representatives from Vienna in other versions, the lone Jewish traveler to the Land of Israel/Palestine in Beit-Hallahmi’s “famous story” is unnamed. In the version told by Beit-Hallahmi, the traveler’s town or city of origin is not identified, either, and no specific year is given for his supposed visit to Palestine or return to Poland.
A version of these fables also made its way into Joseph Dorman and Oren Rudavsky’s 2015 documentary Colliding Dreams. In the film’s second section, “One Land. Two Peoples,” Kobi Sharett (the eldest son of Israel’s second prime minister, Moshe Sharett) narrated the following over old black-and-white footage from the Land of Israel/Palestine, accompanied by melancholy piano music:
"In the early years of Zionism, certain groups sent a mission to Palestine to see whether it is really a place which millions of Jews can go into. So they went around Palestine and then came back and wrote a report. And in the report they said something of the sort—I think it was true: “Palestine is a wonderful place. It’s like a beautiful girl. But the girl is already engaged.” Meaning that it belongs already to some other people."
Sharett’s version does not have even the illusion of specificity, such as a decade (the 1890s or the 1920s), a European location (Vienna or Poland), the size of the mission to the Land of Israel/Palestine (a lone traveler, two rabbis, or a larger delegation), or descriptive information about which organizations or individuals sent them and received their report (a rabbinic organization, a Zionist organization, Herzl, or Nordau?). “Certain groups sent a mission.” Who? When? From where? Not important. Sharett thought the story true, and the filmmakers’ pictorial and musical framing of his false narration gives it credence: here is a verifiably historical event that took place in the early years of Zionism being conveyed by a credible source, the son of a former Israeli prime minister, and which summarizes the injustice at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
In June 2012, I published “‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man’: Historical Fabrication and an Anti-Zionist Myth” (Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 30:3, pp. 35-61). Others, including the blogger Elder of Ziyon, Lisa Abramowicz, and Hadar Sela, subsequently also addressed misuses of stories featuring the phrase. I followed up my 2012 article with “‘The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.’ The tenacity of an anti-Zionist fable” (Fathom Journal, Autumn 2020).
While no primary source for stories featuring the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” has surfaced since 2012, they continue to be repeated more or less uncritically. Though Karmi, for example, admitted that she searched hard for a primary source, was unable to find one, and feared the story she told may in the end be apocryphal, she has offered no public correction of her scholarship and still presents a version of the story as historical fact on her website, as part of promoting her Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine.
When Shlaim published an “Updated and Expanded” edition of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (W. W. Norton & Co.) in 2014, he once again, and still without offering a source, included a story (pp. 3-4) featuring the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.” He made, however, one change. Shlaim now, without explanation, referred to it as “an apocryphal story”: “After the Basel Congress, according to an apocryphal story, the rabbis of Vienna decided to explore Herzl’s ideas and sent two representatives to Palestine.” Even so, Shlaim went on to discuss the story as though it were factual and not apocryphal.
And as for Marrouchi’s 2011 article “Cry No More for Me, Palestine—Mahmoud Darwish,” which has been retracted by College Literature for plagiarism, Marrouchi still proudly mentions it among his “several works of literary criticism” in the third-person biography presented on his website.
Such is the state of scholarship, journalism, and filmmaking on Jewish and Israeli history.
Many Jews were aware of the fact that in the early years of the Zionist movement the Arab population in the Land of Israel/Palestine was larger than the Jewish population there. Moreover, Zionists realized that much of the Arab population did not want Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel/Palestine or to reestablish a Jewish state there. Believing the land to be their national heritage, and the Jews its indigenous people, they were undeterred. There is no need to resort to contrived tales in order to demonstrate those points.
Nonetheless, the anti-Zionist potential inherent in stories containing the phrase “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man” makes them irresistible to many historians, journalists, and filmmakers, and accounts for much of the stories’ enduring popularity, despite an apparent lack of historical veracity. Historians, journalists, and filmmakers have been willing to put aside basic scholarly standards in attempting to advance their anti-Zionist arguments.
Shai Afsai lives in Providence, Rhode Island. In addition to fiction and poetry, his recent writing has focused on the works of Thomas Paine, Zionist historiography, the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man stories, Jews and Freemasonry, Benjamin Franklin’s influence on Jewish thought and practice, religious traditions of the Beta Yisrael Jewish community from Ethiopia, Jewish observance and identity in Nigeria, aliyah to Israel from Rhode Island, Jewish pilgrimage to Ukraine, Jewish-Polish relations, Jews and Irish literature, and Judaism in Northern Ireland. His works have appeared in a large number of publications.