In the introduction to his popular and influential history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World (first published by W. W. Norton & Co., 2000), Oxford University Professor Avi Shlaim recounts the following tale: “The publication of [Theodore 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 that tale about the Land of Israel/Palestine being lovely but already taken, lacks a primary source, and though there has been no basis for recounting it as a historical event that occurred during the early years of the Zionist movement, versions of it appear in a host of books and articles.
University of Exeter Professor Ghada Karmi, for instance, based the title and thesis of her Married to Another Man: Israel’s Dilemma in Palestine (Pluto Press, 2007), in which she argued for the dissolution of the Jewish state, on the mythical story. More recently, former Swedish diplomat Ingmar Karlsson followed suit with his 2012 anti-Zionist work Bruden 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?)
In some versions of the myth, it is the First Zionist Congress (rather than the rabbis of Vienna) that dispatches the two representatives. In others, it is Herzl himself who sends the rabbis and receives their reply. One of the story’s more frequent tellers, Egyptian journalist and public intellectual Mohamed Heikal, has made use of the tall tale to depict Zionist Jews as unremittingly opposed to conciliation with the 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 already belonged to others, it is similarly unlikely that today’s 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 depicts the state of Israel as “something unreal,” with which peace is not possible, and whose European Jewish inhabitants are not “Semitic” and lack a connection to the Middle East.
In another, less widespread variant, the “married to another man” story is not set in Western Europe, during the lifetime of Herzl, or even in the nineteenth century. In his Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Palgrave Macmillan, 1992), University of Haifa Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi relates the following:
“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 Palestine in Beit-Hallahmi’s “famous story” is unnamed. Furthermore, his town or city of origin is not identified, nor is a specific year given for when his visit to Palestine or return to Poland were to have occurred.
In 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) on several aspects of the “married to another man” story. Others, including the anonymous blogger Elder of Ziyon, Hadar Sela (managing editor of BBC Watch) and Lisa Abramowicz (secretary-general of the Swedish Israel Information Center), have subsequently also addressed misuses of the story.
While no primary source for the tale has surfaced since publication of the “Shofar” article, it continues to be repeated uncritically. Though Ghada Karmi, for example, has admitted that she searched hard for the story’s source, was unable to find one, and fears it is apocryphal, she has offered no public correction of her scholarship and still presents the myth as historical fact on her website.
Similarly, when Avi Shlaim published an “Updated and Expanded” edition of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World in 2014, he once again, and still without offering a source for it, included the “married to another man” tale in his book.
Jews were aware in the early years of Zionism that there was an Arab population in the Land of Israel/Palestine that was significant relative to its Jewish population at the time. Moreover, Zionists realized that much of the Arab population did not want Jews to immigrate to the Land of Israel/Palestine or to establish a Jewish state there. There is no need to resort to contrived tales in order to prove those points. Nonetheless, the anti-Zionist potential inherent in the “married to another man” myth makes it irresistible to certain writers and accounts for much of its enduring popularity, despite its lack of historical authenticity.
Regardless of its different details, the “married to another man” tale’s central point is often the same. Already in the early years of the Zionist movement, the argument goes, Jews recognized that it would be wrong for them to try to claim the Land of Israel/Palestine, as it was inhabited by Arabs and wedded to them. Despite this, the Zionists proceeded with their plans for Jewish statehood there. From the outset, therefore, Zionism was resolutely immoral, and at its core the establishment of the state of Israel was an act of willful injustice.
It is but a small step from such an argument to the conclusion that the Zionist state should now be entirely dismantled, ending decades of "injustice." Heikal, Karmi, Karlsson, and Marrouchi eagerly take that step. Shlaim, too, currently supports a one-state solution.
All have been willing to put aside scholarly standards in attempting to advance their anti-Zionist arguments.
Shai Afsai’s articles have appeared in the Jewish Quarterly, The Times of Israel and The Providence Journal. His short stories have appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Underground Voices and Midstream. His photo exhibit on the priests of the Beta Israel will open in Rhode Island in May 2016.