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The Construction of a Modern National Consciousness, as the title suggests is based on the issue of Palestinian identity, which has long been misunderstood and misrepresented. One of the first striking points that Khalidi makes is that Palestinian identity has been misunderstood because it is rooted in multiple different characteristics including Islamic/Christian, Ottoman/Arab, local/universal, and familial/tribal. It is not that there has been no Palestinian identity, rather it is not “linear” or “uniform” as for instance, the Zionist identity may be. Those who do not understand the depth and amalgamation of histories of the civilization will therefore be unable to understand the Palestinian identity. The main question that Khalidi seeks to answer throughout the book is: what are the roots of Palestinian national identity?
He argues that, contrary to the popular belief that Palestinian national identity emerged as a response to Zionism after World War I, Palestinian national identity is rooted in the histories of religion, attachment of living in one place for a very long time, and regional and local loyalties. First off, Palestinian national identity is deeply rooted in the Christian and Muslim religions which was intensified after the Crusades in 1095-1291, almost a century before any sign of Zionism. This argument is quite strong because there is actual archeological evidence to it. The al-Aqsa mosque and the al-Buraq plaza, both south of the Haram al-Sharif site are the most important to this discussion. Secondly, Khalidi argues that Palestinian identity is rooted in living in one place and one administrative boundary for a long time and is deeply intertwined with the history of Ottoman rule. The land issues of the second aliya prove to be the strongest evidence of this. The fellahin, or peasants, lived and cultivated the land of Palestine for hundreds of years, becoming prosperous through the growth of oranges for instance. In the late 19th century, during the second migration of Jews, most of whom came from Russia, many of these peasants were displaced due to the “conquest of land” by the Zionists. This sparked great outrage and strong unification among the peasants, who rebelled against such sales of land, as in the al-Fula affair. The peasants and the governor argued that it is a betrayal to the people of Palestine who had historic roots with the land to be simply exiled by new migrants through a sale by an absent land owner.
Finally, Palestinian identity was deeply rooted in regional and local loyalties. Ruhi al-Khalidi and Yusuf Diya both received traditional Muslim education early on in their lives and then contemporary Western education later on. They travelled to Europe and learned about various societies, but at the end of the day returned to govern Jerusalem and held high diplomatic posts in their own country. To them, there was no contradiction between cultural nationalism (Arab tradition) and the Ottoman framework (contemporary Western thought). Familial connections were strong and even though Yusuf Diya did not follow in the steps of his father, he had great connection to his identity and land and sought to serve it in his later days. Khalidi’s argument is very strong because it is rooted in historical, rather than theoretical exploration. He is able to back up the points that he makes with real examples of events. More importantly though, is the fact that he is able to explain how the knowledge of those events circulated throughout Palestine and solidified a Palestinian identity. He argues that education (and the modernization of education during the Tanzimat era) as well as journalism and mass media were the main tools of dissemination that helped solidify Palestinian national identity. The education system changed drastically during the Tanzimat reforms during Ottoman rule. While it was previously known that only elites were educated, many of whom. Attended traditional Muslim schools, the Ottomans opened up education to everybody. Modernized schools popped up all over the region and included private schools, missionary schools and public schools. Though this contributed to a weaker and more fragmented Palestinian national identity on the whole, because there was not cohesive tool of identity dissemination, a greater total number of students were taught about the histories of previous cultures and the beginnings of Zionism.
Many Arab schools opened and continued to teach the language, history and culture that seemingly went out of vogue. It was these types of schools that would provide the basis for a very strong Palestinian national identity capable of fighting Zionist influence. Journalism was the main form of dissemination of information throughout the country. More people were able to empathize with the national identity because a greater number of people were educated and literate. Khalidi points out that it may have taken time for news to travel from cultural centers to the outskirts, but it was nevertheless important. Many publications educated the public and had strong opinions about Zionism, including Filastin and al-Quds. They helped bring unity and better organization to the Arabs, who were lacking cohesiveness due to the educational reforms, and created a stronger sense of Palestinian identity in relation to “the other. ” An overall strong point of the book is the sources that it uses. Khalidi critiques the fact that most often, history is written by the victors about the stronger side rather than the weaker side. Therefore, most of Palestinian history has been written based on Zionist and Western sources. His book seeks to repair this problem by providing a history of Palestine from the Arab perspective.
In truth, as he explains, this is quite difficult because much of the population of Palestine was rural and illiterate and because Palestinian archives in Israel are hard to access, but he uses a wide variety and combination of secondary and primary sources. The impressive primary sources he pulls from include speeches, pamphlets, autobiographies, and newspapers. In addition, some of the Arab secondary sources include ‘Abd al-Qadir’s source on the disaster of the Arab nation and Amin Maalouf’s book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. At the same time, Khalidi is aware that striking a balance is important. He uses a variety of Jewish and Western scholars to back up his arguments including David Kushner, Kenneth Stein, and Alexander Scholch. Particularly interesting is the rigor of newspaper sources that Khalidi uses in his monograph. For his study in chapter 6, he surveyed 10, 000 issues of 10 of the most prominent newspapers in Palestine (and in the Middle Eastern region). He found that approximately 500 articles were about Zionism, which the newspaper al-Karmil was the most outspoken about. A couple themes emerged from the study of newspapers that are extremely helpful in the understanding of modern Palestinian identity. First is that newspapers provided an understanding of the Zionist movement, though one weakness of the culture overall may have been the resistance to call for action. The second theme was that there was strong discontent with the Ottoman government, which was beginning to be penetrated by Turkish influence, in their laxity towards Zionist immigration and intrusion. The latter eventually led to modern Palestinian identity being less correlated with the Ottoman empire. Even though newspapers are extremely useful in the study of the “general public” and are a great achievement of this book, in the later chapters, Khalidi relies much too heavily on this resource alone.
Overall, I would recommend this book because of its fair treatment of the topic. Though Khalidi illustrates the formation of Palestinian identity from the Palestinian side and mostly through Arab, rather than Zionist or Western sources, he does not blame the other side for not understanding that identity. He argues that just as much as external factors have put pressure on the Palestinian identity, there are internal factors such as lack of cohesiveness and divisions between class that have weakened its fortitude, and perhaps legitimacy. The cultural reconnaissance of history that Khalidi provides is very much suitable for a reader of the high school age and above, who is interested in the topic. It is easy to read and follow the development of the argument through historical facts. There is a lot of background given to the topic and reference to other sources, from which the reader can learn more.
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