Palestinian Nationalism through Anderson’s Imagined Communities: An evolution of Imperialism, Nationalism and Colonialism

Written by: Iman Ahmed, University of Toronto

Introduction

Both limited and sovereign, Benedict Anderson’s theory encompasses a wide range of nationalisms, using such concepts as print capitalism and official nationalism to explain their manifestation, which I will apply to Arab-Palestinian nationalism. The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most controversial, violent, and divisive issues of modern era with many ways to frame the struggle and a multitude of actors to consider, all of which have evolved over time. Although this conflict occurs over a small strip of land, it has unavoidable international elements due to the land’s evolution from being a part of the Ottoman Empire (OE), a British colony in the interwar period, to an arena of Cold War tensions. Furthermore, although the struggle with Zionism and Israel dominate the conversation now, the modern Palestinian national consciousness has deep historical roots going back centuries, and ignoring these origins only further erodes trust and impairs negotiations. The current cycle of violence seems insurmountable, with the Israeli stance on settlement expansion and denial of Palestinians as a national community “deserving of a state,”[1]coalesced with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s internal strife and factional discord. These circumstances suggest that the goal of statehood has never been more unattainable. How, then, does the vigor behind calls for Palestinian Nationalism remain resolute? Using Anderson’s theories of print capitalism and official nationalism, this paper will show that Palestinian nationalism is rooted in anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist struggles, orienting itself as an ideology that predated the creation of a Jewish homeland under the British Mandate. Furthermore, this paper will endeavor to show how the renewed violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict throughout the Cold War cannot be separated from the overarching ideological themes of that era, namely the struggle between imperialism and decolonization and that between communism and capitalism. 

Orienting Perceptions of Palestinian Nationalism  

In tracing the origins of Palestinian nationalism, a number of academics have argued that it arose entirely in response to the creation of an explicitly Jewish Homeland during and after WWI. Premier among these thinkers is Bernard Lewis, a British-American historian who derides that Arabs as a whole had any concept of nationalism let alone Palestinian nationalism, until WWI.[2]Daniel Pipes, another Harvard-educated historian, also claims, unequivocally, that there was no “Palestinian” identity before 1920, suggesting that the Arabs of that region [Leila Isk1] identified only as Muslims, with little to no positive or negative relationship to nearby Christians and Jews.[3]In his book The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War, lauded for its evenhanded examination of both sides of the conflict,[4]James L. Gelvin writes that “Palestinian nationalism emerged during the interwar period in response to Zionist immigration and settlement.”[5]In saying so, he reaffirms that same narrative of a people with no examinable national consciousness or attachment to the land until confronted with large-scale colonialism. However, Gelvin warns readers not to belittle the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism on the basis that it followed Zionism, emphasizing that nearly all nationalisms occur in opposition to some determinable ‘other.’[6]

In making this statement, Gelvin presumably seeks to offset efforts by Israeli nationalists and others to disparage the legitimacy of the Palestinian demand for statehood as an anti-Semitic rebellion of modern times, rooted in Arab nationalism or supremacy. This attitude has been a prevailing objection to Palestinian nationalism since its conception — that Palestinian nationalism is suspect because it did not exist before the Balfour Declaration. For example, Arthur Balfour, writing in 1919, asserted that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions … [and] of far greater import than the desires and prejudice of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”[7]Balfour is of the opinion that the Arabs, as recentresidents, have a tenuous claim to the land, their desires negligible in the face of Zionist tradition. This idea reverberated far into the 20th century — consider former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who claimed that “There was no such thing as Palestine… they did not exist.”[8]Balfour, as the British Foreign Minister, marked the burgeoning contours of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the onset. These statements shed light on how Palestinian nationalism was and is perceived — as a latent manifestation of identity rooted in prejudice, inherently anti-Semitic, devoid of historical significance.

Origins of Palestinian Nationalism

Through the Advent of Print Capitalism

 Anderson considers the dawning of national consciousness as stemming from a unique interplay between technology, capitalism, and the diversity of human language, which all converged to help people imagine a community which had none “but the most fortuitous relationship to existing political boundaries.”[9]Printcapitalism, stressing the proliferation of the printing press, allowed a common language to create a discourse between peoples far away through the ever-expanding capitalist marketplace. This understanding of how nationalism emerges — not just in opposition to others, but through a collective understanding of each other as a community with shared knowledge, values, and grievances — is applicable to the Palestinian case. This nuanced understanding of nationalism is crucial to chart the formation of Palestinian nationalism at its infancy, place it on equal footing with Zionism and give Palestinians a foundation upon which to claim statehood. This essay, in employing Anderson’s understanding of nationalism, does not deny that Palestinian nationalism grew out of opposition to Zionism, given that nearly all nationalisms, including Zionism and European nationalisms,[10]emerged in response to some definable other, and were thus finite in their scope.[11]Rather, this essay seeks to contextualize Palestinian nationalism as a more grounded anti-imperial opposition that began in earnest with 19th-century  Jewish immigration, building on an embedded territorial consciousness, thus demonstrating that a collective ‘Palestinian’ identity existed before WWI, using print capitalism to broadcast itself. 

Through an analysis of early Palestinian newspapers, elements of a modern Palestinian national consciousness driven by peasant worries over land and displacement due to increased Jewish immigration to Jerusalem, are clearly identifiable. When chronicled in newspapers, these concerns reached political elites, creating a horizontal comradeship, or fraternity,[12]under the common identification of “Palestinian.” During the Ottoman Empire, the Arabic press in Palestine emerged latently only after the Young Turk revolution, but did so robustly, with no less than 15 Arabic newspapers by December 1908.[13]These newspapers played a crucial role in propagating what had been to this point largely peasant concerns over increased Jewish immigration from 1839-1914,[14]crossing class and religious boundaries and allowing elites and peasants to relate to one another. Rashid Khalidi, in a survey of these early newspapers like al-Karmiland Filastin[15]notes that “Arabic language papers began to reflect a mounting concern about the dangers posed by Zionist colonization.”[16]The prevailing view among Palestinians —that Zionism was  a colonial expansion endangering their way of life — predated the creation of a Palestinian colony under the British Mandate. As such, calls for Palestinian self-determination today cannot be dismissed out of hand as a reaction to the creation of Israel; rather, they need to be understood as stemming from a far more entrenched identity that Palestinians have held for centuries. 

In Response to Official Nationalism

Beyond misgivings surrounding Zionism, these newspapers also demonstrate a burgeoning anti-imperialist sentiment among Palestinians against the Ottoman Empire, where local nationalist leanings threatened the dynastic state, provoking an official Ottoman nationalism and Turkification process. An analysis of these early Palestinian newspapers indicates a growing dissatisfaction with the Ottoman central authorities, specifically noting a common feeling that local needs were being ignored in favor of new Ottoman alliances with Jewish organizations.[17]Frustration in the face of the empire’s lax stance on Zionist colonialism went a long way to invigorate the newly emerging Palestinian and local Arab nationalisms. Anderson’s “official nationalism” becomes relevant here; this Andersonian contribution to the analysis of the emergence of the modern nation states, suggesting that large multi-ethnic empires might attempt to assert dynastic control of their population, a procedure described as “stretching the short, tight skin of the nation over the gigantic body of the empire.”[18]A kind of “official nationalism” emerged on behalf of the Ottoman Empire, although instead of co-opting popular anti-Imperialist sentiment, as Anderson describes of European dynasties, they looked to suppress and replace it entirely. For example, the Ottomans took steps to suspend Palestinian newspapers that criticized Jewish land purchases, including Al-Karmiland Filastin,[19]and imposed mandatory Turkish-language requirements in schools, courts, and local government offices.[20]The friction between Ottoman imperialism and Palestinian nationalism was reflected in the aforementioned newspapers and permeated every class and ethnicity within the empire — for example, the editor of Al-Karmil,one of the most sharp critics of the Ottoman Empire and Zionism, was a Protestant Christian Arab.[21]The banning of the newspapers exposes their impact in bringing Palestinians of all religious affiliations, political statuses, and economic classes together in opposition to empire. The pervading concern of Zionist immigration, now inextricably linked with imperial overreach, inspired locals to protest Zionist immigration directly to the Ottoman Authorities.[22]Thus, Zionism itself did not provoke nationalism, instead working with anti-imperialist sentiments as a focal point for Arab nationalism as a whole, and Palestinians in particular, to rally around. 

 There also exists significant evidence of a territorial consciousness of a distinct Palestine set apart from the rest of the Arab region under the Ottoman Empire, upon which nationalism could emerge. This evidence dates back to the 17th century, and ancient religious and legal texts from that time period make reference to Filastin (Palestine), in a sense that went beyond “‘mere’ objective geography.”[23]In a book of legal opinion written by Khary al-Din al-Ramli (c. 1671), there are numerous references to Filastin, indicating that the reader is aware of the concept of Palestine, despite the fact that the term was not used by the Ottoman Empire, which had long before split the land into several districts (sanjaqs).[24]In fact, al-Ramli was referred by his contemporaries as the “Alim [Scholar] of Filastin.”[25]Consequently, when the national consciousness of Palestine emerged in the face of increased Jewish immigration to Jerusalem and surrounding cities, it emerge on top of an entrenched territorial consciousness. Palestinian nationalism is thus given an element of antiquity, which Anderson notes nearly all nationalists share despite the objective modernity of the nation-state concept.[26]Therefore, the political communities that emerged in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire, despite spending centuries administered by a central authority, were cognizant of a deeper territorial history and divide that would attempt to reassert itself with the fall of empire

 Although most of the aforementioned scholars date the birth of Palestinian nationalism to the 1920s, by this time, it was already a firmly accepted and common narrative among Arabs in Palestine, Muslims and Christians alike, due in large part to print capitalism. During this time, in response to Jewish immigration and anti-imperialism, there were many inherently nationalist Muslim Christian Associations, which were linked in their opposition to Zionism and imperial overreach.[27]In fact, at an anti-Zionist rally in February 1920, Maronite vicar Paul ‘Abboud described Palestine as the “sanctuary of Christianity and the direction of prayer for Islam,” designating Jews as “the enemy of the cross and crescent.”[28]This influential and commonly-held feeling among Palestinians was so prevalent that it provoked retaliation by Herbert Samuel, who proposed a legislative council based on the Balfour Declaration of 22 members, only 10 of whom could be Arabs;[29]in other words, Arab Muslims and Christians, who made up 94% of the population, could have only 45% of the seats.[30]By this point, nationalist ideology was so strong in Palestine that the British Empire was making a concerted legislative effort to control and diminish it. This event is also reminiscent of another character of official nationalism, whereby the dominant group might take such an anticipatory strategy in the face of an “emerging nationally-imagined community.”[31]In this way, the imperial interference on behalf of the Jewish population further cemented the Palestinian perception of Zionism as a colonial enterprise supported by empire.

In any discussion about the emergence of Palestinian nationalism in relation to the Ottoman Empire and Zionism, it is important to note that often nationalism and the modern nation-state emerged unevenly, overlapping with each other and empire even as it came into conflict with them. Anderson, in coining “official nationalism,” notes this reality of empire and nations blending together at some point, overlapping and intersecting in an effort to define themselves and cling to relevance. For example, Ottomanism, the ideology of the Ottoman Empire until its collapse in the 20th century, evoked an Arab response by emphasizing Turkish nationalism,[32]and in trying to consolidate and reinforce control of their empire, the Ottomans pushed Arab elements away. Similarly, within Arab regions (Syria, Jordan, Palestine), local crises prevented any full adoption of Arab nationalism. For example, Palestinian nationalism was evoked by shared concern for Jewish immigration limited to their boundaries, distinct from the issues facing Jordan or Syria, spelling the failure of a more universal Arab nationalism.[33]Furthermore, even when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, “nations” as we conceive of them now did not replace it.  A new Empire took its place, despite clear territorially-rooted nationalist movements, and instituted a new colonial master through the British mandate, which continually gave priority to another ‘rival’ nationalist claim, in order to consolidate its own authority. So even as empire waned, nationalism did not replace it evenly, and the triumph of one nationalism was not the triumph of all nationalist movements. 

Decolonization and the Cold War: Palestine-Israel Conflict

Anderson’s theories of nationalism also provide a deeper understanding of international relations during the Cold War, with the framework of Palestinian nationalism rooted in anti-Zionist and anti-imperialist struggles having been adopted by a new class of nationalist leaders. Fayaz A. Sayegh, a US-trained Christian Palestinian,[34]in his 1965 study Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, outlines the pervading relationship between empire and colonialism in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Sayegh traces the historical contours of ‘Zionist Colonialism’ to the scramble for Africa of the early1880s, setting off the hunt for a Jewish Nation, a program that would quickly take on the characteristics of the British Empire.[35]He notes the ‘Jewish Colonial Trust’ and ‘Colonial Commission’ set up in 1898 as the first institutions of the Zionist enterprise, and laments that with the alliance to British imperialism and the creation of the United Nations,[36]the nearly 100-year effort for the creation of a Jewish nation at the expense of Palestinian political and physical rights was achieved. 

What fascinates the most about Sayegh’s writings is his designation of the UN as an instrument of imperial power, and how this classification has changed over the course of the Cold War. At the time of the creation of Israel, the Ottoman Empire was just beginning to recede, and the nature of the UN was still quite imperial, as seen by an analysis of the 1947 vote on the partition of Palestine into two states. Nearly every European country, and most of Latin America (although there were many accusations of bribes and US political and economic pressure to do so),[37]voted for the partition, and every Middle Eastern country voted against it, with the final vote tallying up to 33-13. The acknowledgement of a new non-Arab nation in the Middle East, a region which links together Asia and Africa, thus happened “without the free consent of any neighboring Asian or African country.”[38]Of course, further into the Cold War and through subsequent decolonization wars, UN membership swelled until decolonized nations greatly outnumbered former imperial powers. This shift in the power dynamic would mean the US had to employ vetoes to defend Israel in the face of truly international condemnation of its actions.[39]One wonders what the outcome of Resolution 181 might have been, had there been at that time a robust non-aligned movement with newly independent colonies, like Algeria, which might have sympathized with Palestinian nationalism.  

Thus, Palestinian nationalists were not excluded from the Cold-War ideological battle. Through their participation in decolonization dialogues, like at the 1955 Bandung Conference,[40]they were forced to pick sides. The Bandung Conference’s final communiqué declared its support for the Palestinian people.[41]In response, a Jewish newspaper wrote that “Red China supports Arabs.”[42]The US, in turn, supported Israel, whom they saw as an outpost for democratic and capitalist values in the Middle East, and more similar to them than the strange Arabs.[43]This dynamic also played a role in international institutions, adding to the “Cold War paralysis” of the UN Security Council, as the US would continually veto resolutions that censured Israel.[44]In this way, through the Cold War, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict evolved to have even more far-reaching international dimensions, involving China and the US. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fueled by Cold War tensions, thus fits with the definition of a Cold War proxy war: a civil war used by international actors to pursue ideological agendas. 

The reality of the Cold War, of course, was that it was actually quite hot, infusing new life and death into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Civil conflicts with foreign intervention tend to be bloodier and longer than those without,[45]especially when a strong foreign power intervenes heavily on one side,[46]as the United States has done for Israel, sending more than $3.8 billion in aid.[47]This endless flow of arms, military training, and money from the US is buttressed by unintentional international support for terrorist/insurgent organizations in Gaza and the West Bank, which receive money from Saudi Arabia, Iran, the EU, and the UN, ostensibly for humanitarian aid though often rerouted toward weapons and arms purchases.[48]This translates to a constant stream of money and arms to either side, a constant fuel to this decades-old flame. The conflict thus continues to take lives, and numerous negotiations efforts are constantly thwarted by an inability to reconcile the needs and desires of either side. Of course, this may be another aftereffect of the long-standing civil nature of the conflict, which are rarely resolved with negotiated settlement, but rather one side declaring all out military victory.[49]

Conclusion

The reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of a deep and entrenched history intertwined with colonialism, empire, and multiple nationalisms. Anderson’s theories of print capitalism and official nationalism help to navigate the origins of a national consciousness within Palestine. Evidence of this consciousness as well as imperial and nationalist opposition to its formulation can be found in early Palestinian newspapers, communications of the British Empire and the activities of Palestinian leaders throughout the 20th century and earlier. An examination of these sources reveals a deep-seated territorial and social awareness among Palestinians of their own distinct boundaries, which gained traction and transformed into a recognizable nationalist movement in the wake of Jewish immigration to Palestine in the 19th century and frustration with the Ottoman central authorities. Orienting Palestinian nationalism as a reaction to what they perceived as an imperially-supported Zionist colonialism adds another lens through which to interpret the conflict in relation to the decolonization movements of the Cold War, as an early and ongoing manifestation of that effort. The internationalization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not just as a product of empire but through Cold War tensions as well, reinvigorated the violence. Furthermore, the narrative of Palestinian nationalism that emerges from Anderson’s theory of nationalism also helps in understanding the nature of international relations from WWI through the Cold War until contemporary times, where nationalism emerges in fits and starts, the world order evolves constantly between supremacy and multilateralism, and regional conflicts become global controversies. Whatever the international implications, all conversations must acknowledge the plight of the millions of Palestinians both dispersed around the world and concentrated in Gaza and the West Bank, placing historical and national weight behind their calls for binding self-determination. 


[1]Seth Anziska, Preventing Palestine: A Political History from Camp David to Oslo. (Princeton University Press, 2018), 290. 

[2]Bernard Lewis, Semites and anti-Semites: an inquiry into conflict and prejudice. (WW Norton & Company, 1999), 169.

[3]Daniel Pipes, “The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine.” The Jerusalem Post (1950-1988),Sep 13, 2000.

[4]Mark Sedgewick.”A Review of: “James L. Gelvin. the Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War.”.” Terrorism and Political Violence20 no. 3 (2008): 443-445.

[5]James L. Gelvin, The Israel-Palestine Conflict: 100 Years of War. (Cambridge University Press: 2014) 92-93. 

[6]Gelvin, Israel-Palestine Conflict, 92-93. . 

[7]Arthur Balfour to Lord George Curzon, memorandum, 11 August 1919, Britain Foreign Office PRO. FO 371/4185, quoted by Anthony Nutting,Britain and Palestine: a legacy of deceit. (Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, 1970) http://www.balfourproject.org/balfour-and-palestine/.

[8]Frank Giles, “Golda Meir: who Can Blame Israel?” The Sunday Times(London, England), June. 15, 1969.

[9]Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. (London: Verso Books, 2006), 46.

[10]See, for example, Gelvin, 92-93, and Edward Said, Orientalism. (New York: Vintage, 1979), 1-2.  

[11]Anderson,Imagined Communities, 7. 

[12]Anderson, 36. 

[13]Ami Ayalon, & Nabih Bashir, “Introduction: History of the Arabic Press in the Land of Israel/Palestine,” הספרייה הלאומית, accessed March 25, 2019,http://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/en/jrayed/pages/history-of-the-arabic-press.aspx.

[14]Muhammad Y. Muslih, The origins of Palestinian nationalism. (Columbia University Press, 1988),14. 

[15]Unfortunately, english translations are not readily available, but original Arabic issues of FilastinandAl-Karmilcan be found at the Arabic Newspapers Archive of Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine at http://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/en/Jrayed#

[16]Khalidi,Palestinian Identity, 121. 

[17]Muslih,The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism, 84.

[18]Anderson,Imagined Communities, 86.

[19]Neville J. Mandel, “Turks, Arabs and Jewish Immigration into Palestine,” (PhD diss., University of Oxford, 1965), 101-102.

[20]Muslih,The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism, 61.

[21]Mandel,”Turks, Arabs and Jewish Immigration into Palestine,” 204.

[22]Mandel 205.

[23]Haim Gerber, “‘Palestine’ and Other Territorial Concepts in the 17th Century.”International Journal of Middle East Studies30, no. 4 (1998): 563.

[24]Gerber, “”Palestine” and Other Territorial Concepts in the 17th Century,” 565. 

[25]Gerber, 566.

[26]Anderson,Imagined Communities, 5.

[27]TaysīrJabārah,Palestinian Leader Hajj Amin Al-Husayni: Mufti of Jerusalem, (Princeton: Kingston Press, 1985), 66. 

[28]Jonathan M. Gribetz, Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter,(Princeton University Press, 2014), 236.

[29]Jabārah,Palestinian Leader Hajj Amin Al-Husayni, 66.

[30]Justin Mccarthy, The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the Mandate, (Columbia University Press, 1990).  

[31]Anderson, 101.  

[32]Muslih,The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism,212.

[33]Muslih, 214.

[34]Todd Shepard, Voices of decolonization: A Brief History with Documents,(Macmillan Higher Education, 2014), 157.

[35]Fayez A. Sayegh,Zionist Colonialism in Palestine. Vol. 1. (Beirut, Lebanon: Research Center, Palestine Liberation Organization, 1965), 6. 

[36]Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, 16.

[37]See, for example; U.S delegation threatening to cut aid in relation to this vote via Liberian Ambassador; John Quigley,Palestine and Israel: a challenge to justice, (Duke University Press, 1990), 37, Philippines change their vote after phone call from washington see; Phyllis Bennis, Before and After: U,S Foreign Policy and the September 11th Crisis, (New York: Olive Branch Press, 2003), Promise of a $5 million loan for Haiti see: Ahron Bregman, & Jihan El-Tahri. The fifty years war: Israel and the Arabs. (UK: Penguin, 1998), 25, to name a few instances.

[38]Sayegh, 17.

[39]Jeffry Frieden, David Lake, and Kenneth Schultz, World Politics: Interests, Interaction, Institutions, (WW Norton & Company, 2016), 215.

[40]See, for example picture of Mufti Amien El Husaini as part of a Palestine Observer Delegation, Asian-African Conference Archives | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, accessed April 04, 2019, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-1/asian-african-conference-archives/.   

[41]Shepard, 66.

[42]“Anti-Israel resolution Adopted at Bandung: Red China supports Arabs,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 22, 1955, https://www.jta.org/1955/04/22/archive/anti-israel-resolution-adopted-at-bandung-red-china-supports-arabs.

[43]Michael Barnett, “Identity and Alliances in the Middle East,” in The Culture of National Security, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein, (Ithaca, NY:Cornell University Press, 1996) 400. 

[44]Frieden et. al, 215.

[45]Dylan Balch-Lindsay, and Andrew Enterline, “Prolonging the killing? Third party intervention and the duration of intrastate conflict, 1944-92,” In Annual Meeting of the Western Political Science Association, Seattle, WA, (1999):25.

[46]Reed M. Wood, Jacob Kathman, and Stephen Gent, “Armed Intervention and Civilian victimization in Intrastate Conflicts,” Journal of Peace Research49, no. 5 (2012): 648. 

[47]Nathan Thrall, “How the Battle over Israel is Fracturing American Politics,” The New York Times, March 28, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/28/magazine/battle-over-bds-israel-palestinians-antisemitism.html.  

[48]Rachel Ehrenfeld, “Where Hamas Gets its Money,”Forbes, last modified, January 16, 2009, https://www.forbes.com/2009/01/16/gaza-hamas-funding-oped-cx_re_0116ehrenfeld.html#2a6424f57afb.

[49]Roy Licklider, “The Consequences of Negotiated Settlements in Civil War, 1945-1993,” American Political Science Review 89, no. 3 (1995): 681.


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