Khalidi: Palestinian Identity
Full text: 

    In his 1994 Middle East Studies Association (MESA) presidential address, Rashid Khalidi prodded scholars to be part of the internal discourses of their professional disciplines. He warned that failing to do so would make them provincial and overspecialized, thus preventing them from interacting with broader disciplinary concerns (MESA Bulletin, July 1995, pp. 1-6). It is quite salutary that Khalidi has followed his own advice in the writing and conceptualizing of Palestinian Identity.
    In a direct debate with the new scholarly approaches on such topics as nationalism and identity, Khalidi concurs with recent writers (e.g., Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, and Eric Hobsbawm) that national identity is constructed as opposed to being a transcendent given (p. xi). The process of constructing national identity occurs within a multilayered space and time that is shaped by real political and intellectual forces (social agency), but not limited to the role of elites. These agents are influenced by and grapple with competing loyalties including: "transnational" (religious and national); "local patriotism"; and "affiliations of family and clan" (p. 10). These struggles are affected and their outcomes, to varying degrees, are shaped by powerful external (colonial) forces. These processes are undergirded by important social and material transformations that include, inter alia, the formation of new social classes, the expansion of modern communications, the spread of education, and the introduction of mass politics. For Khalidi, these developments are seen as the prerequisites for the emergence of nationalism (p. 32). Finally, the consolidation of identity takes hold at a conjunctural moment marked by a historic crisis that enables the swift and substantial change of attitudes in a society (p. 47, p. 256).
    Khalidi's empirical concern is to document the multiple factors that explain the context for the emergence and consolidation of Palestinian national identity. His approach however, is of great value to scholars interested in other postcolonial societies where national consciousness emerged "without the trappings of an independent state and against powerful countervailing currents" (p. 194). The Palestinians, like the Armenians and Kurds, have managed to retain and cling to their notion of nationhood despite numerous calamities that have befallen them. All three of these Middle Eastern peoples have "been denied self-determination by the great powers . . . , they live in disputed homelands that overlap with those of other peoples, and the territory they claim has ambiguous and indeterminate boundaries" (p. 11). Indeed, these factors lie at the core of the crisis of the modern nation-state in many parts of the postcolonial world.
    In this path-breaking study, Khalidi documents the specific processes that explain the emergence and consolidation of a unique Palestinian consciousness and identity. He sheds light on the multiple and interconnected phases of these developments and the adversity that they encountered. His empirical instrumentation is archival in nature. His gripping and rich narrative brings to life the lives and struggles of the mostly urban elites, but also of peasant resistance leaders (chapter 5), as they adapt and respond to major social transformations and to Zionism.
    In the late Ottoman period, prompted by the Tanzimat, Palestine, and Jerusalem in particular, witnessed major cultural changes. Education was secularized, public education was established, mission schools proliferated, and the press expanded. A growing government bureaucracy required the services of many teachers and other professionals. Khalidi notes that this "massive expansion of opportunities gave ample scope to individuals of both non-notable and non-Muslim background to achieve status" (p. 61). In this context of development and increasing prosperity, what were some of "the political, intellectual, and ideological options that appeared to be open at the end of the Ottoman era in Palestine" (p. 62)?
     Khalidi probes this question by identifying the overlapping and competing identities that shaped the lives of two Jerusalem notables: Yusuf Diya' and Ruhi al-Khalidi. In this transitional phase of the Ottoman era, these individuals and other people from different walks of life navigated their loyalties, identities, and affiliations among Ottomanism, Islamic solidarity, Arabism, Palestinian patriotism, opposition to Zionism, political party affiliations, and other primordial attachments (p. 84).
    The eventual defeat of Ottomanism during World War I combined with the assertiveness of the Zionist movement and the start of the British Mandate in Palestine produced a sense of a historic crisis among "most politically conscious, literate, and urban Palestinians" (p. 149). Khalidi concludes that these transformations were so intense and profound that in a relatively short period of time (1917 - 23), a distinct Palestinian national identity took hold. The new synthesis, however, was to "remain strongly tinged by, and to overlap with, elements of religious sentiment and Arabism both of which had been among its precursors" (pp. 174 -175).
    In chapter 8, Khalidi details the survival of Palestinian identity despite the Zionist triumph of 1948 and all subsequent wars. Dispossession, defeat, and exile occasioned the rebirth of Palestinian identity through the establishment of the modern national movement embodied in the PLO. This rebirth after many debacles, including the 1982 Lebanon war, prompted the search for a political solution marked by the quest for Palestinian statehood. The PLO also managed to incorporate new elements into the Palestinian narrative. Defeats, as in 1982, were translated as summud. Thus, failure was portrayed as triumph, which might explain the absence of any official critical evaluation of this episode.
    For Palestinians, this national identity was shared irrespective of their domicile. In turn, the PLO served as the symbol and agency that cemented the unity of the Palestinians, whether they were "inside" or "outside" of historic Palestine. The Oslo process, however, has caused the "recentering of Palestinian society," requiring a redefinition of identity in new circumstances (p. 203).
    Although the PLO still exists and officially claims to represent all of the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority (PA) for all practical purposes has superseded it and assumed most of its functions. This poses some important challenges to the PA in the post-Oslo period. For example, what does it mean to be a Palestinian today, and who has the right to live in Palestine? How will Palestinian citizenship de determined, and whom will it include and exclude? How will these changes be reflected in the educational system and in the civics textbooks?
    Perhaps, one should consider the post-Oslo phase as another historic crisis confronting the Palestinians as they attempt to reformulate or reconfigure their identity under rapidly changing circumstances. In this context, Khalidi's rich discussion of an earlier era needs to be read and studied carefully. For indeed, although historians cannot tell us what will happen, they certainly can present us with a cogent interpretation of an earlier conjuncture.

-----------------------
Nubar Hovespian is writing a dissertation, "The Palestinian Authority: Education, Identity, Development and Democracy," for the Political Science Department, City University of New York's Graduate Center.

Read more