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Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter

  • Book Title:
 Defining Neighbors
  • Book Author:
Jonathan Marc Gribetz
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On the final Saturday of October 1909, two members of Palestine’s intellectual elite met for an interview in Jerusalem. Eliezer (Perel- man) Ben-Yehuda, fifty-one at the time, had immigrated to Palestine from Russian Lithuania nearly thirty years earlier.

Muhammad Ruhi al-Khalidi, eight years Ben-Yehuda’s junior, was born in Jerusalem, though he spent much of his adult life outside of Palestine, in France and Istanbul. These men had much in common, aside from their shared city.

Both had received traditional religious educations—Ben-Yehuda in the Hasidic Jewish world of Eastern Europe, al-Khalidi in the Sunni Muslim environment of Ottoman Palestine—and, like many of their in- tellectual contemporaries, both had also tenaciously pursued modern, secular studies.

Ben-Yehuda made his career in journalism in Jerusa- lem, while al-Khalidi first became involved in academia in France and finally found his place in Ottoman imperial politics. Each believing that the fates of the Zionists and Arabs in Palestine were linked, Ben- Yehuda and al-Khalidi, friends for some time, met that Saturday, just before al-Khalidi was to return to Istanbul as one of Jerusalem’s three representatives to the newly reconstituted Ottoman Parliament.

I began my research for this book in an attempt to discern how Zion- ists like Ben-Yehuda and Arabs like al-Khalidi thought about one an- other in the earliest years of their encounter, in the Late Ottoman peri- od.1 In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—after about a hundred years of violent conflict—mutual hatred and delegitimization between Zionists and Arabs have dominated much of each side’s dis- course about its counterpart.

Many versions of such discourse circulate: there is no such thing as a “Palestinian”; contemporary Jews are merely Europeans with no connection to the Holy Land; there were hardly any Arabs in Palestine before the Zionists came; Zionism is racism;

Palestinian nationalism is nothing more than antisemitism; and so on. notwithstanding sporadic strides toward peace, these are the terms through which many who are engaged in today’s Arab-Israeli conflict perceive one another.

Was this always so?

The short answer is, of course, no; the mutual perceptions of Zionists and Arabs (and their latter-day descendants, Israelis, Palestinians, and others in the region) have not been static but rather have evolved over decades of political struggle and violence. How, then, did these communities view one another at the start of their encounter, before the century of violence that ensued? This book sets out to answer this question.

Exploring texts written by Zionists and Arabs about or for each other in the years before the Great War,2 before the political stakes of the encounter were quite so stark, I will argue that the intellectuals of this

2 The book draws on texts written beginning in the mid-1890s through the years of the Great War; the bulk of the sources examined were produced during the final decade of Ottoman rule. The same period, in Zionist-centered historiography, would be denoted as the age of the first two aliyot (waves of Zionist immigration).

 In identifying the period studied in this book, I will also refer to it as pre–World War I or, conscious of its connec- tions to contemporary trends in Europe, as the fin de siècle. On the use of fin de siècle in the Ottoman Middle East, see Hanssen, Fin de siècle Beirut.

period often thought of one another and interpreted one another’s actions in terms of two central categories: religion and race. The historical actors, that is, tended to view their neighbors as members of particular religions—as Jews, Christians, or Muslims—or of genealogically, “scientifically” defined races (“Semitic” or otherwise).

While the Arab- Israeli conflict is generally viewed as a prototypical case of a nationalist feud—and thus the Late Ottoman period is imagined as the first stage of that nationalist dispute—when we look carefully at the early years of the encounter, we see that the language and concept of “the nation” were not yet the dominant—and certainly not the only—terms through which the communities defined one another. This book explores in de- tail the implications of the religious and racial categories employed in the encounter’s first decades.

What I am proposing here is not that the ideas of nationalism (broadly, that humanity is naturally divided into nations, and that those nations should strive for cultural and political independence in their historic homelands) did not yet motivate many Arabs and Jews in the years be- fore the Great War. On the contrary, this was precisely the age of the birth of modern Jewish and Arab nationalisms, and these years also witnessed the earliest stages of a uniquely Palestinian Arab nationalism.3 nor am

I suggesting that Arabs and Jews never saw one another as nationalist groups. Each side was certainly aware of the developing nationalism of the other.

This book shows, however, that when we set aside pre- supposed categories and let our analysis of mutual perceptions in Late Ottoman Palestine be guided by the terms that emerge from the sources themselves, we find that the categories and interpretations were more expansive than a single-minded focus on nationalism would permit.

Indeed, we begin to glimpse a new portrait of the early years of the Zionist-Arab encounter—one that is much richer, more nuanced, and in many respects more interesting than that of conventional accounts of the encounter between the communities represented by Ben-Yehuda and al-Khalidi; that is, between those whom we now commonly regard as simply “Zionists” and “Arabs.”4

Moreover, as a study of reciprocal attitudes that examines the pre- conceptions and modes of interpretation employed by the various par- ties in this encounter,5 this book does not suggest that the various com- munities in Late Ottoman Palestine are most accurately defined—by those of us looking back a century later—as “religious” or “racial” communities.

 Modern theorists of religion, race, and the nation have compellingly demonstrated that these categories are historically contingent and socially constructed. As one scholar of race recently put it, it is at this stage “almost unnecessary to point out that ideas of race, in whatever form, are constructions of human culture and not an objective reality.” If this is true of race—the category that, among the three, claims the most “objective,” “scientific” authority—how much more so does this apply to religion and nation.6

By employing these terms throughout this book, I do not intend to reify them but rather to understand what they meant for the historical actors. Furthermore, especially at the very historical moment studied in this book—the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—these categories were particularly undefined and fluid, and the distinctions between them had not yet hardened.7

Part of the aim and the challenge of this book is to explore how these categories were employed in a period and place in which each was used inconsistently.

Paying more careful attention to religion and race as categories of mutual perception significantly alters our understanding of the early Zionist-Arab encounter in several respects.

After so many decades of intensive local, regional, and global focus on the questions of whether and how to slice the pie of Palestine,8 it is common to presume, as one prominent historian of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed, that “the problem is, simply put, a dispute over real estate.”9

While Zionists and Arabs in the years before the Great War were surely becoming competitors for Palestine’s real estate, by expanding our view and be- coming aware of the place of race and religion, we find that the Arab- Israeli conflict is “a dispute over real estate” as much as an inheritance fight between siblings is “a dispute over jewelry and china.”

Yes, the inheritance might be jewelry and china, but these objects are laden with meaning and significance for the senses of identity and legitimacy of the inheritors. The Arab-Zionist or Palestinian-Israeli conflict has not merely been a dispute over the dunams of a land that can hardly be named without caveat or controversy. It has been a struggle over history and identity between people who regard themselves as acutely connected to each other—religiously and genealogically.10

In other words, these communities understood one another not as complete strangers, engaging with each other for the first time in a modern nationalist struggle over a contested piece of land, but rather as peoples encountering deeply familiar, if at times mythologized or distorted, others.

Regarding both religious and racial modes of categorization, the sense of commonality was as salient as the extent of difference. The fact that the “Zionist-Arab” encounter was one between Jews, on the one hand, and Christians and Muslims, on the other, such that the individuals involved were members of religious civilizations with long and complex histories of engagement, was not incidental but in fact crucial to how all parties experienced the encounter.11

Similarly, the fact that this was an encounter between Jews and Arabs, peoples who were imagined by race theorists to be members of a single ancient race or, at any rate, close racial (Semitic) relatives was not in- consequential to either Jews’ or Arabs’ experience of this encounter but rather, for many, central to it.12

 Whereas a focus on nationalism and territory raises issues of possession and sovereignty that imply conflict, expanding and enriching our focus to include the parties’ ideas of religion and race permit a more nuanced and historically accurate story to be told.

A number of thinkers regarded religion or race as elements of unity even as others understood them as grounds for hostility.

Furthermore, by excavating the religious and racial elements of the early encounter, we are able to see more clearly just how complicated the eventual bifurcation in Palestine was between Zionist and Arab, Israeli and Palestinian. For a time, some perceived three groups—Jews, Christians, and Muslims—while others actually saw just one group— Semites.

From multiplicity or singularity, a hardened binary emerged. dividing the communities into two discrete nations, along the particular demographic lines that were ultimately drawn, was, however, neither obvious nor inevitable. Consideration of the place of race and religion helps expose not only the contingency of the eventual bisection but also its complexities.

A  Journey of Intellectual Encounter

This book makes the case for the prominence of religious and racial modes of classification and explores the implications of these categories in Late Ottoman Palestine, by means of a journey through texts and among the individuals and communities that produced them. The journey begins in Jerusalem, the scene of the encounter between Ben-Yehuda and al-Khalidi (chapter 1).

I situate the city in its multiple political, social, cultural, and intellectual contexts. By properly placing Jerusalem within these contexts—Palestine, the Ottoman Empire, the crossroads of Syria and Egypt, the target of European interest and influence—we are better able to understand why, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Palestine’s communities would have perceived one an- other in religious and racial terms, and what they might have meant by these terms.

After offering this historical contextualization, chapter 1 provides a survey of the communities present in Palestine in the final years before the start of the Great War and a discussion of some of the challenges in identifying and categorizing these communities. The journey continues with a focused study of an unpublished manuscript and its intr Ruhi al-Khalidi (chapter 2). Al-Khalidi’s 120-page Arabic work, Zionis

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