Palestinian Identity, the Construction of Modern National Consciousness

By M, Raja | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Palestinian Identity, the Construction of Modern National Consciousness


M, Raja, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Palestinian Identity, The Construction of Modern National Consciousness

"The quintessential Palestinian experience, which illustrates some of the most basic issues raised by Palestinian identity, takes place at a border, an airport, a checkpoint: in short, at any one of those many modern barriers where identities are checked and verified...For it is at these borders and barries that the six million Palestinians are singled out for `special treatment,' and are forcefully reminded of their identity: of who they are, and of why they are different from others."

-Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity.

Although the Oslo agreements provided worldwide acknowledgment of Palestinian identity, it remains subject to question at all international borders where, in the words of Palestinian-American Prof. Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian is "suspect almost by definition." In his impressive work Palestinian Identity, Dr. Khalidi, professor of history at the University of Chicago and director of its Center for International Studies, examines the evolution of Palestinian identity and modern Palestinian nationalism.

In 309 pages, Khalidi assesses the construction of the Palestinian national identity, its historical phases, and the obstacles it faced. Divided into eight well-documented chapters, Palestinian Identity, winner of the 1997 Albert Hourani Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association, opens with "Contrasting Narratives of Palestinian Identity," a chapter that explores different versions of the history of Palestine. A major reason for the lack of previous scholarship on the construction of identity in Palestine is the conjunction there of many contradictory views of self and of history.

"These may be religious, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim; or secular, as for example, the focus of Masonic ritual on the Temple in Jerusalem; or they may be national or supranational, whether Arab or Jewish," Khalidi explains. The chapter emphasizes a distinctive argument that Palestinian identity did not evolve in recent decades as some studies of Palestinian nationalism claim, but in fact was well developed before the climactic events of 1948.

"The assertion that Palestinian nationalism developed in response to the challenge of Zionism embodies a kernel of a much older truth: this modern nationalism was rooted in long-standing attitudes of concern for the city of Jerusalem and for Palestine as a sacred entity which were a response to perceived external threats," Khalidi argues. "The incursions of the European powers and the Zionist movement in the late 19th century were only the most recent examples of this threat."

Palestinian Identity also provides a thoughtful analysis of cultural life and identity in late Ottoman Palestine, with special concentration on Jerusalem. This is the city that was most affected by the change in the final half-century of Ottoman rule from Islamic systems of justice and education to Western-based forms. Dr. Khalidi presents detailed looks into the lives of two individuals from the late Ottoman era, Yusuf Diya' al-Khalidi and Ruhi al-Khalidi, to illustrate the political and ideological transitions occurring at the end of that period. According to the author, a distinctive characteristic of both of these men is that they "found no contradiction between a firm commitment to Ottomanism and taking pride in their Arab heritage.

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