Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine, by Laura Robson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011. 256 pages. $55.
Reviewed by Daphne Tsimhoni
This book deals with some aspects of the Christians under the British Mandate in Palestine, a topic that has not been widely researched. Its main thesis is that the British Mandate in Palestine, acting as a form of colonial rule, brought about the marginalization of the Arab Christian minority, to the point of near-invisibility. Accordingly, this was largely due to its redefinition of Palestinian Christians as a political entity separate from the Muslim and Jewish populations (pp. 2-3).
The introduction presents a survey of the Christian communities in Palestine on the eve of World War I that is, alas, too short and incomplete. It does not provide essential figures or estimates regarding their size and their sociocultural-economic features throughout the mandatory period.
Chapter 1 deals with the Ottoman reforms (tanzimat) of the 19th century as influenced by the Western Powers. The author elaborates on the promise of equal citizenship rights to the Christians and Jews but not on the internal autonomy allowed to the non-Muslim recognized communities (millets).
Robson maintains that the Ottoman reforms brought about the rise of a new, partially Westernized middle class shared by Muslims and Christians who did not define themselves politically in terms of their religious affiliation but rather in terms of their social status. To support this assumption, she portrays short biographies of five Christian personalities who were proponents of Palestinian Arab nationalism: Najib 'Azuri, Khalil al-Sakakini, Najib Nassar, 'Isa al-'Isa. and Gregorius Hajjar. Based on secondary sources, this description does not tell much about their views, activities, and sense of social belonging that would support her thesis. Similarly, the author maintains that the Christian members of the Muslim-Christian associations, the earliest Palestinian national organizations during 1918-1920, saw themselves primarily as representatives of the new middle class, dedicated to some form of Arab independence and to anti-Zionism, not as representatives for a minority religious group (p. 42). However, she does not marshal convincing evidence to support this supposition.
Chapter 2 discusses the adoption and expansion, or "reinvention" - as the author puts it - of the Ottoman millet system by the British Mandate as imported from the British colonial administrative concepts in Africa and Asia. She elaborates on the establishment in 1922 of the Supreme Muslim Council as an autonomous representative body for the Muslims that eliminated Christian representation and political activities. …