Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine

By Zarrinnal, Navid | Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer 2018 | Go to article overview

Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine


Zarrinnal, Navid, Arab Studies Quarterly


Schneider, Suzanne. Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018. 280 pages. Paperback $25.95

In 1924, British scholar and orientalist Edward Browne-thinking of the nation in perennial terms-credited the Safavids with making Persia "a nation once again," adding that

[their nationalism] was very different in several respects from the various forms of nationalism with which we are familiar at the present day. Language and race, which are the key-notes of the latter, played a very small part in it compared with religion.1

Browne's implication that "present day" nationalism forms independently of religion was not merely an observable reality of his time but saw normative expression in British colonial policy. At least, this normative policy is what Suzanne Schneider argues the British were after in Mandatory Separation: Religion, Education, and Mass Politics in Palestine. The British mandatory regime, she contends, supported religious education as a supposed antidote to nationalist sentiments. Her main interest is religious education vis-a-vis the interaction between the mandate regime's policy on one hand and Arab and Jewish practices, on the other. Covering a period roughly from 1918 to 1948, she emphasizes that British, Arab, and Jewish modernists attempted to transform the old order of the Muslim maktab and Jewish hedar by crafting a new religious education. The mandatory regime envisioned education as an apolitical enterprise, while certain Arab and Jewish educators "transgressed" from the mandate norm to insert politics into religious education.

To avoid a common flaw in studies on historical difference-the speculative application of the secular to newness in Middle Eastern histories-Schneider maintains methodological rigor throughout her study. In addition to the use of diverse archival records in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, including the British National Archives, Central Zionist Archives, and Israeli State archives, she converses with (European) social theory, and does so critically. For instance, Schneider warns against the speculation that Zionist educational practices replicated the structure of secularism as it developed within Christian contexts, demonstrating that Zionist education did not secularize Jewish teachings. Rather, it engaged with holy texts to articulate a "synthetic Jewish identity" bridging the material and spiritual. This was reflected in the school curricula where "sacred and secular historical narratives" served as complementary (162, 177).

In addition, Schneider thinks critically about religion itself. More specifically, she suggests that religious education was not a traditional fact of life that carried over from premodern times into the mandate period, but a novel form of education at the intersection of the modern state, modern subjectivity, and modern suppositions about the proper role of religion in human affairs (21). In fact, she says that premodern Muslim and Jewish education did not differentiate between religious and other types of instructions; rather, the study of canonical texts, coupled with a practical understanding of behavioral codes that ordered communal life, provided an education to enable a child's socialization into the community. Teaching a child suras from the Qur'an that would be recited in later life stages, like in business partnership or marriage, is an example of this practice. Modern schooling, by contrast, created religion as a distinct subject separating it, at least in theory, from "secular" subjects like history, Arabic language, or hygiene that were previously part of "religious" rules (21-23).

This novel, differentiated religious education was approached by the British as a practice that could and should have been insulated from politics, Schneider suggests. The mandate regime developed an approach to religious education that linked religion to the cultivation of individual moral virtues, which were conceived apolitically, excluding material and public concerns (130). …

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