Nur-eldeen Masalha and the Weight of History
By: Luke Adams, MPT Scholar Intern
Last weekend, I had to opportunity to work with a Peace Team at a Palestinian Cultural Rally titled “With Love, From Kalamazoo to Palestine”. During a lull in the day, I managed to have a conversation with a man named Ibrahim who was managing the table on literature about Palestine. I had just finished reading Nur-Eldeen Masalha’s Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History. I had initially considered it too dense to recommend that into a memo but something about the exchange made me rethink that.
This memo is dedicated to summarizing the history this book details, as well as spelling out what the implications are for Palestinian national identity as a result.
Nur-Eldeen Masalha can be reached at email@example.com
Palestine divides the history of the territory into several stages. Firstly, it addresses classical antiquity and the time where the region wasn’t known as Palestine at all: first as part of Al-Sham, a territory in Antiquity that consisted of Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Next, the region exists as “Philistia” (an early form of the word “Palestine”), which lasted about until the region become part of the Roman Empire. Under this period, the Romans referred to the region of “Syriana Palestina”, with three designated regions within. Variations on the name “Palestine” would continue into the Byzantine and Ottoman occupations of the territory. However, during the last century of the Ottoman rule Palestine achieved another milestone: independent statehood. While Palestine was still largely a client state of the Ottomans, it gained an independent national identity based on a cultural unity that had been developing throughout all these eras.
All of this shifted in 1918, when the British formally annexed the territory through the Balfour Declaration. This was a decision informed by collaboration with the Zionist movement, but the intentions of the British in establishing a Jewish Homeland were not exactly pure. In 1905, British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour had signed the Aliens Act, which heavily restricted Jewish entry from mainland Europe. Indeed, it posited that a central reason for Christian Zionists backing the idea of a Jewish state is that they wanted Jews out of Europe (this piece of antisemitic rhetoric persists to this day). This annexation caused great internal tensions leading up to Israel’s declaration as its own nation-state in 1948, an event which Palestinians refer to as The Nakba (“The Tragedy”), in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forcibly removed from their lands and their homes and were displaced. This event was so destructive and traumatic that it has set the tone for the Israeli Occupation to this day, especially in light of the intricate security state that has been organized to defend it.
Palestinian history, according to Masalha, is something of interconnectedness and plurality. Over the course of the book, Masalha details the residence of the Arab Christians, Jews, and eventually Muslims that contributed to the makeup of Palestine – – peoples living with and alongside each other. Not only that, but several layers of culture folded into each other over time: for example, Byzantine art fused with Muslim architectural aesthetics to create much of the design philosophy of the Ottoman period. This type of knowledge is important because it allows for Masalha’s writing to stand on its own outside of any sort of polemical value that the information here holds.
This history gives enough scrutiny to the settler-colonial myths that Israeli political pretense is built upon as to render them invalid. Much of the Israeli claim to the territory rests on biblical citations. Namely, the image of the Book of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan. Masalha argues that the lack of any evidence that the territory was ever considered “Canaan” (even by many Jews living in the territory) lends to the idea that while the imagery of this book might be potent enough to have great religious significance, its actual geographical implications are null. In the larger picture, the fact that Palestine had a culture and territory than had been recognized for the better period of a thousand years (as well as gaining relative nationhood later) destroys the oft repeated foundational myth that Palestine was a nation without a people or a culture, and thus free to be conquered (i.e., “A land without a people for a people without a land”).
A crucial fact that’s often left out of discussions related to the Occupation is just how much Israeli nationalism is a recent construct. Aside from the previous concerns with literature like the Book of Joshua being treated as ethnographic fact, many Israeli cultural touchstones were crafted within imminent timing of the annexation of Palestine. One example of this is the revival of the Hebrew language: Prior to the rise of the Israeli state, most of the Jewish diaspora in Europe and the US spoke Yiddish. The language of Hebrew remained largely dormant, relegated to religious scholarship. For Hebrew to be re-purposed as a national tongue, Israeli language scholars had to retool it with bits of Aramaic and Arabic sewn into the fabric. Meanwhile, a great shift in taxonomy had to occur to give the impression that the territory had strictly Hebrew origins: Committees in the Israeli government made careful work of renaming countless cities and sites (e.g., Al-Quds became Jerusalem, Jaffa become Tel Aviv, etc.). Following this, hundreds of Israeli public servants changed their names to something they believed would lend credibility to the Hebraization process (for example, David Ben-Gurion was originally named David Grün). None of this is to imply that there is anything nefarious about the existence of Jews in Palestine; only that the construction of Israel as a national identity is very recent, and required very dramatic changes in language and taxonomy not just for Palestinian Arabs, but within the Jewish world as well.
The conflict related to the Israeli Occupation of Palestine has reached a fever pitch. With the atrocities in Sheikh Jarrah lying only a few months behind, questions related to the suffering of Palestinians are hard to ignore. If and when Palestine is freed, it will inevitably have to reckon with a history of cultural erasure through Truth and Reconciliation or some equivalent process. As such, the history of Palestine is going to need a deep re-evaluation. In that sense,
authors like Nur-Eldeen Masalha not only contribute to some sort of written record, but also offer a way forward for a culture hoping to reclaim its history.