Russia Created a Palestinian Identity Way Before Arafat was Born
“The Invention of Palestine” is a PhD thesis written by former Penn State U student Zachary J. Foster in which he focuses on the creation of the Palestinian identity. Foster has a sense of humour. His unusually lengthy and funny acknowledgements set me up to anticipate reading his thesis with pleasure and making sure I had already had my morning coffee before opening the document. The rest was not funny; it was not tragic either, don’t get me wrong. I think he could have added a joke or two in the conclusions as a reward for those of us who actually got through the whole thing.
Foster traces the history of the name, Palestine, from the earliest days of mankind. No, Palestine was not around in the pre-historic times he described; he was referring to the human penchant for naming things and pieces of land as part of his argument that Palestine is “a concept we completely made up.” (page 50) I think he tried too hard not to fall into the trap of those writing about Palestine who seem to pick a year and see that year as the start of history (such as 1948, or 1920, etc); but he did, methinks, start the story way before the relevant beginning. When he does get to the point, he writes:
. . . even if we ignore epistemological problems associated with its varying spellings, pronunciations, and connotations in different language —Prst, Filastin, Pasita, PeLeSeT, Plst, Paelestina, Pleshet, Philistine, Palestine, etc.—the term has meant many things in history. To the ancient Hebrews, it referred to five cities and perhaps the areas connecting them—Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath. To the ancient Greeks, it referred to an area “from Egypt to Phoenicia”. . . Others thought it was merely the town of Ramla and its surroundings. . . . [and more] (pages 49-50)
There is no question that Palestine was written about and mapped throughout history, as Foster describes over quite a large number of pages. It is quite the stretch, however, to proceed from the fact that there was a region on the map commonly referred to as Palestine to the current situation in which Arabs cloak themselves in a Palestinian identity and want to be regarded as a legitimate “people”.
And logic fails him in some places.
But let me just state first what I found fascinating and after that, if you are interested, you can read my brief analysis of his foibled argument.
What I found fascinating was that, long before Arafat was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the Russians were responsible for creating the Palestinian Arab identity. Yes. You read that right. The Russians did it. And they did it generations before Arafat visited Moscow and came out with a newly minted PLO. Here is how:
. . . the Teacher’s Training Seminary in Nazareth . . was established by Russian missionaries in the mid-1880s, one of hundreds of foreign schools built in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. The school was funded by Russian tax payers and staffed by Russians, Arabs and even a Zionist. The Seminary invited the best graduates of its preparatory schools to attend it. By 1914, more than ten thousand Arab kids had completed their primary education at a Russian primary school, and hundreds had attended high school at the Seminary. (page 143)
Iin 1898, Khalil Baydas became the first Arab to adopt a Palestinian identity for himself and his fellow Arabs in the region.
Baydas studied the geography of Palestine and the history of Palestine in class; and yes, his teachers called the place Palestine. (page 145)
And without those things he might not have thought of himself as a Palestinian. (page 147)
The second Arab in modern history to use the term Palestinian was Salim Qub‘ayn. Qub‘ayn also studied at the Russian Seminary in Nazareth. (page 148)
Foster goes on to write:
What we can be more certain about is that the Russian seminary acted as a breeding ground for a modern Palestinian identity. (page 151)
In short, the Seminary was special because students were instructed to take pride in their Arab heritage, they learned about the history and geography of the land of Palestine and studied the Biblical scriptures themselves, which took place in the land the teachers were calling Palestine. They were also separated from their families at a young age and placed side by side other Jaffans, Jerusalemites and Nazarenes in dormitories. This is how I would have imagined a Palestinian identity would have come into existence. It was a perfect sandstorm and after the dust had settled the Palestinian people were born. (page 152) [emphasis added]
Were there any other “peoples” in history that some foreigners came along and convinced them that that is what they are? Do you find this as interesting as I do?
People who are, in fact, “a people” develop from within, sharing a language, culture, spiritual beliefs, rituals related to the land in which they live. They do not need to be taught by anyone what to call themselves. In any case, my understanding is that missionaries would work hard disconnecting non-Christians from their native languages, cultures and religions and bring them Jesus. So what were these Russians about way back then?
This indoctrination on the part of the Russian teachers (and perhaps in other schools as well) surely laid the groundwork for a small number of Arabs to adopt a Palestinian identity by the time the Ottoman Empire was divvied up between the French and the British at the end of World War I. Of course, we know that most Arabs refused to consider themselves Palestinians, but, rather, members of the great Arab ummah.
And here is where his argument starts to fall apart. Foster admits that he was “only able to find a handful of Muslims who used the term Palestinian before 1914” and that was after about 10,000 pupils passed through the indoctrinating Russian school in Nazareth! It seems that political motives prevailed at that time as Foster wrote:
. . . many Arabs proclaimed there was no Palestine, only Syria, well into the 1930s and 1940s. They continued to believe the best chance of stopping Zionist immigration was to insist that the object of Zionist desire—Palestine—didn’t even exist. (page 21)
What they did not realize, it appears, is that Jews did not desire Palestine. We desired Zion. The Land of Israel. The homeland that existed long before anyone called it Palestine.
Yet still trying to push his agenda, Foster says that the propagandists who were:
sympathetic to the Palestinians traced their history as far back as possible—the 1880s, 1830s or 1701—while those hostile to the Palestinians claimed the Palestinians were a recent and artificial invention whose very raison d’être was to undermine the millennia long struggle for Jewish freedom from tyranny. (page 43)
Even if we trace the history of the Palestinians “as far back” as 1701 (the date of an early document from the Khalidi Library in Jerusalem), that in no way erases the validity of the much farther back establishment of the Jewish People on the Land. And, in fact, Foster concedes that Arab “ties to Palestine were weak before the 19th century” (page 90), reinforcing his earlier comment that he could count on one hand the Arabs calling themselves Palestinians before 1914.
There were some factual errors, such as when he wrote that the Arab historian:
Abu al-Ma‘ali (ca.1030s) described Muslim exploits on the battlefield against Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants—the Nabataeans. (page 117)
The problem is that the Nabataeans were no longer around in the 7th Century, the time of the Muslim Conquest. Furthermore, the Nabataeans were also Arabs; they were traders who came up to the region from either Yemen or the Hijaz. Therefore, they cannot be called Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants any more than the later conquerers can.
Ironically, Foster quotes the second Arab to call himself a Palestinian:
Qub‘ayn agreed with Renan [a French historian] that Tiberias was a thriving city during Biblical times but was as pitiful (circa 1902) as it was a few decades earlier when Renan observed it. “Today, nothing remains of its past greatness,” Qub‘ayn wrote, noting one exception: Tiberias’s new Jewish settlements. They were teeming with vineyards, parks and trees. “It’s as if they inherited the productivity of the Israelites who first came to this land.” Qub‘ayn added that Tiberias’s “non-Jewish residents” continued to fish. (page 149)
I think this quote says it all – the Arabs are referred to as non-Jewish residents who fish and the Jews as having inherited qualities from the Israelites, their ancestors.
Further down that same page, he writes:
It’s not well known, but sympathy for Zionism existed on the margins. Some Christians and Muslims thought it was sensible that Jews might want to establish a presence in Palestine for historical reasons. Yusuf Diya Pasha al-Khalidi, for instance, wrote in an 1898 letter to Zadok Kahn, the chief rabbi of France, “who can challenge the rights of the Jews on Palestine? Good lord, historically it really is your country.” (149)
And then Foster acknowledged that:
The Bible dominated how everyone talked, wrote or thought about Palestine—East and West. I cannot emphasize that point enough. (page 175)
Foster waxes philosophical:
Palestine exists in our minds, not in nature. (Abstract, page iii)
People will only identify with a place if it plays an important role in their life. And a place will only play an important role in people’s lives if they name it, make maps of it, tell stories about it, or establish institutions and associations in it or for it. That’s what happened to Palestine in the mid-late 19th century, and that’s why people began to call themselves Palestinians in the early 20th century. (page 186)
And Israel cooperated with this ruse when Rabin and Peres signed the Oslo Accords.
Palestine was now the focus of attention, which led more and more people to see themselves as Palestinians. (page 191)
And they do their darndest not to let “Palestine” slip out of sight, out of earshot, out of mind. This is the way to forge a national identity out of naught.
. . . since Palestine has so much political vertigo, it’s hard to see it becoming less important to people. There are just too many ways Palestine has become institutionalized. There are millions of people around the globe who call themselves Palestinians. These things seem difficult to undo, certainly not without political will. At the very last, there is so much “Palestine” content online and in print—it will impossible to erase Palestine from history. No surprise a Palestinian identity has never been stronger than it is today. And that means more people are prepared to die for Palestine today than at any previous time in human history.
And that is a tragedy for the modern State of Israel. Especially since it is so clear that even in a serious piece of work that seeks to prove that the Palestinian Arabs have as much right to the land as the Jews, it proves exactly the opposite.