Palestinians in Search of an Identity
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, entering the 15th year of his four-year term, delights in identifying biblical Canaanites as the ancestors of the Palestinian people. Stoking his fantasy of Palestinians as the rightful possessors of the Land of Israel, he eradicates the history of the Jewish people in their biblical homeland and demonizes Israelis as intruders in “Palestine.”
Among a historian’s darker pleasures is the discovery of an imagined past by professional colleagues with an ideological axe to grind. So it was, during random scrutiny of my home library for books about Zionism, Israel and Palestinians, that I rediscovered Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal’s The Palestinian People: A History (1994). Kimmerling, a sociologist on the Israeli far-Left, saw Israel as a colonial occupier; Migdal was an American professor of international studies. Harvard University Press touted their book as “an authoritative account of the history of the Palestinian people.”
According to Palestinian historiography, Kimmerling and Migdal noted, the Palestinians’ “solidarity and cohesion” as a people dates back to the “ancient Fertile Crescent,” with the Canaanites as their ancestors. But they surely knew that Israeli historians, citing a lack of any evidence to support that claim, had concluded that “no self-identified Palestinian people ever existed” until “the Arabs of the area were challenged by Zionism and Jewish settlement.”
Forced to choose between these competing narratives, or contrive their own, Kimmerling and Migdal embraced the Palestinian claim that “the origins of a self-conscious … Palestinian people pre-date Zionism.” Palestinian “national identity,” they wrote, “has been created — invented and elaborated — over the course of the last two centuries,” decades before Theodor Herzl called for the revival of a Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jewish people and the birth of modern Zionism.
Attempting, without a shred of supporting evidence, to locate the origins of Palestinian nationalism in the 1830s, they cited a local pasha, lacking any discernible identification with a (non-existent) Palestinian people, who led a revolt against their Egyptian ruler. Contradicting themselves, they acknowledged that as late as 1929 — amid Arab riots that destroyed the millennia-old Hebron Jewish community — there was an “Arab,” but not yet a “Palestinian,” nation. Its leaders were “still trying to instill a sense of national consciousness in their communities.”
Kimmerling and Migdal recognized that the Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939 sparked “something unique in Palestinian history … the creation of a national movement” (whose origins they had already located a century earlier). But they concede that Palestinian peoplehood only emerged in “the second half of the twentieth century,” after the birth of a Jewish state inspired their own national movement. In 1967, following the Six-Day War, Jordanian control over its West Bank (still unknown as “Palestine”) ended. Bethlehem resident Walid Shoebat wondered why it was “that on June 4,1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian.”
Having imaginatively located the emergence of a Palestinian national movement in 1834, and then in 1936, Kimmerling and Migdal correctly identified “the middle decades of the twentieth century,” following the Six-Day War, when Palestinians finally “developed a self-identity as a people set apart.” Until then, as their absence of evidence to the contrary suggests, Arabs in Palestine were just that: Arabs in Palestine.
The authors proudly — if absurdly — claimed that Jews, who had “occupied center stage in most previous accounts, have now been relegated to the wings, displaced by Palestinians.” But their own evidence indicates that self-identified “Palestinians” were latecomers to Palestine, without any historical attachment to the land they now claim as theirs until there was a Jewish state to emulate. In a twist of irony that eluded Kimmerling and Migdal, their book conclusively demonstrates that Palestinians depended upon Israel for the emergence and development of a “Palestinian” identity.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel 1896-2016, recently recognized in Mosaic Magazine by Ruth R. Wisse and Martin Kramer as a “Best Book of 2019.”