3. Constructing National Culture
At the apex of its power in the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was a vast conglomeration of different religious and ethnic groups reaching from the Balkans to the Red Sea. Contemporary nations that once fell within Ottoman borders include Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Kuwait, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Syria.
In Palestine, as elsewhere, people defined themselves through an alchemy of local, familial and religious associations and as citizens of the empire. Palestinian Ottomans were Muslims, Christians and Jews living in large towns such as Jaffa, Jerusalem and Haifa or in small villages, where the majority of the population lived and worked modest plots of land. Ninety percent of the population was Muslim, and the vast majority of Muslim, Christian and Jewish residents spoke Arabic as their primary language.
To manage this diverse population, the Ottoman government created the millet system, which organized the various religions and ethnicities. As Israeli historian Abigail Jacobson explains, “The system provided a degree of religious, cultural and ethnic continuity, but also allowed the incorporation of these communities into the Ottoman administrative, economic and political system.”
The three millets were Greek-Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish. As the ruling religion of the Empire, Islam was not included in the millet system. So while religion was one’s official ‘identity,’ it co-existed with other signifiers such as clan, village, religion and Ottomanism that could be layered upon each other, with one taking on more importance at one moment, and another at another moment.
“[There was] a completely different sense of identity among the entire indigenous population, all of which [saw] itself in a broader Ottoman context right up until World War I,” Columbia University Historian and Professor of Modern Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi told us. “But that doesn’t mean they didn’t see themselves also as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or people from a certain city, or Sunni, Shia, etc.”
“There were overlapping identities” explains Jacobson. “Because of the existence of Empire and its ability to provide an [umbrella] identity, there is a moment when people are not simply ‘an Arab’ or ‘a Jew’ — identity was not as polarized as we see it today.”
The exclusive identities such as religion or clan, and the inclusive ones such as Ottomanism or local affiliation such as Jerusalemite, allow for frequent interaction between various groups. Jerusalem of the late Ottoman period is a world in which Muslims, Jews and Christians maintain social and business relationships, celebrate Purim together, bring each other gifts for Eid and Passover, and join together in fervent celebration of ‘brotherhood’ after the 1908 Revolution.
As Salim Tamari, editor of the journal “Jerusalem Quarterly” and director of the Institute for Jerusalem Studies, explains, “There was no intermarriage, but there was a great deal of socializing, heavily cemented by business and commercial contacts.” While Tamari qualifies that it was no ‘co-existence utopia,’ he asserts it was a social system that worked more smoothly than what would come after the war.
This fluid mix of identities would be lost during the British Mandate period [1920-1948], when people were forced to choose and declare their allegiance. Identities such as ‘Jew’ and ‘Arab’ suddenly emerge in stark opposition to each other, without the mediating space of Ottomanism. Those inflexible categories continue to impact life in Palestine and Israel and the conflict today.
Our film will remind its audience of a time when more nuanced identities existed, a sensibility not unlike the multiplicity of American identities today. These subtleties will be brought to life through the characters we profile and the ways they interacted before identities hardened and the conflict began.
Nationalism, the urge to identify with a strong national, ethnic group, was arguably the most significant political element transforming our world at the dawn of the 20th century. In the Ottoman district of Jerusalem (today, the southern half of Israel), two growing nationalist movements – Jewish and Arab – transformed the fluid identities of late Ottoman Palestine into the highly polarized ‘us vs. them’ paradigm of later periods. How these conflicting social forces interacted is another important theme we explore.
Fueled by ethnic pride and identity, nationalist movements surged through Europe in the 19th century. From Greece’s uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1821 through the unifications of Italy and Germany, Europe was quickly transforming into a continent of nation-states. Threatened with loss of territory by these nationalist movements, the Ottoman Empire acted to defend itself against further losses by going to war in Bulgaria, Greece, and the Balkans from the 1870’s until 1913.
Russia sided with the nationalist movements in some parts of the Balkans, even going to war directly with the Ottomans over Bulgaria. Alert to this new geopolitical threat, Ottomans viewed Russians in the Holy Land, increasingly Jews fleeing oppression, with considerable suspicion.
Enter Zionism, the nationalist movement to create a homeland for the Jews. Zionism was inspired by European currents of self-determination and pushed forward by anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, known as Pogroms. But unlike the Greeks, Italians, and Germans, Jews were a widely dispersed people without many of the social linkages that lend definition to a nationalist movement. Spread throughout the world, they spoke different languages, held different allegiances, observed different customs, and had no land of their own. At the turn of the century, Zionists from different ideological streams and viewpoints pushed to establish a patriotic, nationalistic Jewish culture in a land of their own. The land they set their sites on was one central to Jewish culture and religion for millennia – Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) or Palestine.
The first migration (aliyah) of European Jews started dribbling into the port at Jaffa in 1882. Just over a decade later, Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, stirred by his personal brush with anti-Semitism during France’s Dreyfus affair, pondered how to resolve the ‘problem’ of Europe’s Jews. His solution was the same as those found throughout Europe – establishing a national refuge and homeland. In 1897 he convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, attended by about 200 representatives from 17 countries. What emerged was a politically organized national movement. Herzl declared later in his diary, “In Basel I founded the Jewish State.”
Jewish nationalism takes the form of a small, underfunded movement with a nascent national language and a resettlement program. Starting in 1904, with a larger second wave of Jewish immigration led by Russian Jews, the fragmented movement begins to create a larger presence in Palestine. The 2nd aliyah helped transform Zionism into a fully developed national and cultural presence.
Local Arabs were beginning to develop a national consciousness too, but as Rashid Khalidi describes it, they “were not in the same category as the people arriving from Eastern Europe.” Under Ottoman rule, Palestine was a geographic area, administratively part of greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham) that had been ruled by the Ottomans for over 400 years. The population spoke Arabic, and shared Islamic faith and heritage with the peoples of the Arabic speaking world. But, as Neville Mandel writes in his foundational work The Arabs and Zionism before World War I, “Nationalism in the European sense was almost unknown among the Arabs at the end of the nineteenth century.”
Still, this pan-Islamic identity begins to morph into a notion of Arabism in the early 20th century. Professor Khalidi identifies developments, often arising out of conflicts with the new Jewish settlers, that began to foster the notion of Arabism as a national consciousness. These conflicts were generally a result of the sale of land by absentee landowners — mostly Arabs from wealthy families in the cities — to the Zionists. Tenant farmers don’t learn that the land they’ve worked, often for generations, has transferred ownership until Russian immigrants who do not speak Arabic or understand the native culture, arrive to take possession of their acreage. Arab fellahin (peasants) are the first to experience direct conflict with the Zionists, but it is not until the plight of the mostly poor and illiterate fellahin reaches the ears of urban intellectuals, says Khalidi, that this becomes a point of mutual identification.
In his book, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, Khalidi argues that this important “shared element” – the mutual opposition to land sales to Zionists by the fellahin and the intellectual elites – “constituted an element of shared identity between those in the cities and towns of Palestine and those in the countryside, who now felt that in some way they shared the same fate…”
The Zionist issue also alienated Arabs from their Ottoman rulers. Khalidi goes on to say, “Zionism, it was charged, was being tolerated and even encouraged by the Turkish-dominated [Ottoman government] because of [its] lack of concern for the Arab provinces. These charges may or may not have been justified… However, they were widely believed, and constituted a potent weapon in the conflict between the Arabist tendency among the Arab elite and the [Ottoman government].”
Neither the Zionist nor the Arab national movements are isolated from the larger currents of European nationalism that are slowly destroying the Ottoman Empire. When the Empire loses its last European holdings in the 1912-13 Balkan conflicts, the true weakness of the Empire becomes apparent to Arabists and Zionists alike. Both movements understand they’ll need to prepare to fight for their own interests against the empire. The only question is when.
For nationalist movements the world over, the goal of a national ethnic homeland is inextricably connected to the desire to create a space for a flourishing culture. Language, food, traditions, literature, music and religion are all part of the mix that Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Serbs and others hope to enjoy in their new national states.
Embedded in nationalism is a struggle for definition – who is the real Arab or Palestinian? The real Zionist or Israeli? Which language do they speak, which literature is their heritage, etc. In the context of late Ottoman Palestine, the issue of language becomes a contentious battle of words between Zionists and native Arabs, and within the Jewish community, old and new.
Zionists insist on using either their European language of origin, or Hebrew, creating a barrier with the predominant Arabic-speaking culture. In an editorial, the Arabic newspaper Filastin called Hebrew “useless to the world except as a weapon of Zionism.” With communication difficult, the distance between communities grew. Native Jews like Albert Antebi wanted new immigrants to learn Arabic, but the idea is quickly shot down in the overall effort to renew Jewish culture in its own tongue.
UCLA professor Arieh Saposnik says the Zionists’ endeavor was, “not only to revise Judaism, but to revise the definition of culture. What they sought to create encompassed everything from the way in which Jews dressed to the art they created and the literature they read, to how holidays were celebrated. Politics, economics, and even medicine were mobilized to become dynamic parts of a new identity.”
While the challenge for Muslim Arabs was hardly as daunting, they also worked to achieve a cultural revival as part of a growing national movement. The renaissance of existing Islamic culture was the work of men like Khalil Sakakini who instilled Muslim and Christian children with a new love and appreciation of their Arab heritage. As Rashid Khalidi explains, “Arab nationalism represented both a revival of old traditions and loyalties and a creation of new myths based on them, an invention of tradition… Thus, as Arab nationalism took hold, what had been described for thirteen centuries as the glories of Islamic civilization came to be called the glories of Arab civilization.”
Unlike the new Zionist culture, many Arab cultural linkages such as religious observance, language and geographical space existed as signs of a newly defined people. Ironically, as modern Palestinians today strive toward a state of their own, the very same issues of culture— for example, which songs do we sing—loom alongside questions about political, economic and social organization. Themes of shifting identities in defining a people are every bit as vibrant topics in the region today as they were then.