Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, currently serving the 14th year of his four-year term, recently repeated his favorite trope. Visiting a Palestinian refugee camp, he declared: “This land is for its people, its residents and the Canaanites who were here 5,000 years ago. We are the Canaanites.”
His ludicrous claim, lacking a shred of historical evidence to support it, prompted a rereading of Rashid Khalidi’s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (1996). Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, is descended from a long line of distinguished Palestinian family members. He is an unrivaled authority on Palestinian history. A brief summary of his narrative of the emergence of Palestinian identity is instructive.
Khalidi’s story begins not with the Canaanites, but with the decline of the Ottoman Empire before World War I and the emergence of Zionism. The Arab population of Palestine, he writes, “had a strong attachment to their country—albeit an attachment expressed in pre-nationalist terms.” At the time, Palestinian identity “was shared by a relatively restricted circle, largely composed of the urban, the literate, and the educated.”
The formative period for the appearance of a Palestinian national identity followed World War I, with the end of Ottoman rule and the emergence of Zionism as the Jewish national movement. The “The Arabs of Palestine,” Khalidi writes, “were dismayed by increasing Zionist colonization and land acquisition.” This “resulted in the emergence of a Palestinian national identity where a few decades before no such thing had existed.” That identity “crystallized much more rapidly than in otherwise might have done due to the urgency of the threat that Zionism was perceived as posing.”
The birth of the modern-day State of Israel in 1948 caused “the wholesale flight and expulsion of much of the Arab population of Palestine” (still unidentified, according to Khalidi, as Palestinians). Indeed, as late as the 1950s and 1960s, “there were few indications … of the existence of an independent Palestinian identity or of Palestinian nationalism.” But “the experience of defeat, dispossession, and exile guaranteed that they knew what their identity was very soon afterwards: they were Palestinians.” The argument that Palestinian nationalism has “deep historical roots” expresses “a nationalist consciousness and identity that are, in fact, relatively modern.”
Abbas’s claim prompted Eli E. Hertz, a student of myths and facts about the Middle East, to illuminate its absurdity from a different perspective. He notes that before 1948, “Palestine” had been the preferred term of Jewish identification. The pre-state Jewish Agency began as the Jewish Agency for Palestine. The Jerusalem Post had been The Palestine Post. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was known as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.
While there may be no better way to assert a claim of ancient Palestinian identity than to locate it in the pre-Israelite Canaanites, it should be recognized as an absurd fictional myth disguised as fact. To be sure, some Palestinian Arabs deferred to historical truth. Shortly before the birth of the State of Israel, Arab historian Philip Hitti conceded: “There is no such thing as Palestine in history, absolutely not.” Why was it, wondered Walid Shoebat from Bethlehem, “that on June 4, 1967 I was a Jordanian and overnight I became a Palestinian. … We considered ourselves Jordanian until the Jews returned to Jerusalem. Then all of a sudden we were Palestinians.”
Even Columbia literary scholar and prominent Palestinian advocate Edward Said (whose name adorns Khalidi’s professorship) constructed his own “Palestinian” identity. Born to a Lebanese mother and Egyptian father during a brief family sojourn in Jerusalem, his boyhood was spent amid family wealth and comfort in Cairo. Like Yasser Arafat, he was more Egyptian than Palestinian.
In the end, what is most striking about Palestinian identity—Mahmoud Abbas to the contrary—is its derivation from modern Jewish and Zionist, not Canaanite, sources.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” recently published by Academic Studies Press.