No, Mr. Smotrich, Palestinians are not new in history, and all nationalisms are modern, including the Israeli

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  March 22, 2023

Ann Arbor – Bezalel Smotrich in a speech in Paris over the weekend maintained that there are no Palestinians and that the whole notion of Palestine is no older than a century.

This cliocide, a form of genocide involving wiping out the history of a people, has been a common narrative among Zionists or Jewish nationalists for the past century. It has sometimes been given the form of fraudulent books of “history” such as Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, which, despite its having been debunked by professional Israeli historians, continues to be distilled and fobbed off on the public by people like Alan Dershowitz. It has been effectively replied to by Rashid Khalidi and Douglas A. Howard, “It was called ‘Palestine,’” Fides et Historia, vol. XXXV, no. 2 (Summer/Fall 2003): 61-78. Following Howard we can note that:

The ancient Greek father of history, Herodotus, mentioned Palestine, a word he clearly borrowed into Greek from Levantine sources.

Under the Eastern Roman Empire ruled from Constantinople from about 400 A.D., the province of Palestine was variously configured. In the sixth century there were three provinces of Palestine, the first, second and third. Most of their inhabitants were Christians, though there were many Jews in Galilee. Jews were not allowed in Jerusalem. Many of the Christians were bilingual in Greek and Western Aramaic. The historian Procopius (d. 565), when writing about the Great Plague, spoke of it starting in Egypt and then spreading to Palestine, which bordered it.

Procopius was, by the way, from Caesarea Maritima on the coast of Palestine and was himself a Palestinian. There is a dispute about whether he was a Christian or a secret pagan.

When the Arab Muslims became the rulers of the Middle East, they went on referring to this area as Palestine. Over the centuries, its Jews and Christians largely converted to Islam, though Christians remained about 15% of the population.

Hudud al-Alam (The Borders of the World), an important medieval geography written by an Afghan from Guzgan in the 900s, says,

“PALESTINE (Filastin) a province with many fields and fruits, great riches, and many inhabitants. RAMLA . . . the capital of Palestine. The locality is pleasant and the town large. GHAZZA . . . a borough on the frontier between Syria and Egypt. BETHLEHEM (Bayt al-lahm) a borough where the Prophet Jesus, on Him be God’s blessings and protection, was born. MASJID Ibrahim [Abraham’s shrine], a borough on the frontier between Egypt and Syria. The sepulchre . . .of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, on them be God’s blessings, is there. NABULUS, RlHA (Jericho …) two small boroughs, little favoured by nature… JERUSALEM (Bayt al-muqaddas), a town lying on the slope of the mountain. It has no running water. In it stands a mosque which is visited by Muslims coming from everywhere. These are all the towns of Palestine.”

The Levant was ruled by the early Muslim Caliphs (632-661), the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750), the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258), the Ayyubids founded by Saladin, and the Egyptian Mamluks, among others. All of these were Arabic-speaking.

The Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta, on visiting Jerusalem in 1326, said that it was called al-Quds [the Holy] and that it was “third in excellence after the two sacred Mosques [of Mecca and Medina], and was the place of ascension of the Apostle of God.”

The Muslim Ottoman Empire took this area in 1517 and ruled it for four hundred years. The great Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi wrote in the middle of the 1600s when he visited it, “”Description of the fortress of Jerusalem: All chronicles call this country the Land of Palestine ”

Ottoman records show clearly that most inhabitants of geographical Palestine were Arabic-speaking farmers living in villages. Pastoralists tended to live in thinly populated areas with low rainfall, where they could wander in search of pasturage for their flocks. They were a small proportion of the population. Likely 20 percent were urban and 70 percent were peasants, with pastoralists comprising the rest.

Demographer Justin McCarthy has given us easily accessible statistics:

In 1850 there were 340,000 inhabitants of geographical Palestine, with 13,000 Jews.

In 1900 there were 586,000 inhabitants of Palestine with 23,000 Jews.

In 1915 there were 722,000 inhabitants of Palestine, with 38,000 Jews.

In 1946 there were 1,946,000 inhabitants of Palestine, with 602,000 Jews.

Most Palestinians were Muslim.

There was clearly a regional consciousness of being from “Filastin” (the Arabic for Palestine) among people who lived in Nablus, Jaffa and Jerusalem, even in the nineteenth century. By 1910 there was even an Arabic newspaper called Filastin, i.e. Palestine. This regional consciousness admittedly did not take the form of a full-blown nationalism, since nationalism in the Middle East is largely a twentieth-century phenomenon.

The trick of right-wing Israeli rhetoric in saying that Palestinians had no nation until the early twentieth century is that nationalism as an identity and a form of political organization is a recent phenomenon in history, though the elements out of which it is fashioned are ancient. Most people in the world as late as 1900 lived in empires, and this is true both of Palestinians and of Jews.

There was no Italy until 1861, and no Germany until 1871. Dialects varied so widely that people from different regions could not understand one another. In 1800 only two percent of people living in the Italian peninsula spoke what we would now call Italian. Sicilians and Venetians could not understand one another and lived under different governments.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out that people think that nations create states, but in fact, states create nations. The state sponsors schools in which children are trained up to speak a national language, and are given emotional ties with a flag and a national cause. Benedict Anderson pointed to national newspaper markets as vehicles for national consciousness.

So here’s the thing. There were no Israelis until 1948. Their national consciousness is even more recent than that of Palestinians. Judaism was not thought to be a proper platform for national identity by most Jews until after the end of World War II. Most Jewish Americans roundly rejected Zionism, and about a third still seem to do so, especially young people.

Another irony is that the struggle between what became Israelis and Palestinians over territory has created a strong national consciousness in both populations. There wouldn’t be any Israelis as they are now commonly understood without Palestinians. While Palestinians could have come into being as a nation without the Zionists (as, e.g., Iraqis largely did), the fact is that they did not.

As it now stands, there are two nations on the soil of geographic Palestine, an Israeli one and a Palestinian one. The Palestinian nation, however, is prevented from having a national government. Palestinians are stateless, they are a homeless nation. They are kept stateless, and therefore without basic human rights, by the much stronger Israelis, who get billions and sophisticated weaponry from the United States annually.

That disparity between a full Israeli nation and the stateless, rights-less Palestinians, has driven the conflict and ensured that Israel comes out on top.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam