Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Book Review) | Unpublished

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Yasser Harrak's picture
Montreal, Quebec
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Alma mater: American Military University (MA, Grad Cert), Concordia University (BA). 


  • Member of the Order of the Sword & Shield for Homeland Security and Intelligence
  • Member of the West Virginia Iota Chapter of Pi Gamma Mu Social Science Honor Society
  • Member of the Golden Key International Honor Societ

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Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Book Review)

January 4, 2018

          In his study of the development of modern Palestinian identity and national consciousness, Khalidi structurally supported his book Palestinian identity: the construction of modern national consciousness by using psychology, politics, socio-economics and religion. He takes us on a tour where we first explore the cultural life and identity in Ottoman Palestine. He explains the importance of cultural and political places and figures, and the significance of the peasant resistance to the Zionist settlement along with the anti-Zionist role that Arab newspapers played.  He discusses the roots of the Palestinian identity in the early 1900s and its reemergence in the late 1960s. Khalidi’s idea that Palestinian national identity developed –in the 1960s, in spite of the obstacles it was facing, is well founded. With the exception of some marginal concerns that I will discuss as I review the book, the purpose of the book per se and the way he argued it constitute a good reference.

          By incorporating modern travel-related dreadful stories that Palestinians face in airports around the world, Khalidi’s introduction did not only serve to explain the anxiety  related  to Palestinian identity, but  also proves that the importance of such a study extends beyond the fields of history to include the field of international security. Thus, this book stands out in terms of its interdisciplinary relevance.

          Adducing the Kurdish question, Khalidi stated that Palestinians resemble a few other peoples in the modern era who have reached a high level of national consciousness developing a defined sense of national identity, but have failed to achieve national independence (Khalidi 1997, 11). Although the absence of statehood is a good point of similarity, there are differences between the Palestinian and the Kurdish issue that outweigh any resemblance.  The Palestinian question as it relates to the role of colonialism resembles more the Native American peoples’ question. Elements such as the absence of statehood, the forced removal and the UN shortcomings present a perfect comparison case.  

          Khalidi has drawn an important concept of how actions taken to hinder Palestinian nationalism only helped it develop. The Zionist movement had played an important role in the formation of Palestinian identity in the sense that it provided the identity of the other alter ego (Ibid). Using an approach where socio-cultural and economic interconnectedness form the pillars of identity; Doumani found no clear understanding of the politics of identity or a collective Palestinian nationhood awareness before the presence of Zionism (Khalidi 1997, 12) . The construction of the Zionist identity followed by tragic events that culminated in 1948 added the element of tragedy that boosted the Palestinian consciousness. Khalidi states: “The catastrophic experience of 1948, and its impact on different segments of the Palestinian people, is a common topic of discussion among Palestinians of diverse backgrounds and generations” (Khalidi 1997, 22). He cautions that Zionism was not the main factor provoking the emergence of Palestinian identity, and that the main obstacles to the expression of a Palestinian identity included the external powers that dominated the region during the 20th century (Ibid). Here, the author used the term expression rather than construction of identity. This implies its readiness as a developed identity, which contradicts his claim that the Palestinian identity developed in the 1960s.

          Cultural personalities and places played a role in the construct of Palestinian identity. Locations of cultural and intellectual trends, for instance, in Jerusalem, the two main coastal ports (Jaffa and Haifa) and other places were central for the Palestinian cultural and intellectual life (Khalidi 1997, 36). Libraries up until the early twentieth century continued copying religious, historical, and literary manuscripts. The catalogues of the Al-Aqsa Library and the Budayriyya are a good example (Khalidi 1997, 43) . They provided consistent cultural and historical elements that Palestinians would identify with collectively. Khalidi posits that the absence of a unified educational system –a uniform socialization of the population- and the deeply divided educational sector affected negatively the construction of a unified Palestinian identity (Khalidi 1997, 52-53). While I agree with the author on the importance of culture in general, I find that he overstated the role of the educational system in impeding identity. Using the Kurds example adduced earlier, the Kurdish identity developed in spite of the absence of its own educational system. The identity of Native Peoples in Canada, for instance, resisted the residential school system, an educational system hostile to its culture, in the 19th century and until its abolition in the late 20th century (CBC 2008) . Therefore, the role of a unified educational system in affecting the Palestinian collective consciousness is less significant than the author proposed.

           The author was able to prove that the Arab press played a central role in the development of Arab attitudes toward Zionism by explaining the aims and extent of the Zionist movement as a whole. In the early 1900s, Arabic language papers expressed a mounting concern about the dangers posed by Zionist colonization to the indigenous population of Palestine, and ultimately to that of surrounding regions (Khalidi 1997, 121). This is an instance where the author creates a conundrum rather than finds a simple answer to the question of how the Palestinian identity first developed. Arabic newspapers were more an expression of pan-Arabism. The Afghani connection and his influence on Palestinian Muslim scholars is clearly a pan-Islamist expression (Khalidi 1997, 78) . To say that pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism factored in the construct of Palestinian identity lacks further elaboration. Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, albeit paradoxical to the formation of Palestinian identity, is transcended by the mainstream secular Palestinian nationalism under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The PLO probably represented the views of a majority of Palestinians since the mid- or late 1960s, emerging from a relatively recent tradition that argues that Palestinian nationalism has deep historical roots (Khalidi 1997, 149).

           Khalidi’s book is informative and thought provoking. It puts an image in our minds about the Palestinian identity. It makes us imagine her as a person born in a village prior to the introduction of modern administration; a person whose village was divided between other villages, and whose date of birth is unknown. A person that started struggling to prove she is living in the 1960s and suffers today from a weakened structure and an uncertain future.



CBC. 2008. "A History of Residential Schools in Canada." CBC News. Accessed July 15, 2017.

Khalidi, Rashid. 1997. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. ACLC Humanities E-Book. Accessed June 22, 2017.;c....