The Failure of Palestinian Nationalism

The Fellowship  |  March 11, 2019

13th attempt to break the Gaza blockade by sea
GAZA CITY, GAZA - OCTOBER 22: Palestinians throw stones and burn tyres in response to Israeli forces' intervention as they gather to support the maritime demonstration to break the Gaza blockade by sea with vessels in Gaza City, Gaza on October 22, 2018. (Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The popularity of the Palestinian cause has begun to decline, as was evident in last month’s Warsaw Summit. This decline, writes Alex Joffe for JNS, illustrates the ongoing failure of the anti-Semitic and negative push for Palestinian nationalism:

Why has Palestinian nationalism failed? Answering this question requires examination of foundational issues. Are Palestinians a “people” with a unified sense of culture? Yes, they are, albeit of recent vintage. Are they a “nation,” a territorialized people with a sense of rootedness? Here, too, the answer is yes. So why have they failed to construct a nation-state?

Part of the answer is the contradictory inner logic of Palestinian nationalism, which is founded on both positive and negative principles. On the one hand, it relies on romantic visions of an imaginary past, the myth of ancestors sitting beneath their lemon trees. These and other supposedly timeless essences are at odds with the hardscrabble reality of pre-modern Palestine, which was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, dominated by its leading families, and beset by endemic poverty and disease. As in all national visions, these unhappy memories are mostly edited out.

On the other hand, Palestinian nationalism is resolutely negative in that it relies on the existential evils of “settler-colonialist” Zionism and ever-perfidious Jews. Consider the essential symbols of Palestine: a fighter holding a rifle and a map that erases Israel completely. It is a nationalism—and thus, an identity—based in large part on negation of the “Other,” preferably through violence. It also implies that Palestinian identity exists only through struggle, a kind of ethno-religious dialectic.

That negativity points to key limitations of Palestinian nationalism: its lateness as a reaction to Zionism, and its historical failure to thwart that allegedly existential evil. At the outbreak of World War I, the immediate loyalties of the country’s population were parochial to clan, tribe, village, town or religious sect. As late as June 1918, less than three months before the end of hostilities in the Middle East, the chief political officer of the British forces that expelled the Ottomans from the Levant noted the absence of “real patriotism amongst the population of Palestine.” A separate Palestinian identity began to evolve after that war in response to the rapid expansion of the Jewish national home; arguably, the masses were not fully nationalized until after 1948.

The hysterical overreaction of Palestinian leaders who date their people’s ancestry to the Upper Paleolithic period suggests deep insecurity on this issue. The centrality of resistance and steadfastness, the evil of the Zionist enemy, the denial of Jewish national identity and connections to the land, and the necessity for Palestinians to remain refugees until a magical return to the mythical antebellum world suspend Palestinian nationalism in a liminal state of being, at once reactionary and revolutionary…

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