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Reviewed by:
  • Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine
  • Daphne Tsimhoni, PhD (bio)
Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine, by Laura Robson. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011. 256 pages. $55.

This book deals with some aspects of the Christians under the British Mandate in Palestine, a topic that has not been widely researched. Its main thesis is that the British Mandate in Palestine, acting as a form of colonial rule, brought about the marginalization of the Arab Christian minority, to the point of near-invisibility. Accordingly, this was largely due to its redefinition of Palestinian Christians as a political entity separate from the Muslim and Jewish populations (pp. 2–3).

The introduction presents a survey of the Christian communities in Palestine on the eve of World War I that is, alas, too short and incomplete. It does not provide essential figures or estimates regarding their size and their sociocultural-economic features throughout the mandatory period.

Chapter 1 deals with the Ottoman reforms (tanzimat) of the 19th century as influenced by the Western Powers. The author elaborates on the promise of equal citizenship rights to the Christians and Jews but not on the internal autonomy allowed to the non-Muslim recognized communities (millets).

Robson maintains that the Ottoman reforms brought about the rise of a new, partially Westernized middle class shared by Muslims and Christians who did not define themselves politically in terms of their religious affiliation but rather in terms of their social status. To support this assumption, she portrays short biographies of five Christian personalities who were proponents of Palestinian Arab nationalism: Najib ‘Azuri, Khalil al-Sakakini, Najib Nassar, ‘Isa al-‘Isa. and Gregorius Hajjar. Based on secondary sources, this description does not tell much about their views, activities, and sense of social belonging that would support her thesis. Similarly, the author maintains that the Christian members of the Muslim-Christian associations, the earliest Palestinian national organizations during 1918–1920, saw themselves primarily as representatives of the new middle class, dedicated to some form of Arab independence and to anti-Zionism, not as representatives for a minority religious group (p. 42). However, she does not marshal convincing evidence to support this supposition.

Chapter 2 discusses the adoption and expansion, or “reinvention” — as the author puts it — of the Ottoman millet system by the British Mandate as imported from the British colonial administrative concepts in Africa and Asia. She elaborates on the establishment in 1922 of the Supreme Muslim Council as an autonomous representative body for the Muslims that eliminated Christian representation and political activities. She does not discuss the British Mandatory legislation during its formative years regarding the status of religious communities and their measures of autonomy; the obligations and commitments to the League of Nations regarding religious freedom, minority rights, and the Jewish national home promise of the Balfour Declaration. Hence, the Religious Communities Ordinance 1926 was generally formulated to enable all sections of the population to apply for communal religious autonomy. Unlike the Jews and Muslims, none of the Christian communities made use of this ordinance mainly due to internal conflicts and dissensions.

Chapter 3 examines the Arab Orthodox struggle for the Arabization of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the largest and most important Christian church in Palestine. The bitter struggle as supported by the Palestinian national movement met indecisive attitudes of the British administration, remained unresolved by the end of the mandate, and is still ongoing.

Chapter 4 discusses attempts at creating [End Page 387] overall Arab Christian and Arab Protestant representative bodies which failed.

Chapter 5 describes the emergence of the indigenous Arab community in the Anglican Bishopric in Jerusalem and its demand for an independent Arab national Episcopalian church, a demand that the British heads of the bishopric rejected. As a result, this small but important community did not get official recognition throughout the Mandate.

On the whole, this book is fragmental. It does not discuss the Catholic communities and attempts made by Catholic Arabs such as the Greek Catholic Bishop Gregorius Hajjar to represent the Palestinian Christians.

The book lacks a summary that would support its initial thesis regarding the marginalization of the Christians in Mandatory Palestine and the role...


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pp. 387-388
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