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Reviewed by:
  • Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine
  • Paul Sedra
Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine. By Laura Robson (Austin, University of Texas Press, 2011) 239 pp. $55.00

As Islamist politics continues to assume greater prominence throughout the Middle East, the sectarian diversity of the area's Arab peoples is frequently overlooked. The work under review constitutes an important intervention in a modest but growing literature that seeks to document the modern experience of Arab Christians, and, broadly, how both the Ottoman Empire and Western colonial powers inºuenced the development of sectarian identities in the Middle East during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Robson's focus is the Palestine Mandate, namely, the British colonial authority that governed Palestine during the interwar period and was ostensibly intended to facilitate the rise of democratic self-government in the area. In fact, as Robson seeks to demonstrate, the Mandate authorities consciously fostered sectarian institutions within Palestine that would undermine efforts to develop an Arab Palestinian polity. By preventing solidarities that might extend across sectarian lines, the British made themselves, to their thinking, indispensable mediators of endemic conºict among Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

What makes this work so valuable is the skill with which Robson demonstrates that the sectarian spirit of the governing institutions developed by the British was, in fact, a departure from past practice in the area. Similar to recent Indian historiography with reference to British rule in the subcontinent, Robson establishes that British "respect" for sectarian divisions was not so much a "concession to native sensibilities" as an "invented tradition" that was deployed in an effort to divide and rule. Hence, British support for such institutions as the Supreme Muslim Council and such positions as the Grand Mufti of Palestine tended not so much to preserve a purported "delicate sectarian balance" as to create and exacerbate sectarian tensions.

However, as Robson importantly illustrates, sectarianism was not simply a colonial imposition on Palestine. Rather, Palestinian Christians reckoned with the state-supported Supreme Muslim Council by developing [End Page 346] distinctly Christian movements that had no precedent in the area. Indeed, the book chronicles the rise and struggles of the Arab Orthodox movement, which sought to wrest control of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate from Greek nationals and deliver it into Arab hands, as well as Christian efforts to secure greater representation on municipal councils.

Both English- and Arabic-language sources contribute to the development of a nuanced portrait of the rise of sectarian politics under the Palestine Mandate. As one would expect, the papers of the Mandate authorities play a vital role in constructing this portrait, but Robson extends her purview well beyond the British National Archives to include such newspapers as Filastin and Al-Karmil, as well as the writings of such Palestinian Christians as Khalil al-Sakakini and 'Izzat Tannus.

Robson's approach to sources, though meticulous, is excessively cautious: Her announced concern is as much with cultural as it is with political developments, but the text is overwhelmingly concerned with detailed political narrative. What might Robson have made of her sources had she adopted an anthropological sensibility in examining them and extended her focus beyond the machinations of the Arab Christian elite? Yet, of greater concern is the puzzling absence among her references of two pivotal dissertations, intimately linked to her topic—Campos' "A 'Shared Homeland' and Its Boundaries" and Roberts' "Rethinking the Status Quo."1

Paul Sedra
Simon Fraser University


1. Michelle Campos, "A 'Shared Homeland' and Its Boundaries: Empire, Citizenship and the Origins of Sectarianism in Late Ottoman Palestine, 1908-1913," unpub. Ph. D. diss. (Stanford University, 2003); Nicholas Roberts, "Rethinking the Status Quo: The British and Islam in Palestine, 1917-1929," unpub. Ph. D. diss. (New York University, 2010).



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pp. 346-347
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