Christians in colonial Palestine

Written by | May 22, 2012

PSU Professor Laura Robson to deliver lecture on her recent book

Laura Robson, assistant professor of Middle Eastern history at Portland State, proposes that the British colonial system imposed upon Palestine from 1917–48 divided the population by religion and marginalized Christians.

Her book on this subject, Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine (published by the University of Texas Press last fall), will be the subject of a lecture taking place tomorrow night in the Smith Memorial Student Union and presented by the Middle East Studies Center.

“People have this idea that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of Jews vs. Muslims, and talking about the Arab-Christian community complicates that picture,” Robson said. “So I wanted to bring that into question and show that it’s not actually a very accurate history of the conflict.”

British colonialism in Palestine closely resembled British colonialism in India. The British colonial government sharply divided the population into religious groups to empower immigrant Jews.

“Under the Ottoman Empire…religious communities did have control over their own law courts and a degree of internal autonomy, but nothing like the level of separation that the British set up when they came to power,” Robson said.

Christians in Palestine formed part of an emerging middle class in Palestine that actively engaged itself in politics and journalism. And the British colonial government actively disenfranchised the Christians to silence their voices, according to Robson.

“The British considered their activity to be a threat to the colonial state, so they created structures whereby people were defined by their religious experience,” Robson said.

One of the institutions the British created was the Supreme Muslim Council, which Christians obviously couldn’t be part of. What’s more, the British also tied voting to religion, so Christians could only vote for Christians, and only Jews could vote for Jews.

“Religion became a basis for political identity,” Robson said.

After five years of research for her book, Robson discovered a clearer picture of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“The cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not because of religion,” Robson said. “And I think ithis history [that includes] the Christian community is a way to show us that this is a political conflict, not a religious one, and gives us the ability to analyze that region more accurately.”

Her book challenges misconceptions about Palestinian and Arab culture.

“When we think about the Arab world, too often we think it’s the same as the Muslim world,” Robson said. “I just want to point out that that’s not the case, and these minorities really do represent a significant part of the history of the Middle East and the Arabic-speaking world.”

Palestine forms part of the eastern Mediterranean region with many cultural links to Western countries, Robson said. Divisions between social classes generally trump religious divisions in Palestine.

“In the period I’m talking about, we often see Christians and Muslims sharing holidays, participating in each other’s festivals and sharing shrines in some cases,” Robson said. “And certainly, moving in the same social circles, they participate in the same political movements, political parties. There’s just a lot of social, political and economic mixing.”

Robson joined the faculty of the history department two years ago. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history at Tulane University in New Orleans, La., in 2000 and her doctorate in 2009 at Yale University.

While a graduate student, Robson studied British and French colonialism in the Middle East. She wrote her doctorate dissertation on British colonialism in Palestine, which formed the core ideas of her book, and seeks to open the eyes of her readers to the great diversity of Palestinian Arab culture.

A general interest in European colonialism and imperialism in the Middle East sparked Robson’s interest.

“I came in as a British imperial historian, and that’s still an important part of the research,” Robson said. “But I really started to look at it from the other side.”

With research grants from the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University and other sources, she traveled to the British colonial archives in London, England, and the State of Israel and central Zionist archives in Israel in 2006 and 2007. She also conducted interviews with local Palestinians in the West Bank and looked through old Palestinian and British colonial newspapers.

“[The most satisfying thing about the book] is getting it out there, having people read it and having them change their minds about some of the things I’m writing about,” Robson said. “I’m hoping that it will be read widely, by students as well as professional scholars, and it’s really satisfying to see it come to fruition and enter the conversation.”

The Middle East Studies Center presents
Laura Robson: “The Making of a Minority: Christians in Palestine”
Wednesday, May 237 p.m.
Smith Memorial Student Union, room 333
Free and open to the public.
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