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Research project

CrossRoads: European cultural diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine. A connected history (1920-1950)

This project aims to revisit the relationship between the European cultural agenda and the local identity formation process, and social and religious transformations of Arab Christian communities in Palestine, when the British ruled via the Mandate. What was the role of culture in European policies regarding the Arabs of Palestine? How did Arab Christians use culture to define their place in the proto-national and religious configuration between 1920 and 1950?

Duration
2017 - 2022
Contact
Karène Sanchez
Funding
NWO VIDI Innovational Research Incentives Scheme NWO VIDI Innovational Research Incentives Scheme
Partners

For an overview of partners, please visit the CrossRoads project website

CrossRoads is a 5-year research project funded by the NWO.  This project will analyse the cultural practices and ideas of the two main Christian communities of Palestine (Orthodox and Melkites), their communal and religious leaders (foreign and local), and their interactions with different European cultural actors and early diplomacy (cultural, regional and global perspective) during the formative years of the Middle East.

This entangled history will be traced via unrevealed archives, nuanced by the comparative analysis of British and Zionist archives, and the cultural agenda of their Jewish and Muslim compatriots, through a cross-archival and interdisciplinary approach, proposing a dynamic model of the politics of identity via culture, in a regional and global perspective.

Background CrossRoads project

At the heart of the big Arab Revolt against the colonial British Mandate in Palestine, Arab Orthodox students founded in 1937 an Arab students’ association in Bethleem, which quickly grew and transformed only few months later into the successful ‘League of Arab students’. Its various activities (rhetoric, theatre, library, athletics and public events, journalism, arts, travel) were aimed at the ‘fighting of urban and rural illiteracy, elevation of the cultural and ethical standards of the Arab student, establishing tight links between students in Palestine and in neighbouring Arab countries’ (Al-Ghad, Bethlehem, 1, n° 2, June, 1938, p. 2). Several articles pointed towards ‘culture’ as a phenomenon that was actively described and discussed.

Recent developments in the Middle East have brought religious difference back to the attention of the scholarly world, questioning the numerous differences beneath the notion of nationalistic Arab unity and the role of culture. Culture provides a powerful tool to analyse the connected history of Arab Christians with Europe. The cultural spectrum contradicts the standard colonial narrative, that all Arab Christians felt the same way about the British, the Zionist movement, and communal identity, but reveals on the contrary a rich diversity of Arab Christianity and allows us to explore Arab Palestinian Christianity ‘from within and without’ during this formative period for the Middle East with two political transitions (the British Mandate and the creation of Israel).

  1. Mandate authorities addressed Muslim and Jewish communities (via legal frameworks, proto-national agenda, sectarian policies) but not Christian communities, leaving them somewhat apart. One result was that they over-proportionally invested in culture as a cornerstone of their identity.
  2. Palestine was a nexus of cultural milieus (European actors and Jewish immigrants). Their culture played a major role in the construction of the Jewish nation and this process impacted the Arab Christian communities’ sense of ‘cultural promotion’.
  3. Following WWI, international relations were becoming inexorably linked to political ideology and rivalry between European states took on a cultural component.
  4. Supranational religious actors (Vatican, Orthodox Patriarchates) promoted diverse linguistic and cultural agendas by investing in cultural associations.

These hypotheses will be answered via a close study of the three main actors: the two most numerous indigenous Christian populations, the Orthodox and the Melkite (Greek Catholic), and the European cultural actors. Practices and perceptions of culture of both Orthodox Christians and Melkites changed drastically during the Mandate. Many cultural clubs appeared at the beginning of the 1920s (literary, athletic, political committees), shifting towards more communal cultural associations in the 1930s. At the same time, different European countries used culture as a tool of influence in the Arab world. 

To understand the contested role of culture during the formative years of the Middle East, the project will analyse the cultural practices and ideas of both local communities and their communal and religious leaders (foreign and local), and their interactions with European cultural actors (cultural, regional and global perspective). These can be traced in the archives of associations, private archives, the programmes of educational institutes, local/regional journals, pamphlets and books, and in church archives, governmental educational establishments and private cultural institutions, nuanced by the comparative analysis of British and Zionist archives. The dynamics of personal and institutional interactions will be complemented via a comparative analysis of the cultural agenda of their Jewish and Muslim compatriots.  

European cultural conceptions, agendas and their appropriation are fundamental in order to understand the challenges of the Arabisation process (and the definitions of Arab identities), the instrumentalisation of the protection of minorities, and to reassess conflicts through culture. 

Practices and perceptions of culture of both Orthodox Christians and Melkites changed drastically during the Mandate. Many cultural clubs appeared at the beginning of the 1920s (literary, athletic, political committees), shifting towards more communal cultural associations in the 1930s. At the same time, different European countries used culture as a tool of influence in the Arab world. 

CrossRoads intends to shed light on modes of interaction, first between Arab Christians and other social groups in Palestine and with the European actors, but also between the local, regional, and transnational spheres, instead of studying a mere aggregation of communal and institutional histories. It will consider the polycentric processes for both Christian communities and the various ways in which Arab Christians located themselves in these broader cultural processes.

What was the role of culture in European policies regarding the Arabs of Palestine? How did Arab Christians use culture to define their place in the proto-national and religious configuration between 1920 and 1950? 

This project begins with the assumption that the history of Arab Christianity must be studied in the wider context of European and global developments, and via its cultural elements.

  • How were notions such as ‘national culture’ and ‘international cultural exchange’ understood by European states at the turn of the last century and how did they envision the role that cultural diplomacy could and should play in this process? 
  • How did European states organize and employ cultural diplomacy and what did European states wish to achieve through the implementation of this tactic or strategy on both the short-term and the long-term?
  • Which agents contributed to the establishment of cultural agency as a process and which agents were eventually (intentionally or not) affected by it?
  • Did European states fashion cultural diplomacy within a formal or a rather more informal (political, cultural and economic) field? 

Furthermore,

  • What role did culture play in the policies of European agents (both governmental and non-governmental) regarding the Arabs of Palestine? 
  • How did Arab Christian communities in Palestine use cultural enterprises to define their place in the proto-national and religion configuration between 1920 and 1950?
  • What was the cultural and ideological framework that European representatives used when they promoted their cultural and linguistic practices in Palestine?
  • How did European representatives contribute to the initiation or opposition to sectarianism in Palestine via a cultural agenda? 
  • How did Arab Christian communities use the European cultural agenda(s) in order to promote and safeguard their national and communal affiliations and interests?

Subproject 1 : Between the Holy Land and the World: the Melkite community of Palestine

Nowhere in the Middle East was the influence of western religious educators as large as in the Palestine, originating in the nineteenth century and increasing substantially during the British Mandate (Murre-van den Berg 2006). The Melkite community had special links with the French who were in charge of their religious training (St Anne seminary in Jerusalem). The majority of Melkites cultivated close contacts with Syria and Lebanon (central for their hierarchy) and participated in cultural associations active beyond the borders of Palestine.

Melkite leaders seemed to have carefully considered benefits and drawbacks of both cultural backgrounds (Arab and Western cultures) internally, while continuing to enhance their Arab culture and language, to advocate for Palestine, for the Arab Christianity and for their own community outside Palestine, promoting a variant of national identity that would incorporate both cultures.

They played a key role in Rome after the creation of the Pontifical Institute and the Holy Congregation for the Oriental Churches in 1917, where leading figures were successfully advocating for a deeper comprehension and actions from the Holy See towards Arab Christianity, promoting the recognition of its specific culture (Card. Tisserand, C. Korolevskij).

At the same time, Melkite leaders emphasised the links between their Church and the ‘Palestinian Fatherland’, and communal and Vatican secret archives reveal the close relation between the bishop of Akka, G. Haggear, and the Big Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni. From cross-archival work emerges their complex mechanism to mobilize beyond Palestine (and including in Europe), using cultural nationalism as a vector.

  • How did the Melkite hierarchy and population react to the mixture of two cultures as an affirmation of their local roots and source of nationalism?
  • What was the role of the Melkites in the elaboration of the Holy See’s views of Arabs after WWI?

Subproject 2: Between the Holy Land and the Mediterranean: the Arab Orthodox community of Palestine

The Arab orthodox community was special in its consciousness of its indigenous character since the late XIXth century (Tamari 2014). During the Mandate, Arab Orthodox leaders maintained strong affinities with their Muslim fellows and worked to enhance the consciousness of Arab history and culture as basis for Arab nationalism. When the nationalist Arab movement became defined increasingly by Islam, Arab Orthodox leaders debated and fought that shift. During the final decade of British administration, Orthodox associations promoted an exclusively Christian Arab nationalism by proposing activities such as aid and educational opportunities, and establishing cultural centres.

This orthodox belief in a cultural indigenous character was shared by the Greek hierarchy, based on their perceived continuous local presence since byzantine times. The ethnic battle with the Greek hierarchy (originating typically from Greece) (Papasthatis 2013) was also fought via cultural debates, and resulted in complex self-reflections (particularly useful for this project).

The ‘nationalization’ process of the Orthodox institutions (gradual transformation of the organization of the Orthodox Church from a non-ethnic religious ‘representation’ to a national  based religious affiliation) was accompanied by fierce and enlighteningcultural debates until WWII, fragmenting the previously ‘oecumenical Orthodoxy’ into ethnic-based religious entities.

  • How did the different Greek religious institutions address the cultural issues at stake with the Arab populations?
  • How did Arab Orthodox elites promote culture to affirm their role in the Orthodox communal life in the Holy Land?
  • What were the consequences on their relations with the Arab Catholic population?

Subproject 3: Europe talking to the Levant

External linguistic and cultural policies are far vaguer than internal ones (presented as a cement of nations) and constitute a complex form of influence (Sanchez & Frijhoff 2016). The creation of institutions such as the British Council, the French Cultural Centre and the Italian Dante Society in Palestine was a sign of the emergence of a new type of foreign policy that later became systematic. European languages were at the heart of the first ‘cultural diplomacy’ in the 1930’s, inheriting elements of the XIXth century missionary presence, but evolving quickly into more complex forms of influence.

Cultural activities took place alongside dramatic political events and within the particular economic and religious circumstances of the period. Not surprisingly, the Arab culture was imbued with political issues and a developing sense of nationalism.

  • What cultural and ideological backgrounds did European representatives use when promoting their culture and language use?
  • What was their role in the creation of or the opposition to sectarianism in Palestine?
  • How did the Arab Christians use the European cultural agenda in their national and communal affiliations?

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