Society and Political Structure in the Arab World.
by Menahem Milson.
Humanities Press. 338 pp. $12.50.

The Emergence of the Palestinian-Arab National Movement 1918-1929.
by Yehoshua Porath.
Frank Cass. 406 pp. $18.00.

It is frequently charged that the Israelis have helped bring about their perpetual conflict with their neighbors by ignoring the Arabs’ existence, by not studying their language and culture or trying to understand their views, and by not pursuing opportunities for rapprochement and agreement as swiftly as these opened up. It is natural that especially sensitized circles, like the distinguished school of Israeli Orientalists, Islamists, and Arabists, should voice this complaint; yet their own internationally recognized achievements cast considerable doubt on the accuracy of the indictment. The faculties of Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at Tel-Aviv University have trained a steady stream of outstanding scholars in the field. They have provided policy expertise and generated a level of information that truly deserves to be envied.

According to their own reckoning, the scholars now teaching at Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Beersheba represent a third generation of Israeli Islamists, and the first to be made up largely of sabras. Each boasted a group of luminaries of the eminence of S. D. Goitein (in the first generation) and Uriel Heyd (in the second). The current galaxy of young stars has already achieved its own distinguished reputation, and many of them are represented in these two recent volumes. Both books exhibit the special qualities which, in different ways, set apart Israeli Islamists among scholars in the field, whether native Midlde Easterners or Western.

First, next to the Arabs and Muslim scholars themselves, the Israelis can draw on the largest pool of students who from youth have acquired a thorough command of the languages and literary canon of Islamic and Arabic culture. This is not primarily a consequence of the fact that half of Israel’s Jewish citizens-, not to speak of its Arab citizens, are native sons of the Middle Eastern, Arab-speaking cultural sphere—that is an asset Israel has so far drawn upon only in part, and more for purposes of policy and intelligence expertise than for general academic service. The current crop of Israeli Islamists is the direct heir of the brilliant line of Jewish Semitic and Islamic scholars in Europe, from Geiger and Munk and Margoliouth to the late Leo Strauss and Harry A. Wolfson. Not only the universities but, in particular, schools like the Haifa Realgymnasium (the famous Bet-Sefer Reali, which is also the cradle of so many Israeli military men) have continued this tradition, turning out successive classes of young Hebrew-speaking Semitists who are also Arabic speakers from youth and whose training in critical methods has the special rigor and thoroughness of the combined talmudic-Germanic scholarly tradition.

The second special feature of Israeli Islamists is the hard-nosed, contemporary quality of their learning. They are, initially, specialists in such classical subjects as Islamic mysticism, Arabic literature, or medieval Arabic sources of the history of the Crusades: interests which in the case of many European Islamists have often presented barriers of vested interest and antiquarian romanticism to the development of modern Middle Eastern studies. The traditionally-trained Israelis, however, eagerly enter into modern studies, backed by the full weight of their classical background but also open to the methods appropriate for investigating the modern world.

Thirdly, a factor which reinforces alertness to contemporary policy studies is the strong interest of Israeli universities in promoting close contact between their faculties and the major centers of research and learning abroad. The Israeli Orientalists, like other Israeli academics, have studied and taught and frequently visit abroad. The application of social science to regional studies, as practiced at London and Manchester or Harvard and Princeton, is thoroughly familiar to them, and they have actively and prominently contributed to the current literature of the field.

A fourth factor, finally, distinguishes their approach to contemporary Middle Eastern studies from that of many Western colleagues. There is a tendency among Anglo-Saxon scholars, with their pragmatic empiricism, to eschew major historical generalizations. If interested in policy studies, they tend to conduct sociological fact-finding surveys—of large and sweeping scope, to be sure, but chiefly intended to verify one or another currently fashionable hypothesis of limited, “middle-range” character: for example, the role of “communications” or middle-class entrepreneurs or technically-trained military bureaucrats or some other particular aspect of the local culture which is thought to be a possible key factor in modernization. Israeli Middle Eastern specialists are saved from this faddism partly by their rigorous Rankean historiographic training, which teaches them to focus on the concrete historical instance; in addition, the left-wing, frequently Marxist, youth-movement background common to so many sabras has predisposed them to look for the systematic coherence of historical societies. They therefore apply current research hypotheses with an eye for pertinence, in the light of a given society’s fundamental, comprehensive system.



Menahem Milson’s preface gives a clear indication of the perspective from which the book he edited and the colloquia preceding it were constructed. The collapse of the Ottoman empire into a congeries of separate states presents problems of compatibility between ideology—whether the old, traditional Islamic world-view or its proposed replacement, the ideology of Arabism—and the requirements of “development and progress.” In view of the literary bias of traditional Islamic studies, it is not surprising that the favored approach to these problems by scholars has concentrated on the “realm of ideas and symbols . . . the common intellectual tradition of the Arab world. . . .” But the Israeli scholarly community, taking up the lead of contemporary policy-oriented research in other fields, such as Soviet and Far Eastern studies, wishes also to address itself to another topic, “the variety of political forms and socioeconomic conditions in individual Arab countries.” Its approach to this subject draws upon a thorough knowledge of current modernization and development theories, guided by a sense of the importance of each society’s individual history and a nose for the basic conditions underlying policy.

The two cross-sectional studies included among the eight colloquium papers in Milson’s volume illustrate the point. One, by a Manchester-trained Israeli anthropologist, Emanuel Marx, takes up the problems of Middle Eastern nomadic groups, who throughout the area represent a historically and socially distinct system within, or alongside, the sedentary society. Marx’s studies of the changing ecological base of Bedouin society, in its relation to the surrounding socioeconomic system, is part of a new wave of anthropological studies of nomadic tribes that is distinguished by common-sense realism and a critical methodological approach.

Another cross-sectional study, by Eliezer Be’eri, an established authority on his subject, deals with “Military Coups d’Etat in the Arab World during the 60’s”: a topic not only markedly characteristic of current Arab politics, but one which brings into focus the phenomenon of military regimes, a cardinal feature of political development in the great majority of underdeveloped countries. There was a recent academic fad, in this country and elsewhere, which attempted to fasten on military cliques as the key to growth of the rationality deemed vital to modernization. Be’eri’s cool, detailed accounting of the record of achievement and failure (written, to be sure, before the October war) leaves little credibility to that tattered myth. Even the higher performance of the Arab armies in the October war does not support the hypothesis that the military class is the magical ingredient capable of modernizing a civilian society. In the case of Egypt, improved performance should be credited to the Egyptian peasant, whose personal bravery was never in question, and to Egyptian officers who at last concentrated seriously on the specific duties and responsibilities of their own craft.



The remaining six studies are all dedicated to particular countries. They combine with rigorous fidelity to the individual history of each case a concentration on core issues, reflecting a well-judged use of current theories and models of modernization derived from worldwide comparative studies. The latter feature is especially notable in the article on Tunisia by L. Carl Brown of Princeton, a non-Israeli contributor, whose work has always been marked by lucidity, a comprehensive grasp, and an eye for essentials. He treats his subject in direct relation to “the other two independent or autonomous units of the greater Ottoman political world—the central Ottoman empire and Egypt.”

The reference to general models is implicit but no less judicious in two other studies devoted to the peculiar problems of particular countries: Gabriel Baer’s paper on Egypt and Moshe Ma’oz’s paper on Syria. Both concentrate on a major issue, to which Brown also gives primary attention: the gap between the emergence of power at the center and the lagging political integration of the people. The salient difference between Egypt and Syria in this respect is the low level of local organization long characteristic of Egypt and the considerable, heterogeneous, and traditionally antagonistic profusion of the local power structures in Syria.

The three other studies focus on issues of central significance in the recent history of the several countries treated. Gabriel Warburg’s study of Sudan revolves around the intricate relation between neo-traditionalist revival movements and modern nationalism, a subject of importance in many other local histories within the region but especially crucial in Sudan. Uriel Dann’s meticulous, Kremlinological-style accounting of personnel changes in Jordanian politics traces the background and political attitudes of prominent establishment and anti-establishment figures in the country’s history since the annexation of the West Bank in 1949. Finally, a paper on the Palestinian-Arab national movement by Yehoshua Porath sums up and brings to more recent times the detailed account of the early period of the movement, from 1918 to 1929, which is contained in his book on the subject.



Porath’s book on the emergence of the Palestinian-Arab national movement is written throughout from a point of view internal to the movement. When he speaks of success, it is Palestinian-Arab success, as Palestinian Arabs themselves would see it; and when he speaks of failure, it is as if the Arabs’ failure were his own. To adopt such an internal viewpoint is, of course, the endeavor of any conscientious historian, but there is also apparent an “Israeli” motivation in Porath’s espousal of the Arab perspective. The underlying political tendency of the book (which first appeared in Hebrew) is an effort to convince Israelis that Palestinian Arab nationalism has historic roots of long standing and is a well-grounded reality. But this is also a work of solid, conscientious scholarship, and the evidence it lays before us does not depend for its cogency on any political tendency.

In a careful, succinct summary, the author states that

the sanctity of Jerusalem in Islam and in Christianity, the setting up of the administrative unit of Filastin [Palestine] by the Arab conquerors, the survival of this unit in various forms during the course of Muslim rule, and the rise in the status of the district of Jerusalem after the first half of the 19th century—all these factors contributed at the start of the 20th century to the development of Filastin as a concept having geographical and religious significance. This non-political concept began to take on political significance as a result of pressure from an external, foreign element, namely Zionism.

In his narrative, Porath makes it clear that the Islamic evaluation of Jerusalem’s sanctity ran an uneven course until Saladin’s battles to regain the city from the Crusaders; and that Filastin “survived” as an administrative unit in highly variegated forms indeed—usually nominal. The decisive element was the one that eventually made the concept political; namely, the pressure from, and resentment of, Zionism.



If anything, Porath underplays the local opposition to attempts by Jewish foreigners to take title and possession of land and to obtain a recognized legal status different from the traditionally subordinate position of the Jews as a millet. Not just Zionism but Jewish (or Christian) pretensions to equality aroused resentment. Zionism, however, which first projected the long-dead conception of Palestine as an independent territory, aroused not merely resentment but a politically self-conscious opposition. Long-brewing Muslim-Arab hostility now expressed itself ideologically, according to Porath, as resistance to an invasion by despised outsiders insolently seeking to acquire title. All this long antedated the Balfour Declaration; indeed, the first Jews to have difficulties in purchasing land for settlement in Palestine were not Zionists at all, but groups organized within the traditionalist old yishuv.

Porath notes that “the general Arab awakening penetrated into Palestine at the end of the First World War with the officers and propagandists of the army of the Revolt in the Desert,’ which in late 1918 had established a semi-independent Arab government in Damascus.” This is the stage at which the official Zionist movement attempted to deal with Arab nationalism, arguing that if the Palestinian Arabs were no more than part of a broader Arab national movement, then they should regard the concession of the “small notch” of Palestine to the Jews, in return for Jewish support of the broader Arab federation, as both politically wise and morally just.

The main point of Porath’s book is to revise this (historical and political) conception by stressing the independent political ambitions of Palestinian Arabs, separate from and often opposed to the broader pan-Arab objectives. Full and convincing as his evidence on this point may be, one can hardly say it was unknown to the Zionists who formulated official policy in the 1920’s. In fact, Porath’s main sources are, on the one hand, British archives and, on the other, the intelligence reports submitted to the Jewish Agency’s political department. Working on the basis of the same material, the Zionists perceived not a group of incipient nationalist leaders, as Porath does, but a reactionary clique of effendis, concerned only with their clan and class interests.



What is involved here, of course, is evaluation, a notoriously uncertain matter. Porath leans to a view represented, for example, by Chaim Kalvarisky and, in a way, by Frederick Kisch among Zionists in the 1920’s: he, too, tends to believe that, until the 1929 outbreak of violence, moderate Arabs were working toward a policy of cooperation under the Mandate which could also, perhaps, have been a bridge to understanding with moderate Zionists. Whether this speculation holds water or not, Arab writers on Palestinian nationalism are as little inclined as Zionist officials were at the time to see its origins in the traditional landlord and money-lender class that dominated the Muslim-Christian Associations and Arab Executive of the 1920’s. Today’s Arab writers regard Palestinian nationalism as a popular uprising of the peasants over issues of land tenure, first signaled in the Young Turk era and then revived in full maturity in the uprisings of 1929 and 1936-39.

Whatever other causes may be assigned to the latter event, one obvious fact, removed beyond question in Porath’s writings on the subject, is the crucial role of a group of younger leaders in the 1920’s and 1930’s, among whom Haj Amin el-Husseini achieved preeminent authority. His ability to raise the masses in revolt rested, above all, on his appeal to religious hostility and on his control of a ramified religious establishment, reaching into every corner of the country. Porath tends to view his crucial success in subverting the program of the Arab moderates as a fortuitous break in the organic development of Palestinian Arab nationalism. However that may be, the complete destruction of any other leadership of the Palestinian Arabs beginning in the 1930’s decisively fixed the direction of the movement’s subsequent development. Given the pan-Islamic, and not merely pan-Arab, scope of Haj Amin’s ambitions and strategies, Porath’s case for a separatist Palestinian Arab nationalism becomes obscured.



The commonly accepted explanation for the defeat of the Arabs in 1948 and the subsequent flight of refugees is the absence or removal of local leaders. Some leaders fled after the 1936-39 revolt, others in the course of subsequent battles which they initiated, having meanwhile effectively eliminated any local leadership opposed to their line. The people, never adequately integrated into the nationalist movement, were thrown into the conflict without leaders and were then left behind by virtually the entire class of their presumptive leaders.

If there has been any change in this situation since 1948, it has been in the equivocal relationship of leaders and led in the UNRWA refugee camps. In those elements of the Palestinian Arab population that remained or were stably resettled in Israel or Jordan, on either the West or East Bank, not much was altered (except the involvement of local leaders in Israeli or Jordanian political institutions). The common people remained largely uninvolved and significantly detached. In the refugee camps, the combined effect of the policies of the UN and of the Arab host nations produced a decisive separation of the Palestinians from local Arab society. The camp facilities for health and education were staffed by leading elements among the Palestinian Arabs themselves, who were able not only to instill an intense nationalistic self-consciousness but to organize the camp population into paramilitary bodies with distinctly Palestinian ideologies.



Whether these bodies can be reasonably connected with the historical background Porath constructs for the Palestinian-Arab movement is far from clear. Their connection with the settled, non-refugee Palestinians, whether in Israeli or Jordanian territory, is equally uncertain. What still further complicates the question are the extensive involvements of the Palestinian Arab guerrillas, and especially their leaders, in general Arab and Third World politics. It is not simply that all the numerous contending groups in the movement are financed by one or another contender for pan-Arab leadership, and in some cases are obvious instruments of a non-Palestinian Arab state. Even the most singlemindedly Palestine-centered leaders consider themselves to be carrying out struggles involving much more than Palestine alone, whether pan-Arab or revolutionary socialist in orientation.

It is still, in fact, an open question whether the Palestinian nationalism of the guerrillas—at least, of the leaders—is a “strategy” or a “tactic,” to use the terms of their own debate on the subject. Since the answer to that question is the key to any possible peace between them and Israel, Israeli scholars devote much careful study to this problem, as, indeed, to all aspects of the Arab and Islamic world. That their study of these subjects is conducted on a high level of competence should surprise no one. Nor for that matter should anyone be surprised at the capacity for sympathy which, together with unsentimental realism, is a hallmark of their work.


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