Jonathan Marc Gribetz. Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter. Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014. 312 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-15950-8.
Reviewed by Noah Haiduc-Dale (Centenary College)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus
Intellectual Encounters in Late Ottoman Palestine
In recent years, scholars of Palestine and Israel have reexamined the roots of the century-old conflict. The end of the Ottoman Empire has proven rich territory, and Jonathan Marc Gribetz’s Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter is an essential contribution to the growing conversation. The book is an intellectual history that examines how “categories of religion and race functioned within a complex of categories used by Zionists and Arabs to define one another in the increasingly nationalizing environment of Late Ottoman Palestine and the broader region” (p. 235). The author offers religious and cultural explanations, as well as impressive linguistic analyses of a variety of Arabic and Hebrew texts. He also displays a deep knowledge of both communities and intellectual trends in late nineteenth-century European and Ottoman circles. Most important, Gribetz expresses a clear willingness to really listen to these voices from the past.
Gribetz successfully demonstrates that race and religion were important classifications in late Ottoman Palestine. Focusing on these categories provides an alternative interpretation to a conflict often understood in solely nationalist terms, with “Israeli” or “Jewish” in opposition to “Palestinian.” That dichotomy was solidified in a twentieth-century world fixated on national identification. Defining Neighbors argues that before World War I, Zionists and Arabs sought to understand one another within a different framework. Soon thereafter the rise of nationalisms and decades of violent encounters between Israel and Palestinians turned the two groups clearly against one another. Disagreements between the book’s main figures, even those from the same community, highlight the fluidity of racial and religious labels, as well as the complexity of the historical moment.
While religion has remained a common focus, particularly in popular understandings of the conflict, Gribetz demonstrates that religion did not always create a clear division between Jews and their Arab neighbors. For example, some Muslim intellectuals viewed Judaism with tremendous respect and sought to defend it against allegations of ritual murder, as portrayed in popular intellectual journals published in Beirut and Cairo (the subject of chapter 4). Not only did Al-Hilal, a Cairo-based publication, support Judaism against defamation but the editor even acknowledged it as the “foundation of the true religions” (p. 161). Others, such as Rashid Rida writing in al-Manar, disagreed. He openly challenged the legitimacy of Judaism by pointing to theological differences with Islam and insisted that Jews led many late nineteenth-/early twentieth-century revolutions, including the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. At the same time, most early Zionists assumed that Muslims and Jews shared a strong bond while Christians were naturally antagonistic, though later Muslim-Jewish violence shattered such simplistic assumptions.
Likewise, racial interpretations, which have fallen out of fashion since the mid-twentieth century, were equally fraught with disagreement. Some Zionists insisted that Jews should be welcomed by the local Arab Muslim population because they “had always been considered like a brother to the Arabs and a member of the same race” (p. 106). Others, such as Yitzhak Ben Zvi, went so far as to claim that the Arabs in Palestine were actually racially Jewish. Overall, Gribetz concludes that, “for these Zionists, Palestine’s non-Jews were not merely some generic, nondescript indigenous population wrongfully living in the Jews’ rightful homeland. Rather, these populations were communities with which Jews had long and complex histories, as members of interconnected religious civilizations or as members of the same race” (p. 130). Most Arab intellectuals also considered Jews as racially related to Arabs. It was only the Zionist push for national control of Palestine that overrode Arabs’ “sense of kinship, sympathy, and respect” for Jews (p. 184). Thus Gribetz convincingly argues that race, like religion, was employed at various times as a tool of unity or division, depending on the beliefs and political goals of the particular individuals.
Much of the book’s richness stems from Gribetz’s understanding that Zionist and Arab “texts, if not always their authors, were in conversation” (p. 11). As a result, Zionists understood the importance of how they were perceived, and chapter 5 highlights Zionists’ unwillingness to let Muslims and Christians interpret Judaism without Jewish input. In 1909, Shimon Moyal published an Arabic translation and interpretation of the Talmud in order to present Jewish belief to a Muslim-Christian audience. He recast ancient Judaism in nationalist terms to justify modern Zionism, while also providing many similarities between the Talmud and New Testament. Other Zionists were active in establishing Arabic-language newspapers for the same purpose: to combat what they viewed as erroneous accounts of their religious beliefs and political goals.
Gribetz refrains from critiquing his subjects’ beliefs, but some of their claims beg for fuller contextualization. While it is beyond the scope of Gribetz’s effort to illuminate all the relevant intellectual opinions of the era, failing to do so can at times lead to misinterpretation. For example, Rashid Rida and Ruhi al-Khalidi both insisted that the Torah was not written by Moses but by different authors and at a later time. Gribetz does not offer a review of the contemporary scholarship on the subject, an oversight that might stem from his assumption that readers are familiar with modern biblical criticism. This is not mere curiosity on my part, but necessary to fully situate their arguments in early twentieth-century scholarship. Without explaining that scholarly consensus had settled on a “multiple authors” theory for the Torah, their views may seem less legitimate.
Despite this concern, Gribetz treats both the texts and their authors with depth and respect. He successfully illuminates a complex intellectual culture in which race and religion were used to build Jewish-Arab connections and to differentiate between groups. This book stands alongside those by Michelle U. Campos (Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine ) and Abigail Jacobson (From Empire to Empire: Jerusalem between Ottoman and British Rule ) as vital reading for the study of late Ottoman Palestine. Gribetz clearly shows that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was once defined by categories of religion and race, rather than nation, and within those categories at least some individuals sought unity rather than division. He optimistically infers that, despite recent decades of violent conflict, “just as perceptions can worsen ... it stands to reason that they can improve as well” (p. 247).
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Noah Haiduc-Dale. Review of Gribetz, Jonathan Marc, Defining Neighbors: Religion, Race, and the Early Zionist-Arab Encounter.
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