Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine

Two Worlds Collide

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Alan Dowty
Perspectives on Israeli Studies
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Alan Dowty’s Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine asks, “When did ‘The Arab-Israel Conflict’ begin?” and endeavors to provide answers. With the problematization of tracing The Arab-Israel Conflict’s origins, this book is situated among other peer publications. Mainly, the monograph is in the company of works focused on how late 19th and 20th century inhabitants of and immigrants to Ottoman Palestine encountered and assessed each other. Instrumentalizing this interlocutory relationship, these works speak to the crucible of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Some examples include Neville Mandell’s The Arabs and Zionism Before WWI (University of California Press, 1980), Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1882-1914 (University of California Press, 1996), and Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 (Brandeis University Press, 2015). The unique intervention of Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine, Dowty argues, stems from the fact that previous narratives did not properly account for what is deemed, “The overwhelming evidence of hostility to foreigners from European lands,” that encouraged “Arabs (and Turks) [to view] Jews from Europe as infiltrators from an adversarial civilization” (270).

Like similar works, Dowty establishes a reliance on primary sources, including Jewish-authored memoirs, letters, and diaries. Dowty also states the work’s limitations, namely that Arab perspectives are fewer and more mediated. Finally, Dowty offers the particular lens of this work—seeing Arab-Jewish opposition not as religious or nationalistic, but civilizational. All of this is done in the introduction and first chapter. In the remainder of the book, Dowty develops a case for the European subjectivity of Jews and instrumentalizes this subjectivity as what characterized the rift between Palestine’s indigenous Arabs and Jews who immigrated there. Chapter 2 he delineates Western Jews’ efforts at acclimation and the persecution they faced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In the book’s remaining chapters, the thesis of a civilizational clash is referenced as underpinning all escalating moments of Jewish-Arab interaction.

Readers looking for a sustained focus on the first ten years of Zionist immigration will find this in Dowty’s work . The author notes that focus on the first aliya was necessitated by preoccupation with the second aliya (viii). Readers searching for an empathetic foregrounding of Zionist voices will be impressed with Dowty’s ability to expose Zionist affect. For instance, Dowty suggests that for some of the first Jewish settlers who had experienced persecution in their European homelands, Arab hostility was perceived as a welcome change. “Better to be feared and hated, they felt, than to be dismissed as marginal” (93). Dowty goes on to say that these Jews understood opposing Arab resistance as a break from “The Diaspora image of Jews as hopeless victims of their tormenters” (145).

In terms of the book’s complete treatment of its civilizational lens, readers could want further explanation. Narrowing its focus almost exclusively to Western and some European Jewish Zionists, this book delineates these Jews as European in their subjectivity and establishes their affective reasons for being anti-assimilationist. Confining Palestine’s indigenous Arab perspective mostly to a worldview deemed “Muslim,” Dowty then surmises, “From the outset, a vast chasm between the Muslim world and Europe runs through the story” (270). The anti-European stance that encapsulated Arab resistance to Jewish immigration and settlement, Dowty reasons, was an outgrowth of a more general resistance to European penetration into the Middle East. Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the Crusades are identified as hallmarks that helped stoke, in Dowty’s words, the hostility of “the Muslim Middle East,” toward Europe (99).

Yet, not much context is provided in terms of possible criticisms of this civilizational thesis. Reasoning from scholars like Edward Said, Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Joseph Massad, and Joan Scott has gone a long way toward establishing “clash of civilization” theses as selective, exclusionary, misleading, and thus, insidious. Without mention of and engagement with these thorough and sustained critiques, the argumentation of Arabs and Jews in Ottoman Palestine leaves questions remaining. Finally, in the vein of offering a more complete picture, more could be said about how voices of Sephardic Jews and Palestinians also complicate a civilizational thesis. Admittedly, Dowty is aware that this work is not one that fully utilizes Palestinian primary sources (vii), and he does not attempt to present a plurality of voices. All in all, the relative elision of Sephardi Jews, Palestinians, and engagement with the “clash of civilizations” critiques might leave some readers wanting further argumentation. 


About the Reviewer(s): 

Chelsie May is a doctoral candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at The University of Chicago.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alan Dowty is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. He is author of The Jewish State: A Century Later and Israel/Palestine.


Alan Dowty, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame

This review is generally fair and I thank you for taking the book seriously.  Just two minor points in response:

1.  I did not engage in a broader discussion of civilizational theory (Said et al) because this was not the purpose of the book.  The intent was to record an empirical record of Arab-Jewish relations, from the ground up, during the period in which the conflict was emerging.

2.  If the reviewer is aware of additional primary Palestinian (and Sephardi Jewish) sources, comparable to the sources left behind by the Jewish settlers, I would be glad to bring them into account the next time around.  I consulted with Palestinian scholars on this question, and used what seemed to be available (much of it by way of the secondary studies written by these scholars).

Thank you again for your interest in the book.


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