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SANCHEZ SUMMERER Karene, ZANANIRI Sary (dir.), European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine, 1918-1948: Between Contention and Connection

Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021
Noah Haiduc-Dale
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SANCHEZ SUMMERER Karene, ZANANIRI Sary (dir.), European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine, 1918-1948: Between Contention and Connection, Cham, Palgrave Macmillan, 2021.

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1Twenty years ago, there was little serious research into the lives, roles, and cultures of Palestinian Christians. Scholars relied on a couple of dated monographs, as well as a small collection of works focused more on religious studies than history, often highlighting intricacies of minute Christian communities and their theological or hierarchical dynamics rather than their place in Palestinian society. The twenty-first century has seen a dramatic increase in scholars taking this important minority group seriously. The volume under review, European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine, 1918-1948, is the product of a project established by the Dutch Research Council’s Crossroads, a project which highlights the new international focus on the subject. In addition to some particularly impressive arguments presented here, the complete volume is invaluable for scholars in the field. The book contains a bibliography, cites many new and unique archives, and presents a variety of new ways to think about Palestinian Christians.

2The notion of ‘cultural diplomacy’ deserves some explanation – it is the subject of the introduction, but many individual authors explain their specific understanding and usage of the concept as well. In the introduction, editors Karene Sanchez Summerer and Sary Zananiri explain that “this volume is… about the agency of different actors within the cultural framework. [They] privilege a concept of ‘cultural diplomacy’, that includes ‘dialogue’, as [they] intend to trace the activities of states and institutions operationalising culture as a means to wield power and communicate ideologies, but also Arab associations and individuals as cultural diplomats themselves” (12). Robert Mazza, in the opening of his chapter on Italian cultural diplomacy, also provides an excellent summation of the term, starting with a quote from Michael Walter which defines cultural diplomacy as “a kind of soft power that includes the ‘exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding’” (333). Mazza insists that because cultural diplomacy requires, by definition, ‘a two-way dialogue,’ a broader definition of soft power may better apply to his case study: “soft power,” he writes, “is the ability to shape the preferences of others: this is not merely a form of influence, but more a method of persuasion or a way to move people by argument” (333). Regardless of the specifics, the volume as a whole focuses on the cultural influences as a way of understanding how Europeans and Palestinian Christians sought to influence one another. As a result, there is a fairly consistent focus on education (provided by British and other governmental efforts, as well as religiously based schools), as well as chapters on music, religious clubs, Palestinian handicrafts, and Palestinian Christian relations with a variety of foreign countries.

3Beyond exploring the intricacies of cultural diplomacy, the book has another major goal: to deessentialize Palestinian Christians by highlighting the differences both between denominations and between members of the same religious community. For far too long scholarship referred to “Palestinian Christians” as if all given the label share religious, political, cultural, and moral ideals. It was presented as a monolithic category, a category that stifled academic discourse because it could not deal with Christians who failed to fit neatly into the box. That sort of categorization had already begun changing in recent years, with more attention paid to the creation of sectarianism in the region (Makdisi, 2000) and more recently the development of the word ‘minority’ itself in the Levant (White, 2011). Even books specifically about Palestinian Christians have deliberately explored differences between and within groups (Robson, 2011; Haiduc-Dale, 2013).

4European Cultural Diplomacy takes this effort a step further. Chapters do not just explore Christian education or Arab Christians’ tendency to attend Western-style schools, but subjects such as Melkite educational efforts in the Galilee, in conjunction with continued French efforts to influence the newly British-controlled territory since, according to Charbel Nassif, “education was one of the cornerstones of French cultural diplomacy in the Middle East” (106). Another chapter details struggles by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchy to establish Greek Schools under Mandate rule, while a third looks at the Swedish School in Jerusalem as “an alternative way of approaching the world”, especially due to that school’s unique use of Arabic as the language of instruction (405). These three examples show that some Christians were anxious to keep their denominational identity strong, while others were more interested in participating in the growing sense of Palestinian national identity. While some of the chapters are quite narrow in their focus, as a collection a broad image of Palestinian Christian identities, possibilities, and connections with European powers comes into sharper focus. I should note here that the collection also moves beyond British influences and looks at a much broader range of foreign cultural influences.

5The 17 chapters in the collection are divided into three thematic sections under the broader umbrella of cultural diplomacy. The chapters in the first section, titled “Turning the Tables? Arab Appropriation and Production of Cultural Diplomacy”, “highlight the ways in which Christian communities in Mandate Palestine, or individuals within them, adopted and adapted the methods and tools of cultural diplomacy to their own settings” (35). Sadia Agsous, for example, argues that the most prominent Palestinian authors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries built on the flourishing of Nahdi Arabic culture, combining it with European literary forms and Russian educational models “to generate a vibrant Arab-Palestinian cultural life during the British Mandate” (75). Sports leagues provide a different lens through which to view Palestinian identity. Mayaan Hilel explains that teams were most often aligned by confessional group, but that “when such clubs played against Jewish or Arab teams from neighbouring countries, the sectarian identity gave way to the national—Palestinian one” (144). These examples show how the cultural focus here does not mean the political is ignored. Such an approach is not feasible in the Palestinian setting.

6Section two, titled “Showing and Telling: Cultural and Historical Entanglements under the Mandate,” focuses on the ways in which some historical actors during the Mandate were able to capitalize on the opportunities in front of them to shape culture, politics, and other elements of Mandate society. Others, of course, did not take advantage of such openings. Sarah Irving offers a fascinating comparison of two Palestinians working in the Mandatory Department of Antiquities. While the two figures were somewhat similar, they opted to use their government employment for different ends. Na’im Shehadi Makhouly traveled throughout Palestine in the course of his government work but seems to have embraced it as an archeology job, and his writings remain academic in nature. Stephan Hanna Stephan, on the other hand, “asserted a strong and distinctive Palestinian culture which can be seen as a kind of subaltern cultural diplomacy, using historical, cultural and religious themes both to assert Palestinian legitimacy against Zionist claims, and to suggest commonalities between Palestinian Christians and the European and American co-religionists” (170). Nisa Ari’s chapter in this section underscores the growing importance of the Trade Fair as “an effective site for the playing out of local, ethno-national politics within British Mandate Palestine” (217). These chapters and others illuminate the blend of cultural, political, and religious sentiments.

7Section three, “Influencing the Other: European Private and Governmental Actors”, looks most specifically at European actors. As the title suggests, this part of the book examines official governmental efforts as well as those of religious, archeological, and other private institutions to influence life in the Holy Land. British efforts, both through the Mandatory regime and by non-governmental actors, have been well-studied. But the selections here cast a much wider net: Russian, Italian, Roman Catholic, Swedish, and French efforts at influencing culture in Palestine each receive significant coverage. Some of the chapters focus on examples of cultural diplomacy that are not as straightforward as one might guess. Barbara Haider-Wilson looks at Austrian cultural diplomacy and concludes that “Austrian influence in Palestine primarily aimed at attracting local inhabitants to Austria in order to demonstrate its presence in the Holy land to the international community” (325). Thus, while some real successes were achieved, the primary aim in this case was to enhance Austria’s standing in global affairs.

8Like most collections of this sort, not every chapter will capture the attention of every reader, but every reader will find some offerings that engage them. Furthermore, reading the book in its entirety provides opportunities to make new connections and to consider fresh ways to approach old subjects. The common thread of cultural diplomacy is strong enough to provide a working connection between even the most disparate chapters. Perhaps most exciting for scholars working on Palestinian Christian issues is the breadth of coverage. From the Swedish School to the politics and culture of archaeological exploration and dig sites, to an examination of the Palestinian novel, the shared effort to better understand the history of Palestine’s Christians and their relationship to the broad world is an essential step in our understanding of this important minority group.

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HAIDUC-DALE Noah, 2013, Arab Christians in British Mandate Palestine : Communalism and Nationalism, 1917-1948, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

MAKDISI Ussama, 2000, The Culture of Sectarianism : Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Lebanon, Berkeley, University of California Press.

ROBSON Laura, 2011, Colonialism and Christianity in Mandate Palestine, Austin, University of Texas Press.

WHITE Benjamin Thomas, 2011, The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East : The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

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Noah Haiduc-Dale, « SANCHEZ SUMMERER Karene, ZANANIRI Sary (dir.), European Cultural Diplomacy and Arab Christians in Palestine, 1918-1948: Between Contention and Connection »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 150 | 2021, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2021, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Noah Haiduc-Dale

Centenary University, NJ, USA ; noah.haiduc-dale[at]

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