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Seeing Differences

Travellers to Ottoman Palestine and Accounts of Diversity

Uzi Baram

The divides between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, are well known. Scholarly and journalistic accounts of the differences in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean fill shelves and are too numerous to list. Most implicitly assume an essential divide between the two peoples, exploring the diversity within the groups but not the categories themselves. That primordial position, one that envisions identities as innate and fixed through time, negates the history of personal and group dynamics. This article provides a line of argument against the primordial approach to ethnic identity in the Middle East. Similar to the anthropological quest to demonstrate the historical contingencies of skin colour for hierarchical groupings of peoples (Smedley 1999), the categories for the peoples of the Middle East can be grounded in historical processes to produce a critique of primordialism. Eric Wolf (1982) exposed identities, behaviours and peoplehood as existing in a matrix of global interactions and histories that developed over the last 500 years. Anthropologists have followed that pathway to investigate the history of groups in the Americas, Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and the Pacific region. Yet in a place with an abundance of history – some would say an overabundance of history – the groupings of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, are taken as givens. This article seeks to expose the volatile issues of groupings by employing a resource that contributed to the process of racialising differences.

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