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Palestine in the Victorian Age: Colonial Encounters in the Holy Land by Gabriel Polley

March 29, 2024 at 5:12 pm

Palestine in the Victorian Age: Colonial Encounters in the Holy Land by Gabriel Polley
  • Book Author(s): Gabriel Polley
  • Published Date: October 2022
  • Publisher: I. B. Taurus
  • Paperback: 253 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-7556 4313-4

Have you ever wondered why Evangelical Christians in the West have such disregard for Palestinian Christians? And why they are so keen to see the State of Israel thrive? Neither of these questions is new. The roots go back to Victorian times, and even earlier, as Gabriel Polley tells us comprehensively in this book.

It is easy to blame “Zionists” for the ongoing conflict in occupied Palestine, especially the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. It was, after all, his book The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) which most people associate with the creation of the Zionist state of Israel in 1948, fifty-two years after the book’s publication.

However, as Polley writes in his introduction, “The colonization of Palestine has its roots deep in the nineteenth century with Western Evangelicals who first cast the Holy Land as an area to be possessed by empire, then began to devise schemes for its settler colonization, and finally started to implement them.” (p2) It was, he adds, “the Peaceful Crusade”.

Peaceful, that is, unless you were, or are, a Palestinian.

Go back even earlier, and Polley points out that the “doctrine of the Jewish Restoration [to Palestine]” saw “seventeenth century Puritan England” undergoing a “Hebraic revival”, the belief that “for the Bible’s prophecies to be fulfilled, the entirety of the Jewish people had to be ‘restored’ or ‘returned’ to Palestine, and embrace Christianity.” (p3) Polley quotes Susan Meyer as saying about the Victorian era covered by his book, “It was the English gentiles… not the Jews, who were fascinated with the idea of the Jewish return.” (p3)

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we can see American Evangelicals carrying this fascination — by now an obsession — to get all Jews “returned” to the Holy Land in order for everything to be in place for Armageddon and the End Days. The late Grace Halsell wrote about this in her book, Forcing God’s Hand: Why Millions Pray for a Quick Rapture and Destruction of Planet Earth. The evangelicals, specifically Protestant Christians, of course, support the occupation state of Israel for purely selfish reasons, not out of love for the Jewish people and their welfare.

A number of the Zionist myths about Palestine — “a land without a people for a people without a land”, and “Israel turned the desert green”, for example — originated with Meyer’s “English gentiles”. Polley points to Europeans’ “amazing ability to discover the land without discovering the people.” (p10) He also reminds us that, “All instances of settler colonialism, not only Zionism, have thus been presaged on the destruction of a previously existing indigenous society, to create a society for immigrants and their descendants that resembles the Europe from which they departed.” (p14)

In a sentence which explains in a nutshell why the United States and its people have no problem about giving unquestioned support to the settler-colonial state of Israel, Polley cites a comment by Hilton Obenzinger in American Palestine: Melville, Twain and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton University Press, 1999), that, “American travellers like [Edward] Robinson ‘viewed Palestinian reality… through the “window” of the New World experience of the rawest, most extreme, most violent settler-colonialism in the world’…” (p19) Americans today see in Israel a modern version of their own settler-colonial state built on the genocide of the indigenous people.

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It was Robinson, says Polley, “more than any other individual” who “lies at the root of the nineteenth-century Western obsession with Palestine that had such a profound impact on later history.” (p19) Indeed, “one result of Robinson’s research,” notes Polley, is that “the State of Israel has tried to justify its actions through reference to the Hebrew presence on the land in antiquity,” even though the Hebrew period was just “a moment in the vast expanse of Palestinian history.” (p27) Citing Keith W. Whitelam further, from his book The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (Routledge, 1996), we learn that “The history of ancient Palestine has been ignored and silenced by biblical studies because its object of interest has been an ancient Israel conceived and presented as the taproot of Western civilization.” (p27)

Remember that point the next time we hear politicians declare their support for Israel because of “our shared values”.

I suppose that’s true in a way, of course, but only in terms of Western genocide of indigenous peoples around the world — not least in the US — and definitely not in terms of human rights and the rule of international law which our governments voice support for but turn a blind eye when Israel violates both on a daily basis.

The racism of Victorian travellers in Palestine is given due coverage by the author, who cites Claude Regnier Conder, a man with no respect for the rural Palestinians; he only “acknowledged them as sufficient for cultivating the land under the guiding hand of a European occupation.” (p48) Conder wrote in Tent Work in Palestine (1887), “Those who have advocated the colonisation of Palestine by Englishmen, Germans or Jews, seem to forget that a native Moslem population still exists, or to consider them only fit for the fate of the Red Indian [sic] and the Australian, as savages who must disappear before the advance of a superior race.” (p48)

That sentence conveys the essence of political Zionism in all but name: the ethnic cleansing of the local population to allow colonisation by foreigners.

So why do Evangelical Christians pay little heed to the Palestinian Christian victims of Israel’s settler colonialism? Polley makes a point of highlighting the Evangelical travellers’ “discomfort” with non-Protestant Christians. Moreover, they “heaped scorn on the multitude of Christian sites within and outside the Old City’s [Jerusalem’s] walls.” (p53)

These Victorians had a religiously myopic approach to Palestine, and believed it to be “inconsequential that Palestine and Jerusalem were also sacred in other religious traditions and had long been part of the Islamic world.” (p53) However, writes Polley, “As much as Victorians conceptualized Palestine as the Judeo-Christian Holy Land, it was impossible to ignore that the region had… come to be inhabited by a sizable Islamic majority.” (p64)

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So much so, in fact, that claims were made that Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was an “ancient Christian church.” This “discursively removed one of Islam’s holiest sites from Islamic authorship and moral ownership. They portrayed Muslims and Arab-Islamic civilization not as builders, creators, a legitimate part of Jerusalem’s and Palestine’s history and existing society, but rather as appropriators or occupiers of what was by rights a Judeo-Christian space.” (p71)

Echoes of this narrative are today found in Zionist discourse and the justifications for Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Shamefully, they are supported in this by most Western governments, as if the Victorian approach and wild ideas about the Holy Land have been preserved in aspic to be ingested by every prime minister, president or foreign minister upon taking office. This appears to be one of the rituals of high office, followed immediately by a speech at a dinner or conference organised by pro-Israel lobby groups where they feel obliged to pledge allegiance and support to the occupation, apartheid state.

Although atrocities like anti-Jewish pogroms in Europe and Russia, as well as the obscenity of the Holocaust, are cited frequently as reason enough for the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine, “settler-colonial plans,” explains Polley, appeared before the Russian pogroms. (p97) As did Herzl’s book, of course. Apologists for the Zionist state say that such anti-Semitism in its crudest and most deadly form demonstrated the need for an “exclusively or majority-Jewish homeland”, and so it might. But that doesn’t explain why, between 1881 and 1941, 2.5 million Jews left Europe, but only 60,000 went to Palestine.

For forty years after Herzl’s seminal book, most Jews regarded Zionism with extreme suspicion.

As I write this review, Britain’s Home Secretary is unveiling her plans to push back asylum seekers. The sort of language that we have heard about the people who cross the English Channel in small boats is reminiscent of the language used to described the immigration of Jews more than 100 years ago: The “wholesale invasion of London… by Jews”, for example, and even the “weaponising of anti-Semitism sparked by increased levels of Jewish immigration into Britain…” (pp100) “Some British Jews,” writes Polley, “were alarmed at the energetic efforts to remove Jews from [Britain].” Indeed, “many British Jews’ fears that non-Jewish enthusiasm for the departure of Jews to Palestine ‘contained elements of blatant anti-Semitism’… to further British imperialist self-interest.” (p101)

In writing about the 1856 Nablus Uprising, Polley says that it “demonstrated the way that the Europeans turned victims into villains to protect their own at any cost.” (p114) That the victim is portrayed as the villain and the villain as the victim is now obvious when we look at modern Israel which — very successfully — appeals to Western guilt about the pogroms and Holocaust by claiming to be facing an existential threat, while systematically destroying the Palestinian presence in Palestine. The Palestinians face an existential reality, not a threat, at the hands of the settler-colonial state whose ideological roots can be traced back to the Victorian Evangelicals and beyond. Europeans of the age, notes the author, had very definite “ideological goals for Palestine’s future.” (p142)

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According to Polley, British Christian Zionist Laurence Oliphant MP (1829-1888) was “unmatched by any other nineteenth-century traveller” in his “influence on the development of settler-colonialism in Palestine.” He apparently “celebrated settler efforts in North America, presaged, of course, on the erasure of native presence. It is hugely significant that he is commemorated by Israel (pp157) with, among other things, “Oliphant Streets in Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and in… an Israeli settlement in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, where Oliphant once dreamed of Jewish colonization.” (p185)

The Friends of Zion Museum in West Jerusalem was established in 2015 and, according to its website, it “serves as a platform for fighting BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign for Palestinian rights].” As Polley notes, this “perhaps” makes it “unique among the world’s museums as having one of its raisons d’être opposition to a contemporary activist movement.” The museum is dedicated to non-Jewish Zionists and presenting a positive view of Israel.

“The Victorians thus continue to be pressed into service for a [Zionist] state-propagated simplistic narrative,” concludes Polley, “emphasizing centuries of Western Christian support for settler colonialism in Palestine, while whitewashing the Zionist project’s implications for the land’s indigenous people.” (p186)

In the early twentieth century, “only a few” in Britain raised concerns about such implications of settler-colonization in Palestine. “One was Marmaduke Pickthall, who noted in 1907 that “the Jew is now a foreigner in the Holy Land.” Pickthall’s “marked preference for the indigenous society” saw him embrace the faith of Islam ten years later. “Yet adherence to Islam alone,” writes Polley, was no guarantee of opposition to settler colonialism in Palestine; Pickthall’s fellow Muslim convert Abdullah Quilliam… described the ‘Zionist ideal’ as ‘noble’ and ‘patriotic’ in a lecture he delivered to the London Zionist League…” Quilliam’s preference, though, was that this take place “under the banner of the Ottoman sultan rather than in a Palestine occupied by any other power.” (p190)

The author brings the impact of the Victorian Evangelicals to the reader in a very powerful manner.

The parallels with Zionist tactics of the past 70+ years are remarkable, or perhaps not. “The Palestinian people’s loss of their homeland was the bitter fruit of the work which Western travellers had been doing for over a century.” In other words, it was probably entirely predictable in the age of Victorian imperialism.

Israel, therefore, is the last imperialist project, which explains why the West allows it to act with impunity and politicians bought and paid for by the occupation state love their positions too much to do or say anything against it. As Polley concludes, this reflects “the West’s inglorious and profoundly irresponsible role in the history of Palestine.”

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Other authors — the pro-Palestine Rev. Dr Stephen Sizer, for example — have looked at Christian Zionism from a theological and Biblical perspective. Gabriel Polley, though, looks at the effect that such an interpretation of Christianity has had on Palestinian Christians, Muslims and Jews (p182) alike. It has, indeed, played an “inglorious” role.

This review first appeared in the Muslim World Book Review, Volume 43, Issue 4, Summer 2023, and is reprinted by courtesy of the Islamic Foundation, Markfield, Leicestershire, UK.