Contrary to the commonly-held belief, the issue of Palestinian national identity, statelessness and the fundamental right of return did not originate in response to the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 at the height of the Nakba. These sentiments have deeper historical roots, dating back to the interwar period that followed the demise of the Ottoman Empire in 1924.
This largely overlooked aspect of the decades-long Palestinian struggle for liberation and recognition is examined in Nadim Bawalsa’s Transnational Palestine: Migration and the Right of Return Before 1948. The author hails from a Jordanian-Palestinian background and is part of the broader Palestinian diaspora community, or jaaliya. He sheds light on the 20th century migration of Palestinians to Latin America and the profound impact it had on the collective consciousness of a people striving to preserve their national identity.
Through a treasure trove of documents, including applications, appeals, protests and personal correspondence, Bawalsa reveals the relentless struggle of overseas Palestinians, who were torn between their new-found prosperity and peace in the Americas, and their roots in a homeland on the cusp of slipping away.
At the heart of the book lies the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council, a legal instrument passed by the British government and implemented in the then-newly established League of Nations mandate over Palestine.
This piece of legislation aimed to regulate the issuing of Palestinian citizenship during the mandate era. However, against the backdrop of the Balfour Declaration – Britain’s promise to the Zionist movement of a Jewish homeland in Palestine — this led to the severing of the ties that transnational Palestinians had with their homeland, especially those who had migrated beyond the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic to the Americas.
Yet this also served to reinforce the sense of “Palestinianness” within the diaspora, with post-war protests against Balfour and “hundreds of petitions” authored by self-identifying Palestinian committees across Latin America. This became known as “pro-Palestina” activism.
Bawalsa details the biased and arbitrary provisions of the British order, which favoured Jewish immigrants in Palestine and virtually denied citizenship to Palestinians. He writes that it “demonstrates how the governance of Palestine during the so-called liberal interwar period was thoroughly lopsided in favour of the Zionists.”
While previous literature has touched on the Levantine mahjar, (diaspora) in the Americas, this has focused largely on the experience of Syrian and Lebanese migrants. The stories of the Palestinian migrants “have remained largely untold.”
Rather than the first wave of Palestinians being those who were expelled from their homeland in the wake of the creation of Israel, Bawalsa argues that, “We can and we must consider the Palestinian migrant community in the interwar Americas as the first Palestinian diaspora.”
Contributing to the challenge of obscuring historical details were the blurred lines in national identities within the region during the 20th century. Palestinians were often labelled or identified as Syrians, Turks or Ottomans. It's important to note that, technically, Palestine was part of Greater Syria, also known as Bilad Al-Sham. Adding to the confusion, the “new interwar world legal order rendered Ottoman travel documents obsolete.”
Crucially, there was a difference in how the British and French extended citizenship rights to those in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Transjordan. They encouraged the extension of citizenship to residents and migrants from these countries, yet “British authorities in Palestine prioritised naturalising Jewish migrants above all others, effectively denying it to thousands of Palestinian migrants.”
After the 1908 Young Turk Revolution in the Ottoman Empire, we read that some subjects sought to return to Greater Syria, in “The hope of reclaiming their social and political freedoms back home.” It also discouraged others from leaving the watan: “In 1908, records indicate that 5,520 Syrians migrants entered the United States, whereas in 1909, only 3,688 did.”
Transnational Palestine concentrates in particular on the Palestinian communities in Mexico and Chile. The latter is home to the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab world. “In addition to its geographic and climatic resemblance to Palestine, Chile was in many ways the most promising economically for aspiring peddlers and merchants.”
While Mexico was a popular destination, offering a route to the US (which is still the case now). This led US border officials to start monitoring these “Syrian” migrant networks “thus spurring concern in Mexican and other Latin American government offices regarding the legality or desirability of Middle Eastern migrant trade in the Americas.”
It was especially interesting to read, in light of the ongoing anti-Christian persecution in the occupation state, how Christian Syrians in Bolivia, many of whom also identified as Palestinians, expressed concern that the “oppressive rule of the Ottomans would be replaced by the more serious ‘Israelitish [sic] danger’.” And that if Jews came to power in Palestine, “the exodus of Christians would be its inevitable consequence.”
Christian Palestinians in Mexico also voiced concerns that Britain giving their “beloved Palestine to the Jews would pose a grave threat to Christian Palestine and its Christian inhabitants.”
In terms of growing activism, Bawalsa explains that the act of petitioning the League of Nations and the mandate authorities by towns in Mexico, along with the Palestinian-led Arabic press in Chile expressing concerns about the loss of Palestinian nationality, “[reflected] the vitality of Palestinian communities in the Americas and the transnational character of Palestinian national consciousness throughout the interwar period.”
Transnational Palestine: Migration and the Right of Return before 1948 stands as a significant and enlightening addition to the canon about the Palestinian diaspora. It not only fills crucial gaps in our understanding, but also unveils a truth often overlooked: Palestinians have endured statelessness for far longer than commonly acknowledged.
Moreover, it underscores the remarkable resilience of the Palestinian community's sense of national identity. This enduring identity has been a driving force behind their steadfast resistance, a legacy that continues to shape their relentless struggle for the reclamation of their homeland to this day, as current events in the occupied territories illustrate.