Thwarted Citizens: The Mandatory Erasure of the Legacy of Ottoman Imperial Citizenship

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June 28, 2024
By Michelle U. Campos

Thwarted Citizens: The Mandatory Erasure of the Legacy of Ottoman Imperial Citizenship

As part of the joint CJH-Brandeis University initiative on the history of Israeli democracy, we are happy to present a selection of blog posts from members of the inaugural cohort of fellows from the Schusterman Center’s Institute for Advanced Israel Studies. Especially in the current period of acute crisis, CJH is committed to promoting scholarly research on all aspects of the Jewish historical experience, both in the Diaspora and the State of Israel, including trends in the years of Ottoman and British rule before 1948. This post comes from Michelle U. Campos, Associate Professor in Jewish Studies and History at Penn State University.

In the fall of 1920, a delegation of Palestinian leaders met with the first civilian British High Commissioner for Palestine, Herbert Samuel, to demand political representation in the colonial government then being formed. Samuel politely denied their request, while reportedly telling them that they were as yet “unfit for such responsibility,” echoing the exact language and rationale of Article 22 of the League of Nations covenant which had been adopted the previous June.

As a reminder, the British military occupation in place in Palestine since December 1917 had turned into a British civil administration, recognized by international law in 1922, that lasted almost three decades. However, the Palestine Mandate differed significantly from those other mandates over Transjordan, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Lebanon in one major way: it was irrevocably (and legally) linked to the Balfour Declaration, which simultaneously recognized the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine and recast the local Muslim and Christian Palestinian population (90% of the country) into “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” with “civil and religious rights” – but notably without political rights.

In the first two years of the British occupation, Palestinians attempted to combat this limitation and express their political will in a number of ways – they joined the short-lived Arab parliamentary monarchy based in Damascus, established Muslim-Christian political associations throughout Palestine, took to the streets in public demonstrations, and submitted petitions against the pro-Zionist colonial policy of the British mandate regime. The British, Israeli, and UN archives hold hundreds of these petitions sent to military and civilian officials and international bodies between 1918-1920 in which Palestinians argued for the right to determine the fate of their country and, when that failed, to take part meaningfully in its daily affairs. These petitions very often used the language of self-determination and self-rule [al-hukm al-dhati], political justice, and citizenship. They also sought to remind the British of their wartime alliances and promises – to no avail.

However, as the margin comments scribbled on these documents by British colonial officials largely dismissing Palestinians’ claims make clear, the British problem with Palestinians at the outset of their colonial “tutelage” was decidedly not that they were politically immature, but rather that they were too politically aware and refused to accept their political subordination—indeed, their deliberate erasure—embedded in international treaties. Instead, British colonial logic had failed to consider that Palestinians were experienced imperial citizens. 

This mismatch between Palestinians’ recent political experiences and expectations, on the one hand, and British officials’ refusal to recognize them, on the other, came to the fore in that fateful meeting between Samuel and the Palestinian delegation. In response, Bulus Shehadeh, the editor of the Jerusalem-based Arabic newspaper, Mer’at al-Sharq (Mirror of the East), bitterly complained: “Even under the Turks [sic] the people were given a semblance of representation. The people here are not natives of Africa, and cannot be treated as such. They are more awake and far more civilized than many of the European politicians themselves who are quick in condemning other people as unfit for representative government.” (November 29, 1920)

Leaving aside Shehadeh’s regrettable language about Africans for the moment, I want to pause to consider what underlay Shehadeh’s palpable affront at the High Commissioner’s suggestion that Palestinians were new to the obligations of citizenship (and therefore had not yet earned of the rights of citizenship), and to briefly outline the contours of the Ottoman imperial citizenship landscape that I have written about extensively elsewhere.

After a longer chronology of imperial reform, which included the establishment of local councils in the 1860s, the brief adoption of an Ottoman constitution and the selection of an Ottoman parliament in the 1870s, and the simultaneous growth of a vibrant—if censored—multilingual press and public sphere, the 1908 Ottoman revolution accelerated the complex—and fraught—process of making imperial citizens out of the religious and ethnic communities of the empire. In the final decade of Ottoman, rule citizens not only participated in empire-wide parliamentary elections in addition to local elections for various councils, but they also engaged in massive street demonstrations and boycotts, carried out vibrant debates in the pages of the press and on the floor of the parliament, submitted petitions and sent telegrams to the capital in Istanbul, and in other ways participated in imperial and local politics as engaged and empowered imperial citizens.

The elements worth underscoring for our consideration of democracy and its antecedents include: first, an Ottoman constitution that was translated into numerous imperial languages (including Judeo-Spanish and Hebrew) and became a foundational text for laying out citizenship rights and responsibilities, whose invocation was near sacred; second, the emergence of a collective identity, an “imperial we” – the umma ‘uthmaniyya, millet-I osmani, pueblo otomano that existed alongside and at times supplanted other collective identities; third, the process of imperial elections and shared local councils precipitated discussions about the “public good,” governmental transparency, and collective responsibility, and set a track record for Muslims, Christians, and Jews working together in the same institutions; fourth, these political developments and discussions took place against an Ottoman topography of everyday intercommunal interactions of economic relations, neighborhood co-residence, civil society organizations, and general proximity.

To be sure, the Ottoman imperial citizenship project was fraught, and external war, internal rivalries and challenges, and competing interests had already weakened its appeal and its reach considerably even before the outbreak of the world war that brought about the dismantling of the empire. So I don’t want to give you the false impression that it was a perfect constitutional monarchy or even that it might have continued had the Ottomans not joined the wrong side of the war. What I do want to underscore, though, is that millions of Ottoman citizens (who later became colonial subjects or new national citizens) learned lessons and gained experiences during that imperial moment – lessons and experiences that they took with them in the post-Ottoman era. (This is an important factor when thinking about the over 400 petitions and letters that the ill-fated King-Crane commission, which had been tasked by American president Woodrow Wilson of “self-determination” fame with asking the residents of the Ottoman Levant what they wanted their political fate to look like after the peace talks ended. Spoiler alert: they overwhelmingly wanted Arab independence and a constitutional monarchy.)

This also was the backdrop against which Shehadeh and other Palestinians were measuring their new political erasure and disenfranchisement under British rule. In his newspaper Shehadeh repeatedly underscored the gulf between the ruler (hukuma) and the ruled (mahkum), between the promises of British liberation and the reality of British colonialism. As Shehadeh and other Palestinian intellectuals repeatedly stated, Palestine lacked a legitimate representative in terms of internal affairs as well as in the international arena.

This early mandatory landscape also begs us to linger on the question of what kind of imperial legacy that Ottoman citizenship project might have left once the last Ottoman soldier marched away. Namely, we see an active erasure of an imperial infrastructure of intercommunal collaboration and engaged citizenship. Paradoxically, the British command of preserving the status quo ante bellum in Palestine instead introduced and empowered a new sectarian politics, a de facto partition of civic and political life, and opened the door for violence as a political tool in an otherwise empty arsenal. But that story awaits another day.

Image: Ottoman Empire in Asia 1914 from Jughrafiya-i Osmani (1332 A.H. – 1914)

1 comment

  1. Michelle –

    Your article idealizes the Ottoman constitution and its largely failed efforts to create an Ottoman identity with democratic institutions. You ignore the reality of Ottomanism which did not end the traditional millet based religious communities and their ongoing role in Palestinian political life. Case in point would be Jerusalem. Jerusalem in this period had a Jewish majority along with a large Christian minority – notwithstanding this fact and any purported representative “democracy” only Muslims could hold the position of Mayor and control of the City Council.

    Under the Mandate the reality of Muslim non-democratic supremacy within the Arab community is also clearly evident. The seeds of a religious autocracy almost immediately emerged following the appointment of Haj Amin al Husseini by Herbert Samuel as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Mufti used his political and financial power as controller of Waqf funds to crush moderate opposition from both the Muslim and Christian communities. So much for any democratic experiment.

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