The Making of New National Identities

by Christina Tadros

The Arabs lands of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century found themselves to be victims of the Zionist ideology founded in the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Theodor Herzl (d. 1904). The aims and motives behind the Zionist movement were depicted through Herzl’s pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State): a proposition suggesting the need for a Jewish homeland and a Jewish state, which becomes known as the birth of political Zionism. The Sixth Zionist Congress that took place in Basel in 1903 resulted in the solidified unanimous goal of Zionists establishing their Jewish homeland in Ottoman Palestine. As Palestine and other neighbouring Arab countries were under the British mandate system, it made way for Zionism to successfully carry out its objectives and plant the Jewish homeland in Palestine. This new establishment of the Jewish state, Israel, in 1948, made way for new national identities. The new national identities that came about during the interwar years as a result of European imperialism, manifested paradoxes and tensions in the new national identities, an ultimate byproduct of the Mandate system and the Zionist movement. These tensions and paradoxes can be discerned through Abdullah Schleifer’s analysis on Izz al-Din Abd al-Qadar bin Mustapha bin Yusuf bin Muhammad al Qassam (b. 1882), and Sami Zubadia’s writing on an Iraqi Jewish Doctor, Dr. Naji (a pseudonym).

            Both men have divergent experiences in the interwar era under the British mandate that discern the paradoxes and tensions that come with the new national identities created in the interwar years. Throughout history, Izz al-Din al-Qassam has been remembered as a Palestinian national hero who fought against the Zionist ideology despite him being from today’s Syria. Izz al-Din al-Qassam fought for Palestinian liberation through Jihad;  Islam was at the forefront to drive his ideologies and beliefs of how Palestinian liberation should be attained. This juxtaposes the secular Arab nationalist movement that arose in the intellectual elitist circle, however, both the secular and the non-secular movement fell under the term ‘Arab nationalism’. In this sense, as secular nationalists had a limited audience among the majority peasant population,  al-Qassam’s preaching of Jihad against the British mandate and the Zionist movement appealed to the majority Muslim peasant population, as Jihad was the “moral and political struggle for justice in the path of God.”[1] At this point the tide had shifted: Jihad transformed the Palestinian struggle to not only be limited to a political and military question, yet also a religious one. al-Qassam believed “the only way Muslims could liberate themselves from foreign occupation (which was to become all but universal after World War I) and to progress would be by the revival of Islam” [2]

            Arabism and Islam became so closely woven together, they seemed to exclude both Christianity and Judaism from the fight of Palestine. This created two paradoxes:

  1. With which religion can join the fight against the Zionist ideology (although Western) for the liberation of Palestine.
  2. Who is deemed as an Arab nationalist, with Islam acting as the main criteria against imperial powers.

Through this rhetoric, Jews were ultimately excluded from the ‘Arab’ fight for the liberation of Palestine, as well as the Arab nationalist identity and scheme. In this sense, Jews could not claim to be an Arab nationalist as long as they were Jewish, as “Arabism and Islam were associated in the popular mind… [which] coloured…Arab nationalism with an Islamic rhetoric that employed such phrases as Jihad and sabil Allah.” [3]  This could be one of the reasons as to why Arab Jews do not identify as solely ‘Arab’.  Yet feel the need to specify their ‘Jewishness’, as if being both an Arab and a Jew are mutually exclusive.

            Moreover, this paradox created through the al-Qassam the Mujahid transcended from Palestine into the rest of the Arab world, explicitly shown through the growing tensions, racism, and discrimination that Dr. Naji had encountered during the Arab/Palestinian struggle against Zionism in the 20th century. The Baghdadi Jewish medical doctor was an Iraqi government medical officer during the British colonial period of Iraq. Although a Jew, before the  Naji saw himself and identified as an Arab, he “... did not socialize with local Jews. He had not made a conscious decision against it, but they were simply not his people. He said of the Jews of Ana ... were like the local Arabs... they dressed and spoke and lived like other locals... as an educated man and an official, Naji had much more in common with Muslims and Christians like himself.”[4] However, the rising tide of European anti-Semitism in late 19th century Europe and continued under fascist European regimes in the interwar era led to a mass migration of European Jews into Palestine seeking refuge. As Jewish migration to Palestinian Arab land increased in the 1930s, so did the threat of Zionism. With the paradox of Arabism being so closely woven with Islam that emerged during Zionist encroachment, and the mutual exclusivity rhetoric of being an Arab Jew put forward by Arab nationalists such as al-Qassam’s, Arab Jews faced an increased amount of discrimination. Firstly, in the case of Dr. Naji, the Iraqi ministry of health was specifically saturated with pan-Arab nationalists who became Nazi sympathizers as a reaction against the British mandate, (as Britain and Germany were belligerents in WWII). As a result, Dr.Naji and other Jewish doctors alike experienced slow promotions and salary increments, as well as being confined to less desirable provincial postings, and being essentially blocked from attaining specialist ranks. [5] The rising tensions carried out by non-Jewish Arabs towards Arab Jews was clearly evident the night the state of Israel was established in 1948, as Dr. Naji “had to take refuge with friends in Habbaniya,” a safer area for the Jews at the time. [6] Furthermore, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war lead to escalated tensions between the Jews and Arabs in Arabs lands. By 1970, also with the rise of Baathism in Iraq and Syria made it inhibitable for the Jews in Iraq, and the majority of Jews left Iraq “under a policy by which Jews could renounce their Iraqi nationality and eventually travel to Israel.”[7] The tensions between the Arabs and the Jews manifested due to the ‘new national’ Arab identity that arose during the Zionist movement and influx of the Jewish refugees from Europe, both during and after the Interwar years. The new national Arab identity established mutual exclusivity of being both a Jew and an Arab.

            To conclude, al-Qassam’s approach to liberating Palestine against the Zionist invasion was through Jihad, where Islam and its values were at the forefront. In that respect, it created a new national identity during the Mandate era. Arab and Islam were so closely intertwined, which ultimately produced a framework for the term ‘Arab’, where being a Jew and an Arab were mutually exclusive. This fundamental national identity that emerged transcended from Palestine into other Arab countries, where Jews began to be discriminated against. The new national identity created for Arabs led to tensions between the Jews and the Arabs, as discerned through the analysis of Dr. Naji. Both texts and analyses complement each other to further understand the impact of the new Arab national identities that were formed in the 20th century.






Schleifer, Abdullah, “Izz al-Din al-Qassam: Preacher and Mujahid.” In Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, edited by Edmund Burke III, David Yaghoubian, 137 - 151. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.


Zubaida, Sami, “Naji: An Iraqi Country Doctor," In Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, edited by Edmund Burke III, David Yaghoubian, 187 - 208. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.


[1] Abdullah Schleifer, “Izz al-Din al-Qassam: Preacher and Mujahid,” in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, ed. Edmund Burke III, David Yaghoubian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006),  145.

[2] Ibid., 140.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] Sami Zubaida, “Naji: An Iraqi Country Doctor," in Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East, ed. Edmund Burke III, David Yaghoubian (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006),  194.

[5] Ibid., 195.

[6] Zubaida, 200.

[7] Ibid.