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People without a land

After the Balfour Declaration, 100 years ago, it became necessary to invent a Palestinian nation. A new museum in the occupied West Bank is trying to tell its story

When the Palestinian Museum opened its doors in Birzeit in May 2016, it was entirely empty. The £17m building, its angular limestoneclad shape alluding to the terraced landscape of its West Bank surroundings, had exhibition and education spaces, cafés and an open-air amphitheatre. What it didn’t have, due to a last-minute disagreement between the board and its former director Jack Persekian, was a collection to exhibit.

American and Israeli detractors gleefully claimed this as symbolic of the emptiness of the entire Palestinian claim to land, culture and nationhood. The lack of an inaugural show, they declared, was emblematic of the historic, self-defeating squabbling of Palestinian nationalism. “The fate of the exhibition may say as much about the realities of Palestinian society as any art collection could”, wrote the New York Times.

The mockery deployed a weapon regularly levelled against Palestinians—the outright denial of the existence of any real Palestinian nation. It’s an argument with longevity. A popular saying in the early days of Zionism was that it would provide “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Earlier this year, a book called A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era became a brief online bestseller. It was made up of 132 blank pages.

The museum is in part an answer to such “vicious, snotty, neo-imperialist” denial, as its ambassador-at-large and former chairman Omar al-Qattan describes it. He notes that delayed openings, curatorial squabbles and budget over-runs are all commonplace in the arts world. But then perhaps it was inevitable that Palestinians were going to be subject to an extra burden of symbolism. “Ours was a unique experience”, he continued. “I don’t know many museums created under a military occupation.”

There is something in the charge that Palestinian nationhood is an invention, to the extent that all nations have to be invented at some point. At the dawn of the 20th century, nobody was talking about a discrete Arab nation state in this corner of the Ottoman Empire. The term “Palestinian” covered all residents, including the small but growing local Jewish population, as it continued to do into the days of the British mandate. The future Israeli identity was similarly ill-formed. As late as November 1947, when the United Nations voted in favour of partition, a significant part of the Zionist movement was still committed to the idea of a binational state for both Jews and Arabs. The construction of Palestinian and Israeli identities, in all their diversity, were destined to develop in parallel and often in opposition to each other.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.