We the Semites: reading ancient history in mandate Palestine

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This article reconceptualises ‘Semite’ as a contested chronotope in which Western scientific categories served Palestinian and Zionist educators’ claims to cultural self-determination and national claims over the same space, Palestine. Since the early nineteenth century, racial categories have gained prominence as useful scientific tools to differentiate peoples and cultures. This article analyses how Arabs and Jews adopted, translated, and engaged the term ‘Semite’, through an examination of Arabic and Hebrew history schoolbooks from the Mandate period. It surveys the genealogy of the term in Zionist and Palestinian historiography, showing the centrality of racial categories in the teaching of ancient history in mandate Palestine, and underlining parallels and differences in the engagement of Palestinian and Jewish educators with race. Finally, the article shows how the Palestinian-Zionist conflict wrote itself into the history textbooks, re-writing the ancient history of both peoples, and re-evaluating Palestine’s past through the prism of a contested chronotope, leading to a precarious present and an uncertain future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)33-43
Number of pages11
JournalContemporary Levant
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2 Jan 2020

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, © 2020 Council for British Research in the Levant.


  • Palestinians
  • Semites
  • Zionism
  • colonialism
  • education
  • mandate
  • race
  • textbook

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science


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