Dialogue Series, Regional Studies

Sherene Seikaly on Palestinian Businessmen and the British Colonial State

Sherene Seikaly on Palestinian Businessmen and the British Colonial State

As part of the Monthly Dialogue Series, Dr. Sherene Seikaly, the 2007-2008 Qatar Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies in Washington, DC, gave a lecture titled “A Public Good? Palestinian Businessmen and the British Colonial State 1939-1948.” On December 10, 2007, Seikaly spoke to a local audience in Doha, where she defended the view that Palestine had a vibrant and diverse economic culture during the British mandate.

Seikaly claimed that when discussing pre-1948 Palestine, one is influenced by a meta-narrative of impending catastrophe and the failure to achieve a Palestinian state. Thus, she said, the dynamics of social transformation and the vast economic growth in Arab Palestine are often overlooked.

Seikaly’s research aims to contradict the commonly held notions that pre-1948 Palestine was a flatly divided society between corrupt, feuding elites and poor, ignorant masses. Instead, Seikaly assured, Palestine under the British mandate was experiencing rapid economic growth and the development of capitalism as a means of citizenship and of nationalism.

Seikaly stated that contrary to popular belief, Palestinian businessmen conceived of post-colonial Palestine as a state where Jews and Palestinian Arabs could co-exist as equitable citizens, both contributing to the market. From 1939 to 1944, under British mobilization for the war effort, Palestinian exports doubled and the money supply grew sevenfold. While intense rationing and a newly developed income tax hampered many Palestinians’ daily lives, Palestinian entrepreneurs remained actively involved in the economy, petitioning the Brits with concerns and participating in local chambers of commerce. In fact, there were many instances of joint Jewish and Palestinian Arab Chambers of Commerce, including in Haifa until 1921 and Jerusalem until 1936. Even after 1936 the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce remained diverse in its composition, including Christians, Muslims, Armenians and many other minorities. Seikaly encouraged the audience to avoid thinking in generalizations about either Palestinian Arabs or Jews.

Seikaly lectured earlier in the day to students and faculty at Qatar University. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in 2007 in the fields of History, and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. She is also the co-editor of the Arab Studies Journal. 

Summary prepared by Kathryn King. Kathryn is a CIRS staff member.