Transnational Palestine
Migration and the Right of Return before 1948
Nadim Bawalsa



“WE SHALL ALWAYS BE Palestinians, never admit change of nationality.”1 On 2 January 1927, Jesus Talamas, a Palestinian migrant in Saltillo, Mexico, ended a petition he wrote to Herbert Plumer, second British high commissioner for Palestine, with these words.2 Talamas sent the petition on behalf of the Comité Hijos de Palestina in Saltillo, whose members represented a growing number of Palestinian migrants who were being denied Palestinian citizenship by the Government of Palestine in Jerusalem following the promulgation of the Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council in July 1925, legislation enacted as part of the new British mandate over Palestine. Weeks later, on 5 February 1927, members of the Centro Social Palestino in Monterrey, Mexico, wrote a six-page petition to the high commissioner following the rejection of their applications for Palestinian citizenship. In their petition, members of the Centro declared: “Our firm conviction is that neither the authority of England’s Mandate on Palestine, nor you personally, Lord High Commissioner, nor lastly the League of Nations would ever reduce us to such an ignominious extremity.”3

With the Government of Jerusalem’s refusal to grant them citizenship and with their Ottoman citizenship documents defunct following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, these Palestinian migrants were rendered stateless. Without citizenship in the new interwar world order, they lacked consular and legal representation while abroad; they could not request travel permits; and, most disastrously, they lost any claim to inheritance and owner ship in Palestine. They refused this undignified status and expressed their steadfastness in the face of what they considered a grave injustice against the rightful heirs of Palestinian citizenship. By 1930, the citizenship ordinance affected roughly thirty thousand Palestinian migrants throughout the Americas.

This book explores the history of Palestinian immigration to Latin America starting in the late nineteenth century, the struggles of Palestinian migrants to secure a legal and permanent means to remain connected to geographic Palestine through citizenship in the interwar period, and the ways in which these challenges contributed to the formation of a Palestinian diaspora that was intimately connected to the emergence of Palestinian national consciousness. In other words, the book argues that Palestinian national consciousness developed transnationally throughout the interwar period in spite of and in response to exclusionary British policies. It thus expands the study of modern Palestinian history to embrace transnational analysis through the lenses of migration and diaspora; it demonstrates how the governance of Palestine during the so-called liberal interwar period was thoroughly lopsided in favor of the Zionists; and it repositions the start of the narrative of a Palestinian struggle to secure a right of return to Palestine from 1948, the year of the permanent dispossession of over 750,000 Palestinians upon the creation of the state of Israel, to 1925, the year of the promulgation of the Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council.

The book examines sources from archives, libraries, and private collections in England, Palestine, Israel, Mexico, and Chile to chart a new kind of history of Palestine and Palestinians. It uses the themes of migration and diaspora to investigate the ways in which migrants across Latin America who came from geographic Palestine began to speak of themselves more and more as Palestinians in petitions and periodicals as a result of exclusionary British citizenship policies. Whereas migrants from Palestine had identified more readily as Syrians, Ottomans, or Arabs in the years prior to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the radical transformations in the geopolitics of Greater Syria following World War I saw the emergence and consolidation of new categories of national identification among migrants from the region, including “Lebanese,” “Syrian,” and “Palestinian.” The emergence of “Palestinian” as a political identifier, although not alien to a community that had long known Palestine to be the southern region of Greater Syria, was thus inextricably connected to British colonial practices in Palestine, which started in the midst of the war and which favored Zionists and Jewish immigrants at the expense of Palestinians in Palestine and the diaspora, or the mahjar.

As Rashid Khalidi puts it, “World War I changed many things as far as Palestinian identity was concerned.”4 And what ensued from the war brought about permanent transformations in the ways Palestinians all over the world identified and related to their Palestinian homeland, or watan. In other words, by ensuring the permanent distancing of Palestinian migrants from Palestine, the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council was critical for the development of distinctively Palestinian modes of self and group understanding among larger Arabic-speaking community of migrants, or jaaliyaat, across the mahjar. In thousands of petitions and hundreds of periodicals authored in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish, Palestinian migrants asserted and continually affirmed their Palestinianness in response to Britain’s denial of their applications for Palestinian citizenship over the course of its thirty-year rule in Palestine. They also added their voices and contributed financially to the Palestinian nationalist movement developing in Palestine throughout the interwar years. Concomitantly, Palestinian nationalists in Palestine made the defense of the rights of Palestinian migrants to Palestinian citizenship a critical message in their anti-colonial struggle. Fundamentally, then, the growth of Palestinian national consciousness in the interwar period was invariably and thoroughly transnational.

The Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council was designed as part of the British Mandate for Palestine, which began in 1923 and under which Palestine was entrusted to Britain by the League of Nations following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in 1918. Yet unlike its other mandated territories, Britain had also promised Palestine to the Zionists. In a letter dated 2 November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised Walter Rothschild, a prominent Jewish financier, to see to the establishment in Palestine of a “national home for the Jewish people.” Balfour asked Rothschild to relay the message to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

The letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, was fundamental to the British Mandate for Palestine and was the primary reason for Palestinian opposition to British rule throughout the interwar period. As part of the declaration, Britain also promised to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews. Article 7 of the text of the mandate stated: “The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.” In order to implement this policy, British authorities saw to the yearly in-migration of tens of thousands of Jews to Palestine. In 1925 alone, the year of the promulgation of the ordinance, of a total of 34,641 immigrants to Palestine, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 33,801 were Jews.5 These immigrants applied for Palestinian citizenship and most received it,6 while non-Jewish applicants for Palestinian citizenship were regularly denied for a variety of reasons—chief among them being what British authorities referred to as Palestine’s limited “economic absorptive capacity.” The latter included thousands of Palestinian migrants who had left Palestine as subjects of the Ottoman Empire before the war, many of whom had settled across Latin America, effectively barring them from their rights to Palestinian citizenship and nationality.7


There has been a significant trend in writing Palestinian history whereby Palestine, as a geographically, historically, politically, and legally contested territory, is at the center of the historical narrative. This has been indispensable for various historiographic and political purposes, including refuting claims of the absence of Palestinian social, political, and nationalist awareness since the late nineteenth century and through the interwar period. The trend has also contributed to contextualizing the losses that Palestinians endured following the 1948 nakba, including the permanent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Yet it has also contributed to restricting Palestine and developments surrounding Palestine and Palestinians to a bounded space in which non-British and non-Zionist actors were routinely disadvantaged and frustrated. This book posits that examining the lives of Palestinian migrants in the early twentieth century with an eye to migration, diaspora formation, and group identification creates a space for discussing the experiences of Palestinian diaspora communities with historical contingency and for exploring the different symbolic and material connections Palestinians forged throughout the world.8

By decentering Palestine and the losses its inhabitants endured from the historical inquiry about the social and political lives of Palestinians in the interwar period, one might ask how the Palestinian migrants in the small mountain town of La Calera, Chile, reacted to the arrival of British forces into Jerusalem in December 1917 and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire months later. What did they think these developments meant for them? How did Palestinians in Monterrey, Mexico, respond to news of the rejections Syrian nationalists faced when they petitioned the 1919 Paris Peace Conference for redress regarding their rights, and how did they envision their counterparts’ grievances affecting them in the diaspora? When Palestinian citizenship was officially promulgated in 1925, what did Palestinians in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, believe this entailed for them? Who among them would apply, and who would not? While the book does not purport to answer all these questions, posing them and reading the sources with an eye to them yields a compelling historical narrative about diaspora formation that expands the scope of the historical study of Palestine, Palestinian nationalism, and Palestinians.

This book fits into an existing literature that traces the development of Palestinian national consciousness in the twentieth century. Rashid Khalidi’s book Palestinian Identity is critical among these works for examining the development of political Palestinian consciousness from the late Ottoman period through 1948 and into the 1960s. While Khalidi rightly asserts that “Palestinian identity . . . is not now and never has been defined solely by the conflict with Zionism and Israel,” he does point out that, since the emergence of nationalism as a form of political and social organization in the nineteenth century, Palestinians have repeatedly had to define and defend a Palestinian mode of national identification against a series of uncompromising others, often backed by oppressive imperial armies.9 From Ottomanism, which Istanbul and its loyalists used to quash separatist nationalisms throughout its imperial domains, to Syrianism and Arabism, which, to varying extents, eclipsed the unique experiences of inhabitants within different regions of Greater Syria, to Zionism, which often denied or simply overlooked the very existence of a population in Palestine, Palestinians have had to continuously define themselves vis-à-vis robust others throughout the modern period.

Khalidi’s thorough analysis paints a dynamic image of the development of Palestinian national consciousness within Palestine throughout dramatically changing times. Yet within his analysis, Palestine, an entity whose exact boundaries and shape continue to be negotiated and reimagined by Palestinians and other imperial actors, remains roughly within the same geographic coordinates: the southern region of historic Greater Syria between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. That Palestinian national consciousness appeared and developed there in the first half of the twentieth century and in a continuous and often oppressed fashion should no longer be disputed. Yet Palestinian national consciousness was also appearing outside this geography during the same transformative periods. To see how and why, we must turn to transnational historical analysis and specifically to the themes of migration and diaspora.

Migration and Palestinian History

The ceaseless outpouring of Palestinians from their homes in geographic Palestine in the decades before World War I was part of a global movement—aided by the invention of the steamship in the mid-nineteenth century—of skilled workers and artisans, aspiring entrepreneurs, political dissidents, and adventurous youth from across Europe, the Mediterranean basin, and eastward into Asia to the Americas in pursuit of economic gain. The scholarly literature on these “great waves” of migration, as Nancy Foner has called them, has tended to focus on the various communities that settled in the Americas and contributed to their economic and cultural development over the course of the twentieth century.10 This literature has also called attention to the impact that these migrants had on their homelands in the form of financial remittances, the flow of ideas, and periodic or permanent return, among others. Within this literature, several historians of the Middle East, notably Philip Hitti, Nadim Shehade, Alixa Naff, Albert Hourani, Evelyn Shakir, and Akram Khater, have secured for Lebanese and Syrian migrants their rightful place.11 As Camila Pastor shows, “between 1870 and 1901 three hundred thousand estimated migrants circulated between Mashriq and Mahjar,” the majority of whom are recorded as Lebanese or Syrian migrants in the historiography.12

While Palestinians were always part of these migrations from the Mashriq, or Greater Syria, their specific stories remain largely untold. This is related to a unique historical trajectory in which a distinct social, political, and legal reality emerged for Palestinian migrants in the interwar period. By 1936, the Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council, enacted on 24 July 1925, had left an estimated forty thousand Palestinians worldwide unable to secure a legal means to return to Palestine. The result was their permanent exile from Palestine and the concomitant formation of Palestinian diaspora communities throughout the Americas. This story has not been told, nor has the story of the historical connections these diaspora communities forged and maintained with Palestine. It is time to write the Palestinians into transnational histories, and the transnational into Palestinian history.

This approach is part of a greater effort to revisit key themes in Middle Eastern historical trajectories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through migration and diaspora studies. The journal Mashriq & Mahjar, for example, brings the themes and approaches of migration studies to the study of the Middle East. For its editors, the journal is important for the development of Middle Eastern studies because “the colonial and nationalist discourses” that have dominated much of twentieth-century historiography on the Middle East have produced static historical narratives of “bounded territories and populations, each one neatly delineated and differentiated from the next.”13 They continue: “Nowhere is this analytical stillness . . . more apparent than in the continuing disregard that scholars of ‘the Middle East’ have for migration and the worlds that migrants make.”14 In addition to an incomplete understanding of the region, the editors posit that the result has been a truncated perspective on global history “shorn of wider connections” that invariably included peoples from Middle Eastern regions.15

Applying a transnational lens to understanding the Middle East and its peoples can open new avenues for research. An approach that considers migration, settlement, and return as central to the historical narratives of Middle Eastern lives and territories since the nineteenth century can help construct a vision of the region as a “set of networks holding together, and held together by, people and things, places and practices.”16 Or as Pastor describes it, “making Mashriqis in movement the unit of analysis” can challenge reductionist and essentialist tropes that Middle Eastern lives have continuously been marked by “trails of suffering . . . outside the bounds of a broader history of global processes.”17 The editors of Mashriq & Mahjar point out:

That the men and women who travelled away from the region were firmly part of such a broader history can be glimpsed in the aged, torn reams of ships’ registers and naturalization records scattered in archives through the diaspora, which record the names of thousands of migrations from “Syria” alongside those of others from Italy, Armenia, Greece, Austria-Hungary and elsewhere.18

These men and women thus remind us of the “presence of the Middle East in the world, and the world in the Middle East.”19

Moreover, the newspapers these “Mashriqis in movement” printed in the mahjar, the letters they wrote to one another and to their families back home, and the petitions they sent to European offices across the world evince the networks of communication and solidarity that connected Arabic-speaking migrants and that contributed to the consolidation of political categories of identification directed toward the homeland among these transnational communities. Diaspora communities are thus proof of lively and generative historical trajectories that are critical to comprehending a range of political, economic, and social developments both in the homeland and trans nationally. It is now a matter of writing their stories.

Diaspora and Palestinian History

Can we classify the Palestinian migrant community in the interwar period as a diaspora? Scholars have debated the meaning and utility of the term for decades. As Rogers Brubaker points out, diaspora has been so discussed that it would be reasonable to speak of a “‘diaspora’ diaspora” where the term has proliferated to such an extent that it might mean everything and nothing at once. Yet even though it has been critiqued for being nondescript and unhelpful, it has continued to evoke considerable discussion in scholarly circles. But what, exactly, does the term signify? Is it simply, as Khachig Tololyan argues, a recent linguistic phenomenon used to describe a timeless act of population dispersion for a variety of scholarly reasons?20 Is it a valid measure of “structures of identity and subjectivity,”21 or, as Brubaker postulates, is it ultimately unhelpful as a “bounded entity” and instead ought to be considered “as an idiom, stance and claim”?22 What, if anything, does the term diaspora denote historically? What does it leave out?

Scholars have proposed criteria for defining diaspora. These include an initial dispersion from the homeland, followed by an orientation toward that homeland “as an authoritative source of value, identity and loyalty,”23 a preservation of a form of distancing or differentiation from the host society in spite of hybridity, fluidity, syncretism, and so on, and finally, a personal or collective engagement with return as a critical life decision.24 While these criteria do not necessarily signal a recent historical phenomenon—what we would today consider as a diaspora has in fact been a central theme of human history for centuries—we would not readily refer to certain movements in human history as diasporas. How come? When and why were phenomena of population migrations, movements, displacements, and returns replaced with or further qualified as diasporas? How do the concepts of “‘exile,’ ‘expatriation,’ ‘postcoloniality,’ ‘migrancy,’ ‘globality,’ and ‘transnationality’” shape our understanding of diaspora in the modern period?25 The answers lie to a considerable extent in the development of nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Brubaker’s exposition of the limits of “diaspora” as an increasingly overused category of analysis highlights its political origins. As he puts it, when diaspora is discussed, it is often “informed by a strikingly idealist, teleological understanding of the nation-state” that is seen as the culmination of projects that aim at homogenizing population groups.26 States prescribe sameness and inclusiveness while simultaneously defining difference and exclusion in relation to the nation. By defining nationals, therefore, nation-states have created non-nationals, and they have made these identifiers determinable by the state. They have monopolized access to the nation—the homeland—and in the case of exclusion from the homeland, they have influenced the subjective experiences of belonging and identification. As Tololyan puts it, the “nation-state is the primary conceptual ‘other’ against which diaspora is defined.”27

Yet nation-state also should not be a catchall term that homogenizes and flattens diasporas, which are infinitely diverse in their stories. In other words, rather than speak of diasporas as coming into existence at the moment of dispersion or settlement away from or return to a nation-state, we should seek to investigate the “stances, projects, claims, idioms, practices”—briefly, the struggles—of a group of people who developed—or were forced to develop—new ways of thinking of themselves in relation to a geographically distant place of ethnic origin to which they desired to remain connected.28 The messy and unstipulated process by which these people chose to develop and coalesce into a group with agreed-upon characteristics—whether national or otherwise—thus becomes the subject matter of the historical narrative. Diaspora is a useful term to designate and describe this process.

In order to examine the complex and subjective stances, projects, claims, idioms, and practices that make up the process of a given group’s formation into a diaspora, we must consider diaspora to be a way of formulating both the material and symbolic characteristics of a given group.29 This is particularly important when examining a diaspora community’s experience with return. Scholars have argued that narratives of return are central in shaping sentiments of longing and belonging in the diaspora, but the return need not be literal; a symbolic discourse is sufficient. Erik Olsson and Russell King propose that the “image of a homeland” is an essential component of diaspora formation. They argue that “diasporas emerge from a collective construction of the significance of the homeland and what it means to return to the imaginary homeland.”30 In the context of permanent legal and physical exclusion from the imagined homeland, the sense of collectiveness is strengthened by the impossibility of return, and the collective’s unique outward articulations and expressions of its experiences of longing for and solidarity and identification with that homeland define its diaspora. Daphne Winland posits that diaspora is a “critical and increasingly malleable, even sometimes murky term” that can be a useful way to speak of subjectivities like “longings and displacements.”31 Relieved of its nation-state imperatives, therefore, diaspora can be an informative unit of social historical analysis, and the Palestinian migrant experience is a telling example.

The experiences of Palestinian migrants in Latin America who sought to remain legally and permanently connected to Palestine through citizenship constitute their diaspora story. That is, the ways in which they went about protesting their exclusion from Palestinian citizenship, their claims and stances to rights and belonging articulated in thousands of petitions and dozens of periodicals, their use of increasingly distinctive and collective idioms that expressed steadfastness in the face of British injustice, and their nostalgic longing for a homeland that grew farther and farther from their reach—collectively, these stances, claims, processes, and articulations are the first Palestinian diaspora. How precisely these early Palestinian migrants came to conceive of themselves vis-à-vis a Palestinian watan that would never be theirs—as well as in relation to other communities in their host countries and other individuals and communities who identified as Palestinians locally, regionally, and transnationally—is effectively the story of the formation of a Palestinian diaspora in the interwar period. We can and we must consider the Palestinian migrant community in the interwar Americas as the first Palestinian diaspora.


The pages that follow tell the stories of individuals and communities and the ways in which they came to identify during rapidly changing times. Accordingly, they posit methodologically that the emergence of a political mode of identification among Palestinian migrants during the interwar period can be ascertained from the sources. Palestinians within Palestine and throughout the diaspora increasingly identified politically as Palestinians throughout the interwar period in written documents scattered across a range of archives. Collectively, the documents in Santiago’s Biblioteca Nacional, Jerusalem’s Israel State Archives, and London’s National Archives describe dramatic changes in social and legal structuring, political and economic organization, and territorial mapping that were unprecedented, at times unintended, yet often permanent consequences of imperial practices in a new world defined by legislated colonialism. The book thus assumes that the progression of these shifts during the interwar period was unpredictable and that the historiographic terminology used to describe them is inconclusive. Terms like diaspora formation, transnational identification, self-determination, citizenship legislation, mandate sovereignty, and so on are used in this book to reflect processes that were fluid and to demonstrate that ordinary people’s reactions to them in Palestine, Latin America, and much of the world were also part of how they progressed. This book thus posits that migrants were active, albeit oppressed players in the processes that radically transformed their lives.

While the transformations that accompanied the instatement of European mandates in the Mashriq after World War I form the political and legal backdrop to much of the analysis in the book—indeed, Europe’s unstoppable rise to global dominance in the interwar period meant continued colonization in a variety of forms for large populations across the world—the book considers the emergence of the nation-state as the universal standard for political and legal organization as a critical starting point. The rise of the nation-state formation throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought unprecedented and permanent changes to the lives of people worldwide that are evident not only in the ways states formed and consolidated their hold over their populations but also in the ways individuals and groups identified. These shifts in daily life were further cemented by the imposition of citizenship documents, passports, travel certificates, and residency permits that invariably signified the increasing importance of the nation-state in the everyday processes of self and group identification and in the movement of individuals and communities. Over the course of the twentieth century, the presence of the nation-state and its apparatuses in the lives of individuals and communities worldwide became increasingly visible and indelible.32

The dominance of the nation-state way of life, so to speak, was not an overnight development among individuals and communities from the Middle East. As historians have shown, it achieved gradual prominence with the establishment of the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War I and the concomitant propagation of a new world order characterized by what Keith Watenpaugh has described as a “moral and political reordering along modern liberal nationalist, Wilsonian lines.”33 The 1920s were therefore transitional years between an age of traditional empire and a new age of bordered legal territories defined by aspiring self-determined nationalisms entrusted, purportedly temporarily, to European powers through the mandates system. That is to say, with the end of the war and instatement of European rule in 1920, Middle Eastern individuals and communities began speaking about themselves in ways that reflected the liberal political and legal rhetoric—often voiced in the language of nation-states—that was characteristic of the interwar world order. These shifts in modes of identification were so pervasive that they became central to individual and collective understanding and to diaspora formation. The petitions, letters, and periodicals authored by transnational Middle Eastern migrants throughout the interwar period that are examined in this book point to the primacy of national sentiments and nation-centered forms of affiliation and identification among countless transnational communities in the interwar years. Since their ascension to global prominence, nation-states have thus insidiously appropriated the timeless characteristics of human mobility, relationality, and identification worldwide.

A fundamental premise of this book is that the sources demonstrate that after World War I, the category of Palestinian was increasingly articulated to mark the experiences of inhabitants of and migrants from geographic Palestine with the new world order—their specific struggle for self-determination against a mandate government that prioritized preparing Palestine for the Zionists. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, therefore, is a critical starting point for this book. The ways in which diaspora individuals and communities responded to British policies that challenged or denied their attachment to Palestine and that gave their watan to the Zionists is most evident in the first years of British rule in Palestine starting in December 1917. And although petitions and periodicals authored and printed by Palestinian migrant communities throughout the interwar period can be found in archives from Santiago de Chile to Jerusalem, this book focuses on the immediate postwar years during which Britain instated its mandate and its citizenship legislation. This book considers the promulgation of the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council as a seminal event in this historical narrative, and the transnational campaigns it spurred among Palestinians and their allies in the few months and years after its promulgation form the core of this book’s analysis. It is in these years that Palestinian migrants were most prolific in their political struggle to safeguard their rights to Palestinian citizenship and nationality, and consequently, it is in these years that transnational articulations of Palestinian national consciousness were most loudly and consistently voiced.

Finally, this book posits that accounting for mobility in studies of migration and diaspora is central to writing transnational historical narratives. “Creating a history of movement,” in the words of Camila Pastor, “requires shifting the boundaries of analysis to recognize the spheres of action of various agents.”34 It requires us to make the agents of movement “central, rather than marginal,” to human sociality.35 That is, that Palestinian migrants were a minority of the total number of Syrian migrants in the Americas in the early twentieth century should not preclude an in-depth examination of their transnational experiences in the interwar period or of their impact on the larger Arabic-speaking migrant collective and their transforming watan. Nor does this suggest that the stories of Syrian migrants who applied for and received Lebanese and Syrian citizenship at French consulates throughout the mahjar should not be examined. It is to say, though, that an analysis of the unique struggles and successes of Palestinian migrants with British mandate citizenship policies introduces compelling dimensions to the discussion, including transnational political mobilization and resistance through print media and petitioning. As Pastor poignantly points out, “attending to the diversity of migrants and their trajectories and to the transformations of the discursive frameworks through which they narrate and enact their lives affords glimpses beyond hegemonies.”36 Palestinian migrants’ narratives thus challenge the historiographic packaging of the so-called liberal interwar world order, or the bounded and geographically limited understandings of anti-colonial nation-state formations. “Moving people rub against the grain of the nation-state,” Pastor says, “according to which subjects are members of one and only one state-nation-territory-language; those who live otherwise are represented and managed as deviant.”37 It is this deviancy that this book assumes is worth examining.


To find these migrants’ stories and voices, the book draws on a range of sources. In addition to hundreds of documents in colonial archives in Jerusalem and London that describe the development of British citizenship legislation throughout the interwar period, the greatest wealth of sources about the social lives of Palestinian migrants struggling to secure their rights to remain legally connected to Palestine is the periodicals, correspondence, and petitions authored by Palestinian migrants themselves.38 The national library in Santiago de Chile houses tens of Arabic and Spanish periodicals from the early twentieth century, preserved on microfilm. Printed by Chile’s Arabic-speaking migrants, these periodicals convey the industrious lives of these migrants whose tales unfolded in Chile, as well as aboard ships and on land in three continents; they describe peripatetic stories of peddlers and merchants in San Francisco, Monterrey, Lima, and Illapel; of agents and creditors in the ports of Marseille, New York, Veracruz, and Buenos Aires; of newspaper editors and protestors outside British consulates from Santiago de Chile to Mexico City; and they chronicle sojourners in Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro, and San Pedro Sula, as well as others as far away as the Philippines and some tucked away in the Chilean and Peruvian Andes.39 The historical narratives of Syrian jaaliyaat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unfolded in a variety of settings. After all, they were part of a global trend of migration and settlement of diverse peoples that saw the exchange of resources, talents, languages, races, religions, and so on in various forms at a relatively fast and continuous pace.

This book explores two aspects of the formation of a diaspora of Palestinian migrants in the first decades of the twentieth century. First, it examines dispatches, memoranda, and policy documents from the British Colonial, Foreign, and Home Offices at the National Archives in London, as well as migrant petitions and letters found there and from the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, to make sense of the discussions, negotiations, and contestations that took place in London, Geneva, Jerusalem, and various British consulates in the Americas regarding the citizenship policies that contributed to the exclusion of Palestinian migrants from Palestinian citizenship. It thus builds on existing discussions among historians of the modern period whose work has offered critical analyses of the contradictory practices of the so-called liberal world order in the context of interwar colonialism.40

The story of Palestinian migrants contributes a compelling dimension to this literature. Their exclusion from citizenship by British mandate authorities during the 1920s could not be based on the migrants’ racial, birth, or material connections to Palestine. Those connections, enumerated in the citizenship legislation itself, were incontestable: Palestinian migrants shared a race with the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine, many owned property in Palestine, and many were even born in Palestine. Rather, the documents indicate that British authorities were aware of these connections and were therefore strategic in the language used to reject Palestinian migrants’ applications for citizenship. British authorities promulgated what Palestinians and their allies saw as unreasonable and arbitrary criteria for citizenship that were antithetical to the discourse about natives’ rights included in the text of the British Mandate for Palestine. These criteria included the length of a migrant’s stay abroad and his or her intention to return permanently to Palestine. Specifically, applicants for citizenship had to have left Palestine after 1920 and have presented proof of an intention to return for good, two prerequisites that Palestinian migrants pointed out were arbitrary and “impossible of fulfillment” for a variety of practical reasons. The sources are thus examined to elucidate how these requirements came to be meaningful mechanisms for exclusion and, in response, for the development of new modes of group identification among Palestinian migrants.

The second dimension of the book examines petitions, letters, and periodicals authored by the migrants themselves in order to trace the emergence of a specifically Palestinian mode of identification and of political claims making. As mentioned, prior to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the fragmentation of the Mashriq into mandates, most residents of Greater Syria identified as Syrians, and any qualifications were largely geographic or confessional.41 To wit, a Syrian could be from Palestine, the southern territory stretching between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and from Lebanon, the narrow strip of land located west of Mount Lebanon down to the Mediterranean. Syrians often also identified as Arabs and Ottomans, depending on their political leanings and where they were, especially in the turbulent years leading up to the war. However, the end of the war made these fluid categories increasingly untenable. British mandate policies brought hardship to thousands of Palestinians worldwide that isolated them in their experiences with mandate rule. Put differently, the exclusion of thousands of individuals from the Palestinian citizenship to which they believed they had natural and national rights contributed to their identification as Palestinians in enduring ways. Migrants’ petitions, correspondence, and newspapers are examined to trace how the categories of Syrian, Arab, or Ottoman—although they did not disappear altogether as identifiers—were steadily replaced with the Palestinian designation.

The second dimension thus examines how Palestinian migrants in the interwar period engaged creatively and strategically with the liberal language of the interwar legal world order emerging from Europe to stake claims to Palestinian nationality and citizenship.42 In doing so, they laid the foundations for a Palestinian diaspora that has maintained significant political, economic, cultural, and social clout transnationally to this day. Today, there are sizeable communities of Chileans, Hondurans, Peruvians, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Cubans, Brazilians, and others who celebrate a unique past as descendants of Palestinian migrants. While a handful of scholars of Latin America have taken an interest in the historical development of Palestinian and other Middle Eastern diasporas in Latin America, this book furthers the discussion of how these communities came to be with an examination of their hitherto unexamined periodicals and petitions.43 The different instances in which these migrants came to write about themselves, their communities, and their homeland as Palestinian reflect the process of this community’s formation into a diaspora. By examining the sources with an eye to these developments, this book brings both the history of Palestinians to the Americas and the themes of diaspora and migration to Palestine studies.


The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter 1 situates emigration from Palestine within the broader literature on Ottoman Syrian immigration to the Americas. While emigration from Greater Syria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has received considerable scholarly attention, the specifically Palestinian migratory narrative has been markedly less developed relative to the Lebanese and Syrian narratives. In addition to investigating why, this chapter offers a more detailed portrayal of the Palestinian experience with migration. It offers examples from two case studies in particular, Mexico and Chile, hubs of Palestinian settlement, which reappear in more depth in chapters 4 and 5. And finally, chapter 1 ends with a discussion of the dramatic changes to migrants’ lives that were brought on by the end of World War I and the instatement of the mandates system in the Mashriq.

Chapter 2 explores what was termed “pro-Palestina” activism among Palestinian migrants in Latin America between the end of the war in 1918 and the official instatement of the British mandate over Palestine in 1923. The chapter examines the ways in which Palestinian migrants in the Americas opposed a Zionist takeover of Palestine and demanded self-determination from European leaders as Palestinians, a category of identification that, while never separate from the existing categories of Syrian and Arab, was increasingly deployed in deliberately political displays. The chapter situates this pro-Palestina activism within the larger transnational political activism of migrants from Greater Syria across the Americas, especially in New York, São Paulo, and Buenos Aires, in the first two decades of the twentieth century. It thus points to the tradition of communication between Arabic-speaking migrants throughout the Americas and different European legal bodies before the British mandate and to the roots, as it were, of transnational Palestinian consciousness.

Chapter 3 provides the legal and political context for the dramatic changes Palestinian migrants experienced when it came to mobility, naturalization, and belonging as a result of the 1925 Palestinian Citizenship Order-in-Council, promulgated by British authorities in Jerusalem and London within the context of international law. The chapter examines colonial records from archives in Jerusalem and London, including the 1925 citizenship ordinance itself, as well as a series of declassified correspondence exchanged between British offices transnationally, to investigate the ways in which British authorities continually excluded Palestinian migrants from Palestinian citizenship. The chapter also offers a discussion of the long-term practice of excluding Palestinians from Palestinian citizenship during the 1930s, making particular note of the colonial and imperial legacies of British mandate rule in Palestine.

Chapters 4 and 5 explore the ways in which Palestinian migrants responded to what they considered to be unjust British policies embodied in the 1925 ordinance and how these responses formed an important part of transnational Palestinian national consciousness. Chapter 4 begins with an examination of petitioning as a transnational practice of colonized peoples in the interwar period and delves into petitions authored by Palestinian migrants in 1927 Mexico. Following the rejection of thousands of applications for Palestinian citizenship, members of the Centro Social Palestino in Monterrey and of the Comité Hijos de Palestina in Saltillo, among others, submitted petitions protesting Jerusalem’s policy to various British consular and colonial offices throughout Mexico. These petitions, which were forwarded to the high commissioner, as well as to the Arab Executive in Jerusalem, signify the importance of petitions as a mechanism for social and political identification. The chapter posits that while the 1927 petitions—indeed, most petitions—did not secure their authors redress, they nonetheless convey the development of a Palestinian diaspora and of Palestinian national consciousness in the interwar period.

Chapter 5 takes the story of Palestinian migrants to cities and towns in Chile, today home to the largest number of Palestinians outside the Arab world. It introduces several Santiago-based Arabic newspapers that were in circulation starting in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Looking closely at two, al-Watan and al-Sharq,44 it explores the ways in which the periodicals’ editors and contributors focused on circulating content that, on the one hand, safeguarded the jaaliya’s economic success in the mahjar and, on the other, strengthened its interconnectedness through edification in patriotic love for the watan. The periodicals’ editors and contributors made the defense of Palestinian migrants’ rights to Palestinian citizenship and nationality central in this edification. The chapter ends with a discussion of how these periodicals contributed to the emergence and consolidation of a specifically Palestinian mode of diasporic identification among palestinos-chilenos.

Finally, chapter 6 explores the transnational interconnectedness of Palestinians more closely by returning to Palestine. It examines the solidarity Palestinians within Palestine showed their diaspora counterparts in their struggle to secure Palestinian citizenship. Specifically, it examines the efforts of the Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Palestinians in Foreign Countries, formed in Beit Jala in 1927, and of the editors of the Jaffa-based Filastin newspaper in protesting the disenfranchisement of their diaspora compatriots. While their efforts would ultimately not sway British policy in their favor, they managed to stir debate and disagreement among European officials regarding the equity of denying Palestinian migrants their citizenship and to politicize the crisis of citizenship by lumping it with the Palestinian nationalist movement. This discussion makes note of the significant connections and networks of communication and solidarity that existed between Palestinians worldwide and of the importance of the plight of Palestinian migrants in the struggle for Palestinian national self-determination within Palestine. Significantly, then, the chapter shows that the development of Palestinian national consciousness in the interwar period was thoroughly transnational and that Palestinians’ struggle to secure a right of return to Palestine began well before 1948.


1. Israel State Archives, Jerusalem, P-986/24.

2. Herbert Plumer succeeded Herbert Samuel. He served in this role from August 1925 until July 1928.

3. Israel State Archives, Jerusalem, P-986/24.

4. Rashid Khalidi, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 157.

5. Walter Shaw, A Survey of Palestine (Jerusalem: Government Printer, 1945–1946), 185.

6. There are documented cases of the Government of Palestine revoking Jewish immigrants’ citizenship certificates, though only for those who did not relocate permanently to Palestine. The Zionist Federation in London regularly contested the revocations, arguing that the British authorities were obliged to respect the mandate and their promise to the Jews. See National Archives, London, CO 733/179/2.

7. For more about the citizenship legislation and how it was used to deny citizenship to thousands of Palestinian migrants, see Nadim Bawalsa, “Legislating Exclusion: Palestinian Migrants and Interwar Citizenship,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 46:2 (2017): 44–59; and Lauren Banko, The Invention of Palestinian Citizenship, 1918–1947 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016).

8. Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler have described the importance of assuming historical contingency when writing the histories of “coloniality.” See Cooper and Stoler, eds. Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). See also Sebastian Conrad, Globalization and the Nation in Imperial Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) for an analysis of the importance of transnationalism in the development of German nationalism in the nineteenth century.

9. Khalidi, Palestinian Identity, 205.

10. During a panel titled “Little Syria, NYC: History and Advocacy” at CUNY, New York, 20 May 2013, Nancy Foner included Syrians in what she termed “the last great wave of immigration” to the USA between 1880 and 1920. See Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

11. See Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi’s edited volume The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (London: I. B. Tauris, 1992) for an example of the scope and depth of scholarly analysis surrounding the Lebanese diaspora.

12. Camila Pastor, The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs under the French Mandate (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), 3.

13. Andrew Arsan, John Karam, and Akram Khater, “On Forgotten Shores: Migration in Middle East Studies, and the Middle East in Migration Studies,” Mashriq & Mahjar 1 (2013): 1.

14. Arsan, Karam, and Khater, “On Forgotten Shores,” 3.

15. Arsan, Karam, and Khater, “On Forgotten Shores,” 1.

16. Arsan, Karam, and Khater, “On Forgotten Shores,” 5–6.

17. Pastor, Mexican Mahjar, 4. Emphasis in the original.

18. Arsan, Karam, and Khater, “On Forgotten Shores,” 4.

19. Arsan, Karam, and Khater, “On Forgotten Shores,” 6.

20. Khachig Tololyan, “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment,” Diaspora 5:1 (1996): 3.

21. Tololyan, “Rethinking Diaspora(s),” 28.

22. Rogers Brubaker, “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28:1 (2005): 1.

23. Brubaker, “‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 5.

24. Christian Hess, “What Are ‘Reverse Diasporas’ and How Are We to Understand Them?” Diaspora 17:3 (2008): 290.

25. Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Uses of Diaspora,” Social Text 66 19:1 (2001): 1.

26. Brubaker, “‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 10.

27. Tololyan in Brubaker, “‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 10.

28. Brubaker, “‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 10.

29. Brubaker, “‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 12.

30. Erik Olsson and Russell King, “Introduction: Diasporic Return,” Diaspora 17:3 (2008): 256–57.

31. Daphne Winland, “Why We Come Back to Diasporas: Heterogeneous Groups and the Persistent Dream of Political Action,” Diaspora 16:1/2 (2007): 263.

32. Notable theoretical discussions about the imbedded violence and authoritarianism of contemporary state structures when it comes to people’s struggles over citizenship, identification, and subjecthood include James Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University, 1999), Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), and Timothy Mitchell, “The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and Their Critics,” American Political Science Review 85:1 (1991): 77–96.

33. Keith Watenpaugh, “The League of Nations’ Rescue of Armenian Genocide Survivors and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism, 1920–1927,” American Historical Review 115:5 (December 2010): 1315–39. Also see Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), for a discussion of the importance of the 1919 Peace Conference and the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson for non-Western nationalists in Egypt, India, China, and Korea.

34. Pastor, Mexican Mahjar, 16.

35. Pastor, Mexican Mahjar, 10.

36. Pastor, Mexican Mahjar, 10.

37. Pastor, Mexican Mahjar, 9.

38. Beshara Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 10.

39. Jacob Norris’s research on transnational Bethlehemite traders at the turn of the twentieth century is an excellent example of the importance of migration for Palestine’s economic prosperity. Norris, “Return Migration and the Rise of the Palestinian Nouveaux Riches, 1870–1925,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 46:2 (2017): 60–75.

40. Some notable works investigating the contradictory practices of European international law in the twentieth century include Antony Anghie, Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Mark Mazower, “An International Civilization? Empire, Internationalism, and the Crisis of the Mid-Twentieth Century,” International Affairs 82:3 (2006): 553–66; Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, eds., Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies (London: Routledge, 2005); Susan Pedersen, “The Meaning of the Mandate System: An Argument,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 32:4 (2006): 560–58; and Frederick Cooper and Ann Stoler, eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

41. For an explanation of collective national and civic consciousness in late Ottoman Palestine, see Michelle Campos, Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010). Campos argues that Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Palestine shared a sense of “civic Ottomanism” that reflected the post-1908 revolutionary spirit of reform and imperial citizenship.

42. This practice also affected Palestinian migrants in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere regionally who sought to return or to secure legal belonging to Palestine. See Lauren Banko, “Claiming Identities in Palestine: Migration and Nationality under the Mandate,” Journal of Palestine Studies 182:46 (2017): 26–43.

43. Two notable works that deal with the history of emigration, settlement, and diaspora formation of Chinese and Indian migrants in the Caribbean and Latin America at the turn of the twentieth century are Kathleen Lopez, Chinese Cubans: A Transnational History (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); and Gaiutra Bahadur, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).

44. The editors of al-Sharq translated it into Latin script as “al-Shark.” This book uses the q, not the k, to denote the Arabic letter qaaf in the word al-Sharq, to differentiate it from the Arabic letter kaaf.