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Ireland “a laboratory” for colonialism in Palestine

21 March 2022 - The Trinity Long Room Hub welcomes Professor Rashid Khalidi, eminent historian and Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, for a two-month fellowship exploring the parallels between Ireland and Palestine and their colonial histories.

“To understand Palestine, you have to understand more about British colonialism generally and how it starts here”, says Professor Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917- 2017 (2020), who says he hopes his study comparing the two experiences“might be useful for understanding current problems, and perhaps gesturing towards solutions in Palestine drawn from the rich Irish experience.”

Examining Ireland and Palestine as the “first and last laboratories where the British state experimented with settler colonialism”, Professor Khalidi argues that “Ireland served as a template for the expansion of the British Empire over its long history” and that many of the tactics we see being deployed in Palestine were first tested and implemented in Ireland.

Ireland’s struggle with Britain and that of the Palestinians with the Zionist movement and its British colonial support base have many differences but the similarities with Ireland’s colonial history are striking, says Professor Khalidi.  

“Both involved military conquest and the sponsorship by the British crown of the settlement of foreign colonists in the target country for political and ideological reasons. In both cases, this colonial settler project was dependent on the overwhelming might of a metropolitan power. Also in both cases, this project involved discrimination against, and systematic denigration of, the indigenous population by both settlers and those in the metropolis.”

Ireland served as a template for the expansion of the British Empire over its long history.
Professor Rashid Khalidi

While attending the Annual Meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes 2019, hosted in Dublin by the Trinity Long Room Hub, Professor Khalidi spoke to many Irish academics in literature and history, inspiring him to begin his current fellowship project ‘Ireland and Palestine: Britain’s First and Last Settler Colonies’.

“I wanted to look more deeply into the history of Ireland and I wanted to see how it works in terms of a comparison for Palestine”, Professor Khalidi comments, before outlining how a more in-depth reading of Irish history shows up a number of key figures in the British aristocracy, whose Irish experience is central to everything they do afterwards. “They come to Palestine with those experiences”, says Professor Khalidi, citing individuals such as Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, Sir Charles Tegart, and later, Brigadier Sir Frank Kitson.

Aside from the many similarities to be drawn in terms of looking at “settler colonies”--a term which is still politically charged but now increasingly accepted by historians--Professor Khalidi is also pursuing a line of enquiry exploring policing and counter-insurgency. Much of what is done in the colonies starts here in Ireland, notes Professor Khalidi, particularly when considering the Royal Irish Constabulary, which he says was moved “in block to Palestine in 1922 to create the Palestinian gendarmerie.” 

By examining key figures within the constabulary, army and security services, Professor Khalidi argues, it is possible to see how the Irish experience is exported to India, Egypt and Palestine, and then returned to Ireland again during the Troubles, having been magnified in the colonies.

“It’s astonishing how personnel, as well as counter-insurgency techniques like torture, assassination and so on often find their roots here”, says Professor Khalidi.

He’s also considering the impact of displacement and forced emigration in the two regions (“which happens in waves”), and how ultimately this created an extensive global diaspora. Diasporic communities are often the financial support for the resistance of national movements, says Professor Khalidi and nowhere is this more visible than in the case of Ireland. However, he argues that while the diaspora is becoming increasingly important in Palestine, the Jewish diaspora is much more extensive, a factor in the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic which is distinct from the Irish case.


Among the many other differences between the two situations is also the central fact that “in the Irish case, the settler population was composed mainly of Scots and English Protestants, drawn directly from the metropolis itself, and whose objective was tightening the union with the metropolis. In Palestine, Britain supported Zionism, a colonial project with a discrete nationalist objective of an exclusively Jewish state. The recruits for this project did not have roots in the metropolis, but rather were drawn mainly from Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.”

Although he is accustomed to receiving “push-back” both in the US and elsewhere for his contributions to discussions around Palestine, he notes that it’s easier in some cases for him to look at Palestine as a historian, and that in moving away from the contemporary conflict, “you can talk about patterns” throughout history.  

As part of his project, Professor Khalidi is meeting with many experts within Trinity’s Departments of Histories and Humanities, English, and Middle Eastern Studies, and in the University of Cork, UCD, and Maynooth, and will continue to engage with colleagues throughout the island’s universities for the duration of his fellowship which lasts until April 2022.

Rashid Khalidi is Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University’s Department of History. He is co-editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies, and was President of the Middle East Studies Association, and an advisor to the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid and Washington Arab-Israeli peace negotiations from October 1991 until June 1993. He is author of: The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917- 2017 (2020); Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (2013); Sowing Crisis: American Dominance and the Cold War in the Middle East (2009);The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2006); Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East (2004); Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (1996); Under Siege: PLO Decision-Making During the 1982 War (1986); British Policy Towards Syria and Palestine, 1906-1914 (1980); and co-editor of Palestine and the Gulf (1982) and The Origins of Arab Nationalism (1991), and The Other Jerusalem: Rethinking the History of the Sacred City (2020).

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