Reflecting on a Palestinian diaspora

Autoare: Macrina Moldovan

Handala, symbol of Palestinian resistance, by cartoonist Naji al-Ali [1*]

Al-Nakba is widely known in the Palestinian collective memory as the catastrophe that took the form of the exodus of the Palestinian population as a consequence of the creation of Israel as a state on former Palestinian territories at the end of the war in 1948. Around half of the former population has left the territories – many unwillingly (Masalha, 1992). We have to take notice as well of a second major wave of emigration that took place after the Six Day War in 1967, known as the second exodus (Schulz, 2003). Due to this major displacement, the status of the people who suffered from it has been extensively debated in and out of academic discourse. This essay will engage with the theoretical debate that asks whether we can see the dispersed Palestinian population as a diaspora as well – if the refugee status that the vast majority has embraced may be counted as a diaspora.

The recognition of this dispersal as a diaspora or rather as a refugee group can generate different outcomes: the diaspora status does not bring to the table the rights and legal matters that the refugee status does. A particularity which applies to the Palestinian case and has been as well theorised in diaspora studies is the concept of victim diaspora – a term coined by Robin Cohen (1996). Following the pattern of the Jewish diaspora, Cohen designates this specific type of population dispersion as a result of experiencing “traumatic interludes in their histories” (Cohen, 1996:512). Another issue raised by this context is the right of return of the people displaced after 1948 – a central issue in the Palestinian consciousness. I will discuss each of these aspects in more detail further on. 

Primarily, we must analyse how the Palestinian scattered population relates to the theoretical benchmarks present in diaspora studies. Robin Cohen lays out in his article a few “common features” on which researchers usually agree upon to define what sort of group can be labelled as diaspora, such as: “dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions”; “the development of a return movement which gains collective approbation”; “a strong ethnic group consciousness sustained over a long time and based on a sense of distinctiveness, a common history and the belief in common fate” etc. (Cohen, 1996:515). Therefore, the Palestinian diaspora does comply with the general criteria present in diaspora studies: they were and continuously are dispersed around the world due to reasons already mentioned above and they are living a transnational experience; there are close ties with the homeland and the ideas about the homeland persist in the collective memory of the people – being maintained through various types of representations (music, dances, films etc.); and last but not least, the hope for a return is a vivid one and embedded in the struggle of the Palestinians with the Israeli occupation for the right of return of the people that have left during Al-Nakba (Schulz, 2003; Peteet, 2007).

Moreover, Cohen (1996) and Schulz (2003) point out this evident paradox regarding the Palestinian diaspora: at the root of the Palestinian dispersal was the homecoming of the Jewish diaspora. Cohen saw the Jewish diaspora as a prototype for the victim diaspora category – a type of diaspora that came to embody numerous groups (namely African, Armenian, Palestinians etc.) and was the result of traumatic events and coerced displacement. We can observe that the Palestinian dispersion can fit into this description as well: at the end of the 1948 war they were compelled to leave their homeland and leave space for the Jewish settlements – all of this in a violent process. During Al-Nakba around 750,000 people left the territories that later became part of Israel (Masalha, 1992). The largest Palestinian population resides in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, although the state of these territories is rather unpredictable. Another percent of the population that left historical Palestine settled as refugees in other Arab states or got dispersed around the globe. Most of the Palestinians outside Gaza or the West Bank live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria or Israel.[1]

Regardless of the attempts to define this dispersion, counting the Palestinian exiles as a diaspora can be rather problematic. Current understandings of diaspora have transcended the initial character of it as a coerced process (Cohen, 1996) – on part due to “voluntary” migrations for socio-economic reasons (work, education, better life conditions etc.) or different types of movements that have emerged in the last decades. In this context, the acceptance of a diasporic status may imply a naturalization of their scattered and uncertain life condition – a condition that may be better looked upon through the refugee status because it also brings legal matters into the discussion (Schulz, 2003; Peteet, 2007). These legal matters rest at the core of the Palestinian struggle for the right of return – an issue which may not be felt as urgent in a diasporic perspective as it is from a dominant refugee perspective. Susan Akram (2002) has analysed the legal status of Palestinian refugees and the changes it underwent under the United Nation agencies. After the displacement of Palestinians in the middle of the 20th century, there were created two distinct UN agencies that focused on their case – UNCCP and UNRWA – and which were meant to protect the refugees, look for solutions and to take care of fundamental needs through relief and work programs. There were two distinct agencies created to take care of the Palestinian refugee issue specifically, as Akram mentions, this was an unique case because “the obstacle to their repatriation was not dissatisfaction with their homeland (…), but the fact that a Member of the United Nations was preventing their return” (Akram, 2002:40). These agencies were separate from UNHCR convention (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) – the main agency with the role of protecting the human rights of refugees. UNCCP got demised soon after its creation and only UNRWA remained for the protection of Palestinians. But even so, the refugee status ensured them protection and a certain level of aid – the legal status carries a great importance.

In the case of the Palestinians, the right of return might feel more urgent than in a classical diasporic case that portrays this return as a far away and hopeful possibility in some imagined future, since the experience of the homeland has been a recent one for many Palestinians. The refugee status that follows the last generations of Palestinians that live in refugee camps continues to cease their possibilities of a stable life (Peteet, 2007). The right of return for those who wish to exercise it, is a legal right specified in international law.[2] However, Palestinians` right of return is being denied by Israel [3]  and therefore, the human rights agencies cannot pursue compliance with this right, because the Israeli occupation was in fact an illegal act (Akram, 2002:41). More than an illegal act, the way Israelis took over the lands of Palestine was and continues to be an act of colonization (Chomsky&Pappé, 2015). In defiance of their right of return being denied, this issue has been at the centre of Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) ideology, its prospects and at the heart of most Palestinian liberation movements. It continues to stay as a goal in their struggle – meaning that it also has a symbolic value that once given up may suggest that what happened to them has been accepted as an inevitable historical event.

Besides the debate regarding the diasporic or refugee status, we can look closer upon the arguments through which Cohen exhibits the need to transcend the “victim tradition” in his article “Diasporas and the Nation-State: From Victims to Challengers” (1996). After presenting the outline of the victim diaspora tradition giving out the examples of the Jewish, African, Armenian and Palestinian diasporas, he suggests that this tradition should be reconceptualised in order to match the current reality of diaspora. First, he talks about the diversity of diasporic experiences in the modern era and how they have been “enriching and creative as well as enervating and fearful”, in order to give a “glass half full” sort of perspective towards these processes (Cohen 1996:513). More specifically, he underlines along with other examples that “Palestinians are characteristically more prosperous and better-educated than the locals in the countries of their exile” (Cohen, 1996:513). This point of view can be valid if we look at specific fortunate examples (that mainly have happened in the West) but, I believe it can be rather harmful to fully embrace this perspective taking in consideration the broader context of the Palestinian experiences abroad. Regarding this point we may look at the issue through what Peteet (2007) indicated in her article “Problematizing a Palestinian Diaspora”. The author highlighted the necessity of paying attention to “spatial depth” and demography when we look at the Palestinian dispersal. If we do so, we can observe in statistics that the highest numbers of people reside in proximity of the former Palestinian territories – Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria.[4] Another percent of refugees that used to live in historical Palestine now reside in Gaza or the West Bank. Although many of these people shared the language and outlines of culture with nearby Arab states, they still haven’t been fully integrated there and are rather “vulnerable to host populace and government hostility” (Peteet, 2007). One of the reasons that establishes low chances of integration is, what Peteet and Cohen mention as well, the contemporary dominance of the nation states. Consequently, what Cohen tries to underscore in this argument by trying to show how victims can get “creative” and have an enhanced existence, may only apply to a small portion of the dispersed Palestinian population, hence their widest spread being in refugee camps or in states in which they are not encouraged towards integration processes. As Peteet points out from observations during her fieldwork – “Palestinian refugee camps hardly constitute an environment of creative new beginnings” (Peteet, 2007:637).

Furthermore, on transcending the victim diaspora tradition Cohen argues that the term diaspora has been diluted and that nowadays it embodies a diverse and wide range of people and movements – expatriates, political refugees, immigrants, minorities, voluntary migrants etc. The term grew a life on its own and it is used in a variety of contexts, thus that may call for a need to create a clearer theoretical framework which can incorporate contemporary experiences as well. Lastly, another argument Cohen brings up is the emergence of a new type of diaspora that is specific to our age of cyberspace – a type of diaspora that can “be held together or re-created through the mind, through cultural artefacts and through a shared imagination” (Cohen, 1996:516). 

In conclusion, the case of the Palestinian dispersal raises questions that requires us to pay more attention to the political implications of recognizing a specific status of a people – in this case the recognition of the dispersed Palestinians as a diaspora or rather as refugees. I argue that the diasporic condition can coexist with the refugee condition, but only without taking away the primacy of the circumstances that has created that specific dispersal – circumstances that can define, at last, their whole experience as foreigners in other spaces. As Peteet indicates, paying attention to the spatial depth and demography may reveal us important aspects of different diaspora cases which may not be observed without this particular vision.




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Chomsky N, Pappé I (2015) On Palestine. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

Cohen, R. (1996). Diasporas and the Nation-State: From Victims to Challengers. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), 72(3), 507-520. doi:10.2307/2625554

Masalha, N. (1992). Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought 1882-1948. Institute for Palestine Studies. Washington D.C.

Peteet, J. (2007). Problematizing a Palestinian Diaspora. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 39(4), 627-646. Retrieved May 7, 2021, from

Schulz, E. (2003). The Palestinian Diaspora: Formation of identities and politics of homeland. Routledge






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