In the first week of July 1933, the First National Arab Fair opened in Jerusalem, filling the cavernous foyer and pristine rooms of the luxurious Palace Hotel on Mamilla Road (Fig. 1). Populating the first two floors of the hotel, the fair featured industrial, agricultural and artisanal wares from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, occupying approximately sixty rooms with nearly one hundred exhibitors selling handicrafts (textiles, pottery and woodwork), food stuffs (chocolate, candy, jam, salt and olive oil), home goods (soap, furniture, carpets and perfume) and clothing (socks, hosiery and shoes). The exhibitors hailed from cities in Palestine including Jerusalem, Nablus, Haifa, Bethlehem and Ain Karim, as well as those outside of Palestine, including Beirut, Jounieh, Tripoli, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Cairo and Mecca.Footnote 1 Rather than be organised by country in separate pavilions or rooms, as was typical in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century world’s fairs and colonial exhibitions, the exhibitors at the Arab Fair mixed with one another within each room, presenting a unified vision of Arab industry and culture. Within the hotel’s capacious first floor atrium, a central exhibition, entitled “The World’s Major Exhibition Products”, brought together products from across the fair, surrounded by interior gardens housing multiple cafes for rest and conversation (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1
figure 1

“Opening of the National Arab Fair, 7 July 1933”, Falastin, 16 July 1933; image courtesy of the Institute for Palestine Studies

Fig. 2
figure 2

“Exhibition Plan of the Arab Fair”, Al-’Arab, 15 July 1933; image courtesy of the Institute for Palestine Studies

The organisers of the Arab Fair included ʿIssa al-ʿIssa (the Christian founder of the newspaper Falastin) and Ahmad Hilmi Pasha (the previous general director of Muslim awqaf in Palestine and founder of the Arab National Bank), along with a cadre of other Palestinian Christian and Muslim businessmen who believed in economic development as the core of political development.Footnote 2 The First National Arab Fair (henceforth, “Arab Fair”) underscored the valued role of artisanal, agricultural and industrial production in this mission.

Recent scholarship clarifies that the idea for an all-Arab Fair in Palestine was articulated as early as 1931, following a trip by al-ʿIssa to see the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition and a subsequent invitation to attend the 1932 Iraqi Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition in Baghdad.Footnote 3 Yet, the stronger motive for staging an Arab Fair in 1933 came from a more direct impetus: as an aggressive response to the 1932 Levant Fair in Tel Aviv, organised by the Jewish trade organisation Mischar ve Taasia, and sponsored by the Municipality of Tel Aviv. Four smaller editions of the Levant Fair had occurred since 1924, but it was in 1932 that the Levant Fair organisers espoused their desire to become an “international” trade fair as a proof of concept for Zionist national ambitions.Footnote 4 In that year, the Levant Fair garnered its official name, adopted the “Flying Camel” logo, and began to set its sights on building a permanent fairground in the space of 100,000 square metres on the Yarkon Peninsula, expanding the first Jewish city in Palestine to its most northwesterly point.Footnote 5

The 1932 Levant Fair also greatly increased the number of international participants and included exhibitors from Egypt and Syria, neighbouring Arab countries under Mandate occupation. The presence of Arab businesses in a Jewish-organised trade fair stirred the Palestinian political elite to quick action. The organisers of the Arab Fair not only called for a boycott of the 1932 Levant Fair, which they saw as epitomising the economic and cultural colonisation of Palestine by Zionists, but they decided to stage their own trade fair by summoning a powerful internationalism of a different sort: pan-Arabism. The Arab Fair’s catalogue, advertisements and signs were issued only in Arabic and only merchants from Arab countries were invited to exhibit their wares. While the Levant Fair extended its reach as a demonstration of the strength of the Zionist bureaucratic infrastructure and nationalist ambitions, the Arab Fair intended to portray pan-Arab diversity as a marker of Palestinian unity and its own national future.

By 1933, then, the trade fair had become an effective site for the playing out of local, ethno-national politics within British Mandate Palestine. The purpose of this chapter is to sketch a lineage of trade fairs in Palestine in the decades immediately prior to the debut of the duelling “national” fairs of the 1930s—from one-room exhibitions hosted by Christian missionaries in the early 1900s to those assembled by British bureaucrats inside the Old City in the 1920s and 1930s—to investigate the roots of this typology. I contend that this history begins with the increase in religious missionary institutions in Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christian institutions, in particular, were among the first to encourage the production, exhibition and sale of Palestinian handicrafts in order to solicit international support for their missionary work as early as the 1840s, efforts which were then mirrored by some of the earliest Zionist-sponsored institutions active in Palestine at the start of the 1900s, such as the Evelina de Rothschild School for Girls and the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, which hoped to foster the survival and growth of a Jewish community in Palestine. British bureaucrats, installed in Palestine once Britain was awarded the Mandate for Palestine in 1920, also adopted the format of the trade fair for political purposes, both abroad and at home. While their staging of Palestine’s handicrafts abroad sought to solidify Britain’s image as the harbinger of a modern Christian crusade in the post-Ottoman “Holy Land”, trade fairs organised by British bureaucrats within Palestine served a radically different end: namely, to draw together Palestine’s diverse ethno-religious, and urban and rural populations during a time of mounting political strife. By the time that the Levant Fair and the Arab Fair emerged as internationally-oriented trade fairs in the 1930s, in other words, the trade fair in Palestine was already coded as a space for garnering international support to enact local political change.

Undergirding this trajectory, I argue, was the formation of a “cultural sector” in Palestine—a conglomerate of institutions delimited by a distinct regional focus, furthering cultural development as part of both economic and political missions. My understanding of the cultural sector draws on its emergence following the Second World War as a UNESCO category, while questioning and assessing its historical evolution.Footnote 6 As a ubiquitous, though often perfunctory, term in the fields of art history, cultural studies, non-profit and humanitarian studies, and international relations, the concept of the cultural sector has yet to be historicised or positioned in relation to dominant frameworks of cultural diplomacy. Joseph Nye’s definition of “soft power”, which is predicated on nation-to-nation government relations, does not encompass those religiously-affiliated institutions which invested in promoting Palestine’s cultural production for political action during the late Ottoman and British Mandate eras through trade fairs.Footnote 7 Whereas “cultural internationalism”, as distinguished by historian Akira Iriye, rests on the agency of individual cultural elites to promote “peace” and cross-national exchange through art and culture, the organisers behind trade fairs in Palestine kept their focus resolutely inward, to encourage change in the local politics around them.Footnote 8

The concept of the cultural sector, on the other hand, makes space for understanding a variety of cultural institutions and actors, often in competition with one another, which engaged culture for immediate and localised political ends.Footnote 9 Trade fairs and their organising infrastructures in British Mandate Palestine, as in the case of the Levant Fair and the Arab Fair, exemplify the type of institutions which contribute to a cultural sector. Moreover, this study’s recognition of Christian missionary work, and religious charitable contributions more broadly, to the origins of the trade fair in Palestine and the Palestinian cultural sector contributes to historian Charlotte Faucher’s recent call to investigate the historical relationship between cultural diplomacy and humanitarianism.Footnote 10 By teaching and encouraging the production of handicrafts as a form of economic charity and humanitarian aid, and subsequently selling the objects as a way for donors to register their support for the religious mission, religious institutions created a new medium in Palestine through which to use culture as a form of diplomacy.

Artistic Missions

As precursors to the trade fair in Palestine, commercial displays of Palestinian handicrafts to support economic aims and particular ethno-religious communities originated among Christian missionary institutions in the 1840s and permeated Jewish philanthropic activities by the early 1900s. The first craft workshops to be set up by religious pilgrims in Palestine may date as far back as the year 1347, when the Franciscan “Terra Sancta” mission in Bethlehem taught the arts of intaglio, wood carving and mother-of-pearl ornamentation, in addition to the Italian language, and liturgical and theoretical subjects to the Arab orphans under their care.Footnote 11 While the records of the monastery show the Franciscans largely ceasing such handicraft production during the long duration of Ottoman rule, they revived their practices in the mid-nineteenth century as the surge in Euro-American religious tourism created a fresh market for their products.Footnote 12 In addition to practicing these handicrafts among themselves for the practicality of furnishing monasteries with their own wares, the Franciscans taught their arts to many of Palestine’s Arab Muslims (including orphans), with the hope of inspiring Catholic conversion while generating saleable handicrafts.

The Franciscan workshops were joined in the mid-nineteenth century by several new Christian missions to Palestine that were established under looser Ottoman laws.Footnote 13 The German Protestant Templers, who had arrived in Palestine in the late 1860s, for instance, claimed not to use “traditional proselytism and denominational propaganda” to encourage conversions, but believed that by leading by example in work and trade they would be able to “influence the natives and stimulate them to imitation”.Footnote 14 By excelling at all forms of handicrafts, from carpentry to baking, the Templers trusted that they could both sustain themselves in Palestine and provoke Jews and Muslims to turn towards Christianity, avoiding any direct proselytising to Muslims which was forbidden under Ottoman law.

More common among Christian missionaries in Palestine, however, was the opening of workshops for artisanal handicrafts as centres for conversion, similar to the Franciscan workshops.Footnote 15 Most notable among them was the “House of Industry” opened by the Anglican Protestants of the London Jews’ Society (LJS) in 1843.Footnote 16 The LJS derived its name from the target of its conversions (as it hoped to convert Jews to Christianity), and the House of Industry was intended to combine their supreme mission with practicality. Originating in Ireland to discourage indiscriminate almsgiving, “houses of industry” and “workhouses” combined religious charity with the provision of training and a vocation to the destitute.Footnote 17 Based on this model, the LJS’ House of Industry similarly recruited poor Jewish men to train in carpentry, shoemaking, printing, and the production of popular souvenirs, such as olivewood boxes, tables and carved wooden covers for photograph albums, as seen in a photograph of the workroom from the late 1800s (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3
figure 3

Photographer unknown, “Interior view of the LJS’ House of Industry”, c. 1890–1914; image courtesy of the Conrad Schick Library and Archive

While the House of Industry focused on training men, the LJS engaged Jewish women through “visiting societies” and “working parties”, socially acceptable forms of female charity imported from Britain.Footnote 18 Visiting societies, which aided indigent Jewish women in the privacy of their own homes, were sensitive to cultural notions of propriety which discouraged female presence in public space.Footnote 19 Similar to the House of Industry, visiting societies combined evangelisation (Bible reading, distribution of religious texts and sermonising) with customary female work, such as sewing, weaving, and embroidery. The Jewesses Institute established in 1848 by Caroline Cooper, a Protestant missionary in Palestine, became the most visible and successful of these ventures.Footnote 20 Hosting “working parties” for women outside the home, Cooper’s innovative enterprise separated women’s work from the patriarchal household environment.Footnote 21 An illustration of the Jewesses Institute by Lucy Matilda Cubley for her published travelogue The Hills and Plains of Palestine (1860) shows women arranged in a semi-circle in a domed room, employed in several stages of yarn production and embroidery: picking, spinning, and stitchingFootnote 22 (Figure 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Lucy Matilda Cubley, “Plate 5: Jewesses at Work”, printed in Lucy Matilda Cubley, The Hills and Plains of Palestine (London: Day & Son, 1860)

The open book featured in the front left corner of the drawing is perhaps a set of sermons to be read to the women while they work, or maybe a pattern book or instructional aid. For Protestant missions in the Middle East, where due to cultural conventions “women could only be reached by women”, female missionaries played a vital role in the evangelical movement.Footnote 23 Cooper’s career underscored the secondary, and arguably much more successful, role such female missionaries played in intensifying handicraft production and in the modernisation of the domestic economy for Jewish women.Footnote 24

A fundamental component of both the LJS’ House of Industry and Caroline Cooper’s Jewesses Institute was the operation of stores to sell their wares within Palestine—forerunners to the trade fairs which would come to dot Palestine’s terrain throughout the first decades of the 1900s. While well-established Palestinian family workshops and souvenir shops existed throughout Palestine’s major cities, like the Zachariah family souvenir shop in Jerusalem and the Zoughbi family mother-of-pearl workshop and store in Bethlehem, the proceeds from those sales were a direct exchange of money for goods, where the money supported the community of artisans and the further production of handicrafts.Footnote 25 In the case of the early showcases for handicrafts made within Christian missionary workshops, there was an additional, explicit exchange of money not just for goods, but for the ideological support of Christian efforts in Palestine. Through this aspect of the interaction, one can glimpse the emergence of a cultural sector.

The House of Industry store was initially placed within a stone building abutting the entrance gate of the LJS compound, opening out towards the main street which proceeded into the Old City from Jaffa Gate (Fig. 5). Marketing itself as the “L.J.S. Industrial Depot”, the hand-painted sign above the store’s entrance advertised the “carpentry, turnery, printing, and bookbinding workshops” within, promising a variety of wares for sale. The proceeds from the sales would, in large part, directly finance the work of the LJS. Both physically and figuratively, the LJS’ House of Industry store was the initial conduit through which travellers would come to know—and, ideally, financially support—the missionary work of the LJS in Palestine. Similarly, Caroline Cooper opened a small store to support the vocational programme of the Jewesses Institute. Cooper gained notoriety especially among female missionaries and tourists for the significant inroads her institute made in bringing Palestine’s Jewish women into contact with Christian mores. The Jewesses Institute became, according to historian Billie Melman, “a showcase of missionary work, a tourist attraction, on the map of every evangelical traveler”, as Cubley’s description and illustration of the institute in her popular travelogue attested.Footnote 26 Cooper bequeathed her institute and small store to the LJS upon her death in 1859, where it continued to run with its own vocational school, a girls’ day school, and a commercial bazaar, described as “a small enterprise which employed Jewish women in handicrafts, the products being sold in Palestine and in countries abroad”.Footnote 27 Through the efforts of Palestine’s nineteenth-century Christian organisations, commercial displays of Palestinian handicrafts—at home and, increasingly, abroad—acquired an underlying ideological aspect.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Photographer unknown, “Exterior view of the LJS’ House of Industry Store”, c. 1930; image courtesy of the Conrad Schick Library and Archive

Exhibitions staged abroad by Jewish philanthropic societies in the early 1900s further highlighted how handicrafts could function as repositories for international charitable givers—specifically, donors who hoped to contribute to the survival of poor Jews in Palestine during the precarious period of late Ottoman-era instability and the increasing persecution of Jews in Europe and Russia. The Evelina de Rothschild School for Girls—supported through the charity of the Jewish-German Rothschild family—excelled at marketing the students’ handicraft products in Jewish trade fairs abroad and provides an apt example. The Evelina School’s headmistress from 1900–1945, Annie Landau, adamantly opposed the chaluka system, viewing it as a “degrading charity…a cancer eating away at the vitals of Jerusalem”.Footnote 28 Her creation of a lacemaking atelier and, later, millinery and dress workshops in the school provided job opportunities for the Jewish girls, where they were paid “five to twenty francs per month and received one hot meal a day as well as additional lessons in various subjects”.Footnote 29 To increase sales within Palestine, the Evelina School had adapted its designs to local needs, for instance by gaining commissions from the officers of the Turkish garrison in Jerusalem to make epaulettes with the embroidered words of al-Quds es-sharif (“The Holy, Noble place”, the name for Jerusalem in Islamic texts) in Aleppine pure silver thread on red cloth.Footnote 30

For sales abroad, the school focused on producing fancy embroidered articles as fashionable export goods for European buyers and as religiously themed Jewish goods for Jewish buyers all over the world. By 1910, the Evelina School’s embroidery and lace works had been shipped out for sale in a Parisian shop, commissioned by Berlin department stores requesting “lace-trimmed handkerchiefs and dress trimmings”, and were coveted in Amsterdam where the city’s clientele desired simple dresses designed “to be comfortable, healthy, and beautiful”.Footnote 31 By 1914, the Evelina School’s workshops had also produced ornamental synagogue curtains and Torah mantles for Jewish communities from Australia to Hungary and continued to receive individual lace orders from wealthy female clients in France, England, Switzerland and the US.Footnote 32 The Evelina School’s products not only included traditional Palestinian patterns or religious symbols, but likely incorporated popular Euro-American designs in order to appeal to a wide buying public outside Palestine.

By the early 1900s, the Evelina School contributed its wares to exhibitions hosted by European and American Jewish charities in order to expose the world to the needs of Palestine’s Jewry and raise funds for its survival. Such exhibitions, like the one hosted by the Anglo-Jewish Association in Vienna in 1904 and an exhibition of Jewish handicrafts from Palestine in the Hague in 1907, were met with financial success. All articles of embroidery and handmade lace sent by the Evelina School to the 1904 Vienna exhibition, for example, sold immediately to an eager public, and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands was evidently so impressed with the school’s display in the Hague that she purchased some items for her own collection.Footnote 33

In promoting the work of specific communities (in this case, the Jewish community) in Palestine, such exhibitions began to take on more explicitly political dimensions. The 1907 exhibition in the Hague, for instance, occurred as part of the meeting of the eighth Zionist Congress. That Queen Wilhelmina purchased an object made by the young Jewish students of the Evelina School may have indicated a diplomatic gesture of support for the Zionist movement in Palestine.Footnote 34 The “Palestine Exhibition and Bazaar” held in London in 1912, another example of an exhibition hosted by the Anglo-Jewish Association, also articulated goals in line with Zionism. While on the surface the exhibition was a fundraiser to directly benefit the Evelina School and the newly formed Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, the organisers’ stated aim also included the more broad desire “to secure…the attention and active support of the Jewish community in England” for Jewish activity in Palestine.Footnote 35 Within the delicate items on display, made of lace, copper, wool and silver filigree, was thus embedded a rallying cry to prompt English Jews to nurture the communal—and increasingly political—advancement of their brethren in Palestine. While the term “Zionism” was not used explicitly in the exhibition’s promotional materials, the primary organisers of the 1912 exhibition, Cecil Franklin, Cyril Picciotto, and Leonard Stein, as well as many of the exhibition’s patrons, were active members of London’s Zionist associations.Footnote 36 Moreover, the exhibition’s organisers hoped that the status of the handicraft objects themselves would transform from religiously themed export goods to symbols of the Zionist movement in order to strengthen a Jewish ethno-national identity in Palestine: “Whether that art [the handicrafts of the Evelina School and Bezalel on view] is to be truly national depends upon the warmth of the encouragement it will receive when its aims and achievements are properly understood”.Footnote 37 In this context—one that would presage future trends—handicrafts, initially created to support Jewish “livelihood” through the auspices of a religious charitable institution, later existed to sway the opinion of donors towards the goals of a particular political movement, which in this case was Zionism.Footnote 38

The Trade Fair During the British Mandate

From the Jewesses Institute’s commercial store launched in 1850s Jerusalem to the 1912 “Palestine Exhibition and Bazaar” in London, exhibitions galvanised financial giving to religious and increasingly political causes in Palestine through the purchases of handicrafts. These early exhibitions positioned the space of display as one of sectarian solidarity and handicraft objects as objects of political persuasion. The Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, which received its initial financial support through German and Russian Jewish charities, frequently staged exhibitions abroad featuring its handicrafts to raise money for the school and support for the Zionist cause. From the US to Austria and South Africa, Bezalel’s carpets, silver filigree work, copper inlay and woodwork were sold to solicit support for the Jewish Zionist movement in Palestine until the onset of the First World War temporarily halted their journey.Footnote 39

The trade fairs which emerged in Palestine during the British Mandate, under the direction of British bureaucratic agents, further defined the trade fair as a tool of cultural politics. After defeating Ottoman forces and occupying Palestine in December of 1917, British agents orchestrated exhibitions of regional handicrafts and industry, attaching a cultural component to their mission of redeeming and vivifying the so-called Holy Land. The earliest such exhibitions were guided by the Pro-Jerusalem Society (PJS), founded in 1918 by Jerusalem’s first military governor Ronald Storrs and directed by Charles Robert Ashbee, a pioneer in the British arts and crafts movement.Footnote 40 A short-lived cultural crusade of Storrs’ design, the PJS’ original charter stated that the society aimed to be the “creative” and “pacific” arm of the pre-colonial British military government.Footnote 41 Maintaining its efforts through matching grants with private contributors, the PJS promised its international supporters that it would advance the welfare of Jerusalem’s inhabitants through a dual focus on architectural preservation and the establishment of art galleries and cultural centres.Footnote 42

While primarily remembered as the entity which altered the face of Jerusalem through requiring the use of blush-coloured “Jerusalem stone”, the PJS also hosted the earliest trade exhibitions within the Old City. Making use of a few empty rooms within the Citadel inside Jaffa Gate, the PJS orchestrated three exhibitions of Palestine’s handicraft industries between the years 1921–1922 to “help in the education of the community” and to stimulate the three major handicraft industries—weaving, ceramics, and glass—which Ashbee and Storrs hoped would contribute to the PJS’s planned architectural restoration and building projects.Footnote 43 More importantly, Ashbee clarified, he intended the exhibitions to pose significant questions regarding the future of Palestine’s Jewish residents:

The whole Zionist problem is involved in this, for it means the life of the Jewish colonies. Are they going to continue to be dependent on outside support? Will they develop mechanical power intelligently? Will they practise [agricultural] by-crafts, as the Palestinian peasant has done for thousands of years? Here are not only vital problems in the theory of civics, the Zionist question itself is involved, and the Mandate for Palestine.Footnote 44

Ashbee’s anxious questioning referenced the mandate’s responsibility towards fostering a Jewish national home in Palestine, as outlined in the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

The organisation of the PJS’ inaugural trade exhibition reflected Ashbee’s concern, which was a display “in part town planning and the crafts encouraged by the Society, in part ancient Moslem art, in part modern Palestinian effort”.Footnote 45 The section on “modern Palestinian effort” was primarily devoted to Jewish industrial and artistic advancements in Palestine, whereas Arab handicrafts were limited to displays of “ancient Moslem art” and the handicraft industries explicitly nurtured by the PJS, such as ceramic tilework for restorations to the Dome of the Rock, and weaving as part of Ashbee’s “Jerusalem Looms” project. A total of 260 paintings and drawings, primarily from the recently formed Hebrew Union of Artists, joined the nearly 4000 handicrafts and utensils on view.Footnote 46 The uneven display prompted Palestine’s High Commissioner, Herbert Samuel, to express regret that the Muslim works were displayed mainly as “antiques”. However, he used the occasion as an opportunity to speak on the perceived laggardly progress of Arab handicrafts when compared with the “modern” Jewish displays: “I hope our Muslim friends will not hesitate to follow suit [making modern furniture and housewares], and will participate more vigorously in future exhibitions”.Footnote 47

Intended as a showcase of the PJS’ early progress, the Citadel exhibitions simultaneously reinforced a vision of Palestinian handicrafts that equated Arab industry with Palestine’s past and Jewish industry with Palestine’s future. The second PJS exhibition, staged in 1922, underscored this impression by neatly dividing its displays into two categories: a traditional department and a modern department. The traditional section included home goods, ceramics, metal work, textiles, glass work and women’s costumes from Ramallah, Hebron (al-Khalil), Bethlehem and Jerusalem. These were mainly the work of Arabs, with a small section for carpets made by a subsidiary workshop of the Bezalel School. The traditional section was seemingly the focus of the exhibition’s poster, a romantic image of a lone potter designed by the Jewish artist Ze’ev Raban.Footnote 48

The modern department, on the other hand, favoured Jewish handicraft production, including soap from Haifa, brushes, leather goods from Jaffa, books and graphic works by the Jewish designer Yihieh Yedidia, and displays of wicker furniture by Arabs from the German Protestant Schneller Orphanage in Jerusalem and the Abu-Sheikh workshop in Beersheba.Footnote 49 Despite Raban’s poster marketing traditional handicrafts and the PJS’ stated intention of balance among the Jewish and Arab displays, the teleological narrative within the exhibition’s design suggested it was Jewish industry and handicrafts which were to dominate Palestine’s future.

Perhaps it was unsurprising, then, when at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 held in Wembley, London, the Palestine Pavilion hardly incorporated Arab-made Palestinian handicrafts. The British Empire Exhibition celebrated the reach of the Crown following World War I—“the British Empire in microcosm” as the official guide stated—and Palestine was featured in its own pavilion among those of the empire’s many colonies and dependencies.Footnote 50

While the primary emphasis of the colonial trade fair was on the “unbounded potentialities” and economic prowess created through the industrial, agricultural, cultural, and even ethnic bounty of the empire, the focus of the Palestine Pavilion was decidedly more reverent.Footnote 51 “The country has not been annexed to the British Empire; we hold it as a trust”, wrote High Commissioner Samuel in the pavilion’s handbook. Noting the empire’s conviction to afford equal rights to “all races and creeds” and remarking how the British found Palestine “derelict after centuries of misrule”, the Palestine Pavilion was intended to convey how British rule in Palestine provided Christian redemption of the Holy Land from Ottoman neglect.Footnote 52

The displays inside the Palestine Pavilion, which included British but also Zionist companies monetising Palestine’s natural resources of oil, salt, stone, tobacco and other minerals and agricultural produce, conveyed the region’s assets, but, as the handbook made clear, were meant primarily to indicate and enlist British support for “the progress which has been made since the British Government assumed responsibility”.Footnote 53 The handicrafts and ephemera on view—intricate wooden models of the Jewish Temple and drawings of the Dome of the Rock, pottery, toys, glassware, furniture, weaving, embroidery and unique souvenir boxes filled with Palestine’s “sacred soil” (containing Palestinian wildflowers, water from the Jordan River, and earth from Mount Moriah)—covered a wide field of handicrafts and industries purportedly flourishing under mandate rule.Footnote 54 The official guide located the origins of these crafts in a pre-Islamic period, “still maintained by both Arab and Jew in their primitive form, dating back in many cases to a remote antiquity”, and presented the mandate government’s desire to “promote in Palestine both an Arab and Jewish revival”.Footnote 55 In this spirit of parity, both Arab glassblowers from Hebron and Jewish filigree workers from Yemen, who had recently settled in Palestine, were scheduled to travel to Wembley to be on view and “at work” in the exhibition. However, due to financial constraints only the Yemenites managed to be on display, owing to Zionist sponsorship.Footnote 56

Thus, in the end, the Palestine Pavilion at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition presented Palestine as a land touched most significantly by British and Zionist development, despite the handbook’s pronouncements of equality and ethno-religious harmony. As the historian Nicolas Roberts underscores in his study of the Palestine Pavilion’s organising committee, “the pavilion, like the country itself, was dominated by British and Zionist officials, the exclusion of the Arab population was not only inevitable but easy”.Footnote 57 The relative invisibility of Palestine’s Arab-run industry on a world stage was made more stark by the continued prolific displays of Zionist activity in international trade fairs, which skyrocketed following the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. The most large-scale of these endeavours included the 1925 Palestine Vienna Exhibition, the 1933 Anglo-Palestine Exhibition in London, and Palestine pavilions at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The products for sale at the fairs—from Jaffa’s oranges to the “oriental” rugs and silver-filigreed Judaica produced by the workshops of the Bezalel School—were marketed to consumers as investments towards furthering the Jewish national movement in Palestine. Palestine, in these displays, was self-consciously and solely presented as a Jewish entity.

However, the history of the trade fair in British Mandate Palestine includes at least one attempt to reorient the format of the trade fair towards creating political and ethno-religious harmony between Jews and Arabs, rather than sowing disparity. In the 1930s, the British Mandate government appointed a Director of Technical Education, William Arnold Stewart. Stewart hoped to revive the use of the Citadel for exhibitions of artisanal handicrafts, with an approach reflective of the administration’s need to quell the heightened tensions between Jews and Arabs in the wake of the watershed violence of the 1929 Wailing Wall Riots/al-Buraq Uprising. Stewart negated the widely held belief among British officials that Arabs lacked the skill or desire to excel in industry and handicraft production.Footnote 58 He framed the immediacy of his efforts in Palestine not in terms of the threat of the arrival of mechanised European industrial commodities, as was the case for instance in British-controlled India, but in terms of the competing Jewish labour force in PalestineFootnote 59:

The Arabs are up against very stiff competition with the Jewish Artisans, and they have every right to demand that Technical Training, of a high standard, shall be provided for them. […] The theory that the Arab is not fitted for highly skilled technical work must be disproved by actual achievement.Footnote 60

While several Arab-run political, commercial and educational institutions were in their incipient stages, there was no equivalent to the Zionist Organisation’s centralised planning or financial support from abroad at that point, nor a school devoted to the study of traditional handicrafts or new industries.Footnote 61 As expressed throughout his unpublished manuscript, Creative Work in Palestine, Stewart felt duty-bound to balance the scale in regard to Arab success in the handicrafts and technical industries.

In setting his task to equalise the handicraft industries between Jews and Arabs, Stewart identified two problems hindering his goal: the lack of technical education in government-run Arab schools and the purportedly inadequate space for the egalitarian display and sale of handicraft objects. Stewart complained about Jerusalem’s limited exhibition spaces in his manuscript:

Some examples of craftswork were to be seen in the Store of the American Colony and in one or two shops in the Jaffa road, but in none of these was there a really representative selection of all Arab and Jewish crafts.Footnote 62

Beyond the more enterprising souvenir shops along Jaffa Road, the Bezalel School also hosted frequent exhibitions of its work and Stewart hosted small displays of handicrafts from the government schools.Footnote 63 However, following the few PJS attempts in the early 1920s, there had been no further effort to gather such disparate undertakings under one roof.

Like a local version of a world’s fair, Stewart set about organising a local trade fair that would display handicrafts from every possible school, village and individual around the country he could find:

We collected carpets from Gaza, silk stuffs from Mejdal hand looms, cotton stuffs from the Alliance Israelite workshop, copper work from Nazareth, Bethlehem pearl and olive wood work, Yemenite Basket work and Embroideries, lace, jewelry, in fact anything and everything we could find that was useful and attractive. Peasant women brought in embroidered head shawls and could not understand why my wife selected those of old traditional stitch and design and rejected others decorated with swans, cupids, and harps taken from French cross-stitch pattern books.Footnote 64

Stewart brimmed with excitement over the local diversity of the artisans and the variety of media he was able to exhibit in a unified manner. Stewart’s listing of the participants in the trade fair reveal his bias towards works with “traditional” designs and those produced in regionally specific media. Collecting “anything and everything”, Stewart hoped to stimulate a local interest in and a market for all of Palestine’s handicrafts, produced by Jews and Arabs. After hosting the exhibition for four years in a single room inside the Citadel, Stewart concluded that the exhibition’s visibility successfully stimulated the migration of handicrafts from exhibition space to store window: “The object had been served; we had made a market for them and there seemed to be no further reason for competing with the shops”.Footnote 65

The Arts and Crafts Exhibition highlighted the guiding principle behind Stewart’s most public endeavour in Palestine, to create a space—through the framework of the trade fair—in which Jews and Arabs could find common ground. He reflected on this position towards the end of his lengthy memoir, writing, “If Jews and Arabs could agree to work together, to be Palestinians and work for Palestine, they might succeed”.Footnote 66 The proclamation of this ethos illuminates the double meaning behind the title of Stewart’s manuscript Creative Work in Palestine. Not only did he believe a strong technical education would serve as a form of labour, or “creative work” for Palestine’s rural communities in financial need, but he harboured hope that culture, potentially through the format of an economically motivated trade fair, could labour for the soul of Palestine, could do the work of solving the mounting gulf between Palestine’s Arab and Jewish communities during the British Mandate.

Fair Competition

Stewart’s efforts in the 1930s and the earlier efforts of the PJS were, however, both idealistic and short-lived. While Stewart conceived of the cultural sector as a territory for consensus-building and pushed for the use of the trade fair as a unifying site for Jews and Arabs, the cultural sector and specifically the typology of the trade fair, came to be a space for political debate in the hands of Palestinian and Zionist actors. With an awareness of how soliciting economic and political engagement through international and local trade fairs could be used to move the needle on local politics, as had been modelled by both religious charitable institutions and the British colonial administration, Jews and Arabs staged trade fairs featuring artisanal handicrafts, agricultural products and industrial wares to promote their concurrent, conflicting bids for national agency in Palestine.

Leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine had long recognised the trade fair’s profound potential as a way to advance Jewish development while nurturing international support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Building on the successful staging of Zionist-led trade fairs in Europe and America prior to the First World War (as described in this chapter’s first section), a group of local businessmen launched a Jewish trade fair in Palestine—no longer in Palestine’s political and religious centre of Jerusalem, but rather in Palestine’s distinctly Jewish centre, Tel Aviv. The first, embryonic exhibition of the Levant Fair in 1924, under the name “Palestine & Near East Exhibition and Fair”, was held in the same year as the British Empire Exhibition and displayed Jewish goods in two small rooms in a house on Rothschild Boulevard. When the exhibition’s trio of founders, Alexander Ezer (Everserov), Abraham Eilon (Idelson), and Shlomo Jaffe had the idea of presenting a consolidated view of Jewish industrial progress in Tel Aviv, Palestine’s first Jewish urban enclave was host to only 18,000 inhabitants.Footnote 67 The factories on display numbered a meagre sixteen. Its mission was to present a survey of industrial progress in the yishuv—which, at that point, consisted primarily of its main export industries of wine, soap and sesame—to mark the community’s progress towards self-sufficiency.Footnote 68

Two years later, when the founders organised a second edition of the fair, the goal was no longer “so much in showing what industrial activity was already taking place (‘and that the participants were real industries by then’), but in revealing what was still lacking”.Footnote 69 In other words, the first exhibition took stock of the current Zionist landscape—what had the union of external capital investments and internal labour achieved together so far?—while the second edition asked a slightly more strategic question: If a Jewish nation were to come to fruition, could its internal industries sustain it? What still needed to be done? In emphatically linking the mission of the early editions of the trade fair to the yishuv’s internal, autarkic ambitions, the founders managed to increase international support and ignite further economic development. By the fourth edition in 1929, the founders reported that “practically every branch of industry and some branches of agriculture” were represented at the yishuv’s premier trade fair.Footnote 70 Furthermore, the fair had achieved enough success that the Zionist trade organisation Mischar ve Taasia and the municipality of Tel Aviv (chaired by Mayor Meir Dizengoff) came on board to join in the responsibility of the fair’s administration. The once-modest trade fair was now a touchstone for the yishuv’s economic advancement, a strategic agent in the bid for Jewish nationhood in Palestine.

By the fair’s fifth edition in 1932 its tenor had expanded from trumpeting Jewish national independence and economic growth to professing international ambitions. In addition to adopting a new “Flying Camel” logo, designed by the fair’s resident architect Ariel El-Hanani, and selecting its official and lasting name, the “Levant Fair”, the organisers expanded the fairground site, located next to the railway station in the eastern part of Tel Aviv, to host cafes, a nighttime amusement park and to host more exhibitors—including pavilions dedicated to the fine arts and handicrafts. The organisers established permanent fair bureaus in nine countries and appointed short-term fair representatives in twenty-four countries to recruit foreign exhibitors and consumers.Footnote 71 Foreign business participation in the fair increased by almost seven-fold between the 1929 and 1932 fairs, from 121 to 821 foreign firms.Footnote 72 Along with the transformative vigour expressed by the change of name and logo, the Levant Fair organisers carved themselves a fresh image as unifiers of the industries of the Levant and as the exemplary connection point linking eastern and western markets.Footnote 73 As Dizengoff articulated, foreign competition would raise the city’s international profile and have the intended by-product of forcing the advancement and expansion of Jewish industry at home:

Our country which is becoming the key to the economic movement in the Near East will bind by means of these Exhibitions and Fairs the Western producers to the Eastern consumers, will improve the quality of Palestinian products and will provide markets for new labour and creation.Footnote 74

Seizing an opportunity to orchestrate international trade and promote market competition as an economic centre cemented the yishuv’s transformation from agricultural silo to international crossroad.

Politically active members of Palestine’s Arab community resisted the Levant Fair’s heroic narrative by developing their own, all-Arab trade fair in Palestine. Until the 1930s, Palestine’s trade fairs both at home and abroad had been orchestrated by Zionist or British organisations, deployed as strategic tools to promote their respective political agencies in Palestine, and featured limited, if any, engagement by Arab businesses. The Arab Fair marked the first occasion when Palestine’s Arab polity used this particular instrument of cultural, international engagement in order to serve its ethno-national, political interests.

As discussed at the beginning of this chapter, the Arab Fair came to fruition following the launch of a boycott against the 1932 Levant Fair. Through opinion pieces and editorials in local newspapers, politicians and journalists encouraged the Arab countries participating in the Levant Fair (in 1932, Egypt and Syria) to rescind their commitments and commanded Arab consumers to stay home. Ragheb Al-Nashashibi, in his role as chairman of the Palestinian Islamic Nation Conference, painted the boycott in nationalist terms, speaking as much to pan-Arab currents as Arab political ambitions inside Palestine: “The Arab nation’s interest lays in abstaining from participation in order to persist on the nation’s own plan towards the holy nationalist purpose”.Footnote 75 The head of Palestine’s Arab Executive Committee, Musa Kazim Al-Husayni, promoted the boycott for its ability to protect Arab Palestinian commercial interests: “The executive committee asks the public of this dignified nation to boycott the Tel Aviv exhibition, through both participation and visiting, in order to prevent the intended damage to our nation’s plan of promoting our own national manufacturing and trade”.Footnote 76 Amidst the rallying cries, shouted by Palestine’s most established leaders, one affluent citizen, Yusuf Abdu, had the temerity to question the utility of performing a boycott alone: “Boycott is the first weapon for fighting Zionism. If a Fair is established by the Arabs, it will be boycotted by the Jews immediately. Why not treat them reciprocally?”Footnote 77 An equal and opposite reaction, a blow for a blow, would require no less than the staging of a parallel trade fair in Palestine, Abdu declared.

The newly formed executive committee of the Arab Fair, those who heeded Abdu’s call to establish a trade fair representing Arab “national interests” (al-maslahat al-wataniyya), embodied the non-sectarian strain of Arab politics in the early 1930s which worked to effect politics through economics. Individual photographs of each member of the Arab Fair Committee graced the front page of Falastin on 8 July 1933, with portraits of al-ʿIssa, the Arab Fair’s Director, and Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, the Arab Fair’s President, poised at the very top, flanking an exterior view of the Palace Hotel, the location of the Arab Fair and also current headquarters of the Supreme Muslim CouncilFootnote 78 (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6
figure 6

Falastin, front page, 9 July 1933; image courtesy of the Institute for Palestine Studies

The Arab Fair Committee was a joint grouping of Muslim and Christian businessmen, all of whom served on local business councils.Footnote 79 Moreover, the businessmen on the Arab Fair Committee were almost exactly the same men who constituted a recently formed “National Fund” (Sanduq al-Umma), established by the joint Muslim-Christian Arab Executive Committee in 1932. The National Fund was a fundraising body, which provided the Arab Executive Committee with money for making land purchases, an institution to act as counterpart to the Jewish National Fund, which had been buying land for Jewish settlement since the late Ottoman period.Footnote 80 Ahmad Hilmi Pasha was largely in control of the fund and was joined by members such as ʿOmar al-Bitar (the mayor of Jaffa) and Yaʿqub Bey Al-Ghusayn (leader of the nationalist Youth Congress Party) on the committee of the Arab Fair. As the group in charge of the Arab Fair, these men assured that the event would be dedicated towards furthering Palestinian political interests through non-sectarian cooperation. They also brought their interest in promoting consumption to the sphere of the cultural sector as part of the trade fair.

The Arab Fair hoped to benefit from the industrial and economic advancements of neighbouring Arab communities and make progress towards building internal industry strong enough to sustain an Arab nation in Palestine. As expressed by Yusuf Abdu,

Palestine is in great need of a national exhibition in order for the Palestinians to see the products of the neighboring countries and to have their needs covered through them. Let the relationships be strong and the commercial deals be reciprocal. This would help to realize the meaning of Arab unity.Footnote 81

The Arab Fair organisers thus only promoted the industry of Arab countries. Their stance echoed the “Encourage National Production” campaign which placed advertisements for Palestine’s “national” products side by side with advertisements soliciting buyers for “Arab” products, as in the case of an advertisement for Syrian cement published in Falastin, which read,

The cement, was made of ‘good Arab soil,’ was ‘made exclusively by Arab labor,’ all stocks were owned by Arabs and there was ‘no foreign (ajnabi) involvement in the firm’s management.Footnote 82

Such advertisements generated enthusiasm for “Arab” products among Palestine’s consumers, just as the Jewish economic separatist campaign slogan, “buy only totseret ha-arets!”, encouraged Palestine’s Jews to “buy Jewish”, as seen for example in an advertisement for the “Hebrew Banana”.Footnote 83

The Arab Fair’s organisers predicted the trade fair would not only do the work of enhancing Arab Palestinian industry, but would also further stimulate neighbouring Arab industry and the Arab national movement at large.

Five hundred visitors attended the first day of the Arab Fair, which included visiting dignitaries from Egypt, Syria and TransJordan.Footnote 84 Fittingly, the Arab Fair’s opening day maintained a firm Arab presence, to the neglect of any Zionist or British administrative representation, as was reported by The Palestine Post with some dismay:

At 9 a.m. on Friday at the former Palace Hotel which was decorated with Arab colours, the Exhibition was declared open by Muza Kasim Pasha, head of the Palestine Executive. There was a noticeable absence of Government and Municipal representatives, and the only Consul present was the Egyptian, Sadiq Bey. From Syria there came Jamil Bey Mardam, once Minister of Finance and Shubri Bey, of the Nationalist Party; from Trans-Jordan, Hussein Pasha Tarawani, and several members of the Legislature; from Palestine, the Mayor of Tulkeram, Amin Bey Tamimi, and Jamal El Husseini. Only Arabic inscriptions hung outside the hotel….an Arab hymn was played inside, and then outside, the building. After Ya’qub Bey Ghussein had opened the proceedings, a speech by Issa el Issa, editor of the ‘Falastin,’ was read by his brother, who stressed the fact that the Exhibition, and what it represented was the fruit of their own effort, unaided by the Government.Footnote 85

A uniform message of Arab pride characterised the opening ceremonies, from the welcome speech prepared by al-ʿIssa to the politicians gracing the stage and the banners and music greeting visitors outside the hotel. Throughout the duration of the month-long fair, newspapers made frequent mention of visiting Arab youth groups, such as “the Moslem Scouts of Beirut” and the “Moslem boy scouts from Cairo and Alexandria”, as well as Arab entertainers and athletes making appearances at the fair, such as when “Madame Asia, the Egyptian film star” came to screen two of her most recent films or when a “group of Egyptian boxers” visited the fair after competing with Tel Aviv champions in Jaffa.Footnote 86 Political leaders and heads of commercial clubs from all the major neighbouring Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, TransJordan, the Hedjaz (Saudi Arabia) and Iraq sent messages of support throughout the Arab Fair and were notable visitors, continuing the visible presence of outside Arab interest in Palestine’s all-Arab Fair.Footnote 87 While no precise records of attendance or revenue for the 1933 trade fair has been located, the First National Arab Fair was considered successful enough to warrant a second edition in 1934, whose opening reportedly drew in a crowd of 2000 and whose organisation, exhibits and political delegates largely mirrored the 1933 fair.Footnote 88

International in its scope, the Arab Fair acted as a litmus test to evaluate the strength and welfare of the proposed Arab union. Through the establishment of the Arab Fair came a vision of an alternative political union and sphere of economic exchange to challenge the “internationalist” Euro-American paradigm furthered by British and Zionist agendas in Palestine—so publicly displayed at previous local and international trade fairs. Expressing his high hopes for the value of the boycott and Arab Fair, the Head of the Arab Executive Committee, Musa Kazim Al-Husayni, wrote: “We hope that the Arab Palestinian nation, affected now, will be an example of unity to the Arab nation. We hope for full unity … to ensure the wellbeing of the whole Arab nation”.Footnote 89 However, by the conclusion of the both the 1934 Levant Fair and the 1934 Arab Fair, tensions between Jews and Arabs had begun to boil. Despite both fairs’ initial successes, the Arab Uprising of 1936–1939 guaranteed the imminent collapse of both.Footnote 90


By surveying the rise and historical prevalence of trade fairs in Palestine directly prior to and during the British Mandate in Palestine, the dramatic narrative of Palestine’s competing trade fairs of the early 1930s—the Levant Fair and the Arab Fair—can be interpreted as almost predictable, rather than anomalous. Trade fairs, a hallmark of European cultural diplomacy during the age of colonial expansion, were not reserved only as tools of vast empires nor did they come only in the aggrandised form of the world’s fair. As the case of Palestine demonstrates, trade fairs could also be employed by religious, political and economic associations as instruments to stimulate more fine-grained, localised change. In order to compete in the increasingly polarised topography of Palestinian politics during the British Mandate, the Levant Fair and the Arab Fair both adopted the typology of the trade fair to speak loudly of their respective national aspirations in an increasingly raucous, uncertain, and violent terrain. Just as British Mandate officials Charles Ashbee and William Stewart had experimented with trade fairs in Palestine to control or quell local political tensions, the Levant Fair and Arab Fair organisers adopted the exhibition type in order to call government attention to and provide a forum for international support of their respective political goals.

In locating the origins of the explicitly political displays of Palestinian handicrafts in the commercial stores and international displays of Christian missionary institutions in the late 1800s, the link between Christianity and the Palestinian cultural sector comes into sharper focus. The trajectory of handicrafts’ incorporation into religious missions in Palestine, outlined in the first part of the chapter, registers the integral role handicrafts played as symbols of religious charity, and later international politics. Not only did religious organisations in Palestine teach handicrafts as a form of economic charity, they also provided international religious donors with a new vehicle through which to funnel their support to Palestine and its inhabitants—a tactic which became increasingly conspicuous in its use by Jewish philanthropic societies. In this way, late nineteenth-century religious missions and charities became drivers of Palestinian cultural production and, thereby, contributed to the Palestinian cultural sector. This new cultural sector joined the educational, agricultural and trade sectors as an equally legitimate area for international associations and political organisations to invest their efforts regarding Palestine’s political future. Moreover, and as would become increasingly apparent by the time of the Levant Fair and the Arab Fair, such investments in handicraft production and display carried the potential to sway political realities on the ground