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 Palestinian Value Orientations(1)
Dr. R.S. Zaharna
American University


When I told friends, colleagues that I was writing a paper on "Palestinian values," the inevitable response was, "What values?" The Palestinians have values?"

On the surface, that statement is horrifying. Of course, the Palestinian society has values. All societies, peoples, cultures have values. But, then I heard Palestinians themselves saying, "What values? Where are our values?" Then I knew something was wrong. What has happened in the Palestinian experience that we ourselves cannot see them?

Today, I would like to talk about Palestinian values. For the record, they do exist.

In my brief talk today, I discuss Palestinian values in terms of Florence Kluckhohn's five value orientations. I explore the roots of traditional Palestinian values then turn to how the forces of change have blurred the distinction of uniquely recognizable Palestinian values. While I may speak of the Palestinian experience in particular, it is important to keep in mind that other societies have had, or may have in this age of multiculturalism, a similar experience.

Roots of Palestinian Traditional Values

In looking at the origins of traditional Palestinian values, three important sources stand out. First, Palestinian values are rooted in Arab culture. Many of the nuances of the Arab culture, described by so many anthropologists, are shared by the Palestinians. These have been well documented in the literature.

A second major source of values for the Palestinians is Islam, specifically the Koran. While Palestinian society is composed of different religious sects, including Druze and Christian, Islam has exerted a major influence on the society as a whole. With reference to the Koran, it is important to remember that the Koran is not just a religious tenet, but prescription for a total way of life.

Finally, while the Arab cultural tradition is based primarily on the beduins or nomadic tribes of the desert, Palestinian society is primarily an agrarian, peasant society with strong ties to the land and the nucleus of the village. I refer you to the documentation of the Palestinian peasant by Rosemary Sayigh (1984).

The Palestinian Experience

While these three sources served as strong roots for Palestinian culture, political and historical forces profoundly impacted the Palestinian experience, and by extension, Palestinian values. Perhaps no where in the Middle East is the convergence of conflicting values more evident than in the Palestinian experience.

Prior to 1948, the Palestinians were a traditional, agrarian society, following the dominant values of the Arab Islamic culture. After the "nakba" or disaster as the Palestinians refer to the loss of their land and livelihood in Palestine, the Palestinian society was catapulted into a whirl of conflicting values. Traditional values were questioned as the Palestinians sought to understand their loss and regain their homeland.

During the sixties and seventies, Palestinian values appeared to have been grafted onto the refugee culture found in the camps as well as the various factions of the Palestinian national movement. Within both of these alien settings, Palestinians recreated the traditional male hierarchy of leadership, used familial terms of address, and forged strong allegiances similar to those found in their villages back in Palestine.

In late 1987, the Palestinian uprising known as the Intifada began. While numerous scholars have commented on the political significance of the uprising, the social impact was equally profound. The Intifada had the effect of turning Palestinian society on its head. Instead of the elders being the leaders, the children became the source of Palestinian pride and power. The concept of authority was first diluted, then transformed. Women assumed new roles, moving from the private realm to the public realm in a more forceful and vocal manner. To cope with the traumatic events, survival values emerged among the Intifada generation (Zaharna, 1996). The survival values that surfaced so prominently during the Intifada had their roots in the twenty years of military occupation (1967-1987) in which a whole generation experienced unnatural social conditions and relations.

In 1994, a year after the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord on the White House lawn, the Palestinian leadership returned to the Palestinian territories. With the return of the PLO, Palestinians from around the world began "coming home." These returning Palestinians aptly became known as the "Returnees." Along with high-specialized technical expertise and education, many Returnees brought with them Western ideas and values that challenged the traditional ways of doing things in Palestinian society. Also, many of the Returnees had lived abroad for decades and had no immediate family ties in Gaza, thus they forged relations among themselves apart from the society they were immersed in.

In addition to the Returnees, international aid began pouring into the Palestinian territories on a large scale. Traffic lights, trash bins, mailboxes, side walks, street dividers, street lamps, fountains and flowers literally transformed the Palestinians' physical environment. The social landscape changed via the multitude of foreign training and technical projects. The Swedes sponsored a project introducing school counselors into the Palestinian public school system, the Japanese sponsored health training, the Americans sponsored women's leadership training and democracy seminars.

One force of that I would downplay is the Western media. While many scholars highlight the effect of the Western media throughout the developing world, in the Palestinian society, interpersonal communication is the most credible and influential form of communication. One should also consider how the mass media is consumed in the Palestinian society. Television programs are usually watched in a group setting and are accompanied by much commentary. I would venture that this social commentary has the effect of diluting the power of the Western media.

Far more powerful than Western media, however, is Western education. Because interpersonal communication is the more influential and persuasive form of communication, Western-educated teachers, professors, and trainers -- who have direct personal contact with the people -- are much more credible and influential sources of spreading Western values than are the mass media programs. For this reason, the Western-educated "Returnees" and the direct, interpersonal contact of donor training projects have the power to cause the most strain to traditional Palestinian values.

Florence Kluckhohn Values Model

We can look at the changes in Palestinian values by using the Kluckhohn Model. In her seminal paper "Dominant and Variant Value Orientations," Florence Kluckhohn outlined five basic human problems that were common to all peoples at all times and all places (1953, p. 346). The value orientations Dr. Kluckhohn identified speak to the assumptions that we make about ourselves and our relationship to the world, which in turn, guide our actions.

Innate Predisposition

The first value orientation spoke to the inherent nature of man. Is he basically evil? good? Or neither good nor evil? In answering this question, I plead respondent bias. It may be easier to judge another culture than one's own. Perhaps that is why so many study other cultures. Nevertheless, let me explore Kluckhohn's question.

To understand the Palestinian view of man, I turned to the Koran. Each sura or chapter speaks to the underlying assumptions about the inherent nature of man. The image of man that emerges is one of "complexity" or tension between good and evil. We can look at the story of man's creation (Sura XV. 26-44) which serves as a metaphor for the view of man in Palestinian society today.

Man was created from clay, but was breathed into him the spirit of God. The breathing in of God's spirit into man gave man "the faculty of knowledge and will, which if rightly used would give man superiority over other creatures (Ali, 1983, n. 1968). "If rightly used" is critical here. The Koran came at a time known in Islamic history as the "Age of Ignorance" when man's most basest instincts and practices had run amok. The Koran is severe in its tone, constantly warning man to stay away from evil and temptations that exist both within and without.

Thus, even though man possesses this good, he must be constantly vigilant against his baser instincts, desires and temptations that would lead him off the "straight path" outlined in the Koran. The true Believer hears God's message and replies, "I hear and I obey." He follows the straight path and he is rewarded. But woe to the "Kafir" -- the Disbeliever -- who disobeys. Verse after verse, chapter after chapter man is warned to guard against evil or suffer insufferable punishment.

When God presented man to the angels and commanded them to bow, all did except Iblis or Satan. The origin of evil is ascribed to Satan's arrogance and jealousy, he saw only the lower side of man (his clay) and failed to see the higher side, the faculty brought in by the spirit of God (Ali, 1983, n. 1968).

I said that the creation of man was a metaphor for the Palestinian view of man. If anything, the experience of the Palestinians over the past 50 years has reinforced the complexity of the tension between man's inherent goodness and the evil he must constantly guard against. The tension between good and evil, positive and negative, reminds me of a Palestinian play entitled, "The Peptomist." The play about a man who lives the duality of man's condition by being both a pessimist and an optimist.

Man's relation to nature

In the second value orientation, man's relation to nature, Dr. Kluckhohn suggested that "man is subjugated to nature," "man in nature" and "man over nature." The first passively accepts natural forces as inevitable, the second sees man in harmony with nature and the third sees man as attempting to control nature. The American orientation, as she said, definitely tends toward controlling or conquering approach to nature.

I would suspect that most scholars would put Palestinian and Arab culture in the first category. One finds numerous accounts in popular and scholarly writing about the Arab culture's passive acceptance of fate. From this perspective, the leap to "man as subjugated to nature" makes sense. However, I would suggest that the relationship is more complex.

In her discussion, Kluckhohn does not distinguish between "natural forces" and "supra-natural forces." Instead the two are co-mingled and used as substitutions for each other. She provides the example:

"To the typical Spanish-American sheep-raiser . . . there is little or nothing which can be done if a storm comes to damage his range lands or destroy his flocks. He simply accepts the inevitable as the inevitable. His attitude toward illness and death is the same fatalistic attitude. 'If it is the Lord's will that I die I shall die' is the way he expresses it" (1953, p. 347).

Here a storm (a natural force) has been equated with the Lord's will (the supra-natural force). Without this clear, explicit distinction between natural and supra-natural forces, the impression is that natural forces controls man. Man passively accepts natural forces as "inevitable" and man's attitude is described as fatalistic.

From the Arab, and specifically Islamic perspective, there is a third tier. That is the supra-natural force, or God. When you add this third tier of the supra-natural force, the equation changes. What looks like natural forces controlling man, is really the supra-natural force controlling both man and nature. Both are seen as creations of God and hence are "subjugated" not to each other -- but to the will of God.

Within this structure, man works in harmony with nature. If man is diligent he can obtain the fruits of the land (nature). If he abuses nature, he suffers the consequences, such as soil erosion or crop damage. There is a delicate relationship between man and nature. Man must work to preserve and protect nature. Nowhere is the character of the relationship between man and nature more evident than in Palestin ian poetry (see, Sulaiman, 1984). Interestingly, "man" in Arabic is masculine and "the land"to which much of the poetry centers on is feminine. The poetry of the post-48 period resemble the laments of lost lovers, yearning for each other and vowing to return:

To speak of "controlling nature" or being "subjugated to nature" seems almost irrelevant. If one accepts "natural forces," it is accepting God's will. Trying to "conquer" or "control" natural forces makes about as much sense as trying to conquer or control God's will.

Time Dimension

The third value orientation deals with time. As Florence Kluckhohn stated, "All [societies] have some conception of the past, all have a present, and all give some kind of attention to the future time-dimension. They differ, however, in the emphasis . . ." She added, "Illustrations of these different emphases are also easily found" (1953, p. 348).

The Palestinian culture is filled with illustrations of its past-tense orientation. Permit a few examples from my professional field of public communication. I have worked on scores of

written brochures for various Palestinian associations. Every single one of them had to include not only a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the association but a historical treatise on the Palestinian question as well. Once while working on a speech, I questioned the official about the need to include historical references dating back to the previous century. That question only prompted him to remember other vital historical detail -- which he promptly added. Another time I wrote a funding proposal for an institution to solicit funds to publish a booklet. The institute refused to submit the proposal until after it had already published the booklet. Then there was the planning officer I worked with for a poly technical college. After weeks of intensive prodding, the longest time frame he could project into the future was 6 months -- and that was with less than 40% of the college's infrastructure developed.

Dr. Kluckhohn described time in terms of emphasis. Emphasis suggests choice or preference. In my work, I have found that one's native time-orientation makes it difficult to conceptualize events in other dimensions. American's tend to dismiss the Palestinian penchant for historical detail as "irrelevant." In reality, Americans tend to have great difficulty seeing the clear conceptual link to past events that Palestinians make so readily.

In contrast, the American forte is in planning, strategizing, forecasting. These all involve conceptualizing activities in the future tense. The most dramatic example of this conceptual impasse I experienced was when working with a public relations staff trying to prepare for an international conference. The sponsoring institute was expecting over 200 participants from 55 different countries. I noticed that things were more than a little chaotic, which of course, is not unusual for a project of that size. However, there was a spontaneity that seemed to multiply the chaos. I suggested developing a planning chart, a type of "to do" list for each day leading up to the conference. Everyone was thrilled, "Yes! Yes, we need to organize our work!" I created the planning chart with the days leading up to the conference with room to fill in the needed tasks. I then asked the how would they fill in the activities. The staff froze. Had this happen earlier, I too would have froze. By this time I had learned that any type of public relations planning involved conceptualizing activities in the future-tense. The American public relations staff would simply use add the word "will" to everything. We will do this, we will do that.

In the Arabic language, it is also fairly easy to make the grammatical future-tense verb construction. More difficult is the future-tense mental construction. In the Arab and specifically Islamic culture, the future is unknown. All things "unknown" fall within God's domain. For example in speaking about the future, I can express an intent such as, "I intend to go to the beach tomorrow" or desire, "I want to go to the beach tomorrow." However, if I say, "I will go to the beach tomorrow," I should add, "God willing," or "with God's permission," -- for it is only God who knows for certain if I will, or will not, go to the beach tomorrow. Not to say "God willing," is seen by some as challenging God, it is as if you know more than he does.

What I did with the public relations staff was switch the conference from future-tense to past-tense. Instead of asking them to imagine a conference (that may or may not happen) in the future, I asked them to imagine the conference that happened yesterday. Working from this past-tense mental construct, the staff had no trouble telling me what they had done the days leading up to that conference. As long as we kept the imagined conference in the past-tense, we were able to lay out the tasks needed to pull off a success. It was planning in the reverse or past-tense.

Valued Personality Type

Dr. Kluckhohn called the third value orientation, "valued personality types." She herself stated that this phasing was "not the 'happiest' of terms." I concur. I understood "valued personality type" to mean self-definition. "Being" orientation refers to self defined by relationships. The being and becoming orientation is self defined by relationship but with an element of self-development. The doing orientation defines the self by what the self does.

The Arab, Palestinian culture is very much a "being-oriented" culture in which one's primary sense of identity rests on fixed relationships and social structures (Zaharna, 1991, 1995). The first social structure is the family. Often, to know a person's name, is to know the person's socio-economic background, political leanings, social status in the community, personality traits or peculiarities, even physical features -- such and such family has pronounced foreheads or red hair. Family names are also associated with particular villages, towns or regions in Palestine.

Self-definition is not only through fixed relationships with people or social structure, but with natural entities such as the land. There is a common Palestinian expression, "my land is my identity." Place of "origin" is a primary relationship in self-definition. Note the distinction between "place of origin" versus "place of birth." It is not uncommon to ask children born and raised in the U.S. "Where are you from" and have them answer, "Gaza," or "Nablus" or "Jerusalem" -- even though they may have never even visited Palestine. It is interesting to note that even within the U.S., Palestinians formed groups not based on their geographic location within the U.S., but their town of origin in Palestine.(2)

While the sense of self as defined by being is a traditional Palestinian value orientation, it appears to be being challenged by the self defined by doing and accomplishments. The situation is most pronounced in the Returnees. Many "Returnees" left Palestine as youth to study or work in foreign countries. For the many who arrived in Western societies, they soon learned that "being so and so, from such and such family from wherever" meant nothing. In the Western setting, recognition was accorded on the basis of merit and achievement. One could not count on social connections to get a job or into school. In a trail by fire, they learned self-reliance and independence. After 10, 15, some 30 years of having to prove themselves through their performance, the Returnees had come to incorporate their success into their self-definition. When they returned to Palestine, they brought their new successful sense of self with them.

For the people of the village, their method of self-definition had not changed. They still defined a person in terms of fixed relationships, not achievements. For the Returnees, it was as if all their accomplishments were meaningless, according them no extra value or weight. The Returnees were also accustom to openly displaying their status symbols of achievement -- new cars, fine clothes, big houses. This learned behavior from the Western setting caused resentment among the local people. In a being-oriented culture one has no real need to advertise one's status. The Returnees resented seeing comparatively less skilled or knowledgeable persons obtain prestigious employment and other opportunities through social connections. The tension between individual achievement versus social connections has become a heated debate.

Relationship pattern

Kluckhohn proposed three relationship patterns or orientations: individual, collateral, and linear. In the individual pattern, characteristic of the American culture, the family bond is comparatively limited in scope and intensity. Condon and Yousef called it "slightly more than a biological necessity" (1975, p. 74). The collateral pattern has more intense family bonds that include grandparents, uncles, cousins, etc. in the "immediate family." The linear pattern appears very much like the collateral, except the family extends a little wider to encompass distant relatives, both genealogically as well as chronologically.

Traditional Palestinian culture would very much follow the linear pattern. What is interesting is that whole towns and villages appear to follow the linear pattern and at times seem to be an extension of one whole family. Indeed, within Palestine, there are villages such as Abnebta (near Nablus in the north) which are the origin of the Anabtawi family. Within the village setting, not only are people addressed in familial terms, "my uncle," "my son," but neighbors who have lived beside each other, many for decades if not a century, share the same kind of intimate knowledge about each other's peculiarities -- and tolerate and protect those peculiarities the same way they would accept their own weird Aunt Harriet or Uncle Waldo.

Rosemary Sayigh who studied the Palestinians refugees in Lebanon in the 1970s found the same kind of village bonds existed among the refugees, many of whom were in fact dislocated peasants from Palestinian village. Perhaps as a testament to the strength of the linear family pattern, that pattern has served to unite the Palestinian in exile. When they found themselves suddenly cut off from their own family, new bonds, based on the same extended pattern were recreated in the Palestinian refugee camps and resistance movement, the PLO. Yasser Arafat was fondly referred to as "Al-Ikh-tiyyar" or "the old man," in much the same way the eldest male of the family clan would be addressed. The pattern of linear relationship appears to have been strong enough to withstand exile in a foreign setting and foreign occupation in their own setting.

A major phenomenon occurred during the Intifada that directly challenged the linear pattern -- this was the emergence of the "child leader." With so many male family leaders arrested or imprisoned, the teenagers and even young children took to fighting the street battles. First they became known as the "children of stones" because they would challenge the Israeli soldiers by throwing stones. Then, they became known as the "Generals" of the Intifada. However poetic, it was a total distortion of traditional Palestinian pattern to have the youngest members of the family referred to with such authority. Many problems within the school system and social realm stem from the lingering distortion of the term "authority" among the Intifada generation.

The Returnees have also introduced changes to the linear pattern. Some Returnees have no linear family or even village to which to return. In many ways the new Palestine is as foreign as the countries to which the Returnees had fled. Returning to Palestinian society without a family bond, when most of the socializing still revolves around the family, is to be exposed to social stigma, malicious gossip, isolation or loneliness. To cope, Palestinian Returnees are introducing the individual pattern of relationships based on political, geographic or professional lines.


Let me conclude by offering a few summary thoughts on the notion of Palestinian values. As we have seen, Palestinian values do indeed exist. Their very complexity does not erase their existence or uniqueness. If anything, what I found rather amazing was the resiliency of values as a dynamic feature of society. When Palestinians found themselves in alien environments, such as the refugee camps, national movements, they re-created the traditional linear relationship structure of the Palestinian villages. They perpetuate a sense of being via a place of origin over place of birth and even sought to combine that with a doing-sense of self. This observation gives credence to the notion of values as not only reflections of the living organisms (i.e., society) from which they emerge, but suggest a living, organic quality about the nature of values themselves.

Two additional observations relate back to my initial question, What is it about Palestinian values that people question their existence?

For non-Palestinians, the question may be one of perceptual differences. As Norman Daniels (1975) once observed, when [cultural] differences are not perceived as different, they are seen as rights and wrongs. However, what if they do not exist? This suggests the problem of different values is deeper, representing a conceptual instead of perceptual block. This conceptual block was clearly evident in the Palestinian's difficulty in conceiving events in the future-tense and the American's difficulty in connecting the "logical" link between distant historical events.

For the Palestinians, the question of "What values," is perhaps best explained by the sheer magnitude of the changes in Palestinian society. In 1948, the Palestinians lost their homeland and many were exiled or cut off from their villages and the land. In 1967, the Palestinian experienced another massive wave of expulsion. In the late sixties and seventies, we see the growth of the "refugee culture" and the national political movement. In the late eighties, there is the Palestinian uprising. In the nineties, there is the introduction of foreign values through the Returnees and massive donor aid.

These are a lot of changes for one society to endure. If one considers the time frame within which these events occurred -- about 50 years -- we are talking not about a slow evolution but rather powerful and profound jolts to the society. Although time will tell -- God willing -- it may be generations before the Palestinians sort through all of these changes and rediscover their own uniquely Palestinian values once again.


Condon, J. C. & Yousef, F. (1975). An introduction to intercultural communication. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Kluckhohn, F. (1953). "Dominant and variant value orientations." In C. Kluckhohn & H. Murray (Eds.), Personality in nature, society, and culture. NY: Alfred A. Khopf,

pp. 342-357.

Sayigh, R. (1984). Palestinians: Form peasants to revolutionaries. London: Zed.

Sulaiman, K.A. (1984). Palestine and modern Arab poetry. London: Zed.

Zaharna, R.S. (1991). "The ontological function of interpersonal communication: A cross-cultural analysis of Americans and Palestinians," Howard Journal of Communication, 3, 87-98.

Zaharna, R.S. (1995). "Sihr Halal: Understanding Cultural Preferences of Arab Communication Patterns," Public Relations Review, 21, 241-255.

Zaharna, R.S. (1996). "Final Status: A Communication Perspective," Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 3, 123-128.

1. Prepared for the Florence Kluckhohn Center for the Study of Values, Seattle, February 18, 1999.

2. This dislocation using the Palestinian place of origin versus the American place of residence has multiple repercussions for anyone trying to organize the Palestinians in America on a regional basis. You can have two Palestinian families living next to each other in Detroit, Michigan: one family attends the Ramallah Convention in California, the other family attends the El-Bireh Convention in Washington, and neither attends the local convention of the Palestinain-American Congress.