Sufian: Healing the Land and the Nation: Malaria and the Zionist Project in Palestine, 1920-1947

Philippe Bourmaud
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal of Palestine Studies
Issue Number
Publication Date
Spring 2010
Institute for Palestine Studies
Healing the Land and the Nation: Malaria and the Zionist Project in Palestine, 1920–1947, by Sandra M. Sufian. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007. xx + 348 pages. Bibliography to p. 372. Index to p. 385. $40.00 cloth. Philippe Bourmaud is a professor of modern and contemporary history at Lyon 3 University, France, and a fellow at the Laboratoire de Recherche Historique Rhône-Alpes (Lyon).
Development, Governance
Political Geography
Palestine, Arabia
Sandra Sufian's Healing the Land and the Nation: Malaria and the Zionist Project in Palestine, 1920–1947 is a successful crossover of the political history of Palestine and the social history of medicine. Her study of the shaping role of malaria-related land reclamations on Zionist ideology and practice and their influence on the production of a national ethos (p. 5) covers ample ground. It deals with representations of the land and its native inhabitants in the eyes of Jewish settlers and Zionist authors (chapter 1); colonial science and its appropriation by the Zionist movement (chapter 2); Zionist land acquisition and the planning of land reclamation through drainage projects (chapter 3); Zionist engineering of land transformation (chapter 4); the production of knowledge and political uses of the geography of malaria (chapter 5); the health education of Jews and Arabs (chapter 6); and Jewish-Arab conflicts about land reclamations and the respective merits of both communities in fighting the disease (chapters 7 and 8). All of these issues are interesting in their own right and have appealed to other scholars before Sufian. Yet to this reviewer, the most enlightening aspect of her work is how it puts the Zionist project in perspective. Zionism did not come out of the blue: it was a movement in its own time, influenced by different kinds of nationalisms, colonialisms, eugenics, ideas of collective regeneration and rational planning. Sufian, an assistant professor of medical humanities and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, demonstrates this cogently through systematic comparison, especially by situating the takeoff of antimalarial policies in Mandate Palestine in an international setting: that of international health, with a focus on malaria, as it emerged in the interwar years, and that of the mandate system established by the League of Nations. Zionism's main specificity lay in the project of rebuilding a Jewish people in a specific land, Palestine, through organized colonial activity and in competition with another people living on the land. Malaria is not the only lens through which such a project can be re-envisaged, but under Sufian's pen, it works wonders. Another merit of the book is the new understanding it affords of the history and political events of Mandate years, as shown through the incidence of the 1929 riots and the Arab Revolt on reclamation projects (pp. 309–10). Politics—nor any other field, for that matter—does not work in a realm of its own, and conversely, the conflicts around drainage and land reclamation throw new light on the buildup of conflicts between colonial settlers and natives in those years. All this has far-reaching implications, on the understanding of development projects and the origins of international governance among others. The book is especially telling when it discusses the landscapes, and thus, the warped visual understanding that we can have today of Palestine during the Mandate and before. Sufian, confronted with the difficulty of showing these landscapes, makes valuable use of photographs and diverse cultural items such as songs, poems, and extracts from novels. Indeed, the author is to be commended for her use of an enormous archival wealth. What she produces, with much acumen, is a detailed and convincing narrative, one that, thanks to the material on which its rests, has the ring of truth, which is what history is about. Healing the Land and the Nation retains a few obvious mistakes that will be easily corrected for the next edition and, hopefully, translation into other languages. The “measure of parassitemia, or parasites in the blood” (p. 87) defines blood exams and not spleen rates (i.e., the counting of enlarged spleens). The figure of forty Palestinian Arab physicians in 1934 (p. 288), quoted uncritically from the periodical of the Palestine Arab Medical Society, beggars belief: it amounts approximately to the number of Arab physicians working for the government of Palestine alone, barring all private practitioners. Indeed, Sufian's book strikes this reviewer as a remarkable achievement and an honest and original account of the Mandate period. She does not take discursive abstractions such as colonialism and nationalism for granted but shows them in action, literally on the ground, with powerful effect. It is an inspiring reminder that there are many exciting fields to be explored in Palestine studies off the beaten political track.