Susynne McElrone, ACOR-CAORC Postdoctoral Fellow, Fall 2017

Susynne McElrone in the village of Dhahariyya in Palestine. Photo courtesy of S. McElrone.

Susynne McElrone, a historian studying late-Ottoman Palestine, is interested in rural socioeconomic history, land tenure, and the implementation of property-tenure reforms following the promulgation of the 1858 Land Code. Significantly, Ottoman property-tenure reforms in the second half of the 19th century continue to influence land tenure in the Levant today. They institutionalized individually held, centrally issued title deeds known as tapu, established an individualized value-based property tax, and made both important bases of proof of land ownership and usufruct rights. These laws form the foundation of current land-tenure laws throughout the countries of the Levant today. The Jordanian Department of Lands and Survey traces its history back to these Ottoman reforms.

While recent scholarship has shed important light on the implementation of these reforms in Jordan, there has been very little research into their implementation in Palestine. According to the predominant historical narrative, Palestinian small landholders evaded reforms, fearing that registering their properties in their names would lead to their military conscription and additional taxation. To avoid such outcomes, villagers are said to have requested rural and urban notables to register their lands.  This misplaced strategy is viewed as the main cause of subsequent rural landlessness and inroads to Zionist land acquisition, as those with ownership by title assumed real ownership of agricultural lands and then sold them for a profit.  Susynne McElrone’s doctoral dissertation research into property registration in rural Hebron through the use of alternative sources—property tax records and Islamic law (shari‘a) courts—indicates a more complex story, one in which villagers play an important role.

During her research fellowship at ACOR, McElrone intends to study locally archived late-Ottoman land records for Palestine, in order to broaden her investigation of the implementation of land-tenure reform in Palestine for a book manuscript. This research will expand upon findings presented in her 2016 Ph.D. dissertation, “From the Pages of the Defter: A Social History of Rural Property Tenure and the Implementation of Tanzimat Land Reform in Hebron, Palestine (1858–1900). Her book will be a comparative, social-historical analysis of patterns of land tenure and the process of implementation of property-tenure reform in Palestine, which will show how and why landholders in various regions of Palestine strategically and positively responded to reform.

McElrone plans to examine two important types of archival records in Jordan. The first are registers of the little-known Ottoman investigation commissions known as şemsiyye, which operated in southern Greater Syria at the time of general land registration commissions. The work of these commissions has never been studied. It appears their purpose was to investigate underutilized farmland areas and historical claims to the right to work them. State-sponsored auctions of large swathes of land in Palestine were the specific result of the work of these commissions, and not a more general phenomenon, as has traditionally been assumed.  Secondly, she intends to survey existent Ottoman-era tapu records to trace for the first time the history of reform implementation in Palestine, which to this day is only vaguely known. Her research contributes to the study of Ottoman era reforms in the Middle East and shapes debates on the 19th-century modernization of Palestinian land tenure.

During her ACOR fellowship, McElrone is also pursuing work on other projects related to her historical interests, and these briefly include:

  • An historical examination of the development of commemoration in the West Bank from 1967 to examine the means and sociocultural meanings of expressions of remembrance and memorialization, and also frustrated commemorations and their significance, for Palestinian communities and nationhood.
  • A study of the periodization scheme of Palestinian history, and its uses and effects. Periodization is the time- or theme-based frameworks of study that historians use to divide history into cohesive units of study. These divisions are important because they are significant for the discursive construction of nations and groups.

Susynne McElrone earned her Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies from New York University (2016). Her dissertation research was supported by fellowships from Fulbright-Hays, The Institute of Turkish Studies (ITS) in Istanbul, ACOR-CAORC, and the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC). This winter and spring she was a National Endowment for the Humanities Independent Research Institutions’ postdoctoral fellow with PARC. Her research has been published in English, Farsi, and (forthcoming) in Arabic.

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