on history; or seeing the big picture

Yesterday I woke up early so that Saed and I could get to Ramallah before the Muwatin conference began. We had to leave extra early because the Israeli Terrorist Forces (ITF) won’t let him drive through Huwara checkpoint, so we had to go at least 30 minutes in the opposite direction before we could cut back down to the main road to Ramallah. Fortunately because it was a Friday morning we were able to make it on time.

The Muwatin annual conference this year explored the theme of “Critical Readings in the History of the Palestinian National Struggle.” Many of the speakers were historians or those commenting on history in relation to the media or politics. It was good for me to attend this conference as the chapter of my book that I’m working on now deals with Palestinian history and as a result I’ve been constantly thinking about history in terms of methodology, strategy. Over the past two years my sense of the role history plays in my book has shifted. Initially it was broad. Later it became focused on the two touchstones of an nakba and haq al awda. At first I imagined that for my American audience utilizing solely the work of Israeli historians like Ilan Pappe would be more effective in terms of getting Americans to listen. But the writings of friends, whose work I respect deeply, cautioned me that to use only the history of the oppressors to tell the story of the oppressed is racist. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how right they are. Indeed, my whole book project on some level speaks to that as I’m arguing for supplanting the very narrow Zionist curriculum in the U.S. with a curriculum about Palestinians that would teach Americans about an nakba and al awda. I began to imagine growing up learning about Nazi Germany solely from the point of view of Adolf Hitler or of Nazis. Or I thought about what it would mean to learn about slavery only from the point of view of white slave owners. The facts, the truth, the narrative is, of course, quite different when you think about it in these ways. But yet another aspect of methodology emerged for me over the past month as friends shared with me a problem in the field of history more generally: the use of only English (or other European language) sources. My reliance upon Palestinian scholars like Rashid Khalidi, Lila Abu-Lughod, Joseph Massad, Yazid Sayigh, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Walid Khalidi, Naseer Aruri, and Nur Masalha is insufficient. There are many Palestinian scholars whose work is written in Arabic and these sources are ignored by scholars on the subject. Writing, thinking, re-writing, re-thinking has been a process. As indeed the writing of history should be more generally. A constant questioning, wondering, searching, exploring. At the same time, and on another level, living here forces me to think about the consequences of history every day as I watch in amazement the horrors of what it means for history to repeat itself in the short and long term.

Such questions emerged at the Muwatin conference yesterday. The first speaker was Rashid Khalidi who essentially gave a talk based on the fourth chapter of his book The Iron Cage. He mentioned that it will be published in Arabic in a few months. I suspect many people in the audience have not read the English version given the discussion throughout the course of the day. Even though I’ve read it it was interesting to hear the discussion of it in this different context. Khalidi framed his talk, which opened the conference and therefore addressed an important theme of the conference, which is related to the need for us to heed the lessons of history. One of the ways one achieves these lessons is by narrating a history that includes criticism, introspection, comparison. And Khalidi’s book does all of these things really well. Indeed, his entire methodology embeds these practices into his examination of Palestinian history. For one thing he examines this history by comparing it to the histories of Arab nations to compare Palestinian society at different stages in relation to daily life as well as responses to European colonialism. Khalidi explains that to understand the harm done to Palestinians historically and to achieve a just solution one has to understand this history in its proper context:

However, achieving any serious understanding of this poignant conflict, which has for decades rent the Middle East and has had such a wide-reaching political and moral impact outside it, requires a broad comprehension of Palestinian history in its own terms, and in its own context, which includes, but cannot be subsumed by or subordinated to Jewish and Israeli history. (xxix-xxx)

And the work that Khalidi–as well as most of the speakers yesterday–shared highlights this methodological strategy. Khalidi spoke about resistance in the context of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-1939. He related it to later resistance contexts, including Palestinian resistance from Lebanon in the 1970s. Through this lecture he theorized about the nature of history and how it gets told. There is a tendency–I would argue for every nation–to render its history into the realm of hyperbole, especially when one deals with leaders; nations are so rarely wiling to question this mythologizing work. But the issue of Palestinian history is still so much more complicated as there is still no master narrative. There are bits and pieces of it, but far too many lacuna.

Another speaker at the conference was Nadim Rouhana who is a Palestinian from 1948 Palestine. He’s currently working on a book on right of return in Israeli discourse. Yesterday he spoke about history in relation to strategy for the future. For instance, he discussed this issue of whether or not Jews constitute a religion or a ethnic group, but of course either way neither category allows them to steal and colonize someone else’s land (for the record Judaism is a religion like any other; they are not an ethnic group and like every other religion there are people from many other ethnic groups who make up this religious group as a result of conversion). As a proponent of a one-state solution, Rouhana talked about strategy involved in how a one state solution might emerge given the existence of Zionist Jews. What does one do with them? Indeed, an important question especially given that Zionism is so deeply enmeshed in the project of ethnic cleansing; it has no relationship to any sort of anti-colonial or anti-imperial power structure that it fought against Rouhana asserted. And this ethnic cleansing has continued in Palestine for 60 years. In a critique of Bush’s failed Annapolis project Rouhana raises some very important questions about Palestinians from 1948 who get left out of the process:

We are referred to by leading Israeli politicians as a “demographic problem.” In response, many in Israel, including the deputy prime minister, are proposing land swaps: Palestinian land in the occupied territories with Israeli settlers on it would fall under Israel’s sovereignty, while land in Israel with Palestinian citizens would fall under Palestinian authority.

This may seem like an even trade. But there is one problem: no one asked us what we think of this solution. Imagine the hue and cry were a prominent American politician to propose redrawing the map of the United States so as to exclude as many Mexican-Americans as possible, for the explicit purpose of preserving white political power. Such a demagogue would rightly be denounced as a bigot. Yet this sort of hyper-segregation and ethnic supremacy is precisely what Israeli and American officials are considering for many Palestinian citizens of Israel — and hoping to coerce Palestinian leaders into accepting.

Looking across the Green Line, we realize that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has no mandate to negotiate a deal that will affect our future. We did not elect him. Why would we give up the rights we have battled to secure in our homeland to live inside an embryonic Palestine that we fear will be more like a bantustan than a sovereign state? Even if we put aside our attachment to our homeland, Israel has crushed the West Bank economy–to say nothing of Gaza’s–and imprisoned its people behind a barrier. There is little allure to life in such grim circumstances, especially since there is the real prospect of further Israeli sanctions, which could make a bad situation worse.

Rouhana raises not only interesting practical concerns, but also historical concerns. A great deal of Palestinian history is based upon particular areas in historic 1948 Palestine: Haifa, Yaffa, Akka, the Jaleel, and the half of Al Quds that is occupied. Certainly there is historic work on places like Nablus but in English so much of the writing focuses on these other areas. Certainly this is related to the fact that many of the Palestinian scholars who produce this important work come from these spaces that they or their family members were expelled from in 1948.

Some of what Rouhana discusses in the piece above makes me think about Jonathan Cook’s new book, Disappearing Palestine. I remembered this book when I woke up today. Especially its title because yesterday in what I think was the most provocative and compelling paper came from Esmail Nashif whose talk was entitled “History of Resistance and the Need to Resist History,” but the paper actually focused on the phenomenon of disappearance. When I first heard him use this word I thought immediately of the disappeared from Argentina. Especially because he was arguing that disappearance be used as a resistance strategy. It was hard to wrap my head around at first. I also thought of the Palestinian disappeared–those kidnapped from their homes every night who wind up in Israeli jails. But of course, he wasn’t arguing for this sort of disappearance. He was thinking about disappearance on a number of levels. Influenced by Gramsci and rejecting Hegel’s notion of the master/slave dialectic, he rejects this idea of Palestinians viewing themsleves in the role of the victim. And he sees much of the Palestinian resistance as re-action to various actions by the Zionist state. For Nashif disappearance is a way to break out of this cycle in which Palestinians become a shadow of the image of the slave, a shadow of neoliberalism. This shadow is related to how he sees Israelis trying to be like the Germans and Palestinians trying to be like the Israelis. To resist being a slave, to resist defining oneself in relation to the Other, the industry of the Other, to break these cycles. The context for this is in relation to the underground of the resistance movement when Palestinians disappear and then reappear. This gives Palestinians agency. To disappear and the figure out precisely how one re-appears.

Those who must reappear if we are to learn from history, to use history in a way that corrects injustices are, of course, Palestinian refugees. The one who spoke most lucidly about this subject yesterday was Musa Budeiri. And his talk made the most clear cut connections between the aspects of history that one must use to learn from the problems of history. Budeiri himself is a man who is subjected to the fact that not learning from history enables the Zionist state to continue its practices of ethnic cleansing by its process of rendering people illegal, taking their identity cards away, thus forcing them to be removed, ethnically cleansed from their homes:

However between May and August 1999, a serious incident happened: the Ministry of Interior of the Barak government withdrew the Identity Document of Musa Budeiri, a director of the Center of International Relations in Al-Quds University and a resident of East Jerusalem. Native of Jerusalem, his family has lived there for hundreds of years, under Ottoman, British and Jordanian rule. He was given a tourist visa, valid for four weeks, and was told that he would have to leave Jerusalem by August 22 — Musa Budeiri is one of thousands of other Palestinians in a similar situation. They all have the same problem: they are subject to the threat of being turned into ‘tourists’ in their birthplace. 2,200 Jerusalem ID cards of families (roughly 8,800 individuals) were confiscated between 1996 and May 1999 (according to the Israeli ministry of Interior)…

Budeiri argued about some of the problems with writing Palestinian history: the fact that much of the historical records are maintained in British and Israeli archives. That even many of the things one counts as Palestinian from the 1920s-1940s are actually inventions of British colonial institutions: money, passports, radio, newspapers, economy, education. He argues that the sort of narrative that has been used thus far to tell the story of Palestinian people is one that continues to give Palestinian elites legitimacy. He argues that we must look at the people in a Howard Zinn sort of fashion. For instance, if we want to talk about resistance, we need to be truthful about where it originated: Palestinian refugee camps. The idea of resistance did not start in the West Bank and Gaza or even 1948 in the 1960s. It started outside. The problem with not making this aspect of history central, and instead making a Palestinian history about the West Bank and Gaza, or even 1948, the centerpiece is that it gives legitimacy to the Palestinian Authority (PA). In turn, this emboldens the PA to sell away Palestinian refugees’ right of return in Oslo and all other agreements and negotiations since (perhaps the PA should be reminded of the conditions of Palestinians in Lebanon to move them to thinking differently?). The most important element of this line of thinking is that it copies the Zionist logic (a bit of an oxymoron, I know) who argue that all problems related to Palestinians stem from what happened in 1967. Zionists and their American and European allies use the word “occupation” to mean the West Bank and Gaza. They never use it as it is more accurately used, which is to mean all of 1948 Palestine. When I say occupation, for instance, I mean every inch of historical Palestine. But when the Zionists and their allies use this word and talk about 1967 borders they come from a point of view that suggests everything was okay before 1967 and that changing these borders to 1967 will solve all the problems. It won’t. And the arguments that emerged throughout the day yesterday–people wanting to defend this leader or that leader in history takes away from the overall point of the uses of history. It’s striking to see how people get so offended by what they deem to be borderline slander because Husseini or Arafat get critiqued for mistakes they made. I mean, can one learn from history if one does not look honestly at the mistakes of history–whether a few years ago or many decades ago?

What we need to return to is the formula that was born in the camps through culture and armed resistance that equated liberation of all historic Palestine with the right of return. This is the formula for justice. And here is what Budeiri himself argues with respect to rectifying history:

Events overcame the British Empire’s attempts to maintain its hold in Palestine. Partition was its retreat position. But Palestine was a tiny and distant asset, expendable in the service of the larger interests of the British Empire. Israel, a colonial warrior state assuming the role of regional power in an environment it deems dangerous and hostile, has transformed the region, and in doing so has transformed itself as well. While pursuing the path of ethnic cleansing, when and where it is possible, it cannot turn back whatever the cost. The only salvation for Israelis and Palestinians is for new forms of struggle that are based not on historical nostalgia or worn-out recipes, but on the realization that peace and a necessary modicum of justice can only come about on the basis of a shared homeland. The longer this notion takes to take hold, the costlier it is going to be. Partition was not a solution then and cannot be one now.

A question in relation to all of these historical problems and how to solve this that continues to permeate my thinking, especially when looking at the damage that normalization with Israelis causes Palestinians at every level, is this: Why is it that Palestinians must “negotiate” for what is rightfully, legally theirs? If someone were to steal my purse and I found it, I would take it back. It belongs to me. Palestine belongs to Palestinians. It’s not rocket science. It’s pretty simple and there is an historical record consisting of a variety of sources from land deeds to keys to UN resolutions. There are various modes of resistance that can be used to create this change. We can learn from other histories as well. For instance, I showed my students the film Amandla the other day, which is a film about the ways in which South Africans used music as an element of their resistance. The film is historical to be sure: it shows how music evolved from various modes of resistance, some of which was passive, some of which was religious, some of which was armed. This history is important, I think, as it is depicted in the film because it tells the story from the point of view of the people in a variety of contexts. Likewise, I kept thinking about Howard Zinn yesterday and how his method of narrating history through the voices of the people really revolutionized American history, especially as it told the stories of various marginalized groups and their various methods of resistance against the U.S. government’s colonialism and racism. There is so much Palestinian oral history already collected and it would be an amazing resource for Palestinians to begin a similar process here, I think. Too, one of the main issues people critiqued yesterday is the way that so much Palestinian history focuses on elites and some of their papers were challenging this by example and asking others to follow. I also think that one of the values of Zinn’s books is that it teaches us to see parallels from each struggle, to learn from those struggles, to be able to use what worked and understand why other methods failed. One thing I found striking yesterday: not one person mentioned the important work of Salman Abu Sitta. This is a man who understands how to use history to effectively seek justice for Palestinians. His goal of creating a new PLO that represents all Palestinians around the globe is essential and if we’re going to be talking about how to best use Palestinian history, I do believe his work must be a component of that narrative.

All of this food for thought was quite important in getting me energized with respect to thinking about my own work, its use value, and the struggle more generally. But the highlight of my day yesterday, I must say, was the fact that my dear friend Sami showed up to the conference and I got to spend the day with him. At lunch I was so humbled and honored that I not only got to catch up with Sami, but that I was able to break bread with Hossam Khoder, one of the Palestinian political prisoners who was released back in August. I blogged about attending the celebration of his release back in August, where I posted photographs of him as well. It is difficult to express how amazing it was to be sitting there among several former prisoners and seeing them eating in relative freedom (as free as one can be here), including my friend Sami who was actually in prison with Hossam.

At the end of the conference I was able to catch a ride back with some Nabulsis who were not staying for the second day as Saed did. We had such a lovely chat in the car on the way home and when we reached downtown Nablus I was invited out for knafe and more thought-provoking discussion with a journalist who worked until a few months ago, but the Zionist regime shut down the television station where he had worked for many years. So many stories like this of censorship, of imprisonment, of resistance. Stories that must be written down–not so much to create a master narrative. But I would hope for a people’s history of Palestine. One that moves people to remember, to resist, and to take back what is theirs. To break out of this cycle that takes Palestinians nowhere. To realize that normalization means the death of resistance, of justice.

One thought on “on history; or seeing the big picture

  1. Hi… great post, it is interesting to see what an American activist has to say on the subject… I myself cannot think about the current situation in Gaza without getting so frustrated and worked up that Israel is allowed to get away with their inhumane, barbaric treatment of Palestinians.

    I also have a blog on the Middle East and have written a little bit about the conflict… maybe you’d like to check it out:

    http://middleeastblog.wordpress.com

    Take care,

    Sarah.

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