PALESTINE IS A CAREER


Haj Amin al-Husseini presenting the Palestinian Flag to Maulana Shawkat Ali. Via Omar Khalidi.

Much has changed since Ibrahim Abu-Lughod published “The Pitfalls of Palestiniology” in 1981. No longer are studies of Palestine confined to the confrontation with Zionism. And unlike the studies Abu-Lughod surveyed, the primary sources of Palestinian historiography are not anymore simply the British, Israeli, and other European archives. Work over the last 30 years has moved beyond imperial grand strategy to enrich our understanding of the social, cultural, and intellectual history of Palestine. Arabic sources—periodicals, personal papers, oral histories, court and ecclesiastical records—have finally received the serious attention they deserve. Today, “Palestine Studies” is not confined to a few committed institutions, but has become a field in and of itself. Book series, journal special issues, and workshops have cultivated a new generation of academics competent in a vast literature on what college course catalogs and D.C. think-tanks call the “Israel-Palestine conflict.” Moreover, what Edward Said once called “America’s last taboo” is no longer so. While Palestinian activism continues to be criminalized on college campuses and in state legislatures, in certain academic spaces, Palestine is cool.

Alongside the work of a committed band of mostly Arab or Arabic-literate scholars pushing intellectual and political boundaries, raising new questions, and mining new archives, another body of literature has proliferated. In this corpus, “Palestine” is less a place and history, than a keyword. Mary Grace Albanese has recently registered a similar phenomenon in Haitian Studies: “in a moment when every nonfrancophone, non-KreyĆ²l-reading scholar seems to have a ‘Caribbean chapter’ in the works, one fears Haiti has become a conceptual site to be exploited, recolonized in the garb of a trend.” Losing land and lives everyday, Palestinians have gained citations.

The Palestine of contemporary American cultural studies and critical theory is sheared of its history. Unmoored from its Arab context and its Ottoman past, Palestine transforms into of a symbol of radical politics; a metaphor for resilience or tragedy. In the rhetoric of Pan-Islam, from the Indian khalifat movement to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Palestine was and is the Holy Land first and Palestinian second, or never. And as white academia discovers the settler-colonialism native scholars have long attended to, Palestine has become relevant. A not unrelated phenomenon was “taking religion seriously,” the academic equivalent of buying a Quran after 9/11. American scholars, previously uninterested in all things Middle East and Islam, turned their attention to “the Muslim Question” and the veil.

Despite all this, American universities remain hostile to Palestine and Palestinians. Junior scholars are warned that their scholarship may hinder their professional prospects. And while a number of academic associations in the United States have voted to boycott Israeli institutions, the Middle East Studies Association remains a shameful exception. It’s clear that many academics are far more concerned with the fate of their discipline than they are with their subjects. Could Middle East studies be more important than the Middle East? Meanwhile, we all contend with the growth of Israel Studies.

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In 1974, the journal of the Institute of Race Relations’, Race, was taken over by the British Asian intellectual A. Sivanandan. In his opening editorial he condemned the “above it all” attitude and “crass insensitivity” of the journal’s editors and contributors. The journal was “first-hand evidence of the complicity of bourgeois scholarship in the management of racism.” The work the institute produced, Sivanandan argued, was an affront to the peoples of the Third World “in their own countries and the metropolis.” “There is, however,” he wrote:    

a growing realization among the subject populations, especially of the ’underdeveloped’ countries, that to submit to theories of social reality which have no bearing on their lives, or which bind them to the existing order of things, is to relinquish their authority over their own experience and to undermine their will to action. Hence the questions they pose to those who investigate them are quite simply: What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your analysis contain some indications of strategies for change? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your ‘knowledge’ but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?

The contents of the first issue under Sivanandan illustrates the scope and tenor of the journal. Beginning with a study of “Repression, Radicalism and Change in the West Indies” by the Howard University sociologist Dennis Forsythe, the rest of the issue includes studies of the relationship between imperialism and archaeology, the origins of Afrikaners and their language, trade unions in the GDR, the Dhofar revolution in Oman, and a critique of Ira Katznelson’s Black Men, White Cities. In the years that followed and until today, Race & Class—as the journal was soon rechristened—became the platform for powerful writing and analysis by Ali Mazrui, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Basil Davidson, Joy James, Hamza Alavi, Paul Gilroy, John Berger, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, Barbara Harlow, Manning Marable, Eqbal Ahmad, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Rosemary Sayigh, and many others. History and theory, anthropology and literature, and the so-called metropole and periphery, all in one journal, four times a year.

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In 1997, on the anniversary of a massacre in the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin when more than a 100 were killed in cold blood, Edward Said wrote:

Yet the question remains: why has Deir Yassin mostly been forgotten, and why has 1948 been removed from the peace agenda by Palestinian leaders and intellectuals? After all we are dealing with Israeli Jews who constantly, and justly, remind the world of the evils of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, and of the reparations thereby made necessary. In his book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot discusses how in Western accounts of the Haitian revolution of 1798 the Westerners always seem finally destined to win, the Haitians to lose, in addition, most accounts of that period simply ignore what happened in Haiti. He refers to "the silencing of the Haitian revolution," which he says happens because the narrative of Western global domination makes the defeat of native people seem inevitable, unless there is an attempt by native peoples to retell the history of Western domination and thus provoke "a fundamental rewriting of world history."

As Arabs and Palestinians we are very far from that stage. Our history is written by outsiders, and we have conceded the battle in advance. Our leaders negotiate as if from a tabula rasa. The agenda is America's and Israel's. And we continue to concede, and concede more and concede again, not only in the present, but also in the past and in the future. Collective memory is a people's heritage, but also its energy: it does not merely sit there inertly, but it must be activated as part of a people's identity and sense of its own prerogative. To recall Deir Yassin is not just to dwell on past disasters, but to understand who we are and where we are going. Without it we are simply lost, as indeed it seems we really are.  

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As the perils of over-research have illustrated, Palestinians don’t need your books. Palestine, already a laboratory for Israeli weaponry, is not a lab for your latest theories. Palestine is a place and Palestinians are a people. Certainly, Palestinians have consciously made their liberation a global affair. Solidarity is beautiful and internationalism necessary, but a career made off Palestine is neither.


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