Sunday, 26 October 2014

Returning to Palestine

I’ve been reading a number of books on Palestine and the establishment of the state of Israel recently. My grandfather was stationed there after the Second World War, so it’s always been a subject that I’ve read about and returned to.  It is of course, still, one of the most politically charged areas of historiography, because the interpretations at stake are not simply of archival interest. Many of those interpretations and narratives are the ideological supports of present belief and policy. Often the war of interpretation concerns questions over ‘fact’ and the marshaling of fact. But prior to the marshaling of facts are framing assumptions which seldom make themselves visible, so that as long as the frame is uncontested, the marshaling and bandying of facts will only reinforce the frame. 

Some years ago a book was published by Joan Peters with the title “From Time Immemorial”.  Outside the U.S., and to a lesser degree within it, the book has been comprehensively dismantled by serious scholars of Middle East history. It is riddled with errors and misrepresentation. Peters falsifies or, through simple inexperience, misunderstands the available data to suggest that Palestinian Arabs are a comparatively recent arrival, and this with a view to invalidating their claims to the land. This is a curious argument, not so much because it is clearly false at a factual level, but because it would certainly also disqualify the claims of the Jewish settlers who arrived in increasing numbers from the late nineteenth century.

In fact, this book can only be understood as part of a bigger ideological project. There is a long tradition of Zionist writers and politicians for whom the Palestinian Arabs are not a 'legitimate people' (Avraham Stern), have no true bond to the land of Palestine, or simply don't exist. This tendency, to discriminate between a true people and a false people, one with real and ancient ties and another with recent superficial ties, and to assume that only the people with ancient ancestry have rights and entitlements has its roots in 19th century nationalism. It is an anti-enlightenment and racist doctrine. It's political consequences have been appalling. But this is the frame within which the marshaling of facts takes place.

In fact, like the Jewish population of Palestine, some Arabs (and other non-Jews) had been there for generations and some were more recent additions. It actually does not matter. If you've lived and worked in a land even for one generation, or less, and you are part of the majority population of that land, then you have a right to be consulted about the partition of that land, you certainly have a right not to be expelled or 'transferred' somewhere else, or, of you flee in conditions of war, you have a right to return to your homes. And so finally, the whole debate as to which 'people' has the longest ancestry, which ‘people’ has the more atavistic attachment, is false and pernicious at its very inception. The framing assumptions are false. 
The notion of ‘a people’, is also made to do much more ideological work. It was Gilles Deleuze, among others, who pointed out that for mainstream Zionism, there was and is no Palestinian people, but only “Arabs”, who “being only Arabs in general... must go merge with other Arabs.” The Arab people are only attached to ‘Arab land’, which spans Syria, Iraq, the Lebanon etc, and so can they be moved indifferently between those places. In reality, people are attached to this olive grove, this field, this neighbourhood with its coffee shop, and not to abstractions such as ‘Arab land’ or the “Arab people”. Similarly, I am attached to certain parts of London, not, as a European, to Europe in general so that I might be re-settled anywhere within it.  But in the politicised historiography of the Middle East, it is abstractions that walk the earth, not flesh and blood individuals and communities, just as it as an abstract earth.  If you are dealing only with the abstractions of ‘Arab territory’ and the ‘Arab people’ then this enables you to justify transfer and dispossession. 

In pro-Zionist historiography, one frequently hears comments like this: "it has become fashionable to examine Israel's war of independence from an Arab perspective"; "the new historians were effectively reiterating the standard Arab narrative of the conflict, in an attempt to give it academic respectability." Note firstly that there is no "Palestinian" perspective. It has once again been collapsed in the abstract empty category of the "Arab". Let us ascend from the abstract to the concrete and ask what exactly constitutes an "Arab perspective". Is it a Palestinian villager who fled in 1948 with their memories and oral testimony, is it a senior academic Arab-Israel academic at a university in the U.K, and so on? The Arab perspective will soon fragment into the variousness of acutal human beings. Note also that the "Arab" perspective can only be 'given' respectability from the outside. It has none in itself. These are again, framing assumptions rather than stated beliefs. But they are more than that, because they are part of the intellectual armory that helps perpetuate and ongoing injustice.