Book review: fresh thought on Israeli colonialism offered by “Global Palestine”

2 May 2012

120502-global-palestine.jpg

Recent years have seen an increasing interest from Palestinians, human rights activists and academics in discussing Zionism as a form of settler colonialism, not just as apartheid and military occupation.

Settler colonialism — or the relationship between the Israeli settler and indigenous Palestinian societies — remains peripheral to mainstream discourse, even in the Palestine solidarity movement, but some exciting analysis has resulted from its study. Joseph Massad’s 2005 essay “The Persistence of the Palestinian Question” and Gabriel Piterberg’s 2008 book The Returns of Zionism are just two of the works helping put Zionism in a new, critical light.

To this we can add John Collins’s latest book Global Palestine.

Tradition of the oppressed

Collins keeps his investigation grounded by listening to what philosopher Walter Benjamin called “the tradition of the oppressed.” By this he means countering an “elite, institution-centered view of history” (12). For example, the version of history taught in Western schools paints a partial picture that can be completed, corrected or replaced with “other, dramatically different narratives circulating in the world, narratives that can open provocative new modes of understanding — if only they were taken seriously” (13).

The tradition of the oppressed offers no privileged position to official Israeli or US pronouncements. So the view of the US-led “Global War on Terror” looks very different when approached from this angle than the view offered by the mainstream media. Collins notes that the “idea of permanent war [is] a radical and alien idea for those who have been schooled to see war as a periodic interruption of an otherwise peaceful reality [but it] makes perfect sense to those whose main role in the story of European expansion has been that of an obstacle to be overcome or eliminated” (13).

Indeed, engaging Palestinian or American Indian narratives of Zionist and American conquest and expansion provides a needed corrective. Many radicals still privelige comments by Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama as worthy points of departure instead of setting their positions and claims against, say, the 2005 Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Speed

Collins explores the concept of speed as another fundamental aspect of Palestinian dispossession. He argues “the ability to harness acceleration [is] a fundamental, albeit somewhat hidden tool in the arsenal” of Israel (83). In Palestine, as “in any colonial situation, the advantage typically lies with those who are most effectively able to control the strategic acceleration and deceleration of violence and change” (83).

In Western countries, the concept of acceleration can refer to things as relatively innocuous, though troubling from a labor perspective, as the hyper-connectivity of smart phones and email, whereby many employees are always reachable no matter when office hours ended. But to Palestinians and many others, acceleration can also be experienced “in a radically different way: when their village is hit without warning by a missile fired from a pilotless aircraft” (84) bringing instant war which can pass just as quickly, a military action not noticed at all by the attacking nation.

Israel pioneered these actions in the late 1980s and early 1990s with its drones and helicopters gunships. Collins notes that “the use of drones to carry out targeted killings (a euphemism for extrajudicial assassinations) is a prime example of how [acceleration] — in this case through the merging of judge, jury and executioner in the form of the drone” can erase political engagement altogether (105).

Searching for liberating alternatives

Collins begins Global Palestine discussing settler colonialism and ends with a chapter on decolonization. He notes that decolonization means “searching for liberating alternatives to the models that continue to inform the actions of nationalist elites who seek state power in Palestine at the cost of meaningful social transformation” (144). And “most importantly, it would mean listening to Palestinians in a new way.

For too long, Palestinians have been treated condescendingly. To the extent that they are given the chance to be heard, it is only (with rare exceptions) because of their connection with Israel” (144).

Years from now, Global Palestine could well be considered a highly flawed work though there is no obvious reason to think so at present. That is one of the risks of taking unconventional approaches to widely investigated areas like Palestine. Collins provokes fresh and challenging thinkings in a book that is highly recommended.

Jimmy Johnson is the founder of Neged Neshek, a website focused on Israel’s weapons industry, and can be reached at jimmy [at] negedneshek [dot] org.

Image of Global Palestine (Columbia/Hurst)
Manufacturer: Columbia University Press
Part Number:
Price: $35.00