Book Review: The Persistence of the Palestinian Question

26 October 2006

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Joseph A. Massad: THE PERSISTENCE OF THE PALESTINIAN QUESTION: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians (Routledge, London/New York, 2006 - ISBN 0415770106)

Comprising essays published in various scholarly journals between 1993 and 2005, “The Persistence of the Palestinian Question” is a painfully honest book.

The author, who grew up in Amman and is now associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, does not mince words or cut corners. He addresses the question of Palestine from a number of new angles, covering a broad spectrum of fields in which history is made — official politics, sexual politics, popular resistance, national and social struggle, demography, ideology and state repression.

The book is extremely timely since Massad’s incisive critique of the false premises on which the “peace process” was conducted helps explain the dismal situation in which Palestinians find themselves today. It serves to remind that the problem didn’t begin with the cut-off of international aid to the Hamas government.

Throughout the 1990s, the Palestinians were urged to be realistic and pragmatic, to learn how to speak to the West — all the while Israel’s colonialism and insistence on maintaining Jewish racial supremacy went unchallenged.

Taking stock over a decade later, it is obvious that the pragmatic approach was not at all pragmatic, for it failed miserably. Far from ushering in peace, the Oslo accords paved the way for Israel to grab more land and tighten its control over Palestinian lives.

Massad doesn’t waste time bemoaning this outcome, but rather seeks the roots of the problem, delving into awkward corners that most prefer to ignore.

Taken together, the essays cover virtually every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the original 1948 uprooting to the barbaric practices of the occupation today, from the philosophical underpinnings of the Zionist movement to the status of Mizrahi Jews in Israel.

Much attention is also given to analysing Palestinian agency and the devolution of the Palestinian leadership and intelligentsia’s approach.

The book is meticulously footnoted and draws on an impressive body of research, ranging from historical to current Israeli, Palestinian and international sources.

At the heart of Massad’s analysis are Israel’s colonial nature, its aim of transforming the weak diaspora Jew into the new, invincible Israeli and its violent switching of places with the Palestinians.

“Whereas European Jews wanted to end anti-Semitism and discrimination in order to become equal citizens in secular states, Zionism offered them a solution fully complicit with anti-Semitism, one predicated on their voluntary self-expulsion from Europe and the destruction of diaspora Jewish culture…” (p. 109)

One “consequence of the triumph of the Zionist project was that Palestinian Arab history and Zionist Jewish history have become inextricably linked”. (p. 129)

In a bizarre reversal of roles, the Palestinian has been transformed into “the disappearing European Jew”, against whom Zionist Israel practises anti-Semitism. (p. 169)

This is the key to the persistence of the Palestinian question and its organic link to the Jewish question. The two persist in tandem and can only be resolved together by eliminating anti-Semitism.

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Joseph Massad

Massad demolishes a whole string of myths, from Zionist allegations about the supposed Nazi sympathies of Haj Amin Al Husaini, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Yasser Arafat, to the idea that most countries supported the establishment of Israel out of guilt feelings for the holocaust. In reality, each country had its own tactical or strategic calculations in which Palestinian rights and aspirations simply didn’t count much.

“The European powers simply treated the Palestinians the same way they treated all other non-white people.” (p. 140)

Misconceptions on the Palestinian and Arab side are also tackled, such as acceptance of the Zionist linkage of the holocaust and Israel’s right to exist. “Some, falling into the Zionist ideological trap, reasoned that if accepting the Jewish holocaust meant accepting Israel’s right to be a colonial-settler racist state, then the holocaust must be denied or at least questioned.” (p. 130)

The belief that “Jews control America” is also countered. In Massad’s view, the power of the “Jewish lobby” derives from the fact that “its major claims are about advancing US interests” and it contextualises its support for Israel in its support for US strategy; “the extent to which American Jews are represented in the US government is the extent to which they have become assimilated into a generic American whiteness…” (p. 150)

The book also includes the transcript of a long-distance discussion between Massad and Israeli “new historian” Benny Morris that marked the turn-about in the latter’s position. Whereas Morris’ previous scholarship has leaned in the direction of recognising the injustice done to the Palestinians, this discussion revealed his extreme racism.

In the face of Zionism’s rewriting of Palestinian and Jewish history, Massad’s book stands as an important contribution to revisiting history in order to learn from it, pointing to the role intellectuals should play in society.

This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reproduced with permission.

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