Can a focus on “Palestinian narrative” be dangerous to Palestinian rights?

28 March 2014

There are two main strands to Anna Bernard’s book Rhetorics of Belonging (Liverpool University Press).

Both have significance towards how Palestine is thought and written about in the West and how Western liberals categorize “good” and “bad” Arabs, selecting what they wish to hear and believe about Palestine.

First is an exploration of how Palestinian and Israeli literature — notwithstanding current interest in translations of Arabic literature into English — is surprisingly little read in the context of postcolonial and comparative literature.

On this we find the academic Ella Shohat’s suspicion that the usual African and South Asian texts of “postcolonial” studies are chosen because of their political distance from American concerns, alongside the fact that they are often written in English.

When it is read in universities or for the pages of publications such as The New York Review of Books or literary supplements of London newspapers, Bernard writes, Palestinian and Israeli literature is usually seen as representing a national narrative.

This emphasis on “narrative” rather than justice can, Bernard argues, be dangerous to Palestinians.

Increased “receptivity” to the “Palestinian narrative,” she asserts, has created a situation where to hear what Palestinians have to say — and then to juxtapose it against the Holocaust and centuries of European pogroms — allows Western liberals to carry on ignoring Palestinian rights while offering a briefly sympathetic ear.

“Wishing the nation away”

Postcolonial scholars also, Bernard contends, have an ideological tendency to “wish the nation away.” The evils of exclusive nationalism are thus confused with calls for liberation from those who are excluded and repressed precisely because of their nation.

Western scholars may have the luxury of celebrating their cosmopolitanism. But in doing so they fail to acknowledge the experiences of those who have no option to walk away from fixed identity because it is the means by which others persecute them.

The second main strand is the idea that it is possible — indeed, necessary — to look at Palestinian and Israeli literature alongside each other.

To do so, Bernard argues persuasively, is not to grant the narratives themselves moral or political equivalence — to see Israeli claims as equal to Palestinian.

To acknowledge that these literatures relate to one another, Bernard argues, is to understand the ways in which they often represent reactions to the same circumstances.

“Cannot be separated”

Indeed, she cites Edward Said in his assertion that “we know these histories cannot be separated and that the Western liberal who tries to do so violates, rather than comprehends, both.”

This approach leads to an unpicking of the ways in which Palestinian and Israeli writers do (or do not) represent their respective nations in their writings, and the ways in which other scholars and critics have read literature on this theme.

Bernard explicitly focuses on writers whose works are widely available in English, namely the Palestinians Edward Said, Mourid Barghouti, Sahar Khalifeh and Anton Shammas, who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel; and the Jewish Israelis Amos Oz and Orly Castel-Bloom.

Through the autobiographical writings of Said and Barghouti, Bernard explores themes such as how Western readerships construct their ideas of what it means to be Palestinian — sometimes, in Barghouti’s case, in contradiction to the writer’s explicit rejection of his “representativeness.”

Disingenuous

Bernard scrutinizes why Oz’s novels are often held up by commentators in Europe and America as proof of a “sane” or “rational” Israel. Such commentators have often, Bernard suggests, absorbed Oz’s disingenuous projection of himself in this role.

In doing so, they ignore both the racist implications of his narratives — which “construct an attractive and marketable Jewish Israeli nation-state, and … naturalize a separatist demographic imaginary” — and Oz’s own support for acts of Israeli military aggression.

The works of Sahar Khalifeh and Orly Castel-Bloom are analyzed from the starting point that they are often viewed in the West as the writing of women before being the writing of a Palestinian or an Israeli.

This invokes a discussion of how women writers and activists in both Palestine and Israel have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the international gaze.

Both, Bernard argues, have been affected by foreigners’ preconceptions and used by them for their own purposes.

No neat categorization

Finally, Anton Shammas’ novel Arabesques is examined as an example of a work which does not fit neatly into categories of either “Palestinian” or “Israeli” literature. Shammas wrote Arabesques in Hebrew but focused mainly on Palestinian characters.

In doing so, his literary project seems to mesh with the call he famously made in 1985 for the State of Israel to live up to its democratic claims by allowing its Palestinian citizens their full political — and thus social and economic — rights.

Shammas’ call exposed A.B. Yehoshua, like Oz, a “reasonable Israeli” and a darling for international liberals, as harboring anti-Arab ideas “not significantly different from … Meir Kahane” (a US rabbi who advocated the expulsion of all Palestinians from “greater Israel”).

But the novel itself is less clear-cut, using complex patterns of fictional identity and storytelling to render all claims to authenticity or authority problematic.

This is an academic book (with, sadly, an academic price-tag) which assumes some prior knowledge. But the novels and autobiographies discussed are well-known and accessible.

Bernard’s writing is clear and readable, exploring a range of ideas which are significant not just for scholars of literature and nationalism, but for those with a more general interest in Palestine.

Sarah Irving worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

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Comments

"But in doing so they fail to acknowledge the experiences of those who have no option to walk away from fixed identity because it is the means by which others persecute them."

and this is why there is zionism. this is the jewish experience as well. sometime anti-israel and anti-zionist thinkers and activists fail to grasp...

I suspect that the author of the book covered a wider sampling of writers who are Palestinians who are citizens of Israel than the reviewer did. At least two such major literary figures cannot be ignored in any in-depth discussion off the issue at hand: Emil Habibi (who wrote in Arabic) and Sayed Kashua (who writes in Hebrew.) Both have a powerful wit and consciously attempt bridging the mental abyss that opposes Palestinian Arab versus Israeli Jew in the eyes of the Western reader. I humbly submit that there is a very fertile and much needed ground to cover for aspiring Palestinian writers from Israel.

Hi Hatim - just to respond to your point, no, the book does not cover a wider range of authors who are Palestinian citizens of Israel, beyond making brief mention of them by way of context. The book uses a case-study format, rather than attempting to be comprehensive. Also, the book is not first and foremost *about* Palestinian writers who are Israeli citizens, so this is not the key reason for Shammas’s inclusion. There is, of course, huge scope to raise the profile of such authors, for many different reasons.