On Western “left” appropriation of Palestinian Nakba

On one hand, it’s an encouraging indicator of the power of the Palestinian rights campaign that Nakba Day is an increasingly prominent date in the global political calendar.

On the other, it is a measure of the appropriation of Palestinian suffering and dispossession by Western left-liberals that a self-proclaimed “radical” publisher such as Verso Books — which numbers Palestinian greats such as Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish amongst its authors — can publish a “Nakba Day reading list” which contains no Palestinian writers, and which consists largely of Israeli authors.

This is not to disrespect some of those Israeli writers: Eyal Weizman, Ilan Pappe and Shlomo Sand have all had important and courageous critiques to make of their country. It is also not claim that only Palestinians are entitled to have opinions about or to analyze a subject which is, of course, of international significance.

But on Nakba Day, the day when Palestinians commemorate the decades of crimes which have been committed against them, to silence Palestinian voices in this way is a disturbing reflection of the way in which the Western left appropriates the “other” for its own purposes.

The “Nakba Day reading list” in question was blogged by Verso’s Publicity & Marketing Manager, Jennifer Tighe, and publicized on Twitter. The shorter, press-friendly version of the list starts like this:

As the text shows, the authors highlighted in the publicity campaign are Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Norman Finkelstein and Shlomo Sand. The other writers on this version of the release, not shown in the screen grab, were Eyal Weizman, Audrea Lim and Josh Ruebner. The page ended with a link inviting readers to click through to “Verso’s Nakba Reading List in full.”

The link directed readers to a longer list. At the beginning of the working day, this featured the authors named above, and again highlighted mainly Israeli (and also male, academic) writers:

However, by late afternoon, Verso Books had come in for plenty of criticism on Twitter, with commentors - many apparently inspired by a tweet from Helena Cobban of Just World Books — calling Verso’s list “shameful” and “pathetic.” After some time, Verso Books also weighed in, admitting that “You’re right! That was stupid. We have updated the list.”

An updated version of the list had indeed appeared, featuring Palestinian writers from Verso’s catalogue, including Said, Darwish, and also Ghada Karmi and Naji al-Ali.

It was an improvement, and credit goes to Verso for admitting their mistake and going some way to rectifying it. But the main point is not this one list and its contents. It is what it represents.

To many Western leftists, what are Palestinians, and what is the Nakba? A marker of their own radicalism? A marketing opportunity — whether for booksellers or political parties? Or a genuine commitment to finding ways to be a responsible ally to a people oppressed and dispossessed by, or with the collusion of, our own regimes?

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I'm glad you wrote Western "left-liberals," because at least in the US I'm not sure that a left even exists anymore, which leads me to also think that this criticism comes from and makes more sense outside the US than inside, where very few campuses or cities are marking the Nakba and very few non-Palestinians are appropriating anything Palestinian. If you're in the US and not in Berkeley, Chicago, New York, one could almost wish for, if not appropriation, at least recognition.

I think the critique of appropriation makes most sense where there is 1) some kind of left and 2) some kind of Palestinian and or pro-Palestinian community.

I support your argument re: Verso Books; it's good that they did respond as quickly as they did, because unfortunately, there are too many publishers who would simply act defensive and moronic about people calling them to account.

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Sarah,

I attended a very dignified Nakba Day commemoration in Galway, Ireland, yesterday. Given that my country has a host of current economic and political woes, we are facing elections next week, and the weather was unusually balmy, the turn-out was hugely encouraging.

The organisers had a lot to be cheerful about. NUI Galway became the first university in Ireland to adopt BDS as official students' union policy and they are campaigning to remove security firm G4S from the campus next year. Others have highlighted the hypocrisy of allowing US warplanes use our local airport in so-called 'neutral' Ireland.

Instead of questioning the motives of leftists in championing the struggle for Palestinian rights, people should be delighted that support and awareness of the Nakba are growing all the time.

It's a sign of the huge progress Galway activists have made that the Israeli Embassy in Ireland became involved in a very public and almost hysterical campaign against their referendum this year.

Yes, the publishers made a mistake - and corrected it - by omitting Palestinian writers from the "Nakba list" yesterday.

But I'd suggest that unity and strength in numbers are the way forward instead of nit-picking over the motives of some people in supporting the Palestinians' rights 66 years on from the Nakba.

After all, many of us are bombarded with pro-Zionist spin in the mainstream media all the time - especially in the US and UK.

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Yeah. This sort of illustrates my point. I may be wrong, but at least where I live, the Palestinian cause is not (yet) strong enough to worry about appropriation. We're still struggling to get more recognition for it, although we had a Nakba Day presentation. If you're in London, it's different. I think the question of appropriation depends on location, political, cultural, whether you're in a big urban metropolis vs. smaller, more "out of the way" places.

There always a danger in all political movements of people assuming that the dynamics of their own location are those of everyone's. It's human to confuse one's own location with "the world," but still problematic. And living in the US I find this to be especially true, because this is really the belly of the beast, when it comes to Israel. No other country has the "special relationship" (read: completely bizarre) to Israel like that of the US. Post 9/11, Palestinians in my community lay low more than they feel comfortable being public activists on any issue. Not each and everyone, but enough that it is primarily white non-Palestinians who have brought attention to the issues. If you brought up "appropriation" here, it wouldn't resonate for either the Palestinian community or their supporters. I think the Palestinians would love it if they and their cause were "cool" enough to be appropriated here.

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I must say I agree with Ciaran. It is wise to recognize your allies. Their weaknesses may be evolving into strengths for the future. Activists learn as they go and there are so many different ways of drawing attention to a struggle, even when one chooses one particular path.
It would even be a mistake to believe that 'Palestinian activists' are only concerned with Palestine. Many I meet are concerned with all sorts of issues to do with justice, the history of colonialism, how world powers determine the fate of smaller countries, historical and modern day issues associated with their own work and lives which have led them to become involved. In any case, I have yet to meet one who sees activism as a "marker of their own radicalism" or a "marketing opportunity". Fighting for justice for Palestinians actually means fighting for justice for everyone.
In Europe Palestinians are sorely underrepresented in groups working to draw attention to the injustices of those living under occupation. There are any number of reasons for this, but actually, they could contribute to the awareness of non-Palestinian activists by helping them to understand more from Palestinian points of view.

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Ciaran,

It's this very defensiveness that indicates there is a problem with Western leftist 'struggle-appropriation'. If Palestinians are being excluded and marginalised from a movement supposedly acting in solidarity with them, we should certainly act to redress this, and be grateful that people are willing to point it out. If activists get offended when we ask why Palestinians aren't better represented in their movement, those activists' priorities are warped. BDS is making great strides in Ireland, but let's keep focused on what solidarity should mean - supporting a people under occupation, rather than making our own 'struggle' (against a hostile media, Ireland's economic woes, the weather, and the usual difficulties faced by Western activists) centre-stage.

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At least for me, (I'm not in Ireland), I think you've misread me, if your comments are aimed at mine. I completely agree with the remark about Verso in the author's post. I just think that not everyplace and everywhere is there a "left," Palestinian or otherwise, although I frankly wish there were a left to criticize where I am, and Ireland looks like left heaven compared to where I am, so I get your point re: Ireland.

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My point I guess is that Palestinians need, and should welcome, all the support they can get given the strength of the Zionist lobby and the kind of propaganda you see in the US media.

There are not many Palestinians involved in the solidarity campaign in Ireland simply because very few Palestinians have had the opportunity to move here.

And yet in my city of just 75,000 people, the brave work of a 19-year old girl from Belfast revived the university Palestine Solidarity society so emphatically that BDS against Israel has become official students' union policy after just one year of campaigning.

People may not remember the Dunnes Stores workers, a group of supermarket employees in Dublin whose refusal to handle South African goods caused enormous damage to the Apartheid regime in the 1980s. The women involved were thanked in person by Nelson Mandela years later.

I agree re what solidarity should mean. But I'd suggest that well-meaning non-Palestinian activists can and do make a huge difference.

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Verso's candidness is all to its credit. It is good they have adapted their selection. I only wish they had explained in greater detail the original mistake. I can't help feel it was motivated by something along the lines of: If these prominent Jews are saying it, then it must be true. This harks back to the times when confirmation by Israelis or Jews was essential to give the most benign claim an acceptable level of legitimacy.

It is good to realize these times are definitively over! The struggle of activists from within is drawing to an end in its current form, in the sense that it is now established, organized, published (see Verso). Naturally, it occurred at the same time as the far greater struggle of Palestinians themselves, but that is not what the original selection focused on.

This strikes me primarily as a marketing mistake on the part of Verso, it should have been something like The Nakba: Another/a Different Jewish Sound (as the Dutch association of anti-zionist Jews is called).

I feel sure the Jewish authors of the original anthology are entirely in favour of the changes in the selection of works.

I also doubt people are motivated by marketing advantages or the like. I read somewhere that Ilan Pappe left Israel because of unacceptable pressure on his children. Also that Chomsky told his family that the weight and responsibility of his political work fell entirely upon his shoulders, and that it had nothing to do with them. Without having looked into it, I suspect that many people paid a high price. Norman Finkelstein has often been described as a nut, whereas I consider him anything but. You have to take the times into account.This unpleasantness cascades downwards. I have never noticed that supporting Palestinians has a beneficial effect on one's wallet or health.

Sarah, thank you for a most stimulating article.

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.