Book review: “Thinking Palestine”

In September 2006 I attended a multidisciplinary two-day conference called “Palestine as State of Exception - A Global Paradigm,” organized by Ronit Lentin of the Department of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin (TCD). A few weeks earlier Israel had launched its so-called “second Lebanon war,” inflicting more than 1,000 civilian fatalities. For this reason an associate assured me he would not be attending the conference as “this wasn’t the right time for academic discussion,” as if actual violence in some way precluded the theoretical discussion of its causes.

Although I disagreed with this perception, I was filled with unease as I sat through hours of sometimes impenetrable exposition and argumentation. I felt almost as if I were present at a religious ritual, in which the participants exchanged gifts of jargon, the significance of which was apparent only to the initiated.

Now the upshot of this conference has been published as Thinking Palestine. I write “upshot” because the book is by no means a straightforward transcript. Individual contributions have often been drastically revised, three new contributors have come on board, and Ilan Pappe has replaced his original contribution with an entirely new essay. The result is an invaluable collection of articles on race, “biopolitics and the state of exception,” and “contested representations.” In effect the original conference served as a kind of workshop for this project, with the welcome transition from spoken to written word making it easier to separate sense from jargon.

Those still unconvinced of the relevance of academic theorizing should be reminded of the existence of the Israeli army’s Operational Theory Research Institute, where academically trained soldiers and civilians co-opt such radical thinkers as Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in the interests of rethinking urban military operations. If the enemy believes that such researches are worthwhile, then it would be foolhardy to concede the theoretical terrain without a struggle.

The original title of the TCD conference was inspired by the radical Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, whose theorization of the state of exception, derived from a deep reading of the works of Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault, seems tailor-made to describe the reduction of the Palestinian people to “bare life” by Zionism. Agamben counterpointed Foucault’s conceptual couple biopolitics/biopower with their opposite: thanatopolitics/thanatopower (“the management of death and destruction”), seen by Honaida Ghanim as “the appropriate conceptual frame for understanding the [management] of colonized occupied spaces and subjugated populations.”

Yet the Agamben connection is not uncontested. For Lentin herself, his concept of “bare life” “runs the risk of erasing the active agency of the Palestinian subject, represented as either passive victim of Israeli dispossession or aggressive insurgent, but with interpretative control wrested away.”

For Pappe, the fact that Agamben has been enthusiastically seized upon by the Israeli right and by liberal Zionists sets alarm bells ringing. He claims that “the inclusion of Israel in the state of exception debate” is not only wrong, but dangerous. Adding that “tempting as it might be, it can reinforce the global immunity Israel receives for its membership in the camp of democratic states … The very discussion of Israel within the parameters of this debate assumes that Israel is another case of a western liberal democracy dangerously deteriorating into the abyss dreaded by Agamben.” Israel is neither a democracy nor is it in a state of exception: it is a “state of oppression.”

I sense that for Agamben this process is less one of “deterioration,” whereby a formerly democratic condition is validated and its subsequent degradation condemned, than of exposing the seeds of that degradation within the very soil of liberal democracy.

In Pappe’s reading, Agamben sees the state of exception (prior to its becoming an end in itself) as “defending democracy” whereas “Israel uses oppression to defend it against democracy …, leading to the maintenance of the state of oppression.” Pappe sees Israel as characterized by “the hegemony of the security apparatuses” — not just an army with a state, but a secret service with a state. In short, a mukhabarat state, and therefore more at home in the neighborhood of the Arab dictatorships — now including Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authoriy — than is assumed by standard propaganda.

Whether or not one accepts Pappe’s reading of Agamben, this startling and typically provocative conclusion is an illuminating one. Pappe concludes that “de-democratizing Israel could give Palestinian resistance hope for change … If Israel is seen as a permanent state of oppression, the Palestinians may glimpse a light at the end of their tunnel of suffering and abuse.”

The other component of the conference’s original title, “A Global Paradigm,” has also been sacrificed, with Israel itself now being cited as a threatening paradigm. Raef Zreik, surveying Israeli constitutionalism, asserts that “Israel is a scandalous case of the modern paradigm of sovereignty because it reveals what lies beneath the smooth surface of other countries. The persistence of the exception in Israel, the ongoing state of emergency, the violent moment of birth, and the persistence of its ethnic nature are features that one might find in some countries at some points in time. Israel is unique in that all of these features are present most of the time.”

The dangers of ascribing paradigmatic status to Palestine are evoked by Gargi Bhattacharyya, who asserts that “Palestine has become the emblematic solidarity movement of our time … our Spanish civil war, our Cuba, our Nicaragua … the use of Palestine as shorthand for inter-ethnic conflict and seemingly intractable difference has taken on a new significance — with outcomes that are bad for Palestinians and for antiracism in many other places.” There is a risk of too much “talk about Palestine without much attention to the situation of Palestinians.”

“Racial Palestinianization” also exercises David Theo Goldberg. He traces the motif back to Britain’s Peel Commission of 1937 which refers to the “racial antagonism” between Jews and Arabs, characterizing Jews as “a highly intelligent and enterprising race backed by large financial resources,” while Palestinians are “a comparatively poor, indigenous community, on a different cultural level.” Goldberg warns against Israel’s power to determine the representation of Palestinian resistance: “It is not that might makes right in this case; it is that might manufactures the conditions and parameters, the terms, of political, and by extension historical and representational possibility.”

Lentin takes up this theme, uncomfortably aware of her “problematic position as (an exiled) citizen of Israel, and as such a member of the perpetrator group, in relation to representing Palestinian subjectivity.” This awareness informs her analysis of the practices of Zochrot, a much idealized Israeli organization chaired by Eitan Bronstein, devoted to uncovering, in its own words, “a kind of memory that was deliberately and systematically hidden” from Israeli Jews, and to “Hebraicizing” the Nakba, or the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1948. While Zochrot’s positive aspects are welcomed, Lentin adduces worrying undercurrents which imply that the organization attempts “to subsume the Palestinian voice” while, for example, executive members continue to serve as Israeli army reservists.

David Landy turns his attention to the phenomenon of political tourism, and in particular to tours organized by the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD). During the tour in which Landy participated he detected “Orientalist discourses of remaking and interpreting the East …, especially the use of women’s rights … to construct a picture of Palestinian society as ‘primitive,’ and the tendency to present Palestinians as ‘native informants’ rather than experts.” Participants “were not interested in hearing Palestinians present any overarching political narrative.” In particular, the right of return tended to be left out of accounts, whereas it “is an issue which Israeli organizations need to promote more than Palestinian ones.” A more authentic experience is provided by the Palestinian Alternative Tourism Group, although Landy deftly teases out the risks implicit in this concept of “authenticity.”

Anaheed Al-Hardan counterpoints quotations from David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in 1921, and Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert in 2005/2006, to demonstrate how the shared tropes of biblical discourse and mission civilatrice have led to a situation in which “the Israeli state continues to be the normative exception” to the international community’s “political status quo” which “revolves around a principle of secular civic democracy, so much so that wars are waged on behalf of this desired norm …” Nonetheless, “its status as a Jewish state remains unquestioned.”

If the spirit of Agamben hovers over the essays on race and the state of exception, that of Edward Said informs those concerning contested representations. It could hardly be otherwise: Said’s classic Orientalism (1978) is the cornerstone of any subsequent exploration of the representation and representability of “subaltern” peoples anywhere in the world.

Conor McCarthy demonstrates the almost prophetic percipience of the great Palestinian scholar. In The Question of Palestine Said defined Zionism’s denial of the Palestinian other as the replacement of actual natives “with new (but essentially European) ‘natives.’” That this is an absurdity has in no way hindered the Zionist narrative, bolstered by Israel’s “policy of detail,” from gaining acceptance in the world’s centers of power. The Israeli state institutionalizes the Zionist narrative, while the abusive term “terrorist” serves to block pre-emptively any Palestinian counter-narrative.

Because its contributors — sociologists, historians, legal experts and cultural critics — work from within an activist perspective, Thinking Palestine escapes the trap of “scholastic reason” (Pierre Bourdieu’s phrase), whereby the content of theory reflects the walled-off condition of the theorist comfortably ensconced in her/his “schola.” The book should be read closely by serious pro-Palestinian activists wishing to sharpen their conceptual tools in the ceaseless battle against Zionist propaganda.

Raymond Deane is an Irish composer, author and activist.

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