This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
These last days have seen a serious discussion about the leadership of the Free Gaza movement. Charges of anti-Semitism have been made. Statements condemning anti-Semitism have been issued. I don’t believe what happened in the Free Gaza upper echelons should diminish Jewish commitment to justice for Palestinians – this is not what the discussion is about. I do believe anti-Semitism makes it more difficult to address Israel/Palestine in a mature and bold way.
The difficulty isn’t only that charges of anti-Semitism are used as a bulwark for Israel. The main drawback is that anti-Semitism still exists.
Historically, Jews maintain a special place in the West. Jews are featured prominently in the world religions of Christianity and Islam. Thus, feelings and speech about Jews are global. Anti-Semitism can exist even where Jews don’t.
Jean-Francois Lyotard’s distinction between “Jews” and ‘jews” remains in place. In Lyotard’s understanding, “Jews” are real Jews while “jews” are what Jews represent to others. Sometimes that representation is positive, other time negative. I use Jews/jews to point out that Jews are real and iconic. After this long history it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the two.
If it was just Jews/jews to deal with the Israel/Palestine issue would be controversial enough. However, Palestine is iconic, too. As with Jews and Israel, real “Palestinians” sometimes get in the way of conceptual “palestinians.” When Palestinians march to their own drummer, they, too, are expendable.
I have written about the division between real “Jews” and “jews” and its relation to the real “Israel” and “israel.” Jews and Israel when capitalized is the real thing. Lowercase jews and israel are the conceptual baggage that each represents. Recently, I have been thinking about the differentiation of “Palestinians” and “palestinians” and its consequences for the fate of the Palestinian people.
The most obvious division is in the West, with “palestinians” predominating over “Palestinians.” On the whole, the conceptual baggage of “palestinians” has been negative. The resultant consequences are obvious. “palestinians” have been seen as anti-Semitic, inheritors of the Nazi vendetta against Jews and as terrorist warriors against the West.
For the most part this Palestine/palestine division is in Europe and America, and no doubt that is the reason that the Russell Tribunal on Palestine held three of its four sessions there. Self-correction of this stereotype is crucial. However, there is another side of the Palestine coin – the positive sense of the world importance of “palestinians.”
I remember making a presentation in a South African mosque during the transition to the new South Africa. I was greeted warmly by some. I was yelled down by others. At the conclusion of my presentation, one person shouted that soon he, with others, would be marching to free Palestine of the Jewish invaders. Fearing for my safety, my hosts hustled me off the stage into a waiting car.
Sitting in the speeding vehicle, I imagined the global march to free Palestine of Jews. Soon blood was flowing in the streets. My first thought wasn’t about Jews. Rather it was about my Palestinian friends. One by one, I saw them slaughtered in the “liberation” of Palestine. Rather than Israelis committing the slaughter, it was the “liberating” forces. “palestine” rather than Palestinians was their issue.
This story is anecdotal yet it also resonates with other experiences I’ve had. Even the anti-Semitism I’ve encountered in Israel/Palestine debates is almost exclusively indebted to the conceptual framework of “palestinians.” Palestinian dissidents I’ve encountered know full well the differentiation between the “Holocaust” and the “holocaust.” They also distinguish ably between “Jews” and “jews.” It seems that often the same people who use “jews” in a negative light use “palestinians” for their own purposes.
Every oppressed community needs all friends it can get. The enemy of my enemy is a friend. I have found it remarkable how Palestinian dissidents have struggled against being associated with such “friends.” The question I pose goes beyond the issue of anti-Semitism. It is the question of whether Palestinians can be liberated as long as iconic “palestine” remains in force.
Obviously, “palestine” will remain. Icons are a force unto themselves. They are more powerful than the real thing. Once captured as an image, icons don’t disappoint. Reality is always mixed. Why trade in an icon for real life?
Like Jews, Palestinians have to negotiate their own image. But since “jews” and “israel” are so important in the war of icons – perhaps the most important global icon – being associated with them is, iconically speaking, upward mobility. If not for “jews/israel,” Palestine would be relegated to the backwaters of world conflicts. This, too, would be true of Israel. Without its iconic status and its link with ‘jews,” where would Israel be on the global power map? Israel might not even exist.
At the Russell Tribunal on Palestine a curious exchange played out this iconic status of “palestinians.” This came from a supporter of Palestinian rights. Or was it the right of “palestinians?” Nonetheless it was telling.
At the podium was Saleh Hamayel. To say the least he has paid his dues. Hamayel joined the Palestinian national movement in 1968 and was imprisoned three times by Israeli authorities without trial. Active in the PLO, he was also an early critic of Yasser Arafat. As a student at Cairo University, Hamayael was active in both the General Union of Palestinian Students and the Egyptian student movement. For this he was repeatedly imprisoned. Since 1981, he has been a Professor of History and Political Science at Birzeit University and served as Director of Birzeit’s Research Center from 1994–97. Among others, he has written, The Israeli Assassination Policy in the Aqsa Intifada (2001) and Palestinians and the Historiography of the 1948 War (2005).
One of the terms Hamayel emphasizes when referring to Israeli policies in Jerusalem and the West Bank is “sociocide,” especially referring to the pressures of destruction, Judaization, and expulsion imposed on the Palestinian people. One of the terms he doesn’t employ as readily as the Russell Tribunal on Palestine would like is apartheid. This resulted in a sharp exchange with one of the jurists, Michael Mansfield who, among other things, is Professor of Law at London’s City University.
I tuned in late and the live-streaming had some glitches so I missed most of Hamayel’s presentation. I did capture his interaction with Mansfield in the question and answer session. Their interaction was telling. Because Hamayel had deemphasized apartheid, especially the Palestinian situation with regard to apartheid South Africa, Mansfield was furious. Not only did Mansfield challenge Hamayel, he bullied him. There was no way that Hamayel would be allowed to undercut Mansfield’s sense that Israel was practicing apartheid.
At stake was the legal definition of apartheid. Under International Law apartheid is not subsumed by the specific way apartheid was practiced in South Africa. Hamayel either didn’t get Mansfield’s point or had another issue in mind, first and foremost communicating the suffering, survival and flourishing of his people in his own framework. Mansfield’s mission was to hold Israel’s feet to the fire.
I was stunned watching this exchange but hardly surprised. Hamayel’s voice was considered redundant if he didn’t obey guidelines set in advance and by others. In the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, highlighting Palestinian particularity was forbidden.
Other jurists felt Mansfield was too sharp. A white South African jurist intervened and gently massaged Hamayel, thanking him for his passion and patiently explaining the differences Mansfield had demanded. Paternalism rather than dismissal was his course of action.
Do you remember when some Palestinians (correctly) accused Progressive Jews of attempting to manage and thus limit Palestinian voices? It can happen, too, in international tribunals where non-Jews run the show.
Iconic “palestine.” You know it when Palestinians are allowed to speak only when they tell the story that others want to hear.
So, then, who speaks for Palestinians and Palestine?