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The struggle against colonialism: a review of ‘Why Palestine Matters’

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Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism
Edited by Noushin Framke and Susan Landau
104 pp. The Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), $15.00

There is an adage that some of the most productive conversations at conferences often happen in hallways outside the meeting rooms.  The idea for Why Palestine Matters: The Struggle to End Colonialism was conceived during such a conversation, in a hotel lobby, at the 2016 meeting of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.  Standing outside the church-based discussions meeting room on the eve of that annual convening, Susan Landau of Christian-Jewish Allies Working for a Just Peace in Israel -Palestine, and Noushin Framke of the Presbyterian Church Israel Palestine Mission Network (IPMN), which had earlier published two other books, Zionism Unsettled: A Congressional Study Guide (2014),  Steadfast Hope: The Palestinian Quest for Just Peace (2009) considered putting together another IPMN volume, this time written for a wider readership, both secular and faith-based.

The fruit of that first conversation, Why Palestine Matters, which comes out in April 2018, is indeed an extremely valuable contribution to the recent body of literature on Palestine.  Designed as a study guide, it is accompanied by a dedicated website, featuring numerous videos accompanying each chapter, as well as discussion guidelines, and further resources.

The cover of Why Palestine Matters

Why Palestine Matters provides a historical overview of the plight of the Palestinian people, firmly establishing it as a decolonial struggle, and situates the struggle for justice in Palestine within the context of other global liberation struggles. As Martina Reese notes in Chapter One: “The impulse of indigenous peoples to resist and expel their colonizers is generally accepted as a justified and necessary response to domination and oppression; it is a right enshrined in international law. Nonetheless, the Palestinian struggle for self-determination has, in the minds of many, been detached from the wider global struggle of indigenous peoples against colonialism.” (p. 11)

At a time when the literature on Palestine has become somewhat specialized, with volumes focusing on specific aspects of the struggle, like academic boycott, cultural boycott, pinkwashing, and other such very focused topics, Why Palestine Matters succeeds in being comprehensive, yet in no way superficial.  The book covers the entirety of the Palestinian people in historic Palestine, with chapters on Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, 1948 Israel, as well as the Diaspora.  

The Foreword, written by Richard Falk, provides an excellent historical overview of the hundred years since the Balfour Declaration, leading to his persuasive argument that it is not enough to focus on “the occupation” in our search for justice, but that it is necessary to look at Israel’s overall treatment of the Palestinian people, a treatment Falk asserts is one of apartheid rule.  Yet I found myself puzzled by some of Falk’s terminology, such as his reference to “the Jewish people in historic Palestine.” Did he mean the pre-Israel Palestinian Jews? Today’s Israeli Jews, living in the land from the river to the sea? Or is he indeed referring to a “Jewish people,” a national entity composed of Jews? Similarly, I would have loved to read his elaboration on how, in a “post-apartheid state,” there would be room for a “Jewish homeland” in historic Palestine.

Why Palestine Matters

Beyond the foreword, the book has well-documented, compact units on “Palestine through the Lens of Colonialism and Intersectionality,” “An Intersectional Approach to Justice,” “Where We Are Now:  Facts on the Ground,” “A Snapshot of Contemporary Reality inside 1948 Israel,” “Rebranding a Country,” “Refugees,” and “Resistance.” Each unit features two or more original contributions, as well as reprints of excerpts of some of the better essays that have recently come out addressing these topics.    I found the “Facts on the Ground” essays most helpful, as each contribution in that section looks at the specific circumstances of Palestinians in one of the “fragments” of the historic homeland: in East Jerusalem, in the West bank, in Gaza, and in 1948 Israel, as well as in various refugee camps in Arab countries.  Chapters such as “Jerusalem in Limbo,” which examines the gerrymandering that occurred after the 1967 annexation, when Israel “disappeared the borders,” and the dilemma East Jerusalemites found themselves in, as they sought to preserve their Jerusalem ID, which they could lose for living abroad—the West Bank being considered “abroad” by Israel–are particularly informative.   As to Gaza, we get Jennifer Bing’s gem that “the idea that Hamas uses civilians as a human shield is a red herring—there is not a square inch of unpopulated space. Gaza is all humanity” (p. 41). Or, as Ron Smith writes: “Siege is no alternative to war, it is war by other means, targeting a civilian population with shortages, air strikes, and invasions, and preventing their escape through draconian regulations on movement in and out of the strip” (p. 44)

The epilogue, by Jonathan Kuttab, “And now what?  A realistic approach to the current impasse,” is a sober assessment of options and avenues to justice, none of which will provide an immediate solution, but all of which provide a way forward.  How “realistic” these options are is debatable, as Kuttab suggests Israel’s “lifting the siege on Gaza,” and “abandoning collective punishment and administrative detention,” without specifying how Israel would be pressured into doing so.  An earlier chapter on BDS, of course, addresses how to put pressure on Israel. Kuttab also discusses Palestinians “abandoning armed struggle,” with insufficient acknowledgement that this is something the overwhelming majority of Palestinians have never taken up in the first place, and are already promoting anyway, with the 2005 call for BDS. Yet Kuttab’s pragmatic embrace of non-violent strategies is formulated in his brilliant observation that “the issue is not the legitimacy of armed struggle, but its efficacy” (p. 95).  However deeply oppressed the Palestinians are, Kuttab notes, armed resistance cannot help them. “By the same token, continued Israeli reliance on deadly force has also proven ineffective.” The absolute last sentence in the volume also struck me as hinting at normalization, rather than the need for co-resistance. “Implementation of these measures will go a long way to alleviate the day-to-day misery in the lives of Palestinians and will also move Israelis toward a more humane and sustainable situation, much more in line with their own Jewish values, and who they want to be,” Kuttab writes, thus concluding a book on the plight of the Palestinian people with a gesture towards improving the Israeli moral fabric.  Why not focus on the people whose very humanity, rather than their humaneness, is questioned?

I guess I found the overall framing a little problematic at times.  The foreword, as well as most introductory essays to chapters, are written by non-Palestinians, in a literary practice that perpetuates power dynamics whereby the privileged give permission to the oppressed to speak. It is time we broke that mold. I would have preferred to have Palestinian voices framing the analysis.  Additionally, some expressions will ring harshly to some readers, for example, on page 9: “Undergirding this project is a basic assumption that people matter. Black Lives Matter. Palestinian Lives Matter. Israeli Lives Matter. All lives matter.” Umm, yes of course, but could we not express that differently, when we know how the “basic assumption” has been put to extremely problematic use?  And a statement such as “It is time to hear the narrative of the colonized with open hearts and minds” (p. 11) rings hollow when only three contributions are by Palestinians: Jonathan Kuttab, Ghassan Tarazi, and Rami Khouri.

Still, this does not take away from the intrinsic value of the various contributions.  

The recent tragedy at the high school in Parkland, Florida, exposed yet again that “thoughts and prayers,” while welcome and appreciated, do not replace the need for effective action.  With Why Palestine Matters, the Israel Palestine Mission network of the Presbyterian Church is once again proving that it is serious in enacting solidarity, with a highly-readable book providing accessible analysis, online resources, discussion guidelines, and concrete action steps towards a solution.  I have expressed my reservations out of an urge to push the editors to be even more progressive in their next venture. With that said, I absolutely, wholeheartedly recommend the book, because of its unwavering and courageous commitment to justice, its extremely well-researched contributions covering a wide range of topics, and the excellent online resources. My review is based on an online PDF copy of the manuscript, and I fully intend to go out and buy it when it comes out in print.

About Nada Elia

Nada Elia is a Palestinian scholar-activist, writer, and grassroots organizer, currently completing a book on Palestinian Diaspora activism.

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6 Responses

  1. JosephA
    JosephA
    March 22, 2018, 12:05 am

    Nada,

    Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention.

  2. March 22, 2018, 10:13 am

    And mine – will spread the word

  3. ritzl
    ritzl
    March 23, 2018, 3:42 pm

    Ms. Elia, your writing is consistently discerning and holistic. I hope the editors of this book contact you for a contribution. It would be a valued addition.

    In particular “Why Palestine Matters” might include what you mention in this aticle – empowering and fronting more PALESTINIAN voices/enhancing Palestinian leadership efforts. I think this is not a small thing.

    This conflict is so peculiarly intractable in so many ways that if a successful Palestinian (i.e. indigenous) leadership strategy were to be crafted it would resonate outward to other struggles with common elements of oppression.

  4. falcon170
    falcon170
    March 28, 2018, 11:23 am

    Sorry, the Arabs had their chance to kill all the Jews in Israel and couldn’t get it done. They had their chance to piece apart Israel and were too stupid to accept. The ‘two-state solution’ is dead and Jerusalem is just the first nail in it’s coffin.

  5. JLewisDickerson
    JLewisDickerson
    March 29, 2018, 12:57 am

    RE: The struggle against colonialism: a review of ‘Why Palestine Matters’

    ■ GRAPHIC

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