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The language of Palestinian freedom

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Ash Sarkar, of “I’m literally a communist” fame, recently set Palestine Twitter ablaze with an unusual pronouncement:

Reaction against this message was swift, but Sarkar, who in a single tweet appointed herself guardian of Palestine’s anti-colonial struggle, has yet to engage her Palestinian critics, many of whom patiently explained the importance of terms like “resistance.”  The lack of engagement isn’t surprising; any half-sentient pundit quickly learns that it’s okay to upset Palestinians if their antagonists are happy.

Some observers absolve Sarkar based on a recent piece for the Independent (London) in which she apparently makes a strong defense of Palestinians.  A close reading of that article, however, shows it to be subtly deferential to liberal orthodoxy.  The article uses crafty diction to elide Israeli colonization and instead conceptualize the state’s brutalization of civilians as an unfortunate example of disparate military power (an argument that tacitly normalizes Zionism).

Sarkar proclaims:  “the erasure of Palestinian voices in narrating their own history is itself in concurrence with the Israeli state’s strategy to delegitimize Palestinian struggle for self-determination in all its forms.”  This point might be more compelling had Sarkar not taken to Twitter the next day to dispose of words any cogent Palestinian would use if given the opportunity.

The decision to sanitize resistance into pleasant soundbites had clearly been made by the time she wrote the article.  Sarkar refers to Palestine-Israel as a “conflict” eight times (including the headline) and seems fond of “asymmetry,” which brings to mind a Foreign Policy shindig in a hotel ballroom with maroon carpet and plastic chandeliers; words like “colonization,” “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” “ethnocracy,” “imperialism,” “settler,” “apartheid,” and “Zionism” are absent.  I’d normally chalk up the lexical dullness to the editing practices of corporate media, but Sarkar’s tweet suggests that Independent editors probably had an easy time making the language conform to house style.

“The fundamental issue,” Sarkar proclaims in closing, “is about our right to stand in solidarity with oppressed peoples in highly asymmetric conflicts.”  Note that Palestinians are absent from this appeal. The fundamental issue isn’t the right of oppressed peoples to fight, resist, or do much of anything else; it is about the Westerner’s right to solidarity, an insidious logic given the article’s pretense of centering Palestinians.

And what’s this about “highly asymmetric conflicts”?  Which others does she have in mind? Police officers versus Black children?  The National Guard versus water protectors? Slaughterhouses versus herd animals?  Monsanto versus organic crops?

Sarkar’s lack of self-awareness is alarming, as when she argues, “[I]t would be fair to say that the military asymmetry of the Israel-Palestine conflict is matched in the media.  Language itself is a battlefield.” Word choice is important to public discourse says the person who just referred to settler colonization as “military asymmetry” in a major newspaper.

Sarkar’s unfortunate tweet gives us an opportunity to examine the uses of language in political and activist formations.  The vocabulary of Palestinian nationalism exists in Arabic and has been subject to debate for over a century. Much of that vocabulary isn’t easily translated, so by having the conversation in English we’re already displacing Palestine onto foreign terrain.

Nevertheless, it’s viable to maintain the spirit of the homeland and to support those seeking its renewal.  Leaving aside the dubious act of forfeiting language important to the very people under discussion, we have to examine who benefits from the forfeiture.  “Resistance” doesn’t simply denote obstinacy; it connotes political and economic self-realization. “Fighting” isn’t an irrational desire to inflict harm; it is a necessary survival mechanism.  The colony cannot maintain its endurance without antagonism. These points are elementary to decolonial theory; it is baffling that a self-proclaimed communist would so breezily dismiss them.

Sarkar and her mentor Dr. Kristin Ross—who came out of nowhere—want to explore what is permissible and persuasive to Western audiences, a useful concern.  But the Western audiences they invoke as universal are in fact media bosses, sitting politicians, think tank wonks, and other such functionaries. We cannot make decolonization palatable to the liberal wing of the ruling class—and even if doing so were possible, it would be undesirable.  The purpose of decolonization is to upend inhuman norms, including those of speech and elocution. Limiting our imagination to rhetorical customs in the metropole commits us to invisibility.

Communicating to people in the West is important—even better if they decide to listen.  I don’t want my argument to be read as a disavowal of conversation in either friendly or hostile environs.  I submit instead that it’s not the responsibility of dispossessed people to assure their oppressors’ comfort.  In the end, if arbiters of respectable opinion won’t accept Palestine’s national liberation movement as it actually exists, then it’s not because of language, but a fundamental difference of politics.  No amount of dissimulation will alter this reality.

Finally, relinquishing the venerable language of Palestinian struggle is a conciliation to Zionist discipline.  The colonized have only a few sources of power: native knowledge, cultural memory, filial bonds, historical legitimacy.  Perhaps their greatest power is a refusal to absolve the colonizer’s perpetual violence. Zionists are desperate for affirmation; the sharp tones of our dialect foreclose that possibility.

Saying “fuck Israel” may not be prudent and yet we should have learned by now that kowtowing to Zionist angst isn’t a prelude to approval, but a voluntary disappearance.

Steven Salaita
About Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita's most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

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20 Responses

  1. lyn117
    lyn117
    August 20, 2018, 11:51 am

    The zionists have co-opted as much of the language as they can, Jews (only Jews, of course) have “self-determination” in Palestine, removing settlers from the occupied territories is “ethnic cleansing”. I’m sure they’re working on how to co-opt a few more towards their benefit.

  2. Blaine Coleman
    Blaine Coleman
    August 20, 2018, 12:01 pm

    People have been saying “God Damn Israel” up at the mike in City Council meetings for a while.
    For example, in July 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unITEFUSHwI

    And people have been saying “Boycott ‘Israel’ ” in those same City Council meetings.
    For example, in June 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCnXBuwIMYM
    The newspaper posted this video of the event: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cy7UVKMNO8k

    • haredi
      haredi
      August 25, 2018, 10:21 am

      This is how I think the a Palestinians should protest:This I would say to you
      Protest on your knees
      Hold up your flag with one hand
      And your other hand raised to Allah
      Carry your martyrs’ pictures
      Sit on your prayer rugs with
      Your peaceful protest signs
      Step back from the fence
      So that you do not provoke
      Soldiers, who do not make the laws,
      To strike you from fear.
      If they rain on you tear gas
      Take up your prayer rug, your scarfs
      Shield your faces
      Step back and return
      Let the world know you are non-violent
      Because deep in our hearts we know
      It is wrong to kill and maime
      Pray so that the world can see you
      Pray day and night
      Thousands of you,
      Millions,
      silently, bowed, kneeling, sitting
      A short distance from the fence
      Orderly
      Exchange anger for peaceful determination
      Let no man, woman or child
      Carry a weapon, or shout
      Call your brothers and sisters
      Call all Arabs to join you
      Be a vigil in the day and into the dark
      Like a visit to a holy place,
      Be reverent
      Never ceasing until the world recognizes
      Palestine
      Kingdom born of prayer
      With respect for law and order
      And join in your hope
      to have East Jerusalem as your capital
      Apartheid ended, Palestinian land respected
      And graciously welcome you at the same table
      Where peace is made.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        August 25, 2018, 1:49 pm

        “This is how I think the a Palestinians should protest”

        I’m sure it is. Your concern for Palestinians is palpable.

        “This I would say to you
        Protest on your knees”

  3. eljay
    eljay
    August 20, 2018, 2:30 pm

    … Sarkar proclaims: “the erasure of Palestinian voices in narrating their own history is itself in concurrence with the Israeli state’s strategy to delegitimize Palestinian struggle for self-determination in all its forms.” …

    The erasure of the women’s voices in narrating their own history is itself in concurrence with the man’s strategy to delegitimize their struggle for self-determination in all its forms.

    Huh. Kidnapping, imprisonment and rape don’t seem so bad when you use important-sounding words…

  4. Ottawa observer
    Ottawa observer
    August 21, 2018, 11:58 am

    Respect existence or expect resistance

  5. brent
    brent
    August 21, 2018, 6:35 pm

    From my perspective, Salaita’s thinking is not only prideful, egotistical and arrogant and could injure the well-being of not only Palestinians but humanity too. My bias is I think Jerusalem unresolved is the single greatest existential threat to the rule of law and even potentially civilization. His most important allies to cultivate are Jews who represent the humanistic component of Judaism. His ideological rationales are a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees and has played a part in the evolution of the Palestine Question over time. Its prudent to facilitate Palestine’s world wide support system, not suppress and weaken its ability to generate political support.

    Salaita could develop insights by reading Glubb Pasha’s, “My Times with the Arabs”.

    • gamal
      gamal
      August 22, 2018, 4:45 am

      “Salaita’s thinking is not only prideful, egotistical and arrogant and could injure the well-being of not only Palestinians but humanity too.”

      And thus commences brents teaching on Humility,

      “Salaita could develop insights by reading Glubb Pasha’s, “My Times with the Arabs”. ”

      How can Arabs know themselves except through the writing of John Bagot Glubb,

      would you recommend that a Black American wishing to know about him/herself should consult Charles Colcock Jones’ “The Religious Instruction of Negroes in the United States”,

      In your petulance you address not a single substantive point raised By Mr. Salaita and end with what is in essence a racist put down, Glubb Basha give insights to Mr. Salaita, about what?

      you are the voice of Palestine?

      “not only Palestinians but humanity too.” Palestinians are threatening humanity?

      ” I think Jerusalem unresolved is the single greatest existential threat to the rule of law and even potentially civilization”

      Put down the Scofield bible and please explain that bizarre outburst, and how Palestinians are responsible for this threat to you and everyone and everything else.

      an article about disciplining speech and here you are on que, no sense of irony brent, how typical (of your kind), Farakhan has written extensively on White people if you need to know about yourself, its the definitive source.

      • brent
        brent
        August 22, 2018, 1:51 pm

        gamal,

        Not humility, rather pragmatism.

        Responsibility for Jerusalem unresolved lies not only with Israelis but others including Americans, Europeans, and Palestinians.

        Few understand their fishbowl til they either get out and look back or gain insights from observers. Pasha was essentially an observer.

        Believe you missed the most important parts…the wisdom in aligning with the humanist component of Judaism (and could add, working constructively toward a future positive neighborly relationship with it) and enfranchising Palestine’s worldwide support system so political headway is more likely.

        No, I am not the voice of Palestine. Rather have been a voice for justice in Palestine for 40 years and am long frustrated seeing my efforts go for naught which I see Salaita’s prescription contributing to.

        “My kind”?

      • gamal
        gamal
        August 22, 2018, 4:14 pm

        “pragmatism” ?

        “Responsibility for Jerusalem unresolved lies not only with Israelis but others including Americans, Europeans, and Palestinians”

        so you have awarded Palestinians some of the blame, please fill out your empty anodyne words, Palestinians are the victims of a settler colonial enterprise how is that “unresolved”?

        “Few understand their fishbowl til they either get out and look back or gain insights from observers” honestly i think i am one of the worst people on earth to play that game with but its ok you weren’t to know.

        “Pasha was essentially an observer.” i think you’ll find he was rather more than that.

        “Believe you missed the most important parts” the bit where you deal with this

        “Sarkar refers to Palestine-Israel as a “conflict” eight times (including the headline) and seems fond of “asymmetry,” which brings to mind a Foreign Policy shindig in a hotel ballroom with maroon carpet and plastic chandeliers; words like “colonization,” “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” “ethnocracy,” “imperialism,” “settler,” “apartheid,” and “Zionism” are absent.”

        or

        “Sarkar’s lack of self-awareness is alarming, as when she argues, “[I]t would be fair to say that the military asymmetry of the Israel-Palestine conflict is matched in the media. Language itself is a battlefield.” Word choice is important to public discourse says the person who just referred to settler colonization as “military asymmetry” in a major newspaper.”

        I missed it was it there?

        “No, I am not the voice of Palestine. Rather have been a voice for justice in Palestine for 40 years and am long frustrated seeing my efforts go for naught which I see Salaita’s prescription contributing to.”

        you have so completely colonised the Palestinians struggle that you are now their victim, seriously if can’t muster a cogent criticism of Salaitas words at least have a little respect, you would not even have heard of Palestinians save for their 100 year struggle against the greatest powers the world had to offer (America is not what it once was), if Jews are humanists they will support the Palestinians, thats up to them, causes especially ones so just and in which the abuse of the native people is so gross can’t be sold or packaged, that would be demeaning.

        what you are doing is trying to delegitimize anything but Palestinian acquiescence in their own subjugation which is neither pragmatic nor humanist, you really ought to deal with the points he raises rather than waste time on all this why oh why where is the Palestinian Ben Kingsley stuff, but your kind never listen, perhaps your bowl glass is extra thick.

        all you have done is to insult Mr. Salaita and Palestine, please demonstrate with reference to his text where Salaita has gone wrong, in reference to anything he actually says.

        (that red thing on the bell makes this like work, brave new world and all)

      • Maghlawatan
        Maghlawatan
        August 22, 2018, 4:28 pm

        The humanist component of Judaism was strangled years ago in Israel. Israeli Jews are taught to hate. That is the core issue.

  6. nabraham
    nabraham
    August 22, 2018, 3:12 pm

    Salaita might better use his time getting the word out on what is happening in Palestine instead of policing statements of solidarity with the Palestinians. Anyone can sit in critical judgment over the statements of others, including Salaita’s mesh mash jumble of words.

    • gamal
      gamal
      August 22, 2018, 4:18 pm

      “mesh mash jumble of words”

      were you not able to understand the artilce, frustrating but not really Salaitas’ fault, it was precisely about getting the word out.

    • Maghlawatan
      Maghlawatan
      August 22, 2018, 4:26 pm

      Salaita obviously knows where the Z spot is !

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        August 22, 2018, 5:42 pm

        “Salaita obviously knows where the Z spot is !”

        I guess “brent” (“longtime follower of Palestine Question”) and “nabraham” (“Palestinian American, ex-academic”)just haven’t located their’s as of yet.

      • Maghlawatan
        Maghlawatan
        August 22, 2018, 10:19 pm

        Once you know where the Z spot is, Mooser, they are putty in your hands. Many Z’s even deny the existence of the spot!
        Advanced level operatives can reduce most Z’s to gibbering wrecks using the code word.

        Gaza

    • eljay
      eljay
      August 22, 2018, 5:18 pm

      || nabraham: … Anyone can sit in critical judgment over the statements of others, including Salaita’s mesh mash jumble of words. ||

      You should try reading some of wondering jew’s / yonah fredman’s stuff! 8-o

  7. brent
    brent
    August 22, 2018, 10:33 pm

    gamal,

    I use pragmatism in the sense of dealing with things as they are.

    Salaita sees calculating language as making the oppressor more comfortable. I see it as making the oppressor less comfortable as it builds political bridges and challenges cultivated narratives, undercutting the ability to oppress…. putting the oppressor on the defensive.

    America is a system of competing interests, where anyone can lose if they are not calculating or lets say media savvy. As things stand now, its almost impossible to persuade a politician to withhold funds from the oppressor. This could be changed.

    Yes, Pasha was more than an observer but his observations do have relevance for those trying to make lemonade today.

    Can we get past this “blame” the victim idea?

    Years ago Arafat, after much advice, hired a PR firm, Bannerman and Associates. Later Bannerman said, “He wouldn’t listen to a thing I’d say.”

    I’m for resistance, that is effective resistance that enables Palestine’s worldwide support system.

    • gamal
      gamal
      August 23, 2018, 4:53 pm

      “Years ago Arafat, after much advice, hired a PR firm, Bannerman and Associates. Later Bannerman said, “He wouldn’t listen to a thing I’d say.”

      I’m for resistance, that is effective resistance that enables Palestine’s worldwide support system.”

      but seriously are you a complete idiot? tell me who have Bannerman ever liberated? if the moderator deems it permissible on behalf of all non-white people brent i would like to invite you to “f*ck off with that sh*t” you idiot, you think we were born yesterday, that’s your cue to pointlessly emote, go for it. “support system” I mean really, are you stupid or just malicious.

  8. brent
    brent
    August 23, 2018, 9:29 pm

    Gamal or is it Steven,

    There is a long track record on which to judge the effectiveness of your approach.

    Stunningly arrogant to presume to speak on behalf of all non-whites

    Seldom have I been called an idiot stupid or malicious. Perhaps I am, perhaps you are.

    If you can suggest an enlightened article or book, I’ll read it.

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