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Revisiting Edward W. Said’s Palestine. Between Nationalism and post-Zionism
There is a tendency to separate Edward Said’s theoretical work on literature and culture from his writings on Palestine. The two themes were dealt with in distinct books and essays where not only the content but also the style differed. In both fields, however, it is possible to trace a dialectical relationship between them. This is particularly true with regard to his writings on Palestine where he directs us to theoretical contexts when discussing particular issues connected to Palestine, but it is also there in his theoretical writings even where he does not mention Palestine specifically. He was both a Palestinian intellectual and a universal intellectual, and both simultaneously.
An illuminating example of this nexus is his anthology The Politics of Dispossession.1 It is a collection of short interventions most of which are reactions to recent crises or junctures in the life of Palestine and the Palestinians. Each ponders not only the particular issue of Palestine but also the situation of the world in general. It is as if Said wished to contextualise every moment in Palestine’s history within a universal march of history. These interconnections, however, do not hide a contradiction between Said’s general ideas on culture and his practical address of the Palestine question. The former entail a sharp critique of nationalism while the latter had to be more tolerant - if not reverent - towards it. This may explain why so few other authors on Palestine employed Said’s paradigms. It may also account for the paucity of Palestinian historians who followed his lead. The reasons for this are complex and understandable, but it was not until the demise of the Oslo process and the unattractive manifestation of statehood under the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip that pioneering works began to de-nationalise history.2
I will examine in this essay Said’s relationship with Israeli scholarship and academics. As I commented before, he had an important impact on what was called in Israel in the 1990s, the post-Zionist scholarship. This was an intellectual movement that since then has petered out, consisting of dozens of scholars, artists, journalists and in general producers of culture who viewed Zionism from within with critical eyes and debunked some of the foundational mythologies of the Jewish state. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, these scholars wrote critically on Israel and Zionism. For a while their writings shook the social and human sciences in Israel. It began as a modest attempt to revisit Israeli historiography of the 1948 war - an attempt that was named at the time.
Through a description of this impact, one can understand, I will argue here, the paradoxes of Said’s critique on Nationalism as a universal phenomenon and his more guarded approach to the particular case study of Palestinian nationalism.
Paradoxically, post-Zionist scholarship in Israel did find Said’s paradigm immediately useful for understanding Palestine’s past and present. It did not quite de-nationalise history but, at the very least, it de-Zionised it - or post- Zionised it - a process which was close to Said’s general postcolonial critique of culture and nationalism. Where Said came close, towards the end of his life, to the post-Zionist critique in Israel was through his and their vision of post- conflictual Palestine. It was to be a space in the future where nationalism would be a weakened factor in the life of people, but at the same time this future would be a political outfit that would rectify some of the worst crimes committed through the years against the Palestinians, as it would end Zionist colonisation and dispossession of Palestine.
Said referred to the crystallisation of the contradictions that emerge in one’s latter stage in life (and he sensed, from the discovery of his leukemia, that he was indeed in that stage). I suggest that his search for reconciliation between his universalist position of knowledge and his particular commitment to a Palestinian narrative can be viewed as part of his reconciliation of living in paradox, rather than solving it. The paradox of an exilic intellectual, as he would probably have put it. This would be in line with his general writings about the exilic intellectual. The elevation of exile into a pristine form of intellectualism defined not only a general philosophical stance vis-a-vis the modern world, but also a particular position on the Palestine question. Post-Zionism, as an intellectual position, was more limited in scope and ambition than the search for exilic intellectualism, but both fused into a joint orientation, indeed legacy, after Said’s death. They can be presented together as providing guidelines to Said’s ‘solution’ to the apparent contradiction between his general critique of nationalism and his devotion to the Palestinian cause. More importantly, they are a recommendation for the political future of Palestine.
The universalised approach towards Palestine and indeed the deductive prism used in the study of Palestine, did not, at first, win Said many followers in Israel. Academic work in Israel, until the 1990s, was primarily Zionist, or classical Zionist, comprising scholars who did not challenge the meta-Zionist narrative that the land had been empty, becoming a place only with the arrival of the first Jewish immigrants in 1882. Classical Zionist scholarship was also able to contain, for a while, the divisions within Israeli society that emerged after the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza strip. However, after the internally disputed war in Lebanon and a bewildering first Intifada in 1987, this form of scholarship was challenged from the Left, and a group of academics began writing critically on Israel and Zionism in the early 1990s. The Lebanon war and the Intifada led them to develop a critical, a-Zionist approach to the country’s past and present realities.3
This became an intellectual movement that shook the social and human sciences in Israel. It began as a modest attempt to revisit Israeli historiography of the 1948 war - an attempt that was named at the time as ‘the new history’ of Israel
- and it culminated in a scholarly internal Israeli deconstruction of the Zionist project from its beginnings to the present. It utilised theoretical and philosophical critiques that brought some scholars into the embrace of post-modernism, others to deeper Marxist convictions, while the rest remained loyal to liberal democratic notions with a hint of multiculturalism and post-colonialist deconstructivism.4
These scholars were challenged from the right by neo-Zionists who emulated the New Right and Neocons in the USA, and were even directly supported by them in their wish to represent the classical Zionist narrative in even more patriotic and nationalist terms. The inhibitions of classical zionism disappeared in the works, published by a new research institute, Machon Shalem, and its journal, Techelt (Azure - one of the two colours of the Israeli flag). They demonised Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims and glorified the West, Jews and Zionism. They preached the takeover of the occupied territories and some indirectly advocated the transfer of the Palestinians, if need be.
These three ideological orientations within Israeli academia - classical Zionist, neo-Zionist and post-Zionist - clashed in a relatively pluralist manner in the 1990s. The years of the Oslo process enabled the Israeli Jewish public to associate criticism with the attempt to reconcile with the PLO. This was how the post-Zionist approach was heard in public meetings, university seminars and in the media. The hegemonic establishment, consisting mainly of classical Zionists, fought hard to diminish and delegitimise it, but, because it was welcomed abroad
- and outside views are highly important for ascertaining the validity and quality of academics in Israel - this campaign failed. Neo-Zionists were quite marginalised in the 1990s.
During this time, it seemed that quite a few Israeli academics, media pundits and general literati could not resist Said’s desire, and ability, to engage with humanity. Said’s work and ideas were taken up and developed by critical Israelis affected and inspired by his thought. His impact can be detected in several major areas: in the analysis of Israel as an ‘Orientalist’ state, the examination of the dialectical relationship between power and academic knowledge within the local context, the introduction of the post-colonial prism into the study of the society and the critique of the present peace process and the adoption of an alternative way forward. With the collapse of Oslo in 2000 and the disappearance of the Israeli Left, however, the decade of post-Zionist impact came to an end as swiftly as it had emerged. Like the rest of Israeli society and the political scene, academia moved to the Right, namely to a neo-Zionist position of unwillingness to compromise in any significant way with the Palestinians or to allow any development of civil society that would improve the status and life of the non-Jewish, mainly Palestinian citizens. The voices of post-Zionism subsided and now are hardly present. Some of the group became neo-Zionist, most famously Morris,5 and, while academia remained loyal to classical Zionist ideology, it allowed far more influence to neo-Zionism. The shift in the balance of power had an adverse effect upon Said’s influence on the local scene. Respect for his work, and the wish to interact with it, is directly connected to the fortunes of post-Zionist critique. The surviving members of the group inevitably became more critical and would be best described today as anti-Zionist.
It would be appropriate to remark here that the distinction between post-Zionist and anti-Zionist should not be taken too seriously; these are working definitions for Israeli Jews who remain in the land, love the country and cannot tolerate their state or its policies. Still, the term is not that important; what is, is the total divorce from the consensual ideology that marginalises those who dare to criticise. In the post-2000 crises, which were presented in Israel as years of war and conflict, such deviations from Zionism are deemed tantamount to treason. Very few academics, intellectuals and cultural producers are willing to be castigated in such a way. For those who were, Said was both a friend and an inspiration.
Yet post-Zionism also reflected the wish to look more empathetically at some of the zionist achievements in the past and to include them in a future vision. The reality on the ground, since 2000, convinced the handful of remaining critical voices in the academy and in the cultural media that only a fundamental shift from zionist ideology towards a civil state of all its citizens can bring an end to a zionist century of dispossession of the Palestinians.
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