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The Edward Said Lecture
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The 2011 Edward Said Memorial Lecture
Monday, October 3, 2011
Video and Edited Transcript
Dr. Saree Makdisi
Transcript No. 359 (3 October 2011)
The Palestine Center
Dr. Saree Makdisi:
Thank you all for coming. It’s of course an honor for me to present this year’s Palestine Center lecture in honor of the memory of Edward Said, whose presence in the past few years many of us have missed never more urgently, I think, than now when the Palestinian people and cause seem to have entered a critical juncture. In moments of crisis such as the present, he always seemed to know best how to cut through the smokescreen of empty platitudes and misleading discourses and keep his and our eyes focused on the realities and aspirations that those discourses often successfully obscured. Even if it will undoubtedly fall short of the standard Edward established, the lecture I would like to offer you today is very much in his spirit; in every sense of that term. His work on Palestine was so distinctive from the work of conventional political analysts—and was as a result so vitally important to so many people around the world—because it operated at two different levels at once: on the one hand addressing with crystalline clarity and clinical precision the urgent questions confronting us in the stark naked reality of the present, while, on the other hand, always deriving its energy and its sense of purpose from the plenitude kept alive in the realm of ideas, aspirations, rights and universal concepts such as justice – the realm to which we might refer as the imaginative and even the literary, notions to which I will return a little later on today. Let me just anticipate my conclusion by saying that what made Edward’s work so valuable to so many people around the world was the simple fact that he refused to relinquish his attachment to the realm of ideas and ideals, to which more conventional analysts rarely pay the proper—or even sometimes any—attention. And he did so not simply because he was a literary man through and through, although he was, but because he understood so well that it is at our peril that we give up on the vital role that the imagination plays in any political struggle.
That the realm of ideas and imagination is of such vital importance was illustrated most recently by, of all people, and personally I’m very surprised by this myself, Mahmoud Abbas, in the speech he gave recently at the United Nations General Assembly. Even many of us who have long been critical of Mr. Abbas had to admit that the speech was, at many levels, a stirring event. And the element that made it stand out, it seems to me, was precisely its inclusion of that imaginative and compassionate register usually totally absent from Abbas’s speeches. As for example, most notably probably, when he spoke of the Nakba of 1948 and recalled so vividly to our imaginations the experiences of those, like himself, who were, to use his words, “forced to leave their homes and their towns and villages, carrying only some of our belongings and our grief and our memories and the keys of our homes to the camps of exile and the diaspora.” The standing ovations which Mr. Abbas received were not for him really, but really for the extent to which he conveyed the story of Palestine—and I want to emphasize that it is a story that he was conveying—to the single most important global audience ever, the General Assembly of the United Nations.
What made Abbas’s speech so convincing is that it articulated all the main themes of the Palestinian narrative: the destruction and dispersal of 1948; the inalienable right of those expelled in that year to return to their homes and land; the right of the Palestinian people to freedom from military occupation and to freedom from institutionalized apartheid both in pre-1967 Israel and in the territories occupied and colonized in that year, and, in general, to self-determination in their native land.
What was important about the Palestinian bid at the UN, then, was its reassertion of Palestinian autonomy and agency, an insistence not only on the right to narrate the story of Palestine and the Palestinians to a global audience but also on the right to wrest the question of Palestine itself back from what it had been reduced to, namely, merely a tactical device in Israeli and hence by extension U.S. strategy. As many commentators have pointed out, the UN bid not only sidelined but showed the political bankruptcy of the U.S. insofar as it has pledged itself to the unending and unquestioning support of Israel even at the expense of its own vital national interests in the Middle East. The more the Palestinian leadership insisted on its right to seek global recognition of Palestinian statehood along the very lines articulated so recently, within a year, by [U.S.] President [Barack] Obama himself, the more cornered the United States seemed to become. The more the United States refused to countenance recognizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, the more it shrank to irrelevance in the eyes of 360 million Arabs, who are today among the world’s most politically mobilized peoples. The more President Obama, with his eye on the 2012 elections here, pledged his support for and encouragement of Israel, the more isolated America seemed to become to the rest of the world—an isolation illustrated so poignantly by the fact that the only person sharing the sullen silence of the Israeli ambassador in the UN during the otherwise unanimous standing ovation offered to Mr. Abbas by the world community was the equally sullen and stone-faced American ambassador to the UN.
So far, so good. But it would be a mistake, of course, to praise the Palestinian bid at the UN without also recognizing and taking into account its flaws and pitfalls, however disguised they may have been by the emotional and imaginative register successfully addressed in Mr. Abbas’s speech. The point I want to make here is quite simple: the UN bid, and the speech itself, and its reception in the General Assembly and around the world, revealed the vast potential—but I want to be precise as a scholar and use the accurate word, the vast power—of the Palestinian narrative and cause. It also revealed the extreme reluctance or inability of Mr. Abbas and his associates to actually take full advantage of that power and use it to its fullest extent. Let’s put it this way: Mr. Abbas was channeling, he was deploying, he was holding in his hands almost literally, a form of power that he simultaneously seemed to be unwilling or unprepared to actually use; as though he felt surprised or uncomfortable or embarrassed to discover that he actually has any autonomous power of his own, as derived from his people’s actual cause, rather than as being assigned to him by Israeli or American dictates from above.
For alongside Mr. Abbas’s depiction of Israel as a criminal state manifestly engaged in the internationally-prohibited crimes of colonialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing there was a recurring insistence in the speech not on calling Israel to account and holding it responsible for the criminal activities that he was amply enumerating—which would be the logical culmination of where you’re going in that kind of argument—but, on the contrary, a hapless, downplaying, almost pleading insistence that he does not seek to isolate Israel or to question its legitimacy, as though he ought to feel sorry or apologize for delineating the crimes committed against his people, rather than pressing them home. Similarly, buried within the fine and stirring outlines of the Palestinian narrative in the speech there was a series of positive references also to the same tired old peace process and its empty vocabulary of vacuous gestural proceedings—Oslo [Accords] and the Road Map and the Quartet, and final status negotiations—whose demise the speech itself was also supposed to mark.
Dig a little beneath the surface, in other words, and you find an event riven with contradictions, running alternately backwards and forwards, hot and cold, forthright and defensive. And as with the speech, so with the letter of application to the Secretary-General of the UN itself. On the one hand, Abbas’s letter of application for recognition of statehood claims to base itself on UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 1947, the Partition Plan of course, and General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, which, in addition to more famously seeking recognize the Right of Return and compensation of Palestinians expelled during the ethnic cleansing of 1948, also demanded access to and international administration of holy places throughout historic Palestine. On the other hand, the letter also based its claim in reference to Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, which address only the parts of Palestine occupied in 1967.
Just on this one point there is a huge difference: insofar as Israel has international legitimacy and recognition, it is actually in terms of Resolutions 181 and 194, on the basis of which explicitly it was admitted to UN membership, with roughly half of historical Palestine. And we should recall of course that Israel has never declared its borders and asked other states to recognize them. So if the Palestinian letter wants to refer to Resolution 181, why does it not do so fully and claim at least the other half of Palestine as the territory of the state it is seeking to have recognized, an argument for which there is a very sound basis in international law? Why limit itself to the territories occupied in 1967, which amount to just over a fifth of historic Palestine? If the letter wants to refer to Resolution 194, why does it not follow through with a reminder that that document also resolved to place the Holy places—including Nazareth, now inside Israel—under international administration so that access to holy sites would be protected? Why does it not point out Israel’s sweeping failure to fulfill the demands of Resolution 194, again on the basis of which it was admitted to membership in the UN, by refusing to allow the return of the refugees, by refusing to protect religious sites not just in the territories occupied in 1967 but throughout historical Palestine, where, from Acca to Yafa and Beer al-Sabe' to Jerusalem, it has turned mosques into discotheques, shrines into barns, and ancient cemeteries into parks and sites for museums, most famously the absurd museum of tolerance—so called—in Jerusalem on the oldest Muslim cemetery in the city? Why does it not reiterate the fact that Resolution 194 explicitly says that the whole area of Jerusalem, from Shuafat in the north to Abu Dis in the east to Bethlehem in the south, should not be under Israeli control?
There are other contradictions as well. In invoking Resolution 194, the letter of application invokes the single most important Palestinian claim, namely, the Right of Return of those expelled during 1948, and their right to be compensated for their losses as well. On the other hand, the letter also claims the authority of the Oslo agreements, the Road Map, the pronouncements of the Quartet, all of which disastrously depleted and diluted the full rights and claims of the Palestinian people. Why, then, in aiming to move beyond the road block represented by the architecture of the so-called peace process, does the letter of application still circle round to re-invoke all over again the very thing it is trying to get around? What does it mean to appeal, on the one hand, to the full spectrum of Palestinian rights already historically recognized by the United Nations, and, on the other hand, to the pale shadow of those rights as embodied in the key documents of the so-called peace process? Which is it? Hot or cold? New or old? Assertive or apologetic? Passive or aggressive?
All of these contradictions—and there are many more other than the ones I have touched on—suggest that Mr. Abbas’s speech, his letter of application for UN membership, and indeed the whole political theater at the UN is just that, political theater, and not really intended to address or secure the rights of all Palestinians, but rather to reassert the failing political fortunes of Mr. Abbas himself and to tactically reframe rather than strategically transforming the pointless negotiations game that he and his associates have been embarked on for two decades now, with little to show in return for their efforts other than an almost tripling of the number of Jewish colonists settling ever more deeply into the occupied territories and of course the simultaneous deeper immobilization and immiseration of the Palestinian people.
Moreover, as people have pointed out, the statehood gambit at the UN carries enormous political risks for the entire Palestinian people that Mr. Abbas and his associates have entered into without even consulting them. As many legal scholars, including Guy Goodwin-Gill, and more recently a team of Palestinian legal scholars whose declaration was circulated by the Maan News [Agency] recently, have pointed out, there is a pointed danger that if the place of the [Palestine Liberation Organization] PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the entire Palestinian people is taken at the UN by a putative Palestinian state representing only that minority of Palestinians who actually live in the occupied territories, the majority of Palestinians might find themselves excluded from the representation at the world body for which they struggled so valiantly in the 1960s and 1970s. There is also the attendant danger that if Palestinian rights are rewritten in the UN system on the basis of the much narrower set of claims concerning statehood in the territories of 1967, the exercise of the Right of Return of the refugees and their descendants as well as the civil and political and indeed the human rights of the Palestinian citizens of Israel might be placed in jeopardy.
And is it really necessary to ask whether Mr. Abbas and his associates are prepared to accept the sacrifice of the rights of the majority of Palestinians in return for being “given” a state in parts of the West Bank? If there were any lingering doubts around this question, surely they should have been put to rest by the so-called Palestine Papers leaked to Al Jazeera and the
earlier this year, which documented in minute and painful detail the extent to which Abbas and the disgraced Saeb Erekat–who seems to have come back, by the way—were willing to go on pursuing their quest for an illusory statehood. This is not to mention that, even as Mr. Abbas was presenting his stirring speech at the UN, his Israel-armed and American-trained security forces were busily cracking down on any sign of dissent in the towns and refugee camps of the West Bank just as, it should be pointed out of course, Hamas forces were cracking down on celebrations of the event in Gaza. “Security co-operation with the Palestinians is excellent at the moment and we do not want to jeopardize that,” a senior Israeli military official told the British newspaper
just the other day, which alone should lift any doubts about the extent to which the Palestinian Authority or PA has become what it was always intended it to be: a full-blown collaborationist apparatus whose main function is to facilitate the occupation and colonization of the West Bank, not to challenge it or end it.
I raise these by now familiar criticisms in order to make the point that Mr. Abbas and his associates seem not to have noticed the resurgence of popular democratic activism in the
sweeping across the Arab world from Maghreb to Mashreq. For all the claims to transparency and accountability and institutional development claimed by the PA—they published this very shiny book that you may have seen going around. It says we’re all clean and shiny and World Bank certified and all this other stuff—for all that, in actual fact it remains a profoundly undemocratic institution. Earlier suggestions of the PA’s financial corruption have been mitigated to a certain extent and replaced by the much more serious charge of its out and out collaboration with the Israeli occupation. The unelected—and I emphasize that in the context of the Arab Spring—leadership in Ramallah which, having been swept from office in popular elections in 2006, was brought back to office almost literally on the turret of an Israeli tank, remains completely uninterested in any accounting for the scandal of the Palestine Papers or anything else for that matter. Mr. Abbas and his associates have made zero effort to reach out and explain to their people in any detail their vision and strategy, much less to actually try to secure popular legitimacy for the high-stakes poker game they are playing at the UN, in which all Palestinians, not merely an unrepresentative and unelected clique of middle-aged men, have a stake.
As they have done since entering into this series of negotiations at Oslo in 1993, they keep only their own counsels, and make no effort to engage the prominent and global body of Palestinian expertise in water rights, geography, international law, negotiating strategy, refugee rights, demographics and so forth. Above all they still cling to the empty carapace of precisely the same hopeless program and the same meaningless jargon of “final status negotiations”—a phrase you can tell I dislike intensely—and road maps and quartets, and the same failed two-state strategy, to which they have been committed for two decades with, as I’ve said before, nothing to show for their effort. In the age of the Arab Spring, these guys look like the left-behind and even—if that is possible—lesser versions of [Yemeni President] Ali Abdallah Saleh and [former Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak and [former Tunisian President] Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Let me put it this way: the idea that the rights of some Palestinians can be addressed in a two-state solution that ignores or actually undermines the rights of the majority of Palestinians is doomed to failure. It should never have been embarked upon in the first place. The mere fact that the loudest champions of the creation of a Palestinian state in parts of the West Bank are Israelis running the gamut from softcore liberal Zionists to seasoned and canny politicians like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni should be the clearest warning necessary that there is something profoundly flawed with this idea from a Palestinian perspective. “The Palestinian declaration of independence,” wrote Sefi Rachlevsky in the Israeli paper
the other day, “practically constitutes a victory for Israel’s declaration of independence, and this is why Israelis must celebrate in the streets and be the first to recognize Palestinian independence, calling on the world to follow suit.” The point being made here is that if Palestinians officially declare that what they seek is only a state in the West Bank and nothing else, that relieves Israel of the challenge of democratic and equal rights for all citizens, including returned refugees, which constitutes of course the nightmare facing the Israelis.
Let us be absolutely clear about this. Palestinians living inside Israel today face a mounting set of ideological, legal, religious, political and material forms of repression unlike anything they have ever faced in their past, including when they lived under martial law for two decades. A new wave of explicitly racist laws targets them as a reviled non-Jewish minority, and strips them of their right to land, to family unification, to education, to housing and even to historical memory. There’s a law that bans you from commemorating the Nakba of 1948. Nowhere is the repression of Israel’s Palestinians more starkly evident than in the Naqab desert in the south, where Palestinian Bedouin have been subjected recently to a form of relentless victimization that seems to recapitulate again and again, week after week, almost day after day, the experience of the Nakba—in fact, to remind us that the Nakba began but did not end in 1948. Every single structure in the village of Al-Araqib, for example, in the Naqab has been demolished by Israeli bulldozers not once or twice or three times or ten times but twenty times in the past year alone. Twenty times. They demolished an entire village and the people rebuilt it again. Twenty times in one year. Just last month, the Israeli government prepared new plans to transfer—yes, that word, transfer—30,000 Palestinian Bedouin in the Naqab from their ancestral lands to new concentration points, as Israelis call them, in order to safeguard the nakedly racist Zionist vision of a Negev free of Arabs.
What would a Palestinian state in the West Bank do for the residents of Al-Araqib and the other 1.5 million Palestinians inside Israel, other than condemn them all the more to their status as reviled and degraded non-Jews cluttering up the space of a supposedly Jewish state?
Meanwhile, the Palestinian refugees, the single largest component of the Palestinian people, continue to languish in the exile to which they have been condemned for over six decades, living not only in disgraceful circumstances in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan but also ever more subject to the political violence sweeping across the Arab world, as we are reminded by the total obliteration of the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp in north Lebanon a couple of years ago, or the more recent bombardment of Palestinian refugee camps in Syria.
What would a state in the West Bank do for the residents of Sabra or Shatila or Nahr el-Bared, other than confirm their condemnation to a fate of being left to their own devices as a permanent human flotsam and jetsam, the detritus of a catastrophe whose making we are to believe can be taken off the table of history?
How are we to forget the catastrophe of 1948 in all that it represents in human terms today? Here we are, clearly, on the familiar terrain of the argument between the dwindling number of Palestinians still espousing a two-state solution and the growing number advocating a one-state solution, an issue I don’t intend to dwell on at great length because I have in numerous other contexts documented my own position in that debate, which is that the Palestinians are one people, who share one cause, and the only path to a just peace is to address the rights of all Palestinians, not just the minority who have suffered under occupation since 1967. I do, however, have one or two things I want to add about this debate in view of the ongoing uprisings sweeping across the Arab world and also UN statehood bid.
And I want to do so by pointing out something I couldn’t help noticing in the text of the letter applying for UN membership for Palestine to the UN. For there are actually two contradictory lines to the signature in the letter [Slide]; one identifying Mr. Abbas as the President of the State of Palestine; and the other identifying him as the Chairman of the PLO. The question that this contradiction raised in my mind—this could be because I’m a literary kind of guy and this is the kind of thing that interests me in my scholarship—is not the one about whether Mr. Abbas really can claim to be President of the State of Palestine, because the state doesn’t really actually exist and anyway he was never elected to be president of Palestine and his term as President of the PA expired almost three years ago, now. I don’t want to talk about that. What I’ve been wondering about, in looking at this signature, is the relationship between the “Palestine” referred to in the line, “State of Palestine,” and the “Palestine” referred to in the line, “Palestine Liberation Organization.” Is the “Palestine” that the Palestine Liberation Organization aims to liberate the same “Palestine” as the “Palestine” whose independence and statehood Mr. Abbas is asserting? If not, what happened, and what happens, to that other wider and more inclusive vision of Palestine? Are we really to accept that the newly redefined “Palestine” Lite or Palestine 2.0 should take the place of the original Palestine? Can we accept that the West Bank can become “Palestine” in the way that my arm or leg could become me, in some strange sense? Or is there something still vitally important about the Palestinian insistence that Palestine—the original and only Palestine—is their ancestral homeland in which they demand the realization of their inalienable rights as a people; those who are presently refugees, who have the right to return to homes and land from which they were wrongfully expelled in 1948; those who are the survivors of of 1948 and are now living in Haifa and Acca and al-Nasra and Shefa Amr and Yafa and Al-Araqib, who have the right to live as free and equal citizens in their own land; and those suffering under occupation in Khan Yunis and Bethlehem and al-Khalil and Nablus who have the same right?
It is true that the one-state solution, which I personally advocate, is not the only way to address and guarantee the rights of all Palestinians. In principle, there could be a two-state solution that also guaranteed the Right of Return of refugees, including the refugees of Gaza, by the way, to their homes inside what is today Israel, and guarantee the rights of present-day Palestinian citizens of Israel. But that is not the two-state solution that we are now—or have ever been talking about—because the Israelis have made it abundantly clear that they will never accept a state in which Jews would be outnumbered by non-Jews.
Precisely on this point—about what the Israelis say they will or won’t accept—that a few words are in order about the terms we often hear about in these kinds of discussions: realism, pragmatism and expectations, a set of terms that often comes up in the one-state / two-state debate. The worst habit it seems to me of the advocating a two-state solution is that they never stop congratulating themselves on how pragmatic and realistic they are, as opposed to those supposedly dreamy and unrealistic, if not downright romantic one-staters. One reason they congratulate themselves is that they say a two-state solution is more realistic because the Israelis will never accept a one-state solution; and therefore, they say, we have to be pragmatic and accept this as fact. But as I just said, the Israelis are no more willing to accept a two-state solution that recognizes and embraces the Right of Return and the equal rights of present Palestinian citizens of Israel than they are willing to accept a one-state solution that treats all citizens as equals. What, then, is a partial two-state solution worth, if it leaves the majority of Palestinians high and dry?
Is it really realistic and pragmatic to expect Palestinians to determine their rights and articulate their aspirations on the basis of what Israelis deem to be acceptable? Is it really realistic to say that what the Palestinians can achieve depends on what the Israelis are willing to have them address? I think not. Those who claim to be so realistic and pragmatic seem not to have ever a passing knowledge with documented empirical reality of historical experience, which teaches us over and over again that no privileged group in the history of the world has ever voluntarily renounced its privileges; not King Charles I of England, who was executed by his people in 1649; not the British aristocracy in the nineteenth century, who faced a popular challenge to transform an aristocratic country into a democratic one; not the slave-owning classes of the American south; not the white elites of the U.S. in the civil rights era of the 1960s; and not the white beneficiaries of apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.
History—and by this I mean real, hard history—teaches us that privileged groups relinquish their privileges only when they have no other choice—and that, historically speaking, such abandonments of privilege have been brought about nonviolently at least as often as they have been brought about violently. If we want to be realistic and pragmatic and look to history for our examples, we have to begin by realizing that the Israelis will never countenance a relinquishing of their privileges until they are compelled to do so, preferably, as far as I’m concerned, by nonviolent means. And it is at least as realistic to seek to compel them to accept the parameters of a single democratic and secular state, a state that guarantees the rights of all minorities, as it is to compel them to accept a cobbled together a two-state solution that properly addresses Palestinian rights by having an Israel with a Jewish minority, which totally obviates the need to have two separate states to begin with.
So much for the realism of our expectations. A couple of more points before I wrap up in what I want to say today. And I want to talk about the other claims to realism made by the advocates of a partial two-state solution. Citing [UN] Resolutions 242 and 338, they continually repeat the claim that their vision is more realistic than the one-state vision because it has a basis in international law and in an international consensus. This again is facile, it seems to me, because there is an equally strong basis in international law for the one-state solution, namely, [UN] Resolution 194 and the wide range of international legal covenants prohibiting the forms of racial discrimination and apartheid on which the very notion of an exclusively Jewish state depends for its existence, at least insofar as it is created in a historically not exclusively Jewish land. As for this international consensus about which we hear so often, it would be folly for the advocates of Palestinian rights to forget that this so-called consensus was not something that the family of nations agreed to and presented to the Palestinians: it is something that Palestinians themselves maintained an earnest and dedicated struggle not merely to put it on, but to force it on the world’s agenda, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Have people seriously forgotten the moment, a mere 20 years ago, when the very idea of a Palestinian state and even a two-state solution seemed laughable? Do people really think that a Palestinian state as recognized, for all its flaws, by an overwhelming majority of the countries and populations of the world, was simply dropped out of the sky by a passing alien sky ship? The very talk of a Palestinian state is something happening today that the Palestinian people made happen, against the established global powers of the time, in the face of entrenched Israeli and American opposition and the indifference of the Europeans, through their sheer determination, sacrifice and force of will. The only thing stopping the Palestinians from demanding the full spectrum of their rights are the Palestinians themselves, or, rather, the completely outmoded and worn-out leaderships in both Ramallah and Gaza, whose political projects have now, we can safely say, run their course.
Let me clarify what I am trying to say here by going back to the standing ovation that Mr. Abbas received at the United Nations. On that day, the representatives of the vast majority of the human race stood and celebrated for the people of Palestine and the Palestinian cause in a way that is almost unimaginable for almost any other people or cause. What do you call, I might ask, the ability, without any other inducement—there’s no army, there’s no superpower, there’s no money, there’s no IMF [International Monetary Fund], there’s no nothing—than an appeal to the imagination, to move hundreds and hundreds of millions of people around the entire world, who have over and over again, for six decades, steadfastly demonstrated their support and solidarity with the Palestinian people and their cause? What do you call that capacity, that potential?
In a word, you call it power. That’s what it is. To move millions and millions of people; it’s power. It’s a form of power.
My point here is really quite simple: the Palestinian people have far, far more power than they sometimes allow themselves to think or to believe; certainly, and demonstrably, far more power than Mr. Abbas felt comfortable wielding at the UN, as I was trying to suggest earlier. However, the Palestinians’ power does not function—in fact, it’s totally disabled. It becomes a liability even—at the polite diplomatic negotiating table, or on the battlefield.
Switch the terrain, however, from the negotiating table between totally unequal parties backed by, we all know, an even more unequal party, the U.S., and the battlefield to the realm of ideas and of the imagination, and ask yourselves in all seriousness who has the upper hand there in the realm, in that domain, on that plane of existence: the Israelis, who are engaged in a hopeless defense of a brittle, racist, ethno-religious colonial state project that is like a fish out of water in the twenty-first century? Or the Palestinians, who have over and over again demonstrated their ability to instantly reach out and touch the hearts and minds and imaginations of a global audience of hundreds of millions of people? From the first intifada of the 1980s to the current nonviolent protests along the apartheid wall in the West Bank, a struggle that engages and activates a global imaginary realm from Hollywood films to the work of the London street artist Banksy, the Palestinians have repeatedly made clear that at the level of symbols and the imagination, the Israelis, for all their vast and paid armies of
agents, web crawlers, Wikipedia writers—they have an army of people writing on Wikipedia all the time—Facebook propagandists, people who tweet, the agitators on campuses, they can’t touch the Palestinians at this level; the level of the imaginary and the symbolic. When is the last time an Israeli won a public debate against a Palestinian? I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen, personally.
My point here is that it is not just pointless but an altogether doomed strategy for the Palestinians to try to achieve their rights in the domains and registers—including state diplomacy—in which they hold no cards and in which in fact the deck is stacked against them, when they could be operating at the level of the imaginary, where they completely outclass their opponents.
Let me just add one or two further details before wrapping up.
In shifting their struggle from the plane of state diplomacy to the plane of the symbolic and the imaginary, the Palestinians must make it absolutely clear, in the simplest and most straightforward and easily digestible form, what it is that they demand. A strong message needs clarity, focus, precision. Here, the one-state solution is far, far more readily transmissible and understandable than any other formulation of what a just and lasting peace would look like from a Palestinian perspective. Indeed from an Israeli perspective, I should add. It simply and neatly, in capsule form, outlines and expresses a vision of rights—rights for all Palestinians: those inside Israel, and also embracing and encompassing the rights of Jewish Israelis—that is not only unimpeachable but also irrepressible, irresistible.
On that point, don’t just take my word for it. In a talk I gave in this very room three, four years ago, I quoted then Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert who was speaking in November 2003, and explaining his vision of the future and the possible alternatives towards a peace settlement. And I’m quoting Olmert here, not my favorite person in the entire world, as you can imagine. He says:
“There is no doubt in my mind that very soon the government of Israel is going to have to address the demographic issue with the utmost seriousness and resolve. This issue above all others will dictate the solution that we must adopt. . . . We don’t have unlimited time. More and more Palestinians are uninterested in a negotiated, two-state solution, because they want to change the essence of the conflict from an Algerian paradigm [of armed resistance to occupation] to a South African one. From a struggle against ‘occupation,’ in their parlance, to a struggle for one-man-one-vote. That is, of course, a much cleaner struggle, a much more popular struggle—and ultimately a much more powerful one.”
That’s Ehud Olmert himself; hardly a sympathetic man when it comes to Palestinian rights. This is an argument that he reiterated in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007. He said it over and over and over again and, of course, he’s perfectly right.
So my question is, what are the Palestinians waiting for? Why should they continue to play along in the self-mutilating role assigned to them by an Israeli narrative of domination when they are in a position to throw that narrative into total disarray, and turn it on its head and move it to a position which even their opponents acknowledge it’s impossible for them to resist.
One last point. When I speak of the Palestinian struggle embarking in this new direction, I am speaking not about a future condition but a present one. The regular nonviolent protests involving also Israeli and international participation along the Wall in the West Bank, for example; the global campaign for BDS, boycotts, divestments and sanctions, modeled on the campaign that was successful in ending apartheid in South Africa. The BDS movement is very interesting. My favorite example of the BDS movement remains the 2010 Davis Cup tennis match in Sweden. The match was supposed to be played in Stockholm. At the last minute, fearing protests, the Swedish authorities moved the match from Stockholm to Malmo. The Israeli and Swedish tennis players played tennis in a totally empty stadium while outside there was still a huge protest. It’s amazing to consider that spectacle, especially when you see it in photographic form [Slide]. This is a protest that, by the way, they weren’t even expecting because they moved it at the last minute. These guys are playing tennis in a completely empty stadium. There are other movements as well, other than BDS. The Gaza Youth Break Out, for example, a new generation of Palestinian activists, fluent and comfortable speaking in English to a global audience in a way that their parents never were, savvy in new media and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, in the realm of music—hip hop bands like DAM—cinema. Think of what a historic accomplishment it is for Hani Abu Asad to have won the Golden Globe for “Paradise Now”. A Golden Globe for a Palestinian film about suicide bombing? That’s stunning, if you think about it. Think about what that means, what the represents? These people are already leading the way in charting the future of the Palestinian struggle, taking it to the terrain of language, symbols and the imagination where Palestinians are a force to be reckoned with.
I would like to conclude by taking us back to where I began today, that is, an explicit engagement with the role of the imagination in political struggle. I want to do so because I want to make it absolutely clear to any lingering realists in the room that appealing to the imagination and to hope itself is not merely, as it is often dismissed by realists, a dreamy and visionary gesture that does not translate into political capital, but, on the contrary, that any political struggle forsakes a claim to the imagination and to hope at its peril. Let me put it somewhat differently: there can be no political transformation without hope. In fact, of all people, Barack Obama demonstrated that to us a couple of years ago. Hope, in other words, is not something that exists in the future; hope is something that makes the future happen.
To clarify this point, I want to shift finally away from an immediate focus on Palestine to a domain that is quite different but nevertheless very relevant, a domain in which, incidentally, Edward Said found both solace and inspiration—namely, the literary. I could proceed here by talking about the role of literature in the Palestinian struggle—the significance of musicians or poets from Mahmoud Darwish to Tamim Barghouti—but instead I want to underline what I think is the broader significance of this point by invoking the field of study which Edward completely revolutionized, namely, English literature. The two examples I have in mind are the two great English poets, of whom I’m personally very interested in, [William] Blake and [Percy] Shelley. Blake, first of all, who wrote in the last year of his life that “the history of all times and places is nothing else but improbabilities, impossibilities. What we should say was impossible if we did not see it always before our eyes.” It’s an astonishing line because what it captures is precisely that sense that we have to always hang on to what we are always told is impossible and dream because it’s always happening anyway. You can never relinquish the impossible. You should always hang on to the potential of the impossible. That’s one of Blake’s great messages.
Finally, I want to end with a very short sonnet by the great English poet Percy Shelley. It’s a poem that he wrote in 1819, in fact it’s called “England in 1819.” And I want to say one or two things very, very quickly by way of context. Shelley was a famous advocate of democratic rights for the people of English. Remember, England in the nineteenth century was not a democratic country. It was a very, very oppressive aristocratic regime. Most people had no rights. Two percent, 3 percent of people had the right to vote. There was a large democratic struggle for the people’s rights which took 200 years to accomplish but Shelley was an ardent proponent of these rights. He wrote the poem I’m about to show you and talk about in the single darkest moment of that entire struggle for democracy in England after a group of demonstrators in the city of Manchester was massacred by the constabulary. They were peacefully protesting, demanding the right to vote, annual parliaments and universal suffrage and this kind of thing. The police force massacred them. It was called the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. In the darkest moment of the struggle, Percy Shelley wrote the poem that I want to talk about and I’ll read it to you. Of course, it’s referring to the King of England, George III, who was then dying, about to be replaced by the Prince Regent, George IV. Let me read it to you.
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,--
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield,--
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion Christless, Godless--a book sealed;
A Senate,--Time's worst statute unrepealed,--
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.
What you see in Shelley writing this in the darkest possible moment in English history, one of the darkest moments in English history, in the very darkness itself is the vision of light and hope. Shelley, of course, is a great poet and, of course, I’m a scholar of British romanticism so it’s not a coincidence that I like Shelley but his role just wasn’t as a poet read by professors of English literature. He was also always read by the people engaged in democratic protest. There were illegal, pirated copies of Shelley’s poetry circulating among people demonstrating and protesting. The people in Peterloo had copies of Shelley’s poetry. He’s somebody whose poetry animated and moved people to protest. The poetry of Shelley, including this poem, helped bring about the very hope that he’s articulating. It took two or three more decades but finally did accomplish their rights through nonviolent protest, by the way, against all the forces of an established order, an armed monarchy. They did it because they had hope. So what I want to say to the Palestinians is hope is the key to political struggle. It’s not something you should ever let go. Thank you.
Dr. Saree Makdisi
is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA, and the author of
(Cambridge University Press, 1998),
William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s
(University of Chicago Press, 2003), and
Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation
(WW Norton, 2008; revised and updated, with a new foreword by Alice Walker, 2010).
This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speakers' views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.
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