Works Reviewed

Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled, Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

Daniel Bertrand Monk, An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002).
Since when do US-based scholars see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a colonial one? Palestinian authors have advocated this paradigm for decades, but only in recent years has it crystallized and gained more widespread acceptance in the US academy. In Israel, beginning in the 1980s, a series of works by the “new historians” and critical sociologists advanced the view that organized Jewish settlement of Palestine in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries could be classified as colonization. The designation of Zionism as a colonial enterprise has been more readily accepted by Israeli academics, if not the general Israeli public, than by their US counterparts. Today, over a decade after these works started attracting attention, the story of Israel as a colonial power is not only more familiar to academics in both Israel and the US but also more politically fraught. In fact, some of the authors — Benny Morris is one notable Example — have since recanted. But what of their legacy?

In the works reviewed here, the characterization of the conflict as a colonial one can indeed be traced to the legacy of Palestinian scholars, the new historians and critical sociologists. However, it also speaks to a burgeoning interest in colonialism among US-based scholars in the humanities and social sciences. These recent books on Palestine-Israel can thus be seen as dipping into a larger pool of work on colonymetropole power relations. What is interesting is how and where coloniality emerges in these works and the role it plays in clarifying the issues under discussion or serving as an object to be clarified. Today there is the potential, too, for colonialism to operate as a flag — signaling (maybe too easily) a political stance and not requiring justification. Now more accepted, the colonial paradigm becomes more acceptable. But such acceptance comes at a cost. Besides their varied treatment of coloniality, these works also offer multiple approaches to mapping a national-colonial project. Each of the four books examined here provides a different solution to this problem and in some cases the answer of one provides the seeds for a critique of another. As part of a larger scholarship on the overlapping but distinct subjects known variously as “the conflict,” “Palestine- Israel,” “Israeli society” and “Palestinian society,” these books, taken together, remind us that the mode of analysis and structure of argument influence the analysis itself.

The story that Gershon Shafir and Yoav Peled tell in Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship is, on one level, a story of transformation: how a settler-colonial society has become, in the authors’ words, a “decolonizing” one. It is also the story of the changes wrought by globalization in Israeli society. A militarized communitarian society has been transformed into a society of profit-seeking individuals. The powerful republican discourse of citizenship, which privileges active community participation as the means to moral and material betterment, has been challenged, and to some degree replaced, by competing discourses of liberalism and ethno-nationalism. The authors chart globalization’s effects on the economy (economic liberalization), constitutional law (electoral reforms and human rights legislation) and social rights (weakened social services and education). The book is also a fascinating portrait of the groups that hold these multiple forms of citizenship (or non-citizenship, in some cases): Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Jewish women, Palestinian citizens of Israel, Orthodox Jews, Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and foreign (i.e., non-Jewish, non-Palestinian) workers. Finally, it is a prescriptive story, one that ultimately promotes a “democratic multiculturalism,” drawing on Nancy Fraser’s notion of “multiple public spheres,” which would be based on both universal individual rights and group-based rights, as the multiple counterpublics agitate for their rights within a larger public sphere. The goal is to provide for a vocal and vibrant civil society in which the individual and collective rights of Mizrahim, Palestinians, women, all streams of Judaism and new immigrants are protected and provided for: liberal pursuit of individual happiness coupled with republican concern for the collective societal good.

This work is rich in sociological and historical detail, and impressive in its breadth of coverage. We may wonder, however, at the decision to use citizenship as the unit of analysis, given that the authors’ stated goal is an account of transformations in Israeli society rather than a theoretical elaboration on the concept of citizenship. As a work relying on “citizenship discourse” as the unit of analysis, it asks that we simply accept this category as key given its legacy as “a central axis of Western political philosophy.” The authors do make a case for why their institution-centered (or “neo-institutionalist”) approach to citizenship and its allocation improves upon alternative theoretical perspectives (functionalism, elitism and cultural pluralism), but the meaning and relevance of the category of citizenship itself for the different groups under consideration is not addressed. While its arguments are grounded throughout in an empirical analysis of social-historical processes, the book does not likewise build a case for its central theoretical concern.

Kanaaneh’s Birthing the Nation offers an alternate strategy for charting social rights and duties of a segment of Israeli society in a more circumscribed field: the Palestinian Galilee. Kanaaneh is concerned with analyzing discourses of family planning rather than citizenship — though of course the two Overlap — and her focus is the Palestinians living in the Galilee, citizens of the Israeli state but part of a larger Palestinian national collective. Birthing the Nation argues that the realm of biological reproduction, politicized by the hegemonic Israeli state, has been utilized as a site of resistance by Palestinians living in the Galilee (and elsewhere within the 1948 borders of Israel and the Occupied Territories) as a counterdiscourse to Israeli colonization. Kanaaneh meticulously portrays the complexity of this counter-discourse, not reducing it to anti-modernity or pro-modernity, or the simple adoption/ rejection of Israeli definitions of self and other. She does however point to a “modern reproductive discursive regime” as very much in evidence if not hegemonic. This regime informs the construction of a Palestinian sense of self in terms of modernization — having fewer children is seen by some as more modern — and the use of reproductive practices to establish agency in a colonial situation.

The subtlety of Kanaaneh’s reading of reproductive measures and her self-reflexive acknowledgment of her own positioning vis-á-vis the women and men she interviewed for the book contribute to its richness. They also throw into relief the more heavy-handed historical portrait of Zionism and the Israeli state. Notwithstanding the occasional cursory nod to differences within the Zionist movement, Kanaaneh short-shrifts the history of the establishment of the state and too neatly connects all settlement activities to demographic concerns. Further, there is a slippage between Zionism and the Israeli state, which seems to imply that the two are interchangeable. As the entity against which the Palestinian counter-discourse is in part constituted, the Israeli state comes across as a monolith. Its cracks and fissures do not emerge in Kanaaneh’s portrayal, which makes it more difficult to fully grasp the wider field in which the agents in Kanaaneh’s account make reproductive choices, contend with modernist and consumerist messages, and negotiate their senses of self. The ambivalence expressed by the women and men that Kanaaneh interviews tells a more complex story, as do the absence of a consensus on the Palestinian nationalist reproductive strategy and the mixed messages coming from the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, in these stories Kanaaneh fleshes out what would otherwise be a more predictable Foucauldian tale of “political arithmetic” and biopower, with the concomitant acts of resistance on the part of the subjugated. The humor, awareness and ambivalence expressed in conversations and personal accounts reminds us of the power of the vagaries of human experience (even though necessarily mediated, as Kanaaneh reminds us, by the ethnographer) to evade neat theoretical constructs.

Shafir and Peled’s portrait of Israeli society includes a discussion of the colonial aspects of Zionism (and concludes with their vision of a decolonized Palestine-Israel), whereas Kanaaneh seems to take Israeli colonialism as a given. In Facts on the Ground, Nadia Abu El-Haj looks more squarely at the colonial question, examining a scientific practice that has contributed to Israel’s national-colonial efforts.

Abu El-Haj presents this work as an anthropological study of science — the science of archaeology — how it “emerged as such a powerful and pervasive phenomenon and force” and how through it the dynamics of colonization, nation-building and territorial expansion, and ongoing struggles to define Palestine-Israel, are expressed. Her departure from the literature linking archaeology with nationalism is an insistence on the colonial nature of the enterprise. To talk about the political nature of archaeology without delineating the aims and effects of that politics is to miss a point that the author clearly wants to make. We may be already familiar with this categorization of the Jewish settler project as national- colonial, and with the trend in colonial studies to look at how control of forms of knowledge shaped and facilitated colonial rule. But the intersection of these arguments with those borrowed from the philosophy and sociology of science takes us somewhere new. Abu El-Haj contributes to colonial studies by insisting on examining the formation of knowledge, and not just knowledge itself. There is an implicit reflexivity here regarding creation and dissemination of knowledge within the archaeological field. Such reflexivity might have productively enriched the author’s account of her own production of knowledge as well. Under what circumstances was the data collected, what are the commitments, techniques and phenomena expressed and even created through the researching and writing of this book?

While arguing on the one hand for a recognition of the political effects of archaeological practice and the objects it produces, Abu El-Haj is concerned with the process whereby archaeology and monuments are perceived as having such effects. She describes a tour of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem that combines accounts of the 2,500 year old history and the more recent timeline of archaeological excavation. Abu El-Haj argues that the guide’s accounts of archaeological excavation bolster the connections among knowledge production, the objects and the Jewish nation: “Material evidence is presented as transparent, as that which recuperates a past made visible once more.” In some places Abu El-Haj may be seen as likewise imbuing objects with agency, as when she writes that it is the objects of archaeology —  the visible bedrock and archaeological remnants — “that facilitate (national)-sacred practices.” But her larger project is to illustrate how these objects came to hold such power.

In An Aesthetic Occupation, Daniel Monk presents the history of just such an idea — that architecture has a politics — as elaborated in the period of the British Mandate. Whereas Abu El-Haj documents the process by which meaning is attributed to objects, Monk decries the use to which such meaning- attribution has been put, by historical actors as well as by historians and other interpreters of “the conflict.” He is concerned with how the notion of “adequation” — the belief that history is confirmed in architecture — has assumed transparency and ubiquity. He critiques scholars who have written about the immediacy of architecture as “something that so clearly accounts for history that itself seems to require no historical accounting.”

Monk rejects what he sees as an assumption of a monument’s political immediacy and the agency of bricks and mortar. To trace the history of this assumption, he recounts, for example, the British architect-politician Ernest Tatham Richmond’s belief that the restoration of the external shell of the Dome of the Rock will enable the regeneration of the “shell” of Palestinian Islam (“the institutional and formal expressions of a faith long suppressed by foreign dominion”). This is the “secular myth of the monument’s political transparency,” in which the recovery of the sacred architecture is seen, according to Monk, as “nothing more than the historical triumph of the profane.” Monk provides an original reading of the moments in Mandate Palestine when major and minor historical players contributed to the reification of the politics of representation. His work serves as a compelling, if occasionally opaque, counterpoint to Abu El-Haj’s account of how this logic was perpetuated through archaeological narrative and practice.

Coloniality is not treated explicitly by Monk, which is unfortunate because more of a comparative colonial framework for the events unfolding in Palestine in the early twentieth century would have been helpful. But the absence of the colonial rubric need not be taken as significant in and of itself. On the contrary, now that “colonialist” has become a common (if not widely embraced) characterization of Jewish settlement in Palestine, the danger is that the term retains only its rhetorical and symbolic value and loses all of its specificity — along with its real explanatory power, particularly at a moment when that is what is desperately needed.

How to cite this article:

Kaylin Goldstein "Reading Palestine-Israel," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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