Present Absences: A Century of Struggle in Palestine (Review)

Historians in the News
tags: colonialism, Palestine, book reviews, Rashid Khalidi, Balfour Declaration

Here’s the script: Criminalize the boycotts, deport the human rights advocates, rebrand anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism, smear the leftist Jews, infiltrate the leftist organizations, defund the aid programs, torpedo the political campaigns, fire the high school teachers and speech pathologists and network commentators, and pinkwash the occupation. The tactics vary today, but the intent remains the same. For as long as I have been alive, the barriers in the West to advocating for Palestinian rights have deterred all but the most committed people.

Often, as a result, the responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of Palestinians. Rashid Khalidi, a professor at Columbia and a codirector of its Center for Palestine Studies, is one of the best known to have taken up this responsibility. An acclaimed historian and former adviser to the Palestine delegation during the Madrid talks in 1991, he has written about the origins of Arab nationalism, American Cold War policy in the Middle East, the construction of Palestinian identity, and the history of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has also played an important role in representing Palestinians in Western media and in mentoring a growing generation of Palestinian writers and academics, including Noura Erakat and Lana Tatour.

While Khalidi’s research interests are wide-ranging, he has often examined the history of Palestine in the context of the larger Western imperial project, which has spanned many Middle Eastern nations and whose tool kit of military occupation has laid waste to millions of Arab lives. The cyclical nature of this history is important. For example, on the topic of a single democratic state for all Palestinians and Israelis—an idea that has increasing purchase among young Palestinians and anti-Zionist Jews—he observes that it is not a radical departure but instead a return to a popular idea that has gestated since at least 1968 yet was marginalized by a now geriatric PLO leadership.

In Khalidi’s latest book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, history proves once again to be the key to understanding the present. He builds on his previous work, interspersing personal and family stories with political ones and tracing the lineage of violence that has engulfed a land that has been known by many different names. In doing so, Khalidi identifies many of the actors who have been instrumental to the Palestinian cause, the revolutionaries, women, and young people who helped build the fabric of Palestinian life within the shadow of endless war, displacement, and occupation.

The “war” in Khalidi’s title is conceived as both singular and plural. It includes but also transcends the military conflicts most commonly used to narrate Palestinian history. He chooses to tell this story through six distinct periods, beginning with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and moving on to the UN General Assembly’s 1947 resolution on the partition of Palestine and the ensuing Arab–Israeli War and the Nakba. Charting Palestinian life after the Six-Day War in 1967, he considers Israel’s de facto control over all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean and then turns to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the first intifada of 1987, and finally the ceaseless bombings of Gaza and the expanding occupation of the West Bank today.

All of this can read like a chronicle of never-ending struggle. The question of Palestine has always been one of conditioning, of what we are willing to accept and willing to forget—and knowing this, the enemies of a Palestinian nation have pursued a relentless program of erasure. But Khalidi’s book is also an act of historical recovery, an effort to pen, as he puts it, the “first general account of the conflict told from an explicitly Palestinian perspective.” As with the pioneering work of the Israeli historians Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, The Hundred Years’ War does not offer a unified theory of history but rather an account of the colonial structures on which the Israeli project depends and of the bridges that still connect the archipelago of Palestinian life.

Read entire article at The Nation

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