Palestine’s Struggle to Create Its Unique Narrative
By Clay S. Jenkinson
Published July 20, 2021
America has had resounding success in telling the story of its birth and rise as a nation. So too has Israel during the 20th century. Now, Palestine must do the same if it wants to succeed, says Middle East scholar Rashid Khalidi.
A child holds a Palestinian flag in Qalqilya, Palestine.(Abu Adel, Shutterstock)
Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, an endowed chair named for Said, a professor, public intellectual, and a founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies. Khalidi has written a number of books on the history of Palestine and the Middle East. With his latest effort — The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017 — Khalidi heeded the advice of his son and sought a more personal approach in his work. The result is an approachable account of a Palestinian people that has long been defined in the American consciousness, the author contends, by a narrative it didn’t write. Inserting himself into the story, Khalidi uses archival accounts of generations of family members from the region — mayors, judges, diplomats and journalists — to insert a Palestinian perspective into his chronicle of the last century of conflict. Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Khalidi about the book and the need, the possibilities, and the probabilities for a new Palestinian narrative. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017.
Toward a New Narrative
"Israel is a regional superpower. Young people understand this. People of my generation don't."
Governing: Edward Said once said that Palestinians have been denied permission to narrate their own story. What’s a better narrative for Palestine?
Rashid Khalidi: The narrative starts from the fact that, before Zionism, before Israel, there was a people there. You start from that. If you don’t accept that a people that claims to be a people is a people, then you’re King George III. There’s almost no getting around that as a starting point. The Palestinians have been there for thousands of years, certainly for a millennium or two. They’ve been there for over 100 years as a modern people. The idea of national consciousness is new with everybody in the Middle East, including the Israelis. Nationalism is a late 19th-century idea in that part of the world. That’s true of Jews, and it’s true of Arabs.
The second element is that Israel and its allies have always been much more powerful than the Arabs and the Palestinians themselves or any coalition of Arabs that supported them. That may seem counterintuitive. The idea of tiny little Israel is excellent PR, but they have catastrophically defeated Arab armies every time they’ve engaged them. The Arabs haven’t fought Israel since the 1982 war. Two of the four countries bordering Israel are at peace with Israel. There’s no existential threat there. A few rockets from Lebanon and Gaza are not an existential threat. They’re a serious security issue, but the life of the entire Israeli people is not going to be extinguished by a few Katyushas and Grads. For decades, there has been no existential threat. Maybe at the beginning, maybe the first couple of decades, but not after that. Israel is a regional superpower. Young people understand this. People of my generation don’t. They can’t get over the image of an Israel beleaguered by multiple Arab armies.
Centering America in the Palestine-Israel Narrative
Governing: Why is that narrative so deeply embedded in the American consciousness?
Rashid Khalidi: There are some deep things there. Before they had settlements, before they had British support, before they had lots of guns, the Jewish people had a great story. They linked it to the Bible. The Jewish people are linked to the land of Israel. That’s not false. We don’t know what in the Bible is history and what is not. But the point is that, since the beginning, they have been able to spin a beautiful story. For people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, which many Christians and many Jews do, the Song of Exodus is simply fact. This is our land. God gave this land to us. End of discussion. If you go back and look at why Britain supported Zionism back in 1917, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, it was due to cold, strategic calculation. It had nothing to do with Jews or Zionism — some of the leading British politicians were anti-Semites. But they were all fervent Christians, and that was a religious time in England. These things mattered.
The second reason is because there’s no counter-narrative out there. There’s beginning to be a Palestinian counter-narrative. There was one at different times in the past, but it was inconsistent and it wasn’t very clear. The Israelis and their friends have pretty much had the field to themselves. And their narrative links to elements in the American outlook, to the idea of pioneers and settlers. We have a colonial period in our history. Colonial in the American context is not entirely bad — the 13 colonies, Colonial Williamsburg. The idea of settlers and resistance to settlement and indigenous people fighting back. That’s the American understanding, and the Israelis have shrewdly played upon that.
Governing: How do the Palestinians come together with a narrative that can be sold to the world?
Book cover of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017.(Metropolitan Books (January 28, 2020)
Rashid Khalidi: The Palestinians have failed as much on the level of narrative as anything. They never were able to put across the extraordinary compromises that they were willing to make in terms of their basic national rights from the ’70s and ’80s through to today. That’s their fault in terms of putting forward their position. There haven’t been many opportunities there, but the Palestinian narrative has been very poorly enunciated. You had a few people — Edward Said was one — who were effective personally, but you need a national effort for a national cause. Those kinds of people can be effective in a situation where you have a national narrative being put forward by a representative national body.
The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] had that for a while. They did well in other parts of the world in the ’60s and ’70s and into the ’80s, but much less well in the United States. They never understood or devoted sufficient attention to the United States because, unlike the Zionist movement, and later, Israel, Palestinians are not Westerners. They’re not Americans or Austrians. You start from the very beginning of Zionism and you’re talking about people who are themselves Austrian, who are themselves British, who are themselves Russian, who are themselves American. Golda Meir grew up in Milwaukee. I could go on. This one grew up in Minsk. That one grew up in Vienna. They were speaking their languages to their fellow citizens as Zionists or later as Israelis. Palestinians didn’t have that. They are beginning to have it today, but it’s just beginning. You have a generation in their 30s and 40s in this country and Britain and elsewhere who can speak eloquently, understanding the societies they’re talking to. That will take time, and it will take a unification of the Palestinian national movement around a strategy that’s properly communicated. It’s not entirely clear now what the Palestinians want or how they’re going to get it or how they’re going to communicate that to the United States or to the world. Without those things, you can’t entirely blame people for saying, “well, what is it they want? Do they want a state, or do they just want equal rights with Israelis?” Those are both alternatives, but they have to decide.
The Palestinian Experience in the Movies, TV and Literature
"It's not scholarship or political writing or journalism that has to do that. It's movies, television, novels, poetry, theater, especially cinema and TV series, from which Palestinians are largely absent."
Governing: Would it help Palestinians to sell a new narrative if they could fill in the blanks in the American mind about what Palestine looked like in 1920, or in 1890?
Rashid Khalidi: It’s not scholarship or political writing or journalism that has to do that. It’s art and culture. It’s movies, television, novels, poetry, theater, especially cinema and TV series, from which Palestinians are largely absent. They’re beginning to penetrate. If you look at fringe cinema, there was an Academy Awards nominee called “The Present.” It’s a very simple story, a short film that talks about what occupation is like for one person trying to get a refrigerator through a checkpoint. You need to have more of a Palestinian presence in the arts and culture such that that lived reality would be made plain. Not just about the present but also the past. A woman named Isabella Hammad wrote a wonderful book called The Parisian about the history of her family. You have to do that kind of thing over and over again. It would take dozens of books like that, and not just low-level fiction like Exodus. It would take good literature, popular literature, good films, popular films, good TV series, popular series, poetry, plays, good, bad, and different for that to penetrate. My son convinced me of the importance of this in writing this book and my editor held my feet to the fire. She said, “make it a story and people will read it in a way they don’t read your other books because they’re stories in the sense that history is a story, but they’re not personal stories.” There’s an argument in my book, but I personalized it. That’s why this book is doing well compared with my other books.
Governing: In your dream for a Palestinian future, how do things work out?
Rashid Khalidi: In my dream, it works itself out in a situation where everybody living in that one country — we call it Palestine, they call it Israel — has absolutely equal rights. I really don’t care how that comes about. I don’t care within which context that outcome takes place. I’m not a nationalist. I’m not particularly attached to the idea of a nation-state. I think governments are necessary, but they can be a necessary evil, and they can be more evil than necessary. Nation-states often have a particular nastiness to them, so I’m not a great fan. I understand why in the 20th century Jews wanted a nation-state, and I understand why Palestinians in the 20th and 21st century want a nation-state, and maybe that’s inevitable. Maybe it will be a stage. But for me, the most important thing is that if somebody from Brooklyn can come and claim to be a citizen, then someone who is Palestinian and who actually lived there should be able to come and claim full rights as a citizen. If someone has property, property rights should be respected, as should human rights, civil rights, and religious rights.
The Intersection of Three Religions and Two “Possibles”
With religious rights, it’s going to be difficult. The three religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in many cases share the same sacred symbols. They share the same prophets, with a couple of exceptions. You have shrines and devotional areas and things that have multiple sacralities. Equal religious rights is easier to say than do, but it’s an example of what has to take place. You can’t have people saying, “we have this right, and only we have this right.” Some respect has to be accorded to the status quo. Some respect has to be accorded to tradition, but there has to be some way of getting along in terms of religious rights. There shouldn’t be any question about the others, about human rights, civil rights, property rights, and political rights. There should be complete equality. If that happens, I’m a happy man.
Governing: Is that possible?
Rashid Khalidi: There are two “possibles,” and both are unlikely in the short term. One is some kind of truncated Palestinian state. The experiment that is underway currently shows how meaningless that can be. If it doesn’t have sovereignty, it’s not a state. By “sovereignty,” I mean control over airspace, control over entry and exit, control over the property register, control over subterranean resources. Israel granting sovereignty seems improbable to impossible. I don’t see that. The other possibility is a modification of the status quo inside Israel such that everybody is treated as an equal. Ultimately, Palestinians who want to return to their homeland can do so. Jews who want to come to Israel can do so. Those are possible, but quite unlikely in the short term. Status quo is what we’ve got and what we’re going to have for a little while.
Governing: How long is a little while? A hundred years? Twenty years?
Rashid Khalidi: Change can happen much more quickly than we sometimes think. Very bluntly, I think that if there’s change in the United States and Western Europe, Israelis will change. They’re obliged to. Israel is a powerful independent state, but it is dependent on the United States and Europe, and Israelis are smart people. There have been minor changes in American policy that have forced big changes in Israeli politics.
Clay S. Jenkinson
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.SEE MORE STORIES BY CLAY S. JENKINSON
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