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New Texts Out Now: Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America

[Cover of Keith P. Feldman, [Cover of Keith P. Feldman, "A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America"]

Keith P. Feldman, A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Keith P. Feldman (KF): Edward Said once quipped that in the United States, Israel and Palestine are in so many ways “local, not foreign policy, matters.” I began research for this book in order to understand how this came to be so. Of course, in a certain sense, the answer to such a question is overdetermined by the proliferation of popular, political, and official state-authorized discourse in the US about this “special relationship.” Israel and Palestine matter intimately in the United States because of powerful lobbying interests, regional strategic interests, shared national security technologies, and a Judeo-Christian framing of Israel’s timeless promise. The Jewish character of Israel matters because of the European catastrophe of World War II, and Palestinians matter insofar as they are called upon to be “partners in peace."

Yet this kind of common sense formulation of the US-Israel-Palestine entanglement overshadows a dynamic cultural history, one that in many ways both precedes and exceeds its commonsensical contours. Fierce debates, critical contestations, shifting grounds, changing identifications: by carefully examining culture work, and the dynamic contexts in which such culture work was produced and circulated, I surface a different kind of story, one that emerges out of a rich counter-archive of critique, dissent, and contestation.

J: What do you mean, cultural work as both precedent and excess?

KF: I mean that in ways that follow from the tradition of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies: ideas that materialize in state discourse are prefigured, formulated, and expressed first in the domain of culture, before being taken up, consolidated, and crystallized. At the same time, the cultural domain renders a complexity and variability in modes of identification, practices of representations, outlooks, and insights, which state and popular discourse so often limit and confine. The baleful conditions in which this entanglement plays out in the present—what many have described as an ongoing process involving a decade of Israeli wars against Palestinians that have destroyed thousands of lives, basic infrastructure, everyday ecologies, turned Gaza into an open-air prison and enclosed the West Bank behind a Wall of devastating proportion—has to be understood, I argue, as part of a complex articulation of culture and sovereign power with a substantial genealogy. The complexity and contingency of culture matters all the more, not just in Israel, of course, but also, as I demonstrate in the book, in the US context, a site deeply imbricated in maintaining these conditions.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KF: By turning to the US context, what becomes clear is that after World War II, debates about the present and future dispensation of US power globally are everywhere cross-hatched by sedimented histories of racism, colonialism, and genocide, and that the historical emergence of Israel and Palestine served to mediate the meanings of these linkages. The movements to end race-based de jure segregation in the US, and the narratives of political inclusion that followed in its wake, were after 1948 thought and felt alongside narratives of Israel’s founding. On a formal level, multiracial inclusion was narrated as the exceptional promise of American liberal democracy, routinely framing such forms of “freedom” against the “tyranny” of Soviet-backed communism and socialism. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the broad, multi-sited, and multi-racial Civil Rights Movement powerfully rendered integration as the proper horizon of cultural and political struggle. Again, Israel served as a useful point of comparison—an interesting experiment, if nothing else, in manifesting modern Jewish integration into the system of nation-states. By the late 1960s, the contradictions imbuing such dynamics—the modalities of Palestinian dispossession, displacement, and dehumanization—were laid bare.

J: What happened in the late 1960s?

KF: This is the heart of the story I tell in the book. Major legislative victories broadened political inclusion, from civil rights to voting to immigration to housing. At the same time, the US state intensified modalities of kinetic violence, in the form of widespread expansion of US military involvement in Southeast Asia and an uptick in modes of “law and order” policing domestically. Before long, a major shift in the structure of the global economy would take place, with the US moving from a gold standard to a dollar standard, the “oil shocks” of the early 1970s,  and the corresponding rise in what would come to be called neoliberalism. We know this story well, and Ethnic Studies scholars have clarified the dynamics of race and imperial culture at work here. Crucially, after 1967, this dense mix also of necessity involved the June War, Israel’s overwhelming victory, the devastating defeat of Arab states, and the emergence of a regime of Israeli military and administrative occupation of large numbers of Palestinians and Palestinian territory. The racial logics of security that served to legitimate the occupation were yoked into these dynamics, and became a productive counterpoint—not a substantive obstacle—for thinking the policies, practices, and limits of liberal democracy.

A counter-archive—or what in the book I call “shadows”—illuminates the pressing concerns by artists, activists, and scholars about Israel and Palestine, concerns that were transnational in their scope, were visceral in their expression, and were attempting to represent the complex personhood of Arab Palestinians (and Arab Israelis, for that matter) for a variety of US publics against a backdrop of intensified anti-Arab racism. 

In some sense, each of the chapters counteracts a dominant narrative in the common sense. The first chapter turns to debates at the UN in the 1970s regarding Resolution 3379 stating Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination. The second chapter tracks what I call “Black Power’s Palestine,” how race radical organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party turned to Palestine to evince narratives of anticolonialism against the paucity of Cold War racial liberalism. The third chapter looks at the peculiar post-1967 confluence of American Jewish responses to the June War, Black radical uptake of Palestinian solidarity, and the racialization of Palestinian otherness. The fourth chapter demonstrates how Arab scholarly and activist organizations like the Association of Arab American University Graduates  in the US were forging knowledge about race and US foreign policy, with Edward Said as a crucial interlocutor. The final chapter situates Palestine amidst US feminist anti-racisms, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a focus in particular on the work of June Jordan. A brief epilogue marks out how the racial lexicon forged in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s re-emerges, if in transformed ways, in the post-9/11 period, with the rise of both a particular kind of transnational anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, and a contrapuntal set of expressions of anti-racist Palestinian solidarity.

I also wanted to analyze surprises, to investigate those ways concerns about Israel and Palestine appear in places we might not expect to find them, and sediment themselves in formations where we might not typically imagine them. A case in point is the great black novelist and essayist James Baldwin, who, at a pivotal moment in his trajectory as a writer, spent several weeks at the end of 1961 touring Israel. While there, just before embarking on what would be a decade-long sojourn in Turkey, Baldwin writes evocative letters to his editor that speculated on the relationship between anti-black and anti-Arab racisms, the overlapping imprint of British mandate rule and Holocaust memory, and the life worlds of exile and diaspora. 

The famed 1965 Moynihan Report on the so-called "tangle of pathology" curtailing black kinship prefigured Daniel Patrick Moynihan's own condemnation of the UN resolution on ten years later. I recast how the resolution was itself formulated by Arab scholars, such as Fayez Sayegh, who were based in Beirut’s Palestine Research Center and who sought to theorize the particular relationship of Palestinian dispossession to the emergence of settler colonialism in Palestine. 

Concerns about racism and colonialism came to inform Black Power's Palestine, a whole set of post-1967 discourses that rendered affiliations between race radical movements in the US and national liberation struggles in Palestine. Crucial to this story is David Graham Du Bois, W. E. B. DuBois's stepson, a journalist who across the 1960s and 1970s split his time between Cairo, Egypt and Oakland, California. David Du Bois served as the editor of the Panthers’ newspaper and published a remarkable novel about the complex life of black radicalism in Cairo in the 1960s.

The conversions of 1967 were rendered powerfully across Jewish communities in the US. In works by Saul Bellow, Norman Podhoretz, and Nathan Glazer, one sees the so-called Jewish Establishment increasingly aligning with imperial state power, yoking concerns around race and Israel to make sense of the post-Civil Rights period. Progressive Jewish critiques of state power came to align with much of the Black Power analysis, even as they never substantively recognized the import of Black Power's Palestine and its understanding of settler colonial violence.

In early 1968, at the behest of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Edward Said wrote his first essay addressing the topic of Palestine. While the towering scholar of literature's transformative interventions were still to come, in this early essay, all the hallmarks of an understanding of a shifting entanglement of race, nation, and empire are present. Just as importantly, I demonstrate how Said interfaced with scholars of Arab descent, especially in the AAUG, elaborating a nascent transnational analysis of race and empire.

By the early 1980s, anti-colonial racial justice movements were severely curtailed by technologies of US state repression. Holocaust memory in the US was increasingly sutured to narrow US and Israeli geopolitical aims, and expressions of Palestinian solidarity were increasingly scrutinized and regulated. In this context, I turn to feminist debates about antiracism and anti-imperialism, and track how modes of relation—most prominently articulated by the Black poet and essayist June Jordan—were productively forged and fashioned. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KF: We are beginning to see a flourishing of scholarship at the interface of Transnational American Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Comparative Literature, and Middle East Studies. My hope is at the level of scholarly intervention to be able to contribute some insights at this interface. At the same time, I consider myself a student of Said insofar as I have attempted to write both within and adjacent to the scholarly grids of intelligibility of our times. This is in no small part because we are living out dynamics whose conditions of possibility were laid in rich ways in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s: intensified state-sanctioned violence, the broad racialization of terror, the curtailment of multiracial democracy, the ascendance of the so-called "post racial.” We are in a moment when scholars, poets, and organizers are tracing out links between the limits of multiracial political inclusion to intercede in sedimented anti-black violence and the intensification of structural, systemic, and kinetic violence against Palestinians. Think here of the Ferguson/Palestine links that began to crystallize in the summer of 2014. At the same time, engaging the ongoing question of Palestine through antiracist and decolonial frames is garnering increasing momentum, even as longstanding questions about who speaks for and as Palestinians, as Jews, as “allies,” are continually surfaced. If ever there was a time to revisit this moment’s difficult and complex cultural past, that time has clearly arrived.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KF: In some sense, my new project, under the working title “Patterns of Life: Raciality, Visuality, Global War,” picks up where A Shadow over Palestine leaves off. Here I engage the proliferation of visual culture as a domain for producing, contesting, and mediating what I am I am calling the raciality of the war on terror.

Excerpt from A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America

From the Preface, “James Baldwin in the Holy Land”

[James] Baldwin’s published writings on Israel make for especially evocative reading in the present. The letters from the end of 1961 signal the dawn of a new conjuncture. The “conundrums” Baldwin finds in Israel inspire critical reflection on the emergence, function, and effects of a new nation-state dedicated to ending the oppression of Euro-American modernity’s others. His letters likewise offer a thick enactment of relationality, a kind of gateway through which to consider how one might navigate a fractured Cold War terrain with eyes wide open to its racial connections, convergences, contradictions, and incommensurabilities. Baldwin writes:

In a curious way, since it really does function as a homeland, however beleaguered, you can’t walk five minutes without finding yourself at a border, can’t talk to anyone for five minutes without being reminded first of the mandate (British), then of the war—and of course the entire Arab situation, outside the country, and, above all, within, cause one to take a view of human life and right and wrong almost as stony as the land in which I presently find myself—well, to bring this thoroughly undisciplined sentence to a halt, the fact that Israel is a homeland for so many Jews (there are great faces here, in a way the whole world is here) causes me to feel my own homelessness more keenly than ever. (49)

From the vantage point through which Baldwin viewed the racialized exclusions of American Cold War liberalism, the overwrought, circuitous, and internally interruptive form of this “thoroughly undisciplined sentence” crystallizes precisely how overdetermined the question of Israel had become. Baldwin recognizes Anglo-American sovereignty’s persistent imprint in how the routine navigation of the region constantly confronted the pervasive bordered contours of political space. Daily interactions were infused with the continuing effects of a war whose definite article presumes a reader knows which war Baldwin means to reference. The war’s singular referent is quickly adumbrated by reflections on the simultaneous internalization and externalization of the “entire Arab situation” outside, and “above all, inside” Israel. We are invited to understand this “stony” view of human life and its sharp morality as the effect of the war’s continuous present, one that contorts the very grammar of its narration and solidified Baldwin’s own sense of “homelessness.” In the face of the Israeli state’s nation-building process, Baldwin reconciles himself with his own commitment to exile. If this was what home meant for modernity’s others, Baldwin will have none of it.

Baldwin’s interrogation of Israel is driven by a keen concern with the post–World War II articulation of race, nation, religion, and empire. The historical drama of anti-Semitism’s resolution in the form of a Jewish nation-state involved a “vast amount of political cynicism” (50), one predicated less on Jewish safety or national liberation than on what he would later call “the salvation of western interests.” Baldwin queries the salience of a national peoplehood structured less by Jewish religious tradition or Jewish ethnic belonging than by the twin pillars of an “evil that is in the world…which has victimized them so savagely and so long,” and the “resurrection of the Hebrew language” meant to bridge the “tremendous gap between a Jew from Russia or France or England or Australia and a Jew but lately arrived from the desert” (49). Can one rightfully forge a national identity out of the catastrophe of genocide and a singular national language, Baldwin asks pressingly? While the recently arrived Yemeni Jews produced what Baldwin sees as the most beautiful Jewish cultural forms—more so than their Ashkenazi counterparts—their treatment reveals a vicious social discrimination that “the nation of Israel cannot afford, and is far too intelligent, to encourage” (50). Recognition of this discrimination was intensified when Baldwin considered the status of Arabs more broadly, about which he feels “helplessly and painfully—most painfully—ambivalent”:

I cannot blame them for feeling dispossessed; and in a literal way, they have been. Furthermore, the Jews, who are surrounded by forty million hostile Muslims, are forced to control the very movements of Arabs within the state of Israel. One cannot blame the Jews for this necessity; one cannot blame the Arabs for resenting it. I would—indeed, in my own situation in America, I do, and it has cost me—costs me—a great and continuing effort not to hate the people who are responsible for the societal effort to limit and diminish me. (50)

Ten years later, in what was billed as a wide-ranging “rap on race” with the well-known anthropologist Margaret Mead, Baldwin returned to this relation between anti-Black and anti-Arab racisms. By then, there wasn’t much ambivalence at all, especially given the post-1967 entanglement of an expanded Israeli military occupation of Arab territories, an escalated US military presence in Southeast Asia, and Palestinian liberation struggles enacting a global horizon especially resonant with Black liberation struggles in the United States. “You have got to remember,” notes Baldwin, “however bitter this may sound, no matter how bitter I may sound, that I have been, in America, the Arab at the hands of the Jews.” Mead—figured in the promotional materials and reviews for A Rap on Race as the “objective” and “scientific” counterweight to Baldwin’s “passion” and “poetry”—had no time for such a formulation, shutting the conversation down: “Oh, fiddlesticks! Tut, tut, tut,” she says. “You are now making a totally racist comment, just because there have been a bunch of Jewish shopkeepers in Harlem….I suggest we drop this because it gets us nowhere and will get us nowhere. These are just a set of imperfectly realized analogies.”

Were we to follow Mead and bracket as illogical, subjective, or racist the poignant insight into the relationality of race that Baldwin labors to name, we would silence crucial analytical terrain. Indeed, the audio recording of A Rap on Race did just that. Released simultaneously with its print version, the double LP excludes all the lengthy discussion of Israel, Palestine, Arabs, Jews, Yemeni Jews, and the associated questions of time and atonement that Baldwin brings to bear—even as it claims to capture the “as is” quality of an “atmosphere created by…freedom and informality.” Silencing this relational analytic foretells precisely the attenuated scope of the dawning US commonsense interpretations about Israel and Palestine. Yet such “imperfectly realized analogies”—as if there could be any other kind—were central to its articulation. Remembering them, and listening to their affective complexity, is at the core of this book.

[Excerpt reproduced with permission from the University of Minnesota Press from A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America by Keith P. Feldman. Copyright 2015 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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