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New Texts Out Now: Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair, Displaced at Home

[Cover of Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair, eds, [Cover of Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair, eds, "Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender Among Palestinians in Israel"]

Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair, editors, Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair: The idea for the collection began at an informal gathering of five friends, all doctoral students or recent graduates and all Palestinians from “inside.” We had gathered for lunch during the 2005 Middle East Studies Association meeting to catch up on each other’s news. Our conversations about our research over that lunch were so interesting it seemed obvious to us that we should organize a panel together for the next MESA meeting. Drawing in several more colleagues and friends, and with the sponsorship of the Palestinian American Research Center, we put together a double panel at the following year’s conference titled “Palestinians in Israel Revisited.” The papers spoke to each other beautifully and, again, it seemed natural to consider publishing the articles as a collection, as there was nothing out there like it. So the collection just grew out of our friendships and networks as well as the void in the literature that we each felt in our respective fields. With the help of our conference discussants, and later a workshop at Columbia University, we were able to develop themes that joined and separated the different contributions, and these eventually became the themes of the book: state and ethnicity; memory and oral history; gendering of bodies and space; and, finally, migrations.

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

RAK and IN: The essays engage topics ranging from internal refugees and historical memory to women’s sexuality and the resistant possibilities of hip-hop culture among young Palestinians. The scope, diversity, complexity, nuance, and dynamism of the topics discussed and the positionalities of the authors—all Palestinian women from inside—make this collection unique. We would like to think that it offers a rich, multidimensional, and dynamic portrait of Palestinians in Israel that eschews some of the limitations of more nationalistically inflected work. On the one hand, scholarship shaped by Zionist priorities tends to exoticize an insular, largely apolitical, traditional Arab culture while masking the influence of the disciplinary state. On the other hand, Palestinian nationalism and the threats on many levels to Palestinian communities create a concern for community preservation, making representations of the collective and its traditions in many ways more rigid. As a result, there is a tendency to hide internal differences, sideline gender concerns, and overlook smaller groups within. Palestinians in Israel have been marginalized within the larger Palestinian nationalist discourse and are often dismissed as having been co-opted by the Israeli state of which they are citizens. This can increase the temptation for those within to offer an overly redemptive nationalist narrative about themselves.

The chapters of the book confront these pitfalls by refreshingly attending to differences articulated around gender, clans, sexuality, class, generation, levels of education, urban versus rural backgrounds, internal refugees versus original residents, and “traitors” versus nationalists. Specific to this collection is its sustained attention to gender concerns, which have tended to be subordinated to questions of nationalism, statehood, and citizenship. The collection addresses on-the-ground examples of the changing political, social, and economic conditions of Palestinians in Israel, and examines how global, national, and local concerns intersect and shape their daily lives. What distinguishes our collection is the delicate balance the chapters keep between, on the one hand, considering the state and its repressive, coercive, and symbolic aspects, and on the other hand, understanding Palestinians as diverse, active, creative, and strategic. In some chapters, the state is present but bypassed by border-crossers, or departed from as immigrants, or directly challenged only to have the state shift its tactics. However, rather than presenting a binary of resistance versus acquiescence, we see diverse Palestinian strategies that fall along a continuum. The Israeli state is not presented as a monolithic entity; instead, the chapters reflect changes, variations, and openings in its practices that Palestinians use to insert themselves.

The book is divided between four themes. The first is state and ethnicity. The ethno-national discourse of Israel as a Jewish state has provided the strongest glue for the nation-building project of Zionism. The state combines both democratic features and nondemocratic components premised on a rigid ethnic hierarchy, the lack of inclusive territorial citizenship, and the power of religious institutions. Such nondemocratic components feed the ongoing conflict between Israel and its minoritized Palestinians, and have led to the latter’s intensive demands for a comprehensive transformation in the structures and policies of the state. The hegemony of the Jewish majority over state institutions remains a problem that Palestinian citizens seek to overcome. Issues in the “1948 files” addressed in the collection include the question of land ownership, internally displaced refugees, commemorating the Nakba, and many more.

The second theme is memory and oral history. The Israeli state is invested in keeping the collective memory of the Holocaust alive, which it uses to legitimize its policies. At the same time, it is invested in erasing Palestinian collective memories of the 1948 war. Memory is thus clearly political, and Palestinian memories are perceived as threatening to Jewish claims of the state. The chapters in this section use a dynamic concept of memory, not one based on nostalgia and glorification of the past. They go beyond the victim/survivor narrative and explain the meanings ascribed to events and the effects they had on men and women’s lives.

The third theme focuses on the gendering of bodies and space. In this section as well as in several other chapters, gender is a key lens: this includes exploring women’s work roles, but also men’s military service, women’s sexuality, internal women’s migration and voting patterns, emigration patterns among women academics, the styles of male and female rap artists, and generational gendered politics of location. The collection also challenges binaries of public and private, coercion and free choice, liberated and oppressed, and stresses a continuum for understanding the economic and sociopolitical changes in the lives of Palestinian women in Israel since 1948.

The fourth and last theme is migrations. The chapters in this section examine the operations of capital, class, ethnicity, and gender within state borders, but also across them. They also shift the focus to women’s agency in the global political economy, an agency based on a complex set of patriarchal, racial, and ethnic practices.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

RAK and IN: This collection builds on our individual research. Rhoda has published two books on Palestinians in Israel: one is titled Birthing the Nation: Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel, and the other on Palestinians who serve in the Israeli military, titled Surrounded: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military. Isis is in the process of completing her book on four generations of Palestinian women in Israel, examining the continuities and differences between these generational groups and the effect of the changing social, economic, and political conditions since 1948 in shaping their lives.

As students of anthropology, comparative literature, history, political theory, sociology, and women’s studies, the contributors as a group bring a rich array of perspectives to their analyses of social, cultural, and political dimensions of Palestinian life in Israel. Their scholarship crosses disciplinary boundaries as well as geographic ones, as some are positioned inside Israel and others came to the United States to pursue university degrees. In chapter twelve, Ibtisam Ibrahim surveys a related group of Palestinian women academics who have left Israel for various periods of time and their experiences of belonging and displacement. She asks, and we ask, how does the need to master Hebrew, English, and the terms of colonial modernity—to integrate into Israeli institutions or to succeed in American or Palestinian ones—affect how we speak about and back to the state? How are our choices of terminology, citations, and theoretical frameworks consciously and unconsciously informed by these linguistic and institutional limitations? Many of the contributors in fact raise such reflexive methodological questions regarding the role of researchers and authors, as well as issues of audience, sources, visibility, and narrative styles.

The chapters in this collection raise a host of questions about language, silence, and representation, for both the people researched and for us as scholars. In part, these questions emerge in relation to the state and its surveillance. For example, knowing that Palestinian social history, particularly Palestinian women’s social history, is voided by official archives, most of the contributors use oral histories and interviews to read against the grain of, or altogether bypass, state documents. Yet issues of representation in relation to the state inevitably raise related questions for collecting oral histories and conducting interviews among Palestinians more generally. What do those whom we interview remember, and what do they omit? What words do they use, what subjects do they avoid, and what questions do they redirect? These uncertainties, never fully answered or answerable, of necessity hover over our research. These same questions can be asked of the authors themselves. Located as we are in particular states (especially Israel and the United States), and in particular academic and research institutions, our scholarly writing is undoubtedly shaped by such contexts. So these are questions addressed in this book that inevitably and repeatedly come up in our other research and writing.

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

RAK and IN: We hope that those interested in Palestinian Studies and those interested in feminist analyses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the intersection between gender, ethno-nationalism, and militarism will read this book. With the current push for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations and recent demonstrations in Israel around social inequalities, our book provides a critical analysis of why it is important to pay close attention to forms of organizing among Palestinians in Israel, as they are usually made invisible or absent from these conversations.

While Israeli state authorities have historically attempted to sever the connections between Palestinian citizens and Palestinians living elsewhere, this attempt to shrink their space of belonging has never been entirely successful. Time and again, Palestinians in Israel reach out to transcend these boundaries and reconfigure space in ways that bypass borders and walls. Repeatedly, Palestinian citizens have maneuvered around the state’s attempt to de-Arabize them and redefine them as somehow other than Palestinian, not a national group but as subdivided Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bedouins. They creatively push against this model of a non-Jewish “minority” in a Jewish state—in ways that will be of interest to scholars of the region but are also engaging to scholars of the state and ethnicity more generally.

J: What led you and your contributors to focus specifically upon Palestinians in Israel in this book? 

RAK and IN: Most media coverage and research on the experience of Palestinians focuses on those living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, while the sizeable number of Palestinians living within Israel rarely garners significant academic or media attention. Yet, just as an example, Palestinian citizens who are mistakenly regarded as equal to Israeli Jewish citizens fare significantly poorer than their Jewish counterparts on all economic indicators. Using the United Nation’s Human Development Index, Palestinians in Israel rank sixty-sixth, forty-three slots below the general ranking of Israel. This structural discrimination, invisibility, and the resulting contradictions are what lead us to focus on Palestinians in Israel.

This volume raises critical questions regarding the position of Palestinians in Israel. It describes their exclusion from the Israeli polity, collective narrative, and ethos—the shrinking of their space—but also examines their strategies in challenging this marginalization and their attempts to expand beyond it. In 2008, the Israeli state celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of its establishment, and Palestinians commemorated sixty years since their Nakba. The continued presence of Palestinians inside Israel, despite their sidelining, serves as a constant reminder to the state of the past that it refuses to acknowledge, and the present that it refuses to address. They implicitly and explicitly pose, repose, and reframe the question of who is a citizen.

The publication of this volume comes at a critical time for Palestinians in Israel. Palestinian fears regarding their fragile position in Israel have always been present, but have intensified in recent years. October 2000 was particularly enraging, not only because police and border patrol units killed thirteen Palestinians, twelve of whom were citizens of the state, but because none of those who carried out the killings were held accountable. Palestinian anxiety was also heightened by the 2003 and 2007 changes to the immigration and citizenship laws that make them even more discriminatory and prohibit the granting of any residency or citizenship status to Palestinians from the Occupied Territories who are married to Israeli citizens. More recently, the February 2009 parliamentary elections reflect a shift farther to the right among Jewish citizens of Israel. Election campaigns featured open calls for the transfer of Palestinian citizens by the likes of Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitinu Party expanded its parliamentary seats from eleven to fifteen, making it the third-largest party. The electoral platform of Lieberman, now foreign minister, gained much attention for its call to require those who wish to retain Israeli citizenship to declare their loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Not to be outdone, the so-called centrist contender for government leadership, Tzipi Livni, said in December 2008 that the establishment of a Palestinian state would enable her to “approach the Palestinian residents of Israel…and tell them, ‘Your national solution lies elsewhere.’” Even some Israeli Jews who consider themselves liberals have recently introduced bylaws into their towns that require new residents to pledge support for “Zionism, Jewish heritage, and settlement of the land.”

Along with the growing fear among Palestinians regarding their tenuous position in Israel, they have simultaneously become increasingly outspoken, or at least more audible to the Jewish majority. This is evident in the recent publication of four important documents that represent a collective voice for Palestinians in Israel. These documents are The Future Vision of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel by the National Committee for the Heads of Arab Local Authorities; An Equal Constitution for All? drafted by Mossawa Center: The Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel; The Democratic Constitution drafted by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel; and the Haifa Declaration by Mada al-Carmel: Arab Center for Applied Social Research.

The drafting of all four documents started soon after the October 2000 events and involved collaborations between political figures, nongovernmental organizations, and intellectuals. The documents are significant in that, unlike earlier Palestinian statements in Israel, they do not focus only on the Palestinian cause and its relationship to the state. Rather, they offer an internal examination of the political, social, and economic development of Palestinians in Israel as a national minority and articulate new priorities in relation to the limits on their citizenship there. The documents reflect the more general growth in Palestinian non-governmental organizations, but also the maturity and assertiveness of Palestinian activism in Israel. This volume helps readers understand how Palestinians navigate a complicated terrain and pose new challenges to the practices and conceptualization of democracy in Israel.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RAK and IN: Isis has been conducting research for the last four years with Iraqi women refugees in Jordan, focusing on the causes that prompted them to leave Iraq and the transitions and challenges they face. She has recently expanded the scope of the research to include Iraqi women refugees who came to the US post-2003. She is also working on a documentary on the subject. Rhoda is working on a new project on Arab and Muslim immigration detainees in the United States.

Excerpt from the Foreword to Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel by Lila Abu-Lughod

In 1948 when Palestinians found that, as Honaida Ghanim puts it so well, a border had brutally crossed them, they could never have imagined how profoundly their lives would diverge. The new border known as the Green Line separated the minority who managed to remain in villages and cities within the new State of Israel from the rest of the territory that had been the home of Palestinians, and from the broader Arab region that would now house the majority who were made homeless refugees. News about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict always seems to be about those outside “the green line.” About those in the camps in Lebanon. About the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.

In his sad meditation on the relentless expropriation and paving over of the hills and valleys of the beautiful countryside that illegal Israeli settlement-building after the occupation of the West Bank entailed, the writer Raja Shehadeh describes not just the destruction and danger that have confined him and made his beloved country walks from Ramallah nearly impossible, but also his crushed idealism. As a young man he had thought he could use the law to halt the redrawing of borders. Over time, he has come to feel that this cannot be done. The facts are on the ground now. With the 1991 Oslo Accords that, in Shehadeh’s view (shared by many others), undermined any capacity of the Palestinians to halt the settlements and curtail Israeli control over the rest of Palestine, he began to understand better his fellow Palestinians who grew up within the “green line.” In his haunting book, Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape (Scribner, 2007), he describes the naive optimism of a new arrival to Ramallah who has come in with the PLO to set up the Palestine National Authority. When he takes her for a country walk near the Dead Sea, a walk that reveals Jewish settlements dominating the hilltops and highways carving up Palestinian land but forbidden to Palestinians, she seems unable to grasp the significance of what she is seeing. He finds himself for the first time identifying with the Palestinians he had disdained—those who had lived under Israeli military rule from 1948-1966 and who now live as uneasy citizens within a nation-state defined by its Jewishness, and thus their non-belonging. He writes:

For the first time, I felt like those Palestinians who stayed in Israel in 1948 must have felt when they argued with us after the 1967 war. They would tell us: “You don’t know a thing about Israel. We can tell you what is coming: land expropriations, biased zoning that will strangle your towns and unfair taxation that will impoverish you.” And we would look with condescension at them and think they had lived for so long under Israel that they had become colonized, unable to think beyond their narrow claustrophobic reality. They probably think Israel is the whole world, we would comfort ourselves. Not only have their lands been colonized but their minds as well. (Shehadeh, 2007: 109)

This is a book about the complex lives of these Palestinians whose experiences differed from those who fled, whether to Beirut or to other parts of Palestine outside the Green Line in a series of internal displacements that no one imagined would end up being so permanent. It is also a book by a remarkable new generation of women scholars who are all Palestinian citizens of Israel and have turned their attention to the situation of this community—its social dynamics, its politics, its history, and its culture. Most are products of Israeli universities, part of that minority of Arabs who managed to get admitted to such institutions. None hold full academic appointments in Israeli universities, as reflects the general situation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel who indeed face systematic discrimination in employment. Many have left the country for opportunities to study or to teach, some thinking that they might return, others knowing they can’t if they want some level of personal freedom, decent lives for their children, or satisfying careers based on merit, as Ibtisam Ibrahim’s interviews with highly educated émigré women indicate. They are different from Palestinians who grew up in the diaspora, or even in the West Bank and Gaza, not only in the obvious ways such as fluency in both Arabic and Hebrew, and a capacity to joke in Hebrew (as I discovered when Isis Nusair and Rhoda Kanaaneh organized a workshop in New York to bring them together), but because they know intimately what it is to live in Israel as a Palestinian. This new generation of scholars gives us clear proof that the minds of Palestinians within the 1948 borders have not, as Raja Shehadeh had presumed, been colonized.

Reflecting on the scholarship in this book, one feels compelled to ask: “Where does this courage to ask critical questions of the Israeli state and of their own communities come from?” The Palestinian women scholars of Israel seem to have come of age, not just intellectually in their mastery of methodologies from oral history, archival work, close reading, to interviewing, but politically. They are part of a new future for Palestinians in Israel, and perhaps for Israel itself: they are looking hard at the way things are, open to global ideas and political visions, breaching the borders that used to confine them to claustrophobic enclaves, reflexively examining their own history as colonized and their own experience of being strangers in their own land. They are trained on the local without becoming parochial. The year 2008 saw the upbeat documentary about DAM, the most popular Palestinian hip-hop group from “inside” being screened to packed audiences in New York. The rappers are in touch with rappers from Ramallah and the wider Palestinian diaspora. One can’t help thinking that they represent a new vanguard in the revelation of the injustice that is Israel and the potential of Palestinian protest. The generation of women scholars who contributed to this book may be part of another vanguard. They are intellectual pioneers who reveal the many layers of power and subordination in that strange place that is Palestine/Israel. Israeli discrimination and wider contact with Palestinians and non-Palestinians, including feminists from around the world, has made them not “self-alarmed by their own existence,” as Kanaaneh and Nusair argue the state wishes them to be, but able to confront the basic contradiction with which they live: their existence in Israel is real but their inclusion is impossible in a state defined by the legal and political divide between Jew and non-Jew. Where does one go from there?

[Excerpted from Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel, edited by Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh and Isis Nusair, by permission of the editors. © 2010 by the State University of New York Press. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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