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New Texts Out Now: Mark LeVine and Gershon Shafir, Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel

[Cover of [Cover of "Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel"]

Mark LeVine and Gershon Shafir, editors. Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

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

Mark LeVine (ML): I first came up with the idea for the book after teaching Terry Burke's seminal volume Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East in a modern Middle East lecture course during the same quarter I was teaching my Israel/Palestine course. I realized that while there were very important advances in scholarship on the conflict and its histories, students were easily overwhelmed by the complexity of the historical processes involved in the new narratives. Seeing how successfully Burke's book helped students in my Middle East course deepen their insights into both the macro/national and micro/local processes, I felt that a similar volume devoted specifically to social biographies of Palestinian Arab and Jewish inhabitants of Palestine/Israel from the late Ottoman period through the present day would help them concretize the important insights of the revisionist or “new” historians and sociologists.

Gershon Shafir (GS): This book has two primary goals. The first is to complement the bird’s eyes perspective, which gives us the lay of land at a low resolution, with an ant’s eye perspective, biographies at a high resolution that are the beating heart of history. 

The second goal is to challenge the social sciences themselves. Sociology, political science, economics, but history usually as well, inform us by analyzing, by reconstructing and highlighting large-scale impersonal forces, nationalism, modernization, colonialism. I am hoping to redirect our telescope and turn it on the contribution of biographies to the analytic methods and meta-theories deployed by academic disciplines. In other words, biographical narratives opened the door to a renewed focus on human agency through an ant’s eye perspective, but such a perspective also should challenge social scientists and historians to rethink the methods used in the study of society and history.

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

ML: The book tries to address many of the most important historiographic and sociological questions that interest scholars today. Conceptually and theoretically, we outline in our introduction an argument for greater attention to social biographies and histories as a crucial component of contemporary scholarship. We also felt it was important to divide the book chronologically in order to ensure that readers could get a feel for the lives of ordinary (and, in a few cases, elite) inhabitants of the country in the late Ottoman, Mandate, post-1948, post-1989, and present eras. Most but not all the chapters are the stories of individuals living during the particular period covered in the part of the book in which their chapter is located. But we also expand the notion of social biography to cover buildings and villages.

GS: People sometimes live and frequently tell their lives as narratives that follow a plot, fall into particular genres, are told from a particular point of view, are held together and endowed with a moralizing significance, and always address and interact with particular audiences. The compilation and study of social biographies, therefore, points to the benefits of building bridges between history and the social sciences and literature.   

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

ML: This work is a natural evolution from my work on the social and economic history of Palestine and Israel in the last 150 years. On the one hand, the contributions we feature strongly support the thrust and implications of the last two generations of Palestinian and Israeli scholarship on the two communities' histories and basic structural dynamics. On the other hand, by focusing largely on individual lives and experiences, the stories in our book remind us of the limits of even the most state of the art approaches to the historiography and present sociological and political dynamics governing the two societies and their implicated, if highly conflicted, relationship. That is, we remind people of the need to focus on the individual—whether the individual moment or person—even as we strive to uncover more elaborate and nuanced structural explanations for the various phenomena we all study.

GS: Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel is a radical departure from my earlier books in which I painted the conflict with broad strokes, as it is for my own discipline—sociology. Even when social scientists champion greater emphasis on individuals, as C. Wright Mills, Dennis Wrong, but also Herbert Marcuse did in the early 1960s, and more recently as Gaytari Spivak did in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” they do not necessarily advocate the study of individual life histories. Rather, they seek to provide better social science explanations for the uniformity and conformity of individual behavior rather than analytic tools for differentiation between individuals. This book’s goal is the opposite—to let many diverse individual voices bloom.

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

ML: I hope that this book will inspire and engage two types of readers: first, students and scholars who are intensively studying the country and its two peoples; second, lay readers who normally don't have the patience or background to explore some of the most sensitive aspects of the conflict in complete honesty. If we can get scholars to focus more on social and narrative histories at the micro level—of course anthropologists do this all the time, but historians, sociologists, and geographers far less so—we can help strengthen the broader understanding of Jewish and Arab Palestine across time.

GS: My initial goal was to offer a book to undergraduates at US colleges in Middle Eastern studies programs that would complement the analytically-driven volumes they are commonly assigned (and that I commonly assign)—namely books that analyze impersonal forces—with one that offers stories they can touch and that could potentially touch them. The goal was to tell stories that help humanize the conflict, which draw attention to human agency, and just possibly open the door to reimagining some of the basic premises of Israeli and Palestinian identity, history, politics, and through them, the conflict itself.

As our work proceeded, I began to see a broader potential in reaching out to Palestinians and Israelis as well. Ever since I wrote my dissertation on Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, I had in the back of my mind the poignant observation from a letter he wrote, from the Fascist prison, to his wife, who all but stopped corresponding with him. Gramsci wrote to her that “Misfortune commonly has two effects: the first is the extinction of all feeling towards those who endure it, while the second—no less common—is the extinction in the latter of all feeling towards those who do not endure it.” This appears to describe many tragic situations, not the least of which is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Under the pressure to circle the wagons and to declare “my tribe, right or wrong,” those who forge exclusive nationalist, ethnic, and/or religious identities forgo the ability to walk in the shoes of their adversaries. When that happens, they lose the imagination that is necessary to think creatively, transcend oppression, and prevent continued violence. Among the many casualties of conflict is the sense of empathy for victims of the other side and, consequently, reading an anthology such as this offers an opportunity to experience greater understanding. This book is also an exercise in empathy. Empathy does not weaken one’s claim to justice, since it consists not only of sensitivity to others’ vulnerability and need, but also to the integrity of their biographies as well as to their sense of justice.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ML: I am presently finishing two books. The first is an edited volume, also coming out from the University of California Press, on the Parallel States solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Co-edited with retired Ambassador Mathias Mossberg of Sweden, it details how shared sovereignty and a delinking of territory and political control and authority could encourage a more fair and just solution to the conflict. My second book project, titled The Five Year Old who Toppled a Pharaoh, explores the long history that produced the Arab uprisings of the last two years, with particular reference to the rise of modern and contemporary public spheres and the role of globalization and new media technologies on the changing balance of power between states and opposition movements across the region.

GS: I recently started a study in which I examine the legal and juridical-political dynamics that, on the one hand, facilitate the intrusiveness and longevity of Israel’s occupation and, on the other hand, contribute to the temporariness of Israeli legal claims and limit their political significance. While the lack of sovereignty in the occupied Palestinian territories renders it vulnerable to the Israeli settlement project, it also leaves doors open to innovative conflict resolution. It is this legal and political indeterminacy—the practical untidiness caused by the tension between the exclusivity and permanence of political sovereignty and the transitory and jerrybuilt nature of military occupation—that I wish to highlight and investigate.

J: How do the sources referenced in your work contribute to the rethinking of common notions on this "area of conflict"?

GS: Here are two ways. As sociologists will be content to tell you, groups devote a great deal of energy to, and have specialized members whose role it is, to “homogenize” their members. One of the findings we anticipated in gathering the life stories included in this anthology (but even so were surprised by its pervasiveness) is the extent to which no one turned to be “typical.” No one was a “good” or “average” representative of the Palestinian or Israeli group or social category. Groups, it seems, are much more diverse than sociologists imagine them to be. In fact, I feel that one of the most effective ways in which the elusive category of human agency can be operationalized is “to measure” the extent to which individuals become who they are by differing from their putative group.

In the past decade or two, the religious dimension of the conflict began to overshadow its nationalist origins. As a result, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is produced and reproduced by the interaction of the two sides is slowly replaced with the view that all the “historical responsibility” rests with just one side. According to these religious approaches, Israelis or Palestinians are not responding to each other’s behavior but acting out their unchanging “essence” and, consequently, in place of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there is only an “Israeli conflict” or only a “Palestinian conflict.” The essentialist approach suggests that the conflict is unsolvable. In this book, the conflict is put back into the study of the conflict. After all, conflicts do have solutions.

ML: It is important to realize that even in a space and a conflict as thoroughly researched as Palestine/Israel and the century-long struggle between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs, there are still many areas that remain understudied and either little understood or completely misunderstood. By focusing on over two dozen stories of individuals and collectivities who, for the most part, have not been well-described before (particularly to a non-specialist audience), we hope not merely to bring the specificities of their stories to light but also to encourage more research into the voices, communities, and events that have till now not received proper attention.

At the same time, as Gershon has highlighted, I think our focus on social histories, narratives, and biographies offers a theoretical challenge to scholarship that still focuses on the grand events, such as the 1948 or 1967 wars or state/elite-dominated processes such as the settlements or the (de)development of the two economies, to the exclusion of the personal experiences of the majority of the country's inhabitants which ultimately remain the most basic elements of the history that has unfolded there. And, it must be stressed, our collection only scratches the surface of the kinds of voices—not merely of people, but of commodities (licit and illicit), ideas, cultural products, technologies, and even animals and household items—that have continuously circulated among and between the two primary communities, as well as the other groups with whom they have shared the territory over the last century and a half. This could easily have been a three-volume book, and we hope the work featured here inspires colleagues to continue the work of gathering stories from unexpected places and bringing them together to shed new light on the origins, history, and present dynamics of Israeli and Palestinian societies.

Excerpts from Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel

From Mark Levine and Gershon Shafir, “Introduction: Social Biographies in Making Sense of History”

Social biographies offer a particularly fruitful avenue for producing new knowledge about the history and contemporary dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that reflects their deep complexity and implicate nature. To borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, like other actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict historians “bear visibly the traces of those sufferings which...result [from] an excess of history.” These scars include not only the physical and psychic suffering of Palestinians and Israelis during more than a century of conflict but also the victimization of historiography, which has too often been reduced to an essentialist, teleological, and (for Israelis and the West more broadly) triumphalist view of Israel’s history and the world’s history, both in their recent narrative and in the longue durée of Palestine's modern history.

The individual and collective biographies that comprise this volume make at least four contributions to the study of Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms, adding significant value to the comprehension of the history of which they are part. These contributions are (a) the emphasis on human agency and the humanization of history; (b) the introduction of marginal or subaltern voices that broaden the larger narrative and in so doing unbind our imagination; (c) the recognition that people are rarely ‘typical’ representatives of their groups; and, finally, (d) the observation that people sometimes live and frequently tell their lives as narrative plots, because of which the literary aspects of their stories requires their own distinct attention.

These contributions focus on two themes, agency and imagination, both of which are particularly valuable in approaching what is frequently portrayed as the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the conflict has persisted, particular limitations of its study have rigidified into major analytic obstacles. The value of the four general contributions found in the study of life histories is that each matches up with and helps makes visible one specific obstacle to a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have chosen to highlight the following four impediments to a nuanced, and therefore fuller and more satisfying, analysis of Israeli-Palestinian relations: (a) the often repeated “myths of agency”—the assertion, on the one hand, that only in Israel have Jews recovered their sovereign and complete freedom of agency, and on the other, the profession of Palestinian powerlessness and loss of agency as the result of the Nakba and other scourges visited on them by Zionism; (b) the growing influence of those who seek to replace the view of the conflict as an interactive process with one that blames just one side or the other for its the persistence; (c) the recurrent rigid sociological division of the contenders into two homogenous groups within a zero-sum conflict; and (d) the ongoing subjugation of personal narratives in order to legitimate public narrative plots.


From Gershon Shafir, “Revolutionary Pioneer: Manya Shochat and Her Commune”

To carry out their role effectively, Hashomer members had to learn to behave like the Arab guards they replaced—that is, to learn Arabic, and seek to comprehend their manners, sense of honor and ethics. In imitation of Palestinian villages, Hashomer established hospitality rooms (madfia) to entertain passersby. Contemporary photographs invariably show Hashomer members in Arab clothing and Arab head dresses. Hashomer not only imitated the Bedouin outwardly but also derived its idea of heroism from them the Circassians. In the Second Aliya, to be an upright Jew meant to carry oneself like a mounted Bedouin! Some of the Jewish workers, in fact, accused members of Hashomer of assimilation into the Palestinian environment. But as Manya Shochat, who became one of the organization’s chroniclers, remarked: "experience taught them that if courage is required in the moment of a clash, much more important is the daily contact, which alone can create an atmosphere of good relations and security in the vicinity." Such close contact also ensured relatively free flow information about local thieves and potential assaults.


From Lætitia Bucaille, “Majed al-Masri in Two Intifadas in Nablus”

Trapped by the Israeli Defence Forces, stuck with old friends he could not live without, Majed had lost his chance to change his destiny. Before he met Leila, Majed fell in love with a Canadian woman he could barely communicate with. Despite their differences and their difficulties to exchange, they spent a lot of time together. After a few months, she offered to help him emigrate to Canada. Majed thought about starting a new existence but he felt like he could not shun his fate as a “guy from Balata,” from occupied Palestine. He had never worked in a civil environment. Would be able to have a normal job in a peaceful country? Would he be someone outside Palestine? Escaping from his destiny was both a dream and a nightmare.


From Ramzy Baroud, “The Trees Die Standing”

Engulfed by my own rebellious feelings, I picked up another stone, and a third. I moved forward, even as bullets flew, even as my friends began falling all around me. I could finally articulate who I was, and for the first time on my own terms. My name was Ramzy, and I was the son of Mohammed, a freedom fighter from Nuseirat, who was driven out of his village of Beit Daras, and the grandson of a peasant who died with a broken heart and was buried beside the grave of my brother, a little boy who died because there was no medicine in the refugee camp’s UN clinic. My mother was Zarefah, a refugee who couldn’t spell her name, whose illiteracy was compensated by a heart overflowing with love for her children and her people, a woman who had the patience of a prophet. I was a free boy; in fact, I was a free man.


From Erin Olsen, “Mais in the War of the Words”

“I recognize the Holocaust to be devastating. I understand the shear numbers of it. It was a huge destruction of human life. I want to say to the Israelis that we may not have a six-million member holocaust, but that woman that stands at the checkpoint, in the midst of losing her unborn child, that is not let through to go to the hospital—when she lost that child, that was a holocaust for her. When each of us loose members of our family to war crimes it is a holocaust. Numbers do matter. No one should destroy, marginalize or ignore the suffering of the loss of so many, but I believe that to kill your first human is the hardest step. If you can kill one human life you can kill a million. If Israel has created a society where it is OK to kill a single Palestinian in the name of Jewish survival—they are perpetuating a holocaust. That’s what we all need to consider this conflict on—a personal level. It should not be about if my group of people is worse or better than another group of people, but ask if I myself continue destruction or find a path to good. And could we stop using the word ‘Holocaust’? It is such a powerful word. It is language that makes people required to agree with you. I guess it is why I just used it.”

[Excerpted from Mark LeVine and Gershon Shafir, editors, Struggle and Survival in Palestine/Israel, by permission of the editors. © 2012 by The Regents of the University of California. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]

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