Professor Janet Abu-Lughod sociologist, demographer, comparative urbanist, and scholar of world systems also belonged to the first generation of scholars who made possible sound scholarly discussions on Palestine in and beyond the US academy. Along with her colleagues, she acted on two fronts. First, she had to do serious research on the Palestinians, much of which was done from scratch, and present it to a prejudiced or skeptical audience. Second, she participated in many international committees and programs in support of the Palestinians.
The presentation of Palestinian issues in the United States is still difficult and can even be perilous. Indeed, a report published in 1992 in the Chronicle of Higher Education cautiously stated that “to choose to focus your research on a Palestinian subject was not always a wise career move” (Coughlin, 1992: A8). Given this, one can imagine the Sisyphean work that was done in the decades before, which resulted in the creation of some holes in the wall of denial and hostility.
Abu-Lughod made significant contributions to the scholarship on Palestine through her work on the demography of the Palestinians and through deciphering the Zionist settler colonial project. Her demographic research has remained the baseline for any research on the demographic transformation of Palestine in the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Moreover it was for many years the basis for programs to empower Palestinians. Most remarkably she, along with her husband and comrade Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, worked on an innovative program supported by UNESCO to establish a Palestinian Open University as a means of educating a scattered nation. Although this program was aborted by the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the groundwork, which Abu-Lughod conducted, remains the basis of demographic research on the Palestinians. She had painstakingly and skillfully constructed a detailed demographic profile of the Palestinians by gathering data from a variety of sources that differed in methodology and the classifications used. The standardization of the data and the construction of a profile of the Palestinian people in Palestine and in exile is a remarkable achievement that can hardly be overestimated.
Abu Lughod’s demographic research was not just technical; she employed highly technical methods to present the morality of the Palestinian cause. For example, she began her 1971 article “The Demographic Transformation of Palestine” by asserting the tragedy of the Palestinians in a historical and comparative perspective:
Except for the extermination of the Tasmanians, modern history recognizes no case in which the virtually complete supplanting of the indigenous population of a country by an alien stock has been achieved in as little as two generations. Yet this, in fact, is what has been attempted in Palestine since the beginning of the Twentieth century. Herein lies the nub of the Middle East – at once its greatest tragedy and its most perplexing but inescapable problem.
This article was published in The Transformation of Palestine, probably the first book to be published on Palestine in the United States by a respectable academic publisher, Northwestern University Press. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod edited it.
Besides researching, publishing and teaching, Abu-Lughod participated in many committees on Palestine. Her presentations reflected deep insights and understanding of the nature of the Zionist colonial project. For example, in the fourth UN seminar on the question of Palestine, 31 August – 4 September, 1981 she gave a prescient presentation entitled “Israeli Settlements in Occupied Arab Lands: Conquest to Colony.” In this paper she argued that:
During the past fourteen years the Israeli goal has remained to consolidate her hold over the conquered lands and to suppress any resistance. Within this goal, the implanting of multiple centers of Jewish "settlement" has become an increasingly crucial technique in the overall strategy for converting conquest into annexation….To comprehend the meaning of these processes, one must do more than acknowledge the exponential rise in the number of "settlements" and "settlers". One must understand how priorities have shifted over time, how the measures undertaken evolved in adaptation to the particular characteristics of each subarea, and how settlement policies, rather than an isolated set of activities, are related both to similar strategies within Israel and to different activities (such as law, land and water expropriation, collective punishment and military governance) within the occupied areas. To understand these connexions it is necessary to conceive of "conquest to colonization" as involving an entire gamut of means, ranging from brute force and primitive might, at one extreme, to resource deprivation and economic sanctions at the other end, passing through gradations of quasi-legal to "legal" subterfuges. Throughout it is important to bear in mind that while methods vary, the non-negotiable goals remain the same: namely, the incorporation and eventual annexation of the occupied lands.
This analysis is still valid today after thirty-two years, despite endless rounds of “peace talks” and several wars. She pointed out “the relatively underpopulated zone along the Jordan Valley had been, next to the Golan, the most easily colonized of the occupied zones because it, too, had virtually been emptied during the 1967 war.” It is rather symbolic and tragic that almost two weeks (on 29 December) after the passing away of professor Abu-Lughod, the Israeli ministerial committee for legislation approved the placing of Israeli settlements and the access road leading to them in the Jordan Valley under Israeli laws; a penultimate move for the annexation of this area.
Given this moral stand—which was not only exhibited in her research on Palestine but in her larger oeuvre that included critiques of Orientalism (the “Islamic city”), of colonialism (urban apartheid in Rabat), of claims about western superiority (Before European Hegemony) and of racism (in her last book, Race, Space, and Riots)—Abu-Lughod compellingly argued against the inclusion of the Palestinians in the literature on migration. She argued in an article in Current Sociology in 1988 that the Palestinian people represent a distinct sociological phenomenon which can neither be grasped through the sociology of migration nor through the ordinary literature on exile. The Palestinians as a nation became exiles, including those who remained in their homeland and homes. The Zionist settler colonial project created in the life of the Palestinians a rift in time and condition which cannot be rectified, she argued, without the return of the refugees and the reconstitution of Palestinian society.
Professor Janet Abu Lughod (1928-2013) is survived by her children: Lila, Mariam, Deena and Jawad; her eight grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.
Selected Work by Janet Abu-Lughod
On Palestine (Alphabetical Listing)
"Demographic Characteristics of the Palestinian Population," Palestine Open University Feasibility Study (1980): 29.
"Demographic Consequences of the Occupation," MERIP Reports 115 (1983): 13-17.
“Israeli Settlements in Occupied Arab Lands: Conquest to Colony,” paper presented at the Fourth United Nations Seminar On the Question of Palestine, Havana, Cuba, 31 August - 4 September 1981. Subsequently published in Question of Palestine: Legal Aspects: A Compilation of Papers Presented at the United Nations Seminars on the Question of Palestine in 1980-1986 (United Nations, 1992), p. 201.
"Israeli Settlements in Occupied Arab Lands: Conquest to Colony," Journal of Palestine Studies 11, no. 2 (1982): 16-54.
"Palestinians: Exiles at Home and Abroad," Current Sociology 36, no. 2 (1988): 61-69.
Al-Tabee’ah Al-Demoghraphia Lil-Sha‘ab al-Filistini, trans. Ziyyad al-Hussayni (al-Quds: Jam‘iyyat al-Dirasat al-‘Arabia,1982).
"The Continuing Expulsions from Palestine: 1948–1985," in Palestine: Continuing Dispossession, edited by Glenn E. Perry (Belmont MA: AAUG Press, 1986): 17-45.
"The Demographic Transformation of Palestine,” in The Transformation of Palestine: Essays on the Origin and Development of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, edited by Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (Northwestern University Press, 1971): 139-64.
"The Demographic War for Palestine," The Link 19, no. 5 (1986): 1-14.
"The Displacement of the Palestinians," The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (1995): 410.
Sociology and Middle East Studies (Chronological Listing):
Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (Princeton University Press, 1971).
Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton University Press, 1981).
Before Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford University Press, 1991).
Changing Cities: Urban Sociology (Harpercollins College Div, 1991).
From Urban Village to East Village: The Battle for New York’s Lower East Side (Blackwell Publishers, 1994)
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America`s Global Cities (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).
Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (Oxford University Press, 2007).
[For more on Janet Abu-Lughod`s life, click here to read a recent Jadaliyya bundle of articles commemorating her life and work.]