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Letters to Palestine: an interview with Vijay Prashad

Daniel Whittall speaks to Vijay Prashad about the book he has recently edited, Letters to Palestine, and the wider dynamics of the Palestinian struggle

July 2, 2015
13 min read

Letters_to_Palestine_300dpi_CMYK-82380bc8ab36fefa9172523b80d5f654In the wake of Israel’s 2014 bombardment of Gaza, Vijay Prashad, editor of LeftWord books, a radical publishing venture in New Delhi, noticed a shift in American responses to Israeli violence. In particular, dissident voices opposed to blanket American support for Israel were gaining increased attention. Prashad has now edited a collection of responses by artists, activists and academics motivated by Operation Protective Edge. Published by Verso, Letters to Palestine includes contributions from prominent US radicals such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Robin D. G. Kelley alongside writers like Junot Díaz and Teju Cole, and academics with a flair for popular writing like Colin Dayan and Corey Robin.

In all, 28 contributors offer essays, poetry, diary entries and highly personalized accounts, situated within the broad panorama of Palestinian oppression and resistance and seeking to widen the space for recognition of the importance of the Palestinian struggle in America and beyond. The book is an explicit challenge to the fact that, as Díaz puts it in her foreword, ‘the situation in Palestine is an utter taboo in this country’. Here, Daniel Whittall speaks with Vijay Prashad about his work, Letters to Palestine, and the wider dynamics of the Palestinian struggle.

Among the diverse themes running throughout your work, central must be your effort to catalogue and explicate what, in The Darker Nations, you name as the Third World project. This framing – the Third World as not a place, but a political-economic project – has clear resonance with the question of Palestine. Can I begin by asking how you envision Letters to Palestine fitting into the broad ark of this critical project?

Palestinian self-determination is one of the unfinished legacies of the era of de-colonization. Massive anti-colonial movements across Africa and Asia produced a standard for national liberation that enveloped the Palestinian struggle – driving the people from peasants to revolutionaries, in Rosemary Sayigh’s captivating phrase. It was the clear-headed emergence of the PLO in 1964 that linked Palestine to the Third World bloc, moving the refugees into political actors – the Vietnamese of West Asia, as Paul Chamberlin shows in his The Global Offensive. The 1994 Oslo Agreement was as much a surrender by the Palestinians as the former Third World bloc’s entry into the World Trade Organisation that same year – the Third World Project had ceased to be paramount. It had been cut at the knees by US primacy after the fall of the USSR and by the debt crisis. Israeli violence – backed by the US – had brought the PLO to what Edward Said called the Palestinian Versailles.

Between the first intifada of 1987 and the second in 2000, Palestinian politics re-emerged outside the formal orbit of the PLO. It would culminate in two documents that form the foundations of Letters to Palestine – the Prisoner’s Document of 2006 that called for political unity inside Palestine against the Occupation and the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) calls of 2005 that urged the use of a slate of tactics to raise the price for Israel of its illegal occupation. This new politics is akin to the new assertion in the Global South against the policy slate that increases poverty, dislocation and war (a slate that goes by the name of neo-liberalism).

Evidently, the book derives much of its urgency from contemporary events, primarily the 2014 Operation Protective Edge massacre. Your contention is that the response to Israeli violence, and American support for that violence, is undergoing a sea-change in the US. What leads you to make this claim, and how did debate and public discourse over Israeli violence in 2014 differ from that around earlier outbursts?

The idea of the War on Terror gave carte blanche to the Israeli government to operate against the Palestinians with asymmetrical disdain. This was a view shared by large sections of the US public, particularly after 9/11 – when Sharon yoked the pummeling of the Occupied Territories with the chain of associations evoked by the falling World Trade Center. Murder of US nationals – such as Rachel Corrie – did not create outrage in the United States. That was then. The exhaustion of the War on Terror ideology and the BDS movement played a role in breaking the consensus. Very many people no longer adopt the view that war is the antidote to terrorism or that those who are tarred with the brush of terror are necessarily terrorists. Nuance has returned to the conversation, as has a great deal of suspicion about the use of armed conflict. Secondly, the BDS movement is not designed to necessarily impact the economy of Israel but it is structured to dent the image of Israel as the victim surrounded by a sea of terrorists. This has certainly occurred. Very many people who would previously have given Israel wide latitude to garrote the Palestinians with impunity no longer do so. The break over the Iran nuclear agreement against Israel’s narrative is one illustration. More clearly is the anxiety among the Israeli Lobby over the influence of BDS – they have taken off the gloves to go after the activists.

Several of the chapters in Letters to Palestine initially appeared online during or in the immediate aftermath of Operation Protective Edge. What role do you think the internet has played in this shift in public discourse over Palestine, and why did you feel it important to draw some of these diverse writings together into the pages of a published book?

Certainly the Internet has played an important role as a transmitter of the everyday atrocities that occur in the Occupied Territories. The mainstream media has generally had a difficult time telling the truth about Palestine. Only a handful of courageous journalists risked their careers to bring home the real story. Otherwise we used to rely upon cyclostyled copies of activist newsletters, which were deeply informative. What the Internet has done is of course to hasten the ability of news to travel, and to allow alternative networks to flourish. This means that it was easier for Palestinian voices to emerge out of Gaza, and about Gaza. It also means that the voices of dissidents in the United States can much more easily be put out there. I wanted to bring together some of the better dissident voices into this book so that they do not get lost in the vast ocean of the Internet – which is both the Internet’s strength and weakness.

In your introduction, you draw attention to the ‘everyday war’ in Palestine, that which forces ‘ordinary people … to make bare lives in extraordinary times’. Fida Qishta’s 2012 film Where Should the Birds Fly, and particularly the footage of fisherfolk and farmers attempting to go on with their work under sniper fire from Israeli troops, is taken as a paradigmatic representation of this everyday violence. What place do you see for the arts – poetry, painting, film – in representing everyday life in Palestine?

I guess the answer depends on what you mean by art. By art I mean any human expression that helps to expand the imagination. It is a very broad definition, which includes social theory and non-fiction writing. Any breath of air into the way Palestine’s life is expressed is essential – whether the population in the Occupied Territories, the ’48 lands or in the Diaspora. The question of the everyday Nakba is essential. There is no single dispossession of the Palestinian people. Such dispossession happens daily – whether by a settlement, by the casual disavowal of Palestinian self-determination or by the fierce violence of the Israeli military. It is imperative that the social costs of this range of violence be discussed.

Supplementary to this everyday violence, you also highlight Israel’s distinctively political violence, its assassination or incarceration of what you call ‘Palestine’s most serious and popular political leaders’. In the conclusion to his recent book Method or Madness, Norman Finkelstein argues that the worst that can be said for a non-violent political movement in Palestine is that it hasn’t been tried yet. The argument made across Letters to Palestine is different, though, namely that Israel has persistently suppressed any non-violent political movements in Palestine. Could you expand a little on this debate about the place of non-violence in contemporary Palestinian politics, and the differing interpretations of it?

I think it is not helpful to lecture the Palestinians about their strategy for their national liberation. We are talking about a people who have had their aspirations snuffed out over generations. Many live in refugee camps, and have only known these camps. Others live in the shadow of Israeli gunships and border posts, of settlements and settler violence. To expect people who live under oppression to conform to a liberal idea of politics is arrogant. To say, as well, that the Palestinians have not tried a non-violent movement is misleading: it mis-places the history of struggle for Palestine into the register of violence, and does the work of Zionist ideology.

It is not as if Palestinians have not developed non-violent techniques of resistance. Take the emblematic case of the 1976 Land Day struggle. It was a General Strike in the Galilee that was non-violent. Israeli state forces used harsh repression, killing a few Palestinians and injuring hundreds. Palestinian protest –whether utterly non-violent as in 1976 or with rock-throwing as in the first Intifada of 1987 – was met with disproportionate and asymmetrical violence by the Israelis. This sets the stage for the harsh repression that follows – and the arrest of non-violent advocates who form a considerable section of the political prisoners in Israel’s Ofer/Ktzi’ot Archipelago.

Perhaps the most moving essay in the book is Randa Jarrar’s ‘Imagining myself in Palestine’. Jarrar tells of her unsuccessful efforts to travel to visit her sister in Ramallah. On arrival at Ben Gurion airport she is subject to racial profiling and humiliation from Israeli security. Despite her best efforts at, in Jarrar’s terms, ‘deleting my Palestian-ness in order to go back to Palestine’, her identity is revealed and she is sent back to America. ‘The state of sitting, of standing, of waiting, is the principal state of the Palestinian’. This is at once both a poignant reflection on Palestinian and diasporic identity, and an indictment of Israeli border security practices. What was it like, as editor, to read such harrowing and personal accounts of the erasure and refashioning of identity?

I read many, many essays such as this, and of course read and listen to many, many testimonies of violence against the human spirit – largely as part of my journalistic work in North Africa and West Asia. These are horrid and painful. They always leave a piece of iron in the soul. But Randa develops the story so beautifully – allowing us to recognize the great moments of human resilience during indignity.

Robin D. G. Kelley’s chapter, ‘Yes, I said, “National Liberation”‘ powerfully interweaves histories of racial violence and discrimination in the US with that in Palestine. His is also the chapter that most powerfully insists on the need not to see the Palestinian people as victims, but instead as revolutionaries fighting a transformative campaign against prejudice simply through their everyday acts of existence and resistance. Kelley insists on the need to ‘begin building the future in the present’. What do you envisage a livable Palestinian future looking like, and what steps can be taken in the present in order to build a route towards it?

I guess this is a question for the Palestinian movement rather than me. I am merely a chronicler of the atrocities, and only tangentially a part of the BDS struggle. I think there are many debates about a two state solution and a one state solution, about the question of land and the question of political rights. But there is no platform to take seriously the many Palestinian suggestions for what you call a “livable Palestinian future.” If you watch Larissa Sansour’s nine-minute film, Nation Estate (2012), you find yourself in a building that is Palestine, with its cities (Ramallah, Jerusalem) on different floors. It is a remarkable sci-fi picture of Palestine today and into tomorrow. Can the imagination go beyond that? This seems to be difficult. But there needs to be more places to talk about these livable futures, to oxygenate the discussion.

In her chapter ‘Diary of a Gaza war, 2014’, Najla Said reports you discussing with her the acronym PEP – Progressive Except for Palestine. What is it that this acronym captures, and why do you think it is such a stinging indictment of some Euro-American liberal and leftist approaches to Palestine?

PEP comes right to the heart of it. For many reasons, liberals and left-liberals are capable of quite radical politics – excoriating against the US invasion of Iraq, for instance, but silent on Israel’s settler-colonial wars against the Palestinians. Why is that so? I don’t know. But it is the case. I think those who are PEP need to be called to account. That is what Najla does in her diary, which is very powerful for its honesty.

Finally, what hopes do you have for Letters to Palestine – what role do you foresee for the book in public discourse on Palestine?

I hope that this book will reach all kinds of readers in the Western world who have, as Junot Díaz puts it, a deranged attitude to Palestine. I hope very much that there will be space for a more open-minded look at the occupation and war, and an open ear to Palestinian dreams.

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