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Greater than the Sum of Our Parts – review

Nada Elia’s book touches on a number of interesting themes, but fails to shift its focus from the academy to grassroots organising, argues Jeanine Hourani

6 to 8 minute read

Protestors waiving placards, Palestinian flags and keys symbolising the Palestinian demand for right of return

Title: Greater than the Sum of Our Parts Feminism, Inter/Nationalism, and Palestine

Author: Nada Elia

Publisher: Pluto Press

Year: 2023

As a Palestinian PhD student and long-time organiser, I am often struck by how disconnected the academy is from the street. Reading the blurb of Greater than the Sum of Our Parts filled me with hope that, finally, a body of literature might be emerging that understands and appreciates the dialectical relationship between theorising and organising.

Nada Elia’s book promises to unpack how the struggle for Palestinian freedom is bound in other struggles, and how political organisers are fighting for our collective liberation. But while the book does touch on some promising themes, it ultimately prioritises academic debate over grassroots organising, and left me craving a deeper analysis of epistemology and solidarity.

Epistemology: who creates knowledge?

Towards the end of the book, Elia interrogates why, within the academy, Palestine studies tends to sit in settler-colonial rather than post-colonial studies. Elia posits that indigenous and settler-colonial studies look at decolonial struggles to reclaim suppressed or appropriated cultures within empire, whereas post-colonial studies look at nationalist struggles. She extrapolates that the current analytical framework operating in Palestinian organising no longer aligns with countries that ousted their European colonisers but instead with other indigenous and first nations people still living in ‘more established’ settler colonies.

Elia argues that this reflects a shift in Palestinian activism away from the achievement of liberation through armed struggle and towards global grassroots popular resistance, primarily through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). While I don’t agree with her analysis that Palestinian activism has moved away from armed struggle (the recently-formed Lions’ Den armed resistance group in Nablus being the most recent case in point), I am interested in her starting point.

Elia’s analysis prompts the reader to question what it means to practise solidarity across differences

In Elia’s analysis, this is about academic ‘disciplines’, namely Palestine studies, settler-colonial studies and post-colonial studies. She maps these to modes of Palestinian organising and resistance, suggesting that the location of Palestine studies within the academy reveals the analytical framework operating in Palestinian organising.

By adopting this approach, she centres the academy as the primary site of knowledge production. This limits our ability to marry intellectual theorising with political organising because these categories don’t actually mean anything outside the academy. Such classifications limit our scope of thinking to binaries: settler-colonial versus post-colonial studies; sovereignty and self-determination versus anti-colonial national liberation; alignment with formerly colonised countries versus alignment with current settler colonised peoples; armed struggle versus BDS.

In creating this either/or, we are socialised to constantly look for sameness in our struggles to ensure that they are placed in the same box, and to believe that this is required to demonstrate solidarity. Throughout the book, Elia draws parallels between different indigenous, anti-colonial struggles: she argues that the Citizenship and Entry into Israel law evokes the American ‘Muslim ban’; that white South Africans see the problem being blacks just as Zionists see the problem as being Palestinians; and she makes comparisons between the restrictions imposed on Palestinian fishermen in Gaza and indigenous fisherman in Turtle Island.

This approach of ‘sameness’ can be useful for two reasons. First, it situates the Palestinian struggle in a global context alongside other indigenous struggles; and second, it affirms that our struggles are working towards the same common goal. But our struggles are not the same: differences, nuances and hybridities exist between and within liberation struggles.

It is possible (and true) that Palestinians are simultaneously fighting for liberation through armed struggle and through tactics such as BDS. It is possible (and true) that the Palestinian struggle aligns with
countries that ousted the European colonisers and with indigenous and first nations people still living in the ‘more established’ settler colonies. But searching for these similarities flattens our current realities and histories of solidarity, which stifles our ability to organise across differences and build meaningful solidarity.

Solidarity: organising across differences

Elia’s analysis prompts the reader to question what it means to practise solidarity across differences. This sentiment is powerfully captured by the feminist writer and scholar Sara Ahmed, who writes in her ebook The Cultural Politics of Emotion: ‘Solidarity does not assume that our struggles are the same struggles, or that our pain is the same pain, or that our hope is for the same future. Solidarity involves commitment, and work, as well as the recognition that even if we do not have the same feelings, or the same lives, or the same bodies, we do live on common ground”.

Understanding the parallels between our struggles is critical, and Elia does this beautifully, but understanding similarities is easier than reckoning with differences. Decolonial politics and solidarity requires us to build alliances across different manifestations of oppression and articulations of struggle. Building solidarity across differences is hard work that is underpinned by praxis: that is, the marrying of theory and practice that I was hoping this book would illuminate but ultimately doesn’t.

Commitment to praxis has been actualised by some of the grassroots organisations and collectives that Elia mentions throughout the book: the Red Nation, Palestinian Youth Movement, Falistiniyat, Palestinian Feminist Collective, Tal3at and Al Qaws. In referencing the work of these groups, Elia provides a welcome change to dominant texts by armchair academics who are out of touch with the politics of the street and forces the reader to interrogate the assumption that knowledge only lies within the realm of the academy. However, these case studies plateau before reaching their potential – further amplification and a deeper interrogation of the organising efforts of these groups would have illustrated how to organise and co-resist across differences, and would have also situated the street as the primary site of knowledge production.

For instance, Elia provides an overview of the oppression of Palestinian women living under settler colonialism, exploring the politicisation of fertility and motherhood, but quotes Israeli politicians to make this argument rather than Palestinian women themselves. Similarly, her analysis of pinkwashing ‘brand Israel campaigns’ doesn’t include case studies of Palestinian organising campaigns against pinkwashing. Another example Elia outlines is the banning of foraging by the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority under the guise of conservation. However, Elia fails to mention the work of Rabea Eghbarieh and his colleagues at the Adalah Justice Project, who have challenged this law.

While Greater than the Sum of Our Parts does touch on some promising themes, it ultimately prioritises academic debate over grassroots organising

At present, there is a gap in the literature on effective organising strategies, of successes in our resistance, of what works on the streets and how we can replicate it as exiled Palestinians wherever we may be. A deeper investigation of how these organisations and grassroots collectives build solidarity, case studies of campaigns that these groups have worked on together, examples of what challenges they faced and how they overcame them – these are part of the missed potential of Greater than the Sum of Our Parts.

A focus on the work of grassroots organisations and collectives, and the tangible, material change that these groups have achieved, would have also opened the door for greater engagement on the question: how can we work to build a liberated future? Being an abolitionist requires us to organise to set up the alternative, while simultaneously organising to dismantle current oppressive systems. Elia emphasises this throughout the book. However, a large portion of it is spent re-hashing arguments that have been previously made.

For example, the book outlines the role of women in the Palestinian liberation movement, work that is important but has been done by Palestinian feminist scholars such as Rabab Abdulhadi and Rema Hammami. The book also includes detailed descriptions of the history of Zionism, quoting Zionists such as Morris, Mazzig and Jabotinsky, who are quoted time and time again in Palestinian history books.

This is no fault of Elia’s but rather a microcosm of the academy, which is frozen in critique, leaving little room for creativity to imagine the future. Again, a de-centring of the academy and a re-centring of the street would have remedied this: how do the Red Nation, Palestinian Youth Movement, Falistiniyat, Palestinian Feminist Collective, Tal3at, and Al Qaws imagine liberation? How do their organising efforts work towards that vision?

The strength of Greater than the Sum of Our Parts is in its potential as a conversation starter. The book probes us to ask: where do we believe knowledge lies? What does it mean to practise solidarity across differences? How can we work to build a liberated future? Read the book, ask yourself these questions, and then organise to answer them – our liberation depends on it.

This article first appeared in issue #239, Spring 2023, Flight, Fight, Remain. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Jeanine Hourani is a Palestinian organiser, writer and researcher

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