Arab-Jewish Activism in Israel-Palestine. Marcelo Svirsky. Farnham: Ashgate. 2012. 211 pp.
ISBN 978 40942297
Since the onset of ‘the Arab Spring’ social scientists have been moving from analysing oppressive political regimes to analyses of acts of resistance. This is particularly relevant in the case of Israel-Palestine, where, since the turning point events of October 2000, when 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel who protested in solidarity with the Al Aqsa Intifada were shot by the Israeli police, acts of resistance are becoming widespread. Several social scientists are beginning to grapple with acts of resistance not only in the OPT, where non violent protestors confront the Israeli security forces on a weekly basis, but also within the state of Israel, where protestors (mostly Jewish) take to the streets to campaign for social justice.
That the two campaigns rarely meet, even though many of the protestors are active on both fronts, has been addressed by bloggers and contributors to social networks and is a point Marcelo Svirsky’s new book may have addressed.
Svirsky’s book describes and critiques collaborative Arab-Jewish acts of resistance. He premises his theoretically complex account on several basic assumptions. Firstly, Zionism is firmly positioned as a settler colonial movement, based on segregative principles from the very start. His second starting point, following Azoulai and Ophir (2008), is the impossibility of separating the ‘democratic occupation’ within green line Israel from the ‘military occupation’ in the occupied territory; his Israel-Palestine extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. His third point is that the end goal – decolonisation – must not be understood merely in terms of a rebellion against a foreign power, or a national liberation project, but rather in terms of a collaborative struggle aspiring not merely to ameliorate the present state of affairs, but rather to remove the Zionist system of privilege. In other words, it is not merely a Palestinian struggle but rather a struggle for Palestine. His study, he proposes, signifies a change in the research agenda on Israel-Palestine from analysing ‘Israel proper’ in isolation from the OPT to analysing both in tandem, from analysing oppression to theorising resistance as coexisting with oppression and capture, and from wallowing in ‘academic pessimism’ to focusing on processes of resistance.
Svirsky’s road to making these important points leads via Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of ‘the event’ that permit bodies, things and systems of becoming different to take seriously the role of change. Both colonialism and decolonisation are theorised as such events, that which happens, but also that which is expressed in a ‘minority language’ within a settler colonial majoritarian society, and a new syntax within Zionism. Another important concept is Jamal’s (2011) notion of post-October 2000 (Palestinian) politics of (Palestinian) indigeneity, putting paid to the asymmetrical and counter-productive co-existence and dialogue industry.
Methodologically, the book is based on a series of critical ethnographies, with a particularly detailed ethnography of the Arab-Jewish bilingual school Galilee, and on Svirsky’s long term involvement in a variety of collaborative acts of resistance. Research for him is a site of politics, ‘militant research’ not only of what is but of what could be.
The ‘membrane’ of October 2000 as an ‘act of citizenship’ is for him a crucial staring point. Theorising Palestine, not for the first time, as Terra Nullius, Svirsky gives a detailed account of the genealogy of Zionism as based on segregation – of lands, of labour power – and his account that also gives credence to histories of Palestinian resistance. However, his central argument is the links between colonised and colonisers who, he writes, make connections through the revolt, resistance… where ‘the colonised and retreating colonisers meet to engage in a compound of resistance, to claim public space as one colonised people… This is the concern of all those who ask to construct non-oppressive and non-segregative ways of socio political life between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River’ (176).
The collaborative acts of resistance Svirsky outlines include the actions of Alternative Voice in the Galilee (AVIG) against the Misgav council’s segregative housing policies; Arab-Jewish bilingual intercultural schools; the Haifa conferences for a one state solution; Ta-ayush – a post-Oslo Arab-Jewish group aiming to ‘be with the Palestinians in their struggle’ (117); Tarabut –a joint resistance group initiated by the Hadash party; the BDS campaign, and the Israelis supporting the BDS from within; the Who Profits from the Occupation research group, initiated by members of the Coalition of Women for Peace; Anarchists against the Wall, who work in collaboration with the Palestinian Popular Committees; and the Ichud Bnei Sakhnin football team. These add to a long list of projects, mostly initiated by Israelis, such as B’Tzelem and the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.
I particularly appreciated the book when Svirsky critiques such activism. He starts with the somewhat obvious comparison with the Zionist left, which, obeying state logic, stops short at demands for the Palestinian right of return, agitating merely against the 1967 occupation. Indeed, Palestinian critique of the ‘joint struggle’ paradigm states bluntly: ‘There is no such thing as a joint struggle… The term “joint struggle” implies a degree of equality or at least symmetry, and that is definitely not the case between Israelis and Palestinians, even if they are dodging the same rubber bullets and inhaling the same tear gas’ (Alsaafin, 2012). In my work on Zochrot, the Jewish Israeli group commemorating the Nakba in Hebrew, I question appropriation and speaking for the Palestinians from a point of privilege (Lentin, 2010). Svirsky’s idea of ‘colonised and retreating colonisers’ claiming public space as ‘one colonised people’ obscures this privilege and is disingenuous at best.
There are advantages to collaborative activism, thanks to which the Nakba and the struggle itself have become a ‘new syntax’ within Zionism, leading the government to legislate against Nakba commemoration. But it would be unfair to accuse Svisrky of blindness to the problems of collaborative resistance. In particular, his ethnography of the Arab-Jewish school reveals that maintaining the identities of ‘the two communities’ (for instance in running joint commemorative ceremonies on Independence Day / Nakba Day) actually runs against decolonisation. Segregation thus is ‘a parasite on the machine of identification’, aiming to unify that which it segregates.
Svirsky advocates jointly stepping outside ethnicised bodies beyond the national narrative, and beyond representation towards decolonisation. A lofty aim, but one which obscures the Palestinian argument that radical Israelis should concentrate on changing their own society and overturning Zionism. Ultimately, I agree with Alsaafin that even though Israeli activists claim to understand the privileges they enjoy due to being white and Jewish in a colonial situation, ‘it is not always clear that they understand in practice how these privileges continue to manifest themselves in their interactions with Palestinians’ (2012), even through what Svirsky calls ‘collaborative resistance’.
Finally, a pedantic point. Publishing with Ashgate runs the risk of not having your work copy-edited. There are too many grammar, spelling and typing errors in this otherwise interesting book.
Alsaafin, L. 2012. ‘How obsession with non-violence is harming the Palestinian cause’, Electronic Intifada, 10 July, http://electronicintifada.net/content/how-obsession-nonviolence-harms-palestinian-cause/11482
Azoulai, A. and A. Ophir. 2008. This Regime which is not One: Ocupation and Democracy between the Sea and the River (1967 – ). Tel Aviv: Resling.
Jamal, A. 2011. Arab minority Nationalism in Israel: The Politics of Indigeneity. London: Routledge.
Lentin, R. 2010. Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialising the Palestinian Nakba. Manchester: Manchester University Press.