Max Ajl

The United States’ founders were taken with the idea that they were building a New Jerusalem. Rhetoric of a City on the Hill animated the state-building project, particularly during what some historians call the colonial era. Such symbolism, and the shared tropes of settler-colonial land redemption, have ensured for Palestine a long history in the life of the United States.

But from 1960 onwards, argues Keith Feldman in his new book, A Shadow Over Palestine, Palestine and struggles over Palestine got caught up in nearly revolutionary revolts in the United States around civil rights, Black Power, the war on Vietnam, and the meaning of democracy under racial capitalism. The book covers a period when domestic struggles for power interlaced with territorial and military shifts in Palestine and Israel. During this era, movements for more rights and less war, as well as “Zionist settler colonization and Israeli military and administrative occupation, and Palestinian narratives of dispossession, dispersion, and resistance were forged, felt, and thought together.” 

The question of Palestine and the question of Israel became increasingly central to U.S. political debates. This has been true especially since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the strengthening of the U.S. and Israel’s “Special Relationship.” In the process, Zionism increasingly became “a symbolic storehouse for the hegemonic articulation of liberal freedom and colonial violence,” or the United States’ very unequal distribution of freedoms under racial capitalism at home, and its support for colonialism abroad. Feldman’s core project is to examine the cultural aspects of that articulation. 

The book encompasses U.S. intellectual and cultural production in the years between 1960 to 1985: Edward Said and his relationship to Arab-American intellectual formations; the novels of Saul Bellow; the Black Panther Party, and Kwame Touré; James Forman, James Baldwin, the Holocaust, and the political economy of the country’s transition to Fordism. It is a lot. 

Feldman highlights the role of cultural workers—novelists, essayists, polemicists—because it is they who erect “a symbolic architecture to secure consent for extraterritorial violence as essential for protecting the national home.” Of course, cultural workers have a problem, or are a problem, for they can choose to justify an aggressive foreign policy. But they can also think, criticize, and dissent.

One crucial cluster of intellectuals Feldman discusses is the Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG), a group which included Edward Said, Ibrahim Abu Lughod, and Elaine Hagopian. These scholars began by trying to tell a narrative around Palestine different from that of the mainstream Middle East-centered academic associations. Founded in the U.S. in 1967, “the strategic need to build coalitions with other aggrieved communities,” became one crucial issue. By 1969, the AAUG was considering “the conditions and possibilities of Palestinian revolution.” By the mid-1970s the state was surveilling the group. In lifting up this history, Feldman shows how questions of coalitions and state monitoring of political work are not merely of the present but are also of the past. 

Feldman doesn’t limit himself exclusively to political battles in the United States. In the first chapter, he discusses the intellectual origins of Resolution 3379—the only General Assembly Resolution in United Nations history to be reversed. That resolution put in place the formulation, “zionism is a form of racism.” Feldman traces this notion’s origins to the work of research institutes whose global span mirrored that of the Palestinian exiles who staffed and founded them. Groups like the Palestine Research Center (PRC), the AAUG, and the Institute for Palestine Studies put forth a systematic and historically attentive analysis of Zionism as a form of settler colonialism.

A third chapter examines the Jewish Question and how Jewish intellectuals and movements engaged with the Palestine Question, Zionism, and Jewish assimilation. His forensic dissections of the thought of Norman Podhoretz, and the line running from his support for Israel to Saul Bellow’s neo-conservatism is one of the book’s clearest sequences, explaining the link between transformed Israel-U.S. relations, non-fiction intellectual production, and popular fiction. 

In the same chapter Feldman discusses Jewish radicals who identified with anti-imperialism yet also “narrated the exclusionary Jewish settlement of Palestine as the legitimate…historical expression of Jewish national liberation.” Here he is particularly strong, showing the bizarre contortions through which intellectuals like Michael Lerner and initiatives like the Jewish Liberation Project both justified Israel’s “inalienable right to exist,” and supported a non-Zionist vision for the country. He situates these debates in the political movements within which they fermented, and sticks to the language of the period. In the process, he brilliantly illuminates the way many such nominally anti-Zionist groups and individuals were in effect soft-Zionists. By failing to take the priorities of the liberation movement as their point of reference, they contained or blunted Palestine-related organizing in communities and in the U.S. peace movement in that era, with enduring consequences.

One issue with the book concerns word choice. Although Feldman richly quotes the period’s primary sources, from time to time he translates an archive from the language of the movements and moments of its birth into a different idiom—frequently, critical race theory. For example, he writes of one presentation by Fayez Sayegh (of the PRC) at the United Nations. In that document, Sayegh wrote how 

Just as the heart-beat consists of two rhythmic operations—pumping-in and pumping-out—so too the program of Zionism consists of two inter-related operations, each of which is essential for the heart-beat of Zionism and neither of which is dispensable: the detachment of Jews from their respective countries and their mass-transfer to Palestine, and the detachment of the indigenous Palestinian Arabs and their mass-transfer from Palestine.

In Feldman’s words, this becomes a story of how “dispossession was articulated through differential racialization,” or, later, how such analyses “registered desires for the enactment of substantive practices of decolonization.” It is too much, too heavy-footed, too distant from the light and precise prose-poetry of Sayegh. Instead, one wishes that Feldman had focused more on the moment of such ideas’ production, most particularly its anti-colonialism, and most importantly left-nationalist and Communist national liberation movements’ impacts on the Palestinian struggle. And vice-versa. In not doing so, he loses the chance to expand on how Sayegh’s statement linked the Palestinian cause to the legal framework then taking form through United Nations’ resolutions and covenants. It was precisely those texts which crystallized in law the gains and limits of the anti-colonial and anti-racist struggle.

Indeed, this leads into the most crucial gap in this book—one with edges brightly marked by a frustratingly fleeting insight. In framing the fifth chapter, on women of color feminisms and the reaction to the Israeli aggression against Lebanon, Feldman notes that the June 1967 war “marked a discursive opening for race radical movements in the United States to critique Israeli settler colonialism and fashion anticolonial expressions of Palestinian solidarity.” But by the late 1970s both Israel and the United States saw a “rightward turn,” with the “anticolonial frames for radical race movements…increasingly repressed and dispersed.” 

Something had happened in between, though—the global 1968. “Transnational and translocal liberation struggles crosshatched the globe,” hitting apex then descending amidst the world-wide counter-revolution called neoliberalism. One part of the world-wide revolution, Feldman argues, was increasing clarity over the Palestine question in the United States and within the Black Power movement. One of his ambitions is to highlight the “central place of Arabs and Palestinians as part of this historical milieu,” as the originators of that clarity. AAUG was at the core. Indeed, by 1970, that organization’s “political emphases were articulated through an anti-colonial Pan-Arab nationalism.” But how did this come to be? 

Feldman emphasizes the reactions of Arabs in the United States to the 1967 war. But this emphasis deglobalizes a global reaction. As Abdel Razzaq Takriti points out in Monsoon Revolution, “responding to the devastating shock of the Palestinian naksa” regional revolutionaries “subjected their original Nasserist orientation to an autocritique, initiating a shift in a more radical direction,” in the case of Dhufar moving towards peoples’ war as the means to liberate the “Gulf city state.”  If the U.S.-Israeli Special Relationship cast a shadow over Palestine, Arab revolutionary movements in constant engagement with struggles across East and Southeast Asia were casting their own shadow over the United States. A rich but underexplored traffic in ideas and immigrants flowed through urban centers and across borders and armistice lines. 

Yet what was the relationship between this radical turn within Arab progressive thought and organizing, including an increasing embrace of Maoism, and the intellectual production of the AAUG, including its references to the Palestinian Revolution? One wants to know much more about the relationship between the AAUG and grassroots organizing in Palestinian exile communities. Who was determining the research agenda? And to what extent did it reflect anti-colonial and anti-capitalist commitments gestating in Palestine and the broader Arab region, to say nothing of diaspora and exilic communities in the United States? Who bore such dreams, and how did they fade? What is left of them today? Other questions also bubble up. What were the AAUG’s links to the solidarity movement? What were the benefits of such close links between U.S.-based domestic organizing and regional happenings and movements? And how, finally, and most importantly for this book’s primarily U.S.-based audience, did the systematic, clinical, and deliberate U.S. destruction of nearly every regional progressive force rebound onto U.S.-based activism, including, eventually, the very infrastructure of Palestinian national organizing itself?

Feldman orients his book to “struggles to imagine and enact a different kind of future.” It is well-timed. Student movements are again blooming at an uncommon rate in the United States. And across them, Palestine casts a shadow. This is good news. As Daniel Drennan notes, the “plight of the Palestinians is in turn at the center of economic inequality that underpins racism, sectarianism, the absence of various forms of individualized ‘rights.’” From prison divestment to some of the anti-racist campaigns addressing government treatment of Blacks, students wish to “fundamentally change people’s minds about everything from mass incarceration to Palestine,” in the words of Asha Rosa, one of the organizers of the Columbia divestment.

In this way, we can see that Palestine is already casting its shadow over that “different kind of future” in intriguing and obscure ways. Part of understanding that shadow, though, is understanding its shades. It is understanding that it is not one shadow but a chiaroscuro of infinite complexity. It is understanding that in casting a shadow over the unknown—the future—one is in fact determining its shape. And it is finally understanding that we ourselves are living in the shadow of the past. 

And here I worry. For Feldman follows the thread of Palestine in the United States from the 1960s to the present as though it were a continuous one, or as though there were only one thread. But at that time, the dominant vocabulary was one of anti-imperialism, Maoism, and Black Power. In Palestine, rhetoric was of national liberation. Our time is different. Rightwing and even liberal forces still attack the cause. But there are also ongoing conversations over the direction of the struggle to support Palestine. Actually, as Feldman makes clear, there always have been. Indeed, he nicely captures some of the spirit of that time, giving a strong sense of it to those of us who did not live through it, and sometimes seek inspiration from it. 

More knowledge of the past is always illuminating. But in casting light one inevitably casts shadows. Simply transposing Palestine as an unchanging essence, a self-explaining cause, a repository of untaintable purity to our own very different time brings with it certain problems. One might miss that those committed to supporting Palestine, and of course Palestinians themselves, have and have always had very different ideas about that support. There have always been disagreements about what form it ought to take, about who ought to receive it, and from where and from whom it ought to emerge. 

The Palestinian revolution Feldman praises was in part the product of the organizing of the Popular Front which drove the PLO, and Fateh hard to the Left. With its waning, or its forced occultation by Gulf money, the elements who became the PA were able to dominate, with consequences that are, or should be, clear to all. Feldman is strong on how a permissive attitude towards colonialism sapped and sundered the strength of certain segments of the U.S. New Left. But he is less attentive to the complexities of Palestinian politics themselves, never mind their regional dimensions. This is an oversight, for Palestine has become—and in fact has always been in the Middle East—a cause under which some smuggle the most sectarian and colonial agendas, including support for reactionary regimes like Turkey, or Saudi Arabia, or outright U.S. aggression in Libya. 

If in the past too little support for Palestine ensured that it could become a fault-line within the New Left, there is now a constant danger that the flag of Palestine becomes a way to distract from tacit acquiescence, if not open support, for U.S. violence abroad. As U.S. wars again flare hotly across the entire Arab East, there has never been a more urgent time to consider the regional dimensions of the Palestine Question. If the author has succeeded in raising up the memory of a time when to think of Palestine was to think, too, of the surrounding region and indeed the world, he has done for us an important service indeed.

Max Ajl is an editor at Jacobin and Jadaliyya and is on Twitter @maxajl. The author thanks Omar Jabary Salamanca for comments.