Andrew Ryder

The ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people has rarely been given the moral weight more readily accorded to European historical traumas. The colonized status of Palestinians and the visibility of Israeli cultural production have conspired to conceal the Nakba – the catastrophe of Palestinian ethnic cleansing – and to normalize it. In the view of mainstream international relations, the plight of Palestinians is simply an unavoidable result of conflicts between Israelis and neighboring Arab states, to be ameliorated by an ongoing peace process. Palestinian inferiority is presumed in understandings of the conflict, as presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent remark, that “culture makes all the difference,” attests. This cultural marginality further ensconces the material losses and psychical pain inflicted by Israel’s policies. One might say that not only have the Palestinians been forgotten at the level of official memory, this forgetting has itself been forgotten. Close attention to the historical record, the silences and gaps that reveal exclusion and exile, and the alternative modes that express these violations, are necessary in order to counter this basic denial of Palestinian agency and its oppression.

Nur Masalha’s The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory functions primarily as a corrective to the dominant narrative of Zionist legitimacy and Palestinian national disappearance. As he sums it up, “1948 saw not only the establishment of a settler-colonialist state on nearly 80 per cent of Mandatory Palestine, but also the destruction of historic Palestine and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” It is most effective as an empirical account of the massacres, demolitions of towns, and expulsion of native inhabitants, and the subsequent covering-up of these ignoble practices by toponymic replacements and narratological elision.

Masalha begins with a study of the ideology of political Zionism, which he views as a predominantly secular variety of colonial nationalism. The Hebrew Bible is instrumental for this purpose, not read as a theological text but subjected to hermeneutics of national conquest. He recounts the resulting destruction of villages under Plan Dalet, the indiscriminate murders of civilians and other atrocities. The most notorious of these is the April 1948 massacre of Dayr Yasin, but at least thirty additional examples of massacres have been confirmed. These events were concealed in a comprehensive “Nakba denial.” 

As a result, the Zionist project enjoyed spectacular success, achieving control of ninety percent of the land in historic Palestine in hardly more than a century. In addition to the apartheid system governing the occupied West Bank, Masalha also describes and substantiates the second-class nature of Palestinian citizenship within Israeli territory. Drawing on accounts by domestic Israeli social scientists, Masalha disputes the axiomatic characterization of Israel as a liberal democracy with analyses that present it as instead an “ethnic democracy” or “ethnocracy.” While his account is compelling and well-documented, the absence of an account of outbreaks of violence exerted against Jewish Israeli civilians during the 1948 war, such as the Hadassah medical convoy attack, can at times give the impression of a simply one-sided approach.

The work is defined to some degree by engagement with the Israeli “new historians,” who were the first to acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population. Masalha traces the development of the work of Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé in particular. While Morris increasingly embraced Jewish ethnic chauvinism and justified violence to preserve it, Pappé was eventually compelled to reject Zionism tout court. Morris declared, “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing,” demonstrating that knowledge of facts alone is inadequate in altering the ideological balance of power. The approach remains within the parameters of dispassionate empiricist historiography, without the reformulations suggested by Marxist, post-structuralist, or post-colonial thought. In other words, the discipline has yet to absorb Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, or Ranajit Guha. In his review of the contributions of the new historians, Masalha also draws attention to the continuing prevalence of an Israeli narrative, even in the case of an autocritical revision. Palestinian voices remain represented rather than read.

As a corrective, Masalha emphatically recommends an approach aligned with that of Subaltern Studies, according to which oral histories and an account from below would illuminate the truth of the conflict. He draws attention to certain work that has been done in this field and to some notable authors who have explored the event, such as the famous poet Mahmoud Darwish and the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury. Unfortunately, his presentation remains cursory and lacks a close reading of these practices of bearing witness. Masalha’s prescription, while provisional, should be heeded so that an approach to Palestinian trauma can truly begin.

The brilliant novelist and political theorist Ghassan Kanafani is conspicuous as a formidable writer of exile and resistance, and should be read more widely and closely for his literary qualities as well as his sociopolitical importance. Kanafani offers nuanced and ironic narratives that draw on modern Russian and American literature as well as existentialist Marxism. His stories and novels portray the Nakba and resistance to its effects and expansion while resisting a simplistic portrayal of Arab righteousness or pure Palestinian victimhood. Sahar Khalifeh presents another example of Palestinian literary creativity, writing a powerful account of feminine experience within the exigencies and restrictions of exile and occupation. In addition to approaches of great novelists, studies of the cultural modes of expression of the Palestinian masses are also necessary. Along these lines, Basem Ra’ad describes the sartorial creativity of female villagers in a chapter of his work, Hidden Histories. This sensitivity to the excluded is required in order to devote the meticulous attention of Subaltern Studies to the Palestinian context.

Masalha also locates his research as a response to the academic subfield of Trauma Studies. The analytical accomplishments of this approach have generally left the Palestinian experience untouched. In large part, this is the result of the need for a solid empirical history in order to substantiate Palestinian existence and marginalization in the face of the hegemonic account. With facts in dispute, the more ambiguous modes of expression are rendered secondary. It is also conditioned by the sympathy towards Zionist thought of the founding writers of the discipline, among them Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Hannah Arendt, and this discourse’s perceived “ownership” of their writings. It is necessary to be unafraid of the implications of bringing the insights of these thinkers to bear on Palestinian experience. The psychoanalytic and phenomenological researches explored by these figures have been productive in illustrating Palestinian experience in a number of films by Jean-Luc Godard and in Mike Hoolboom’s Lacan Palestine. However, these cinematic examples have not yet been matched in scholarly inquiries.

Jewish writers who developed the fundamental concepts of trauma theory in literature and philosophy were willing to adopt and transform the insights of European thinkers, who often held anti-Semitic prejudice. Similarly, a full exploration of the Nakba will require a dynamic reception of the contributions of these authors and refusal of a Zionist trademark on their discoveries. In her seminal article of 1991 published in Yale French Studies journal, “Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History,” Cathy Caruth wrote that “history, like the trauma, is never simply one’s own;” rather, “history is precisely the way that we are implicated in each other’s traumas.” Sensitivity to this co-implication has yet to infuse the reading of Palestinian struggles.

Masalha is right to emphasize the interminability of the Nakba. He refers to Joseph Massad’s notion of a continuing and still-present catastrophe, as the continuing expansion of settlements and demolition of houses in the West Bank expand and deepen the original settler-colonialist elements of the Zionist project. As a result, the notion of “post-Zionist” thought remains in question, as the original project of political Zionism remains in effect and propagates itself by expansion. For this reason, in addition to the crucial matter of the documents resulting from the initial 1948 catastrophe, new records of Palestinian lives, responses to their oppression and invalidation, are created at this present moment and will not decrease in prevalence. Indeed, one can envision an entire sub-field of Nakba Studies. Attention by historians and scholars of world literature to continuing documentation and expression of the embattled popular memory of Palestine is an ethical imperative. 

Nur Masalha. The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory. London: Zed Books, 2012. 

Andrew Ryder is Postdoctoral Associate of the Department of French and Italian at the University of Pittsburgh. He has written numerous articles on phenomenology, psychoanalysis, modern literature, and post-Marxism. He previously taught at Al-Quds Bard College in Abu Dis, Palestine.