Decolonising the Study of Palestine 71 Years after the Nakba: An Overview

On Thursday night, Professor Abdel Razzaq Takriti of the University of Houston gave an electrifying talk at FOBZU’s ‘Decolonising the Study of Palestine 71 Years After the Nakba’ talk, chaired by Oxford’s Professor Karma Nabulsi and hosted in University College London’s Institute of Education.

The talk came the day after the anniversary of the Nakba (an Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ or ‘disaster’), in which half of Palestine’s Arab population were expelled from or fled the country during the 1948 Palestine war.  

Language

“Conversations are often framed in a way which ‘deny structural realities'”

Takriti – who delivered the lecture with his trademark blend of meditated insight and cutting humour – began by criticising the talk’s title, noting that ‘decolonisation’ is a ‘very passive word’ which is often used by British politicians and historians when talking about the dissolution of its Empire, one which ignores the conflicts often necessary to the process of ‘decolonisation’. Decolonisation is passive, something which happens without an agent; ‘liberation’ would be a viable alternative, stressing the fact that Palestine’s indigenous population is occupied. Even ‘anti-colonialism’ would have been more suitable, as supporters of Palestine should not just aim to get rid of the remnants of colonial rule, but actively oppose colonialism.

Indeed, much of the lecture consisted of confronting the common parlance used to talk about (what Takriti believes to be incorrectly called) the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ (or Israeli-Palestinian conflict). Language, after all, is the first and most necessary framework to ideas, and conversations are often framed in a way which ‘deny structural realities’. Takriti criticises the abstract noun ‘conflict’, which implies that both the Israeli government and Palestinian people are on a similar level, washing over the fact that the ‘conflict’ is in fact an occupation. (On top of this, Israel has the ‘world’s biggest arsenal behind it’, as the government has the support of the American military.)

“People who criticise Israeli colonialism are often branded as ‘something they are not'”

The term ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’ not only diminishes the atrocities committed by the occupying force, but also sets up a dichotomy which presupposes that being Arabic and Israeli are mutually exclusive. The ‘Arab vs Jew’ dichotomy, Takriti believes, was a narrative invented by the British which helped to facilitate colonialism, by framing ‘poor Britain’ as the mediator ‘between the two’.

The continual media portrayal of the occupation as an argument between ‘bickering children’ detracts the seriousness of the colonial rule Israel has over Palestine, further enforcing the incorrect idea that the Israeli government and Palestinian people are on an equal footing. For this reason, Takriti continually hit home the idea that ‘let us call things by their name’, an occupation is an occupation; ‘everything else is evasion.’

Furthermore, there is a framework which cites Palestinian ‘nationalism’ as part of the problem (indeed, Takriti notes citing Professor Nabulsi, Palestinians are often framed as an ‘obstacle to peace, rather than its solution’); however, there is ‘no such thing as Palestinian nationalism in the traditional nationalist definition’. Instead, Palestinian nationalism manifests as an appeal for Palestinian land to not be colonised, rather than the return to a historic ideal often present in nationalistic thought.

Of course, Professor Takriti is well aware of how mis-labelling can be used to political effect as a method of silencing conversation. He pointed out that people who criticise Israeli colonialism are often branded as ‘something they are not’, narrowly avoiding using the phrase the size of an elephant in the room. For this reason, people are often afraid of discussing the atrocities committed by the Israeli government.

It is easy to fall into these ‘traps’, Takriti asserts, because much of the talk centres on Israel. By centring discourse on Palestinians, the oppressed population, we can avoid many of these ‘traps’ while also refocussing discussions on how to help the people most in need. We need to talk, first and foremost, about what is being done to Palestinians, while avoiding playing the ‘blame game’.

History

Professor Takriti is not a man who is afraid of critiquing power structures.

Less Decolonising the Study of Palestine, much of the talk centred on the Colonial History of Palestine; Takriti went to great lengths to note that the British used overt references to ‘colonialism’ in the documentation which preceded and planned the creation of Israel. The British recognised that Palestinians were the ‘indigenous population’ of the land – the idea of a ‘Land Without a People for  a People Without a Land’ was the stuff of pure propagandic fiction.

The ‘historical association’ of the Jewish people with the historic land of Israel provided a government who did not want to provide refuge for the Jewish population who were seeking it after the atrocities of the Holocaust (the UK passed the anti-Semitic Aliens Act as recently as 1905) with a ‘convenient’ alternative situation. The establishment of the Israeli nation state was engendered in part by the UK’s resistance to accommodating a population whom Winston Churchill believed to be ‘different’: ‘He looks different. He thinks differently. … He refused to be absorbed.

The Future

‘The very idea of victimhood is a colonial idea,’ Takriti declared. This apparently oxymoronic statement carries a lot of weight: the ‘reduction of Palestinians to individuals’ who are portrayed as starving, weak and fragmented can ‘disenfranchise’ Palestinians and act toward stifling a mass movement. At the same time, we must reclaim the notion that ‘refugee’ is a political category: Takriti notes how many wealthy members of the Palestinian diaspora living around the world may struggle seeing themselves as a refugee due to their relatively ‘privileged positions’; this fragmentation, fuelled by the portrayal of refugees in the media as poor people bound to refugee camps, can further stifle the ‘genuine solidarity’ Takriti believes necessary for a future peace.

Summarising, Takriti emphasises once more his three salient points about how to decolonise the study of Palestine.

  • Conversation must centre around Palestinians.
  • Conversation must confront the attempt to fragment Palestinians.
  • Conversation must confront frameworks with what is really happening.

A ‘simple thing [is] happening today’, Takriti says with unwavering confidence. ‘One people have power over another.’ 71 years after the Nikba, the world is not doing enough for Palestine, but by opening up conversations which are not afraid to discuss what is really happening to Palestinians, we can all do our bit to advance toward a future peace, and the liberation of an oppressed population.

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