From a review by Steve Chase in Friends Journal, February 2021, of two new books about Palestine-Israel, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Sa’ed Atshan, and The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917–2017, by Rashid Khalidi
Adding to the complexity of the current situation, Sa’ed Atshan’s book embraces a post-colonial vision of equality for all people in Israel–Palestine but explicitly includes attention to the rights of queer Palestinians. I remember hearing Atshan speak at Pendle Hill study center in Wallingford, Pa., several years ago. His personal story moved me. He shared his challenges of growing up Palestinian under Israeli military occupation and growing up gay in occupied Palestinian society. In his book, he tells his story in more detail and sheds light on how “social movements are able (or not) to balance struggles for liberation along more than one axis at a time.” As he says, “queer Palestinians face systems from all directions of marginalization, policing, and repression of both Zionism and homophobia.”
Atshan requests we support these two entwined struggles as a moral and strategic imperative. One of the most eye-opening observations in Atshan’s book is the complex way homophobia has been weaponized in the service of the oppressive, U.S.-backed Israeli system of apartheid. On the one hand, the existence of significant Palestinian homophobia has allowed Israeli security forces to entrap queer Palestinians for years and coerce them into being informants and collaborators against the Palestinian national liberation movement by threatening them with exposure. This has, in turn, hardened homophobic attitudes among some Palestinian rights activists, who have come to see LGBTQ Palestinians as traitors to the cause of freedom. On the other hand, the Israeli government has also made strategic use of “pinkwashing” in promoting some real advances on queer rights in Israel, as well as encouraging international LGBTQ tourism to Tel Aviv, in an ongoing effort to brand Israel as a modern and progressive society, while deflecting criticism of its settler colonial policies of dispossession, occupation, and discrimination against Palestinians.
The rise and growth of an organized Palestinian LGBTQ liberation movement in Israel–Palestine since 2002, which Atshan chronicles in this book, has courageously expanded “the spaces for joy, pleasure, and love” for queer Palestinians and holds the promise of disarming the two-pronged weaponization of homophobia the State of Israel uses to oppress all Palestinians. Yet Atshan also documents how the movement “reached a plateau in 2012” and “has neither grown nor retreated” since then. Several of the book’s chapters offer a deep dive into the many social forces, which he collectively calls “the empire of critique,” that have inhibited the movement’s growth and long-term impact by relentlessly “gauging, judging, and critiquing the words and intentions of queer Palestinians and their allies.” His nuanced analysis includes the Israeli state, its Zionist supporters, Palestinian political institutions like Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, religious prejudices and cultural mores, and even the hypercritical perspectives of some transnational solidarity movement activists and some radical academics.
The goal of Atshan’s sensitive “critique of critique” is fostering a “transforming activism with loving energy” that helps the Palestinian LGBTQ movement start to grow again and reach its full potential. His long-term hope is “that Israelis and Palestinians, straight and queer, can all live together as equals.” My hope is that all Friends will seek to find ways to help achieve this healing vision, especially Friends from the United States and the United Kingdom.
- A Palestinian Quaker bears witness to pacifism, by Sa’ed Atshan (2017)
- Two teachers at a Quaker school were suspended after circumventing school guidelines and inviting an anti-Israel activist who promotes BDS to address the students (2017)
- Palestinian professor speaks out on cancellation of Friends’ Central speech, stands with fired teachers (2017)
Friends’ Central fired the duo after a 2017 controversy over a Palestinian speaker (Sa’ed Atshan).
- Philly teachers’ racial discrimination claim against Quaker school can go to trial, court rules by Max Bennett (August 2019)
Recently, I came across a bold quote on the “Quakers engage to end racism” Facebook group; it had originally been posted by the Palestine Project’s page and then shared by Jewish Voice for Peace. The quote, from Yara Hawari of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, began, “It is time to stop lecturing Palestinians and to start listening.”
Having just read two new books by Palestinians, I agree. The first is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies. The second is Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique by Quaker author Sa’ed Atshan, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College. Read together, these books offer a compelling and complementary perspective of great value for Quakers trying to clarify their thinking (and action) on the human rights situation in Israel–Palestine.
I bought Khalidi’s book after his author talk in Washington, D.C., last February. There, he described the ongoing conflict as a colonial war initiated by the European Zionist movement in partnership with the British Empire from 1917 until 1948, and then continued by the newly established State of Israel, now backed by the United States. According to Khalidi, the U.S. government’s longstanding support for Israel’s policies of ethnic cleansing, military occupation, illegal settlements, and racist discrimination has been obscured by high-sounding rhetoric but is profoundly oppressive and destructive. This is a harsh reckoning, but the overall argument in his book is convincing. The historical research done by Khalidi is extensive and well-documented.
The book opens with Khalidi sharing the 1899 correspondence between Khalidi’s great-great-great uncle, Yusuf Diya al-Din Pasha al-Khalidi, then the mayor of Jerusalem, and Theodor Herzl, a prominent European Zionist leader. In his letter, Yusuf Diya expresses his respect for Herzl’s literary work, his sympathy for the intense problem of antisemitism in Europe, and his recognition of the cultural affinity of Jews with historic Palestine. He goes on, however, to say that the creation of an ethno-nationalist Jewish State in Palestine that displaces and discriminates against Christian and Muslim Palestinians is not a just solution to the problem of European antisemitism. He closes with the plea, “in the name of God, let Palestine be left alone.”
Herzl wrote back reassuringly that Zionism only sought the immigration of a limited “number of Jews” from Europe and would not harm Palestinian lives, lands, and livelihoods, or seek to displace a single Palestinian. Unfortunately, reports Khalidi, Herzl lied. Four years before, he wrote in his diary about Zionists colonizing Palestine with Great Power support and needing to displace and dispossess Palestinians to create their envisioned “Jewish State.” Moreover, in the corporate charter Herzl co-wrote for the Jewish-Ottoman Land Company, he specifically included the goal of displacing Palestinians to “other provinces and territories of the Ottoman Empire.”
Other early Zionist leaders were more honest about their objectives, even naming one of the main organizations the Palestine Jewish Colonial Association. In addition, Russian Zionist leader, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, boldly stated in 1925 what Yusuf Diya suspected in 1899: “Zionism is a colonizing venture and, therefore, it stands or falls on the question of armed forces.” Why? As Jabotinsky explained:
Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel.”
All this sounds very different from the common stories about Zionism and the birth of Israel that many of us have grown up with, but Khalidi notes that this is only because “once colonialism took on a bad odor in the post-World War II era of decolonization, the colonial origins and practice of Zionism and Israel were whitewashed and conveniently forgotten in Israel and the West.” His book restores this understanding and focuses on “six turning points” in the settler colonial war against Palestine, from the British government’s imperial Balfour Declaration in 1917 to the far-right military and diplomatic alliance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former U.S. President Donald Trump. It chronicles this multi-phased war of aggression and the Palestinian national liberation movement’s often confused mix of diplomacy, terrorism, armed struggle, and nonviolent civil resistance. I would hope Friends, as seekers of truth, would all be willing to at least consider Khalidi’s detailed historical narrative and concluding reflections on how to nonviolently dismantle “the supremacy of the colonizer in order to make possible a true reconciliation” offering full equality to all in Israel–Palestine.
Steve Chase is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and the author of the Pendle Hill pamphlet Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions?: A Quaker Zionist Rethinks Palestinian Rights.
Original article in Friends Journal
Dr Sa’ed Atshan: ‘Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique’, podcast by Oxford Society for International Development (October 2020)