In May 2021, protest and violence erupted in occupied East Jerusalem, drawing the attention of onlookers across the globe. But what were we looking at? Did the May crisis’ inciting event, the anticipated evictions of several Palestinian families from the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, really amount to nothing but a “real estate dispute between private parties,” as the Israel’s Foreign Ministry proclaimed, or could such evictions line up with the United Nations’ assessment: war crimes carried out in occupied territory?
Though commentary within mainstream American media circles was perhaps less uniform than the usual pro-Israel party line, most of the media focus was on the conditions and effects of the immediate violence. Pundits and politicians largely neglected to ground the events in the historical and political contexts of the region. Needless to say, little time and space was given for substantive discourse surrounding the rich and painful history of Palestinian repression as a casualty of a settler colonialist project. Even less attention was paid to the United States’ long-term role in the funding of such Palestinian dispossession.
Theodor Adorno once wrote of how a condition for truth was giving a voice to the suffering. May 2021 made me realize that I could no longer ignore this suffering I was seeing on the news, ongoing as it has been for decades and decades. The most complete truth of the situation would only arise if I confronted the darkest, ugliest bits. The twin forces of CNN and my Twitter feed wouldn’t provide any real understanding of the ongoing struggle, so I needed real scholarship, the work of engaged thinkers willing to dive deep in search of both clarity and nuance.
I first turned to The Hundred Years War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, Rashid Khalidi’s comprehensive history of the past century of Palestinian repression. The current Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, Khalidi is a celebrated historian of the Middle East, a noted academic commentator on the geopolitics of the region, and longtime political activist and advocate for Palestinian rights. Not his first foray into recounting a history of the Palestinian people, The Hundred Years War on Palestine frames Palestinian repression specifically as a colonial struggle, the results of European nations fostering nation building in non-European lands. Khalidi acknowledges that his angle is not the principally accepted one, but he nonetheless asserts in his Introduction his purpose in “show[ing] that this conflict must be seen quite differently from most of the prevailing views of it.”
From this premise of correcting a countervailing historical narrative, Khalidi proceeds to weave his story around six dates or date ranges that he conceives to be the most useful divisors. The range and depth of his scholarly efforts are impressive, drawing on existing literature, extensive archival records, and the voices and “experiences of Palestinians who lived through the war.” The accessibility of Khalidi’s work: its lively prose and its compelling narrative structure, opens the world of Palestine to even the most novice audiences, myself a living example. Khalidi’s nuanced approach both relies on and informs his clarity and vision, making A Hundred Years War on Palestine a strong introduction to the century-long assault on the rights and lives of Palestinian people.
Khalidi writes of how Israel’s settler colonial project “would not have succeeded but for the support of the great imperial powers, Britain and later the United States,” and indeed no understanding of the region is complete without a thorough reckoning with the United States’ practically destructive policy regarding Palestine. Such is the subject of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics by Marc Lamont Hill, professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, and Mitchell Plitnick, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization ReThinking Foreign Policy. Why, the authors ask, do progressives actively decry problematic federal policies relating to the US-Mexico border yet remain silent on policies of similar nature and consequence in relation to US-backed Israeli repression of Palestinian people?
Where Khalidi’s text weaves a historical narrative of the Palestinians’ plight, Hill and Plitnick dive into the political particulars that maintain the current status-quo. Touching on notions of either states’ “right-to-exist,” efforts to criminalize or otherwise impede the activism of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and the human rights travesty that is the Gaza Strip, Hill and Plitnick attempt to breach “the limits of orthodox political discourse, which has long framed any call for support of Palestinian rights as an exception to progressive values.” The authors take special care to emphasize that US policy towards Israel may have worsened from a human rights and international law approach under the Trump administration, but that Trump’s actions are merely the extreme conclusions of a historically bipartisan consensus of uncritical military and economic support towards a militarized state perpetrating consistent and mass injustice against the Palestinian people.
These two texts can be approached as two sides of the same coin. Khalidi provides a sweeping but detailed historical narrative of the Palestinian struggle, whereas Hill and Plitnick analyze the political climate and policy choices that both flow from and perpetuate a lack of robust human rights conversations within Washington circles. Both texts are essential to cultivating a clear and nuanced understanding of the prevailing climate.
May 2021 came and went: after an egregiously tragic number of civilian deaths, a ceasefire was declared. The world may have turned away, but the crisis remains ongoing. We may no longer be talking about Palestine, but that’s no reason to stay in the dark. Thankfully, we have the work of scholars like Rashid Khalidi, Marc Lamont Hill, and Mitchell Plitnick to turn to, curing our ignorance and spurring us into action.