The New Arab / April 8, 2022
Renowned Palestinian academic Azmi Bishara’s latest book Palestine: Matters of Truth and Justice is a comprehensive, interdisciplinary investigation of the question of justice in Palestine, analyzed through a moral and legislative lens.
Over the past two decades, there has been a surge in the number of books on Palestine. Most fall under one of two categories: literature accounts that humanize Palestinians – and the conflict – through personal experiences, or scholarly endeavours revisiting the historiographical and political contentions of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Crossovers are common and so are polemics. Very few of these books, however, can be described as paradigm-shifting.
Azmi Bishara’s new book Palestine: Matters of Truth and Justice is one of the few works that pumps fresh blood into the history-political literature on Palestine.
Bishara is a renowned Arab intellectual whose work on civil society, nationalism, authoritarianism, and democracy is well known. As a former political activist and, later, a member of the Israeli Knesset, he stands out in possessing intimate knowledge of the socio-political and ideological dynamics of the Israeli-Jewish society, while simultaneously being nationally and culturally part of the Palestinian collective.
The book takes on an interdisciplinary approach with the notion of justice – equality and freedom being its core components – as the overarching analytical framework.
Stating positionality, the author highlights the difference between objectivity and neutrality, the scientific method concerning facts versus the position-less attitude. Because Palestine is a question of justice, he argues, the immoral attitude embedded in neutrality on the issue may amount to amorality.
From the outset and throughout, the author engages in historical examinations of each phase of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, tracing, among other things, the emergence of Palestinian nationalism and the evolvement and founding myths of Zionism.
Perhaps unavoidably, an element of historiographical narratability is present, which makes parts of the book somewhat similar to previous theses by other Palestinian scholars like Rashid Khalidi, Nur Masalha, and Yezid Sayigh.
However, Bishara’s approach combines humanist/moral philosophy with postcolonial scholarship, emphasizing the question of justice concerning Palestine well beyond descriptive historiography, and in a fashion easily accessible to the non-specialized reader.
Bishara makes the case that collective identity, on one hand, and the history of the land and national history, on the other, are not the same. He sees that Palestinian indigeneity to the land trumps all other considerations as far as Palestinian rights are concerned. “Native indigenous people with national consciousness,” is how he frames the dynamics of Palestinian nationalism.
In contrast, Jewish-Israeli nationalist development has been mostly state-driven built upon colonial ventures consisting of immigrants from various countries, and has, therefore, failed to establish indigeneity.
He suggests that Palestinians should not engage in futile comparisons against Israel’s “archaeological nationalism.” Palestinian rights, he says, are not derived from a claimed genealogical descent from the ancient Canaanites, in a similar fashion to the Jewish-Israeli claim of being genealogically or spiritually linked to the ancient Israelites.
Israeli archaeological propaganda may serve as a basis for producing a nationalist religio-political culture, but it is irrelevant to legitimizing modern national rights, Bishara argues.
A central discussion in the book is the overlap between the so-called Jewish Question and Arab Question, which Bishara compellingly argues, has hindered the Palestinian realization of statehood.
Western interests in Palestine have been a source of weakness for the Palestinian struggle, for it “reflects Europe’s eagerness to rid itself of its Jewish issue…and to shift its own historical burden of racism and guilt onto the Arabs.”
The result has been avoiding all framing of the Palestinian question as a colonial issue, allowing Israel, inter alia, to monopolize the claims for victimhood and justify its wars as ein breira (no choice). In chapter four, Bishara uses the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, among other examples, to illustrate that Israel’s wars have always been “wars of choice.”
Palestine also represents the Arab rejection of colonialism, postcolonial grievances, Arab identity, and autocratic injustices. Not only has this overlap with the Arab Question provided Zionism with a scope to downplay Palestinian identity as indistinct, but it also allowed Arab autocrats to exploit Palestine for their national interests.
Bishara sees that democracy in the Arab World is antithetical to Israel’s goals. The numerous “peace initiatives” between Israel and the Arabs – including but not exclusive to Sadat-Begin’s 1979 Camp David, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, President Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” and the four Arab states’ normalization agreements with Israel – are but evidence on how the intersectionality of the Jewish and Arab questions has undermined the Palestinian struggle.
At times, Bishara uses the terms “Arab” and “Palestinian” almost interchangeably, possibly for reasons related to the brevity and common use. The book, however, would have benefited from a terminological distinction between “Arab” and “Palestinian,” as related but not necessarily the same terms, with “Palestinian” being a distinct culture with distinct national aspirations and rights.
Much like the majority of the Palestinian intellectual elite, Bishara is critical of the Palestinian leadership. The Oslo process, which he describes as “a bizarre peace process between occupier and occupied,” has reduced national liberation to the border dispute, which later led to a rupture in the Palestinian political sphere.
Devoid of sovereignty and agency, he contends, the Palestinian Authority developed a culture of compensation through symbols and ethos, giving rise to “a form of national narcissism… to fill the void in the national reality.” Oslo has effectively heightened settler-colonialism with apartheid, producing Bantustans and not a state – as per Bishara’s prediction in the 1990s.
Exploring the way forward, Bishara does not suggest “creative solutions,” but rather long-term strategies. He calls for a political reorientation – to move away from existing negotiations or the illusory perception that an electoral shift in Israel could bring change – towards a long-term struggle to achieve justice for Palestinians.
A system in the form of a single, bi-national, or two states that are inclusive for all its citizens is the only way forward. Resistance, Bishara argues, will inevitably continue given the double-layered system of occupation and apartheid. But, he emphasizes, that only a nationally coordinated strategy, strengthened by diaspora Palestinians, will revolutionize the impact of this everyday resistance.
Reviving the PLO is a must, and so is rethinking the current deterrence-based armed resistance model employed by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to include a well-planned strategy for liberation.
Academically rigorous, the book is an objective but not neutral interdisciplinary account of Palestine’s cause chiefly analyzed through moral, justice-based lenses. It adds a fresh perspective to an increasingly recycled scholarship on the subject.
A must-read for those interested in Palestinian justice, as well as the specialized audience who seek a multi-angled analysis beyond descriptive historiography or crude political theorization.
Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specializes in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel