Culture as Combat: Palestinian Voices


Richard Falk | Global Justice in the 21st Century – TRANSCEND Media Service

Festivals, Museums and Awards

21 Jun 2021 – In stirring opening remarks at the international 2021 mega-conference, Palestine Writes, Susan Abulhawa asserts that “… this festival is meant to expand Palestine’s cultural imprint in the world.” Such an imprint is being achieved by Palestinian cultural creativity, inscribing the Palestinian struggle and the distinctive spirit of the Palestinian people at the center of the moral and political imagination of persons of conscience around the world. By so doing, Israel’s concerted attempt to remove the Palestinian struggle from the global agenda is being thwarted, discredited, and increasingly likely, reversed.

When the Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court had the audacity to decide on February 5, 2021 that its Prosecutor had the authority to investigate allegations of international crimes of Israel in occupied Palestine it both struck a blow for international law but also exposed the raw nerve of Israeli defensive sensibilities. Netanyahu slammed this professionally crafted judicial opinion by respected jurists as ‘pure antisemitism’ and other Israeli leaders denounced the ICC decision as one more indication of Israel-bashing. Such an inflated response exposed the raw nerve of Israel vulnerability to being judged by international law criteria. After all at this stage the ICC proposed nothing more than an investigation of behavior in occupied Palestine that seemed beyond much doubt to violate the basis norms of international humanitarian law. Israel’s angry expresses its acute awareness of the importance of what goes on in the realm of ideas, whether legal, moral, or cultural.

Cultural vitality and pride is in such a setting integral to resistance.The outcome of this dialectical interplay between asserting the Palestinian presence and resisting Israel continuous practices of erasure has been the central theme of the struggle for land, sovereign authority, international legitimacy that has gone on for over a century, and seems likely to continue as far ahead as can be foreseen. To keep Palestinian hopes alive under such circumstances of oppression and uncertainty depends on remembering precious past times, envisaging a brighter future, and depicting the heroic exploits and incidents of the long ordeal. Such ‘work’ relies heavily on the energies of the mind, above all the moral, political, cultural, and spiritual imagination as expressed through words, images, and sounds, that is, poems and fiction, pictures and painting, and music of all sorts. This work is being done superbly well by Palestinian artists, whether in prisons, refugee camps, or exile. It inspires those of us who stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people as they break their chains to live as a free people sooner than our reasoning faculties suggest as possible. It is this mysterious anticipatory power of the imagination to make the impossible happen that makes experts and politicians repeatedly wrong, and so often vindicates the prophetic sensibilities of poets and visionaries.

I had the pleasure of taking part a decade ago in the Palestine Book Awards an annual event in London that combined celebrating the most notable books published during the year, either by Palestinian writers or about Palestine. The events are also high-spirited, likeminded gatherings at which several speakers trace the trajectory of the struggle, comment upon the ordeals afflicting the Palestinian people, while marveling at that special trait of sumud that underpins their uncanny hopes for the future. I was dazzled then, and since, by the Palestinian cultural performance exhibited by the quality of the books receiving these annual awards, Olympian standards sustained over all these years. These PBA gatherings have also been learning experiences for me, especially clarifying the relations between cultural vitality and emancipatory politics.

For many years, I viewed culture as a stimulating confirmation of Palestinian steadfastness, or sumud, which I innocently understood somewhat too passively as ‘resilience,’ essentially the capacity to endure abuse without giving in to malevolent pressures, while also bearing witness to the righteousness of a struggle for basic rights. Underpinning every sentiment was this sense of a collective sacred mission to recover a stolen national homeland, no matter what the costs and however long it takes. Without the fulfillment of such a mission every pause in the ongoing
struggle will never amount to more than a ceasefire, although the entrepreneurs of diplomacy may call it ‘peace.’ The right of self-determination is never realized without justice as ascertained by the satisfaction of legitimate grievances. Such a requirement does rule out a political compromise, especially as here where valid claims overlap and where the passage of time has given rise to legitimating expectations once seen as unlawful encroachments. Yet a compromise between two aspiring peoples must be based on the abandonment of hierarchy and the acceptance of equality as guiding the negotiated relationship.

It is only through a longer immersion in this Palestinian engagement with the arts that I have come to realize that culture is resistance, and perhaps in the end more critical to the outcome of a struggle for land, dignity, sovereignty and homeland, than weaponry and coercive diplomacy. I realized that ‘culture’ broadly conceived was what I had delimited as ‘legitimacy’ by reference to Palestinian grievances as articulated through the rhetoric of law and morality.

Why Culture Matters

For a variety of reasons, I had become convinced that in the period since 1945 that the outcome of conflicts for the control of national space in colonized societies were more often won by the side that prevailed in the domains of symbolic politics rather than as was believed by most political elites, who claimed for themselves the mantle of ‘realism,’ by the side that controlled bloody battlefields and combat zones by force of arms. I named this new reality ‘Legitimacy Wars’ reshaping the balance of forces in many national settings as a ‘war’ waged with norms of law, morality, spiritual commitment, and truthfulness, rather than just with guns, missiles, and propaganda.

It was my further observation that the downfall of European colonialism all over Asia and Africa was a consequence of being defeated in a series of Legitimacy Wars, that is, by the weaker side militarily. What sustained these struggles was this vision of righteousness that could conquer hearts and minds, if mobilized, and if exerting sufficient pressure, could eventually transform even the calculations of militarists, politicians, and cynical commentators. Such a process over 25 years ago, it should be remembered, brought apartheid South Africa to its knees, unexpectedly produced the release of Nelson Mandela from a seemingly endless jail sentence. Systemic racism of the worst sort was replaced with constitutional democracy. All this was achieved without reliance on guns and bullets. The anti-apartheid movement waged a Legitimacy War on a global scale and prevailed, with Mandela hailed worldwide as leader and peacemaker.

This dynamic of mind over matter is not so easy to comprehend, but without this understanding, the importance of the cultural dimension of a Legitimacy War cannot be grasped. It is partly historically conditioned. For decades before the anti-colonial wars were won by colonized peoples, there was an acceptance of the idea that without better weapons the foreigners would never be defeated by the natives. It was the rise of nationalism as empowering people that created confidence in the validity of national grievances and several changes took place on the colonial side that eventually made it too costly in lives and treasures to uphold by force of arms its position of control and privilege. For one thing the morality of colonialism had come under ideological challenge even in the home countries of the colonialists, especially after the Russian Revolution, for another the European colonial powers were in decline and Western interests were being upheld by the United States with its own geopolitical ambivalence resulting from an anti-colonial heritage, which although weak and relegated to the past, was not entirely absent. It was also important that the economics that made colonialism and racism so profitable had been largely superseded by industrialism. On the nationalist side, these developments raised the expectations of national leaders who saw paths to victory, based on sustained struggle and perseverance. The belief gained societal credence that colonialism was a dying enterprise, and that it was better for the colonist to get out sooner than persist until pushed out.

The Zionist Project, Settler Colonialism, Palestinian Catastrophe

It is obvious that national characteristics play a vital role in the course of such struggles. The Palestinian situation is rendered more complex and uncertain due to the distinctiveness of Palestine. Although the land of Palestine was predominantly Arab in 1917 when the infamous Balfour Declaration was made by the British Foreign Office, with a Jewish minority of under 10%, the ambitions of the Zionist Project were for a long time not viewed through the optic of colonialism, but rather more in accord with a one-sided claim of a needed sanctuary for the Jewish people that would be freed from the afflictions of antisemitism. The underlying Zionist claim was that if a Jewish homeland could be established in Palestine, it would occasion a rebirth of Judaism in an atmosphere where the virtues of Jewishness would reveal themselves. Somehow the absolute necessity of disappearing as many Palestinians as possible remained a hidden part of the dominant Zionist narrative so effectively promoted and disseminated throughout the West.

The urgency surrounding the Zionist Project and its international political leverage increased as the extremities of Nazi antisemitism unfolded in an international atmosphere beset by increasing tensions between Hitler’s Germany and the liberal democracies. The most unspeakable of Jewish tragedies culminated in the Holocaust giving moral and political traction to Zionist claims, the full extent of which were only revealed by stages, a process that is continuing until today. While this was happening to the Jews under the midday sun of Western media ascendancy, the Palestinian reality was obscured by shadows taking the form of demeaning propaganda and one erasure after another, constant humiliations, and such a total marginalization that their grievances were both unknown and delegitimized. Even the infant UN conspired by decreeing partition over Arab objections and without consultation with Palestinians or their representatives, much less securing the consent, of the population. Palestine was partitioned by UN decree, with its territory to be divided into two sovereign states and the city of Jerusalem internationalized. What transpired was the cynical acceptance of partition by the Zionist side as a stepping stone to the fuller realization of its dream and its naïve rejection by the Palestinian side understandably outraged by an international proposal to establish by fiat a Jewish state, splintering in a cruel manner an ancient and essentially non-Jewish society.

From that defining moment in 1947, the future of racial dominance and victimization was prefigured. First came the Nakba, involving the forcible dispossession and displacement of as many as 750,000 Palestinians. Such gross ethnic cleansing was coupled with the total demolition of hundreds of Palestinian villages, further reinforced by an iron law of non-return to their homes and communities that had deep roots. It was this Western infusion of Jews, either escaping from persecution in Europe or spurred by the idealistic visions of a Jewish renaissance in this nascent state, that led inevitably to many cycles of resistance and repression, to the permanent indignities of refugee camps and the uncertainties of involuntary exile. The Western view was that Jewish victimization must be acknowledged through impunity for recourse to crimes against humanity while the existential fury of Palestinian victimization must be erased from the Western mind or discredited by images of backwardness, racism, and totally dismissed by superimposing allegations of terrorism so as to hide Palestinian recourse to its collective right of resistance. In this maelstrom of erasures and distortions, Israel benefited from establishing its false credentials as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ overlooking how such a temporarily legitimating identity rested on permanently driving Palestinian residents from their land.

The early Israeli leadership was Jewish to its secular core, and defiantly non-religious. And yet David Ben-Gurion, the charismatic first president of the state of Israel tactically proclaimed, ‘the bible shall be our weapon.’ What he meant became clear only by stages. Ben Gurion was referencing the degree to which the Zionist Project was a ongoing process rather than a single state-establishing terminal event associated with the origins of the state of Israel when it was established in 1948. As the process unfolded it became clear that the light at the end of the Zionist tunnel was the whole of ‘the promised land,’ a biblical injunction without any foundation in either international law or contemporary notions of self-determination. It required the passage of 70 years for Israelis to feel confident enough to allow the light of day to reveal the true nature of Zionist agenda in the Basic Law enacted in 2018. This law chiseled into the granite of irreversibility removed the last shred of ambiguity from the reality of Israel as resting on the legalization of Jewish supremacy. The concrete embodiments of the Basic Law were unmistakable: making Hebrew the only official language of the country and affirming that only Jews enjoyed the right of self-determination within Israel. These de facto circumstances had existed before being made explicit by legal enactment, but were effectively occluded for decades from critical scrutiny by Israeli diplomatic ploys and the charade of the Oslo ‘peace process’ that gave Israel the time it needed to establish a choke hold in the West Bank that the UN had set aside for a Palestinian state by way of a cascade of settlements that even the United States and European Union countries considered to be flagrant violations of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

As time passed, the godfathering role of the UN as providing legitimacy for the partition of Palestine gave way to the strategic partisanship with the United States that provided the geopolitical muscle needed to keep shrinking the territorial and political expectations of any viable Palestinian state while nurturing Israeli ambitions to achieve a Greater Israel. Not only does the United States annually subsidize Israel’s military superiority with respect to its neighbors, but it turns a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal while prepping for an aggressive war should Iran even come close to the nuclear weapons threshold. Instead of seeking denuclearization of the region by agreeing to a nuclear free zone for the Middle East, favored by all relevant governments including Iran except Israel. The US allows Israel plus its Arab Gulf partners to keep the Middle East on the knife edge of a potentially disastrous regional war.

Without looking at the many bends in the road that led from the birth of the Zionist Project in the late 19th century to the present, we can grasp the tragic depth of what has befallen the Palestinian people through two apertures of historical illumination: settler colonialism and apartheid. By and large, due to the post-1945 surge of nationalist self-assertion, European colonialism has been tossed in the dustbin of history, with the exception of those former British colonies that in the colonial age were able to establish their own independent sovereign states by driving native populations into near total physical and psycho-political submission. Israel is a more flagrant exception, defying the decolonizing trend by establishing and even internationally legitimating its state during the last stage of transition to post-colonial realities. Because the fundamental rationale of the Israeli state is at once racist and superimposed on Palestine by European outsiders against their will in a hostile political environment, repression, resistance, and apartheid necessarily follow with an iron logic that will persists as long as both sides are unwavering in their claims of right.

There is no denying the existence of contradictory narratives, and the need for choice and commitment. The Israeli narrative, as suggested, rests on escaping persecution, Biblical authority and entitlement, effective control, the erasure of Palestinian legitimacy, and geopolitical alignments, as well as international, and a fragile and partial regional acceptance taking the form of Abraham Accords tying several Arab regimes to a process of normalization with Israel. These agreements were the last hour initiatives of the Trump presidency that bribed and browbeat Arab leaders to take steps that made the U.S. look like a peacemaker in the Middle East even if ‘the deal of the century’ found its way into the nearest garbage can.

In contrast, the Palestinian narrative is premised on sanctified national identity, struggle for basic rights, ordeals of suffering and victimization, being disenfranchised in their own homeland, supported by historical flows and precedents in analogous Legitimacy Wars, and a global solidarity movement that is responsive to aspirations for a just and sustainable peace that will allow both peoples to flourish as equals in a single democratic, secular state. Not surprisingly, the strongest most heartfelt demonstrations of solidarity come from South Africa and Namibia, that is, where the European forms of settler colonialism and apartheid were most starkly enacted. It is also no accident that Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland and Black Lives Matter in the United States bond so spontaneously with the Palestinian ordeal as all of these movements have long endured abuse based on race and religion.

The politics of domination dims the light cast by cultural forces leading to detachment and dissent, while the culture of resistance illuminates suffering and struggle by casting blazing lights. It is in this spirit that we look over the list of those writers honored each year by PBA.

It was this same spirit of cultural vivacity, rather than spectacular shows of counterinsurgency weapons, that made Palestine Writes, a spiritual sibling of PBA, such an exemplary and memorable festival of love, solidarity, witnessing, and truth-telling. This contrast between pride in weaponry and hopes/nightmares is to express in the clearest possible cultural idiom the stark differences between a reliance for ‘peace’ on state-sponsored violence as the source of social order and on nurturing visions that celebrate peaceful futures that animate this desperate people-driven, bottom-up struggle for emancipation.

The Realities of Cultural Resistance

Susan Abulhawa’s heartfelt eloquence sets the tone for both Palestine Writes and PBA. Her opening greetings to those around the world attending the online festival, who were gathered virtually in the city of Jerusalem chosen both as a point of meeting for attendees but also the emotive geographical North Star of the Palestinian struggle. Her initial words drew attention to “the thirst for… dedicated celebration of our heritage, our imaginations, and cultural productions.” She went on to make it unmistakably clear that this festival was not to be experienced as a kind of literary salon of mutual self-congratulation: this festival “is for the stone throwers, the street marchers, the agitators and disrupters. It is for the kite flyers, the hunger strikers, the political prisoners.”

I was also struck by Palestinian/American poet Forgo Tbakhi’s quote of Sophia Azeb haunting observation, “[w]e are always in the process of becoming Palestinians.” Tbakhi adds, “[p]art of the cultural revolt is a deep investment in asking what it means to be Palestinian or what it could mean.” Putting the fierce invocation of Abulhawa together with the soul-searching of Tbakhi seems to suggest that the artist’s vocation does not end on the printed page, vivid painting, musical score, or cinematic imagery. Beyond the cultural productions, as crucial as they are, is the commitment to the risks, costs, and satisfactions of activism, whatever form it might take.

Palestine Writes ended with moving testimony by two iconic figures, Angela Davis and Hanan Ashrawi, revered for their persevering, lifelong, brave, and principled engagement in struggles for liberation from oppression. It is symbolic that Angela Davis came to the Palestinian movement of solidarity from her lifelong opposition to racism in all its ugly manifestations in the United States.

A letter from political prisoner, Khalida Jarrar, smuggled from her Israeli jail cell and read by her daughters at Palestine Writes offer us the authentic confirmation of how integral access to culture, which during imprisonment means books, is to the politics of struggle: “Books constitute the foundation of life in prison. They preserve the psychological and moral balance of the freedom fighters who view their detentions as part of the overall resistance against the colonial occupation of Palestine. Books also play a role in each prisoner’s individual struggle of will between them and the prisons’ authorities. In other words, the struggle becomes a challenge for Palestinian prisoners as the jailors seek to strip us from our humanity and keep us isolated from the outside world. The challenge for prisoners is to transform our detention into a state of a ‘cultural revolution’ through reading, education and literary discussions.”

As we ponder such words, we understand that books are not only a matter of keeping morale under conditions of isolation, mistreatment, and confinement, but an active medium of struggle in at least two ways. First, in an ongoing battle with prison authorities to be allowed books of choice. Jarrar points out, for instance, that Gramsci’s books are forbidden. And secondly, the reading of books with other political prisoners not only keeps spirits high but amounts to adult education in revolutionary praxis. I had an Egyptian friend who told me similar tales about his years in Nasser’s desert jail for political prisoners.

This fugitive participation of Khalida Jarrar in the final moments of Palestine Writes helps us appreciate that political prisoners are the living expression of Palestinian resistance, paying the double unjustifiable price of living under oppressive prison-like circumstances and then being punished for resisting by being further confined in prison cells. They also remind those of us living outside of Palestine, whether Palestinian or not, that there is a life and death struggle for freedom continuing, which resists not only daily oppression, but also various forms of Israeli expansion, territorial by way of de facto expansion and psychological by seeking to crush all forms of Palestinian resistance including its borderless expression through books, films, dance, music, works of art.

Endings and Beginnings

Against this background we can better appreciate why these cultural occasions on both sides of the Atlantic, although festive, are less about festivity than community, resistance, and struggle. In this regard, calling attention to the best books produced by Palestinians or about Palestine year by year is one active front in the ongoing Legitimacy War, a non-violent battlefield yet combative. These occurrences are also a time of stocktaking in a constantly changing political landscape, as well as opportunities for a renewal and repositioning of engagement by way of solidarity activities. We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible, and can muster only the feeblest of excuses if we decline to play a part. Reading and reflecting on relevant books is playing a part. It raises our consciousness and keeps awakening our conscience to the unmet urgencies of the Palestinian challenge. It can lead from the pages of a book or the rhythms of a song to joining the BDS Campaign or to the streets for protests.

These Palestinian cultural events should be seen as embarking on a series of new beginnings, on deepening as awareness of the present situation, and of enriching remembrances of past glories of heroics and martyrdom, not primarily as events bounded in time. These gatherings are renewals and discoveries of such deeply felt identifications, and beyond that, an opening of our ears to melodic bells, a subtle summoning to take action.


Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 60 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to two three-year terms as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and associated with the local campus of the University of California, and for several years chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is On Nuclear Weapons, Denuclearization, Demilitarization, and Disarmament (2019).

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