Listening to Voices
By Mazin Qumsiyeh, PhD *
Samar Dahmash-Jarrah “Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts” Olive Branch Books, Tampa, FL
Seth Farber “Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers: Conversations with Jewish Critics of Israel”Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine
Edward Said argued in “Orientalism” that many in the West project onto "the others" a distorted image that perpetuate racist/colonial attitudes even if couched in liberal democratic language. There is so much in the study of “the other” that is colored by unexamined ethnocentric assumptions. How we examine let alone change our “Orientalism” (or Occidentalism for that matter) is a conundrum that is at the core of social change. Perhaps we begin by listening to those whom we identify as “the other” and especially if they do not reflect the views of those currently in command of the current world order. The two books reviewed here provide a good example because of their rarity and because they deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a conflict with ramifications ranging from the current “war on terrorism” to the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The narratives of people involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is complicated by the political ideology called Zionism which seems to dominate the discourse. Zionism is also unique as a political ideology in that it recognizes members of a particular religion as part of “Am Yisrael” or the people of Israel entitled to the “right” to automatic citizenship in the self-declared Jewish state. Whether one agrees with such ideology or not, it has become clear that a full picture requires one to hear voices not only of the people directly effected in the Middle East (Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, native Palestinian Christians and Muslims) but also voices of Jews in other parts of the world.
In this particular conflict, it is clearly apparent that voice of Zionism is heard loud and clear in the mainstream western media and in countless books (I found over 3000 books in that area on Amazon). But where are the books of the voices of Arabs and of Jews who are not exactly towing the party lines of Zionism? There was a fortuitous concordant release of two books that add to understanding where we go from here, one interviewing Arabs, the other interviewing Jewish critics of Israel. I could not avoid reading them together, sometimes literally switching from one to another and going back.
The two highly readable books were written by thoughtful individuals who transcend group “think” to reach out to those who otherwise would be "the other". Arab Voices by Samar Dahmash-Jarrah is a summary of answers to questions from Americans that the author collected and than asked of 12 common Arabs living in the Arab World (Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait). The book by Seth Farber is a transcription of rather informal conversations with 10 critics of Israel: Steve Quester, Joel Kovel, Norton Mezvinsky, Ora Wise, Norman Finkelstein, Phyllis Bennis, Adam Shapiro, Daniel Boyarin, Rabbi Dovid Weiss, and Marc Ellis.
In both books we find real candid and personal expression from a variety of perspectives. Answers are spoken from the heart as if to a close friend (and perhaps the authors were considered friends to their “subjects”). The dialogues are fascinating and engaging even when the reader disagrees with opinions expressed. The opinions are diverse and some highly controversial. Osama from Egypt says: “When I was young I believed in Arab nationalism and still read some books on this subject. I love Hassanen Haikal, who believes in Arab Nationalism. But I don’t agree with him that all Arabs can become united and achieve something.” Hamad from Kuwait thinks very differently “In the long run, I wish for Kuwait to be a constitutional monarchy… I know that people might find it strange that I support a monarchy while also being very much against monarchs accumulating wealth and leaving their subjects poor.”(p 77). Yet another woman believes in separating religion and government.
One Arab blames the media for the ignorance of many Americans. Another simply states that American materialism/consumerism is perhaps an explanation for the lack of caring about what goes in other parts of the world (sometimes with support of this government). A third one says: “we should not blame Americans.” The reader is left with a rather complex set of messages and the impression that no one seems to agree with anyone else. History may indeed record that this has been a period of contemporary Arab history with much divisiveness (both indigenous and generated from outside). In the 1950s and 1960s, Arab Nationalism provided a focus for average people. After the death of Jamal Abdul Nasser, Arab nationalist movement had to struggle against a growing political Islamic movement and increasing attempts by outside forces to crush unity. With pan-Arab nationalism fading as a unifying, various ideologies proliferated but so did a weariness of particular political party ties and sectarian movements. This amorphous political landscape is reflected well in these interviews.
This is not to say that there are no agreements on certain issues. For example, most of those interviewed said that we need democracy but the US can’t interfere as it does more harm than good (especially as the obvious US support for “friendly” dictators and repressive Israeli policies is obvious to all). That is also not to say that some parts may leave some readers uneasy. Take the part where a 44-year-old Muslim female Jordanian lawyer says that all Israelis are soldiers according to Israeli law and thus “there are no civilians in Israel ..they are an occupation army.. every Israeli s part of the occupation” (p108). Or the Egyptian preacher who doubts the existence of Bin Laden “a fictitious character like Don Quixote.. I Think Bin Laden was created by the CIA to justify US Policies.” (p127). Other readers from the right may complain that most of those interviewed are highly educated and more “western” leaning. But it appears the author did try to include as many varieties of opinion as possible without making this work unwieldy.
At the end of each interview in Jarrah’s book, the interviewee asks questions to Americans. At the end of the book, the author asks Americans who read the book to email her the answers. Jarrah aimed in her book to bring Arab and American people closer to dialogue. Those who read this book will be interested in such a dialogue.
Readers who have been consumers of mainstream corporate media as well as activists of all stripes would find Farber’s book fascinating. Zionism and Israel had plenty of Jewish critics who wrote many books and articles on the subject. But few books are available that probe deeper into the thinking of those folks and how they came to the positions they hold.
Like Jarrah’s subjects, Farber’s subjects certainly do not have uniform views. Noam Chomsky views US imperialism and corporate dominance as the driving force of policy including Israel (a “wholly owned subsidiary of US imperialism). Zionism is thus not worthy of examination. Rabbi Weiss views Zionism as a blasphemy on Judaism and a catastrophe to the Jewish people in addition to its intended victims (Palestinians). Marc Ellis looks at Constantinian Judaism in the form of Zionism as a significant and detrimental movement in world affairs (including its damage to Judaism and suppression of the bulk of Jewish history in the World). In this they follow in the tradition of Albert Einstein who wrote: “My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain - especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state."
I personally found it disturbing to read someone as intellectual as Chomsky argue that Israeli and Palestinian culture are so different that they cannot coexist even in a binational state because he does not see a “way of getting there”. Mezvinsky by contrast bluntly put it that a two-state solution was never and will never be more realistic or achievable than a binational state. So why the differences between the two on this issue? Clues become evident in other parts of the interview. Chomsky evades the question of whether he considers himself a Jew merely by saying there are lots of things in the culture and the history that he identifies with. In other interviews he acknowledged affinity to Zionism. These issues of identity and allegiance to groups are far more honestly addressed by Marc Ellis in the same volume. I was fascinated that the less famous one is the more they spoke with honesty on issues. Steve Quester for example says with humility that Jews should read this book but should then go on to read books written by Palestinians, as there is a tendency for “Jews to be talking to other Jews about the Middle East and thinking they finished the conversation”.
Farber’s book needed a good copyeditor; it is rather disjointed and there are many grammatical and typographical mistakes. Yet, it offers a fascinating complex of exposure to these folks who have obviously influenced (or at least likely to influence) many, many people in their thinking about Israel and Zionism. To me, an interesting aspect of the book (perhaps incidentally so because of the lack of proper editing) is that one can almost see Both Farber and her subjects are obviously struggling with questions of identity (religious, cultural etc), Zionism, and nationalism. Farber’s conclusion at the end of her book attempts to make sense of it all and it was the most fascinating and informative section of the book.
Jarrah’s book is in some places poorly organized and difficult to follow, but the interviews eventually lead readers to a better understanding of Arabs as fellow human beings (with the same strengths and weaknesses we all have). Arabs want to be heard and want to listen and they also struggle with trying to make sense of this world. They do not like US policy (Palestine is especially a sore spot) but they like Americans and admire America.
The two books reveal coincidentally that the imposition of Zionism on Palestine is the most important issue to Arabs and to American Jews. More such books are needed perhaps even delving deeper into issues of identity and concern for the other. We have to listen to voices of “the other” to transcend imposed artificial group identities and narrow chauvinistic nationalisms that are the fertile ground from which hatred and racism emerge. Such an understanding is essential if humanity is to address injustices such as those that lead to genocide, to ethnic cleansing (in this case 2/3rds of the native Palestinians removed from their land), and to state and individual terrorism. The two books in question provide two tools to readers interested in going beyond the nonsensical cliché’s of “us here, them there” and “you are either with us or with the terrorists.”
*Dr. Qumsiyeh served on the faculty at Duke and Yale Universities. He is a cofounder of AcademicsForJustice.org and a member of the Steering Committee of the US Campaign to End the Occupation. See http://qumsiyeh.org