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"Each is the Other": Israeli-Palestinian Literature and the Potentials for Right Relationships

Gavi's picture


For my web event, I want to bring Sharon Welch’s claim regarding the power of literature to bear on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East. Currently, the Palestinian and Israeli residents of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza hold varied and often oppositional views on their rights to statehood. Many Israeli residents believe that Israel and the territories of the West Bank and Gaza should exist under the state of Israel; many Palestinian residents believe that the territories should be clearly demarcated as the state of Palestine; and many Israelis and Palestinians are somewhere in between, morally and nationally divided in a situation complicated by majority/minority relations, religious identities, and ancestral/historical claims to land.

As a Jewish American whose grandmother is a sixth-generation Israeli, I had been raised with a decidedly Zionist philosophy. I had not been raised amongst dissenting dialogue, and hardly with any confrontational and productive alliances, and I always found it impossible to imagine any kind of resolution within the high-staked claims of the Israeli-Palestinian debate. I now think that the right relationships and alliances—rather than the right boundaries or the right number of nations—are imperative to envisioning any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I therefore want to envision an alliance between Palestinian and Israeli young adults that can emerge from a literature-based workshop, which will be centered on the histories and stories of Israelis and Palestinians.  The compilation of this workshop will be the focus of my final web event. In this web event, I hope to create some theoretical and practical underpinnings for this alliance. I will first discuss Welch’s theory, and then address studies on the intersection between literature and alliance, first in America and then in the Middle East. Finally, I will create goals and requirements for the workshop I plan to build.


Perspectives on Literature

“Literature does not exert its force over and against time, but changes with the changing currents of social and political life.”

–Jane Tompkins

According to Sharon Welch, the only way to learn to be moral is through communication with and understandings of “other systems of knowing and acting” (15). The theorist brings to her text another scholar, Garth Kasimu Baker-Fletcher, who outlines the most change-effective characteristics of interacting with other communities: genuine interest in the communities, genuine nonvolatile confrontation between or among communities, and genuine perseverance in building and sustaining relationships between communities. With these claims as her grounding, Welsh stresses that the alliances created between communities cannot simply be based off dialogue. Productive and sustainable alliances must be based off interactive “action and reflection” among communities, in which a deeper understanding of “the history, art, literature, ethics, and philosophies of other communities” is imperative (Welch 16). We can’t ever really embody another community, but we can approach knowledge through reading its historical and cultural productions—i.e., its literature.

Literature therefore provides a crucial lens through which to investigate historical circumstance and cultural vicissitudes. All literary texts, as American literature critic Jane Tompkins argues, are products of socio-political history, and have value not as “objects of interpretation and appraisal” but as “agents of cultural formation.” (Tompkins xvii) Authors and groups of authors are compelled to write by the limitations and possibilities of their environments. Their writings often not only reflect a particular historical period, but include revisions of existing socio-political realities. These literatures have the potential to compel others to work together toward social and political change.


Intra-actions of Literatures and Social Change

“Only the dead parts of a culture are merely ‘expressive.’”

–T.V. Reed

We can see the intertwining of literature/art and social change through many influential movements in the United States. The black power arm of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, spread much of their philosophy through “folk culture, religion, and the literary and performing arts” (Reed 43). Part of the black power movement found its strength in cultural rewritings of contemporary socio-political constraints. This cultural nationalism developed much of its force through “black power theater,” an art form characterized by its themes of revisionary violence and pride, as well as by its participatory “call and response element” (Reed 48). This theater remained largely experienced by those who identified with the Black Power movement. However, the Black Panthers, a political nationalist organization within the black power movement, borrowed these theatrical and literary themes while enacting their dramatic politics. In many cases, “their style was their substance,” and this style was embodied by “young black men and women…looking both black and powerful,” who used rhetoric of violence and pride. (Reed 52) The bold images of the Panthers were eagerly consumed by the mainstream American media, so that through the medium of television, many different communities were able to experience the transformative theatrical politics of the Black Panther movement. In this way, the theatrical literature of the black power movement became a point of convergence for many different and overlapping populations, where those who did not identify as black could still engage in black culture and history.

The process of mutual engagement in other communities’ literature is crucial not only for understanding others, but for intra-community discussion. In the second wave feminist movement, the cultural and the political was even more interwoven than in the black power movement. Women were fighting for their access to public space through the extension of their private, personal experiences. While some larger scale organizations like NOW were integral parts of the movement, most of critical feminist thinking and activism was done through women in “CR groups”, or Consciousness Raising groups. In these groups, the goal was “to express, compare, analyze, theorize, then organize against all the ways in which women were oppressed…through a process of comparing individual women’s stories and turning them into a set of structural analyses.” Through these groups, women of different communities—for example, middle class lesbian women, women of color, working class women—shared their own stories, their personal literatures, for the benefit of creating a shared literature of women’s experiences (Reed 88). This literature, which most often took the form of poetry, forced another point of convergence: between the private sphere of women and the public sphere of “political discussion” (Reed 77). Through the mediums of stories and poems, the personal became the theoretical, and then the practical, as both women and non-women engaged with the literature of the movement and defined new types of legislation and living.


Possibilities for Right Relationships in Israeli-Palestinian Literature

“The proximity between “Jew” and ‘Arab’… threatens Zionist aspirations…and challenges notions of Arab or Muslim separatist national aspirations...”

–Gil Hochberg

In turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I want to assert that variations on both methods mentioned above are vital to creating alliances based off literature. Israeli and the Palestinian literatures were each formed in response to specific historical circumstance—namely, the 1948 Israeli-Arab War that “established the domination of the victorious Jewish majority over the defeated Arab minority” (Brenner 4). The Jewish majority created the state of Israel, which renamed “Jew” and “Arab” along the nationalist lines of “Israeli” and “Palestinian.” The texts of Israeli and Palestinian writers are, by virtue even of their names, products of a socio-political event that involves both groups of people. In this way, an Israeli author writing about Israelis cannot help but involve Palestinians in the work, by virtue of their absence or inclusion; the converse is true of Palestinian writers writing about Palestinians.

Palestinian and Israeli authors have, moreover, been increasingly writing literature that involves the other, supposedly oppositional community. These are literatures in which the Israeli “texts acknowledge the Palestinian life in the land and its history…[and] the Arab texts bring to the fore the brutality of dispossession and exile” (Brenner 11). This revisionary literature, scholar Rachel Brenner claims, is also a way of initiating a dialogue with the other community. This dialogue can only take place when both communities admit, as some Israeli and Palestinian authors do in their works, that neither the story of Israeli settlement nor the story of Palestinian displacement is hegemonic. Instead, both stories can and must share the same space, making it so that “each party’s designated listener is the other” (Brenner 11). The listeners or readers on each side can experience, through literature, “the needs of others” and “the other’s fears” that are particular to the Israeli and Palestinian communities (Brenner 285, 287). Through the literatures that represent and enlarge specific historical and present conditions, each side of readers can engage with the circumstances of the other community through a particularly transportable and transformative medium.

I believe, however, that an Israeli-Palestinian alliance based off literature (or based off anything, really) cannot only have as its basis a dialogical understanding of the “other” community. The Palestinian identity and the Israeli identity are not just in dialogue with the other, but dependant upon the other—and, in Edward Said’s claim, “each is the other” (Hochberg 7, italics mine). In this way, similar to how the feminist literature of the sixties was a composite of highly variegated gendered experience, the literature of the Israeli-Palestinian state is a composite of varied experiences of colonialism and exile. According to critic Gil Hochberg, the Orientalist or “otherizing” relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is simply a reworking of the same Orientalist relationship between Europeans and Jews, in which both the Palestinians and the Jews have been cast as the exotic Other (Hochberg 10).  While the circumstances and particulars of each relationship are not so simply classified, I think Hochberg is right in claiming that the Israeli-Palestinian relationship cannot be divorced from the histories of either people, and that the markers that define each group are constantly shifting. These shifting markers can be hard to observe in the daily interactions between any groups of people. In literature, though, the terms of relationships are always being reestablished and recreated. When we study literature, then, there is space to eschew essentialist identities and relationships and instead recognize the potential for change, “new social attachments” and right relationships (Hochberg 141). And since literatures are so entangled with the political, what can be imagined in one medium can be transmuted to the other, so that our literary “right relationships” might facilitate the coming of better socio-political ones.


Workshop Goals

“The line between a ‘real’ revolution and a revolution in consciousness is not absolute.”

-T.V. Reed 

While the particulars of the workshop are as yet undetermined, I feel that through the course of my research I’ve discovered the kinds of conversations I think might be generative between Israeli and Palestinian young adults.

The tentative goals for this project are for participants to:           

  • Engage in critical discussion of varied and relevant literary texts;
  • Discover means of interactions with and revisions of literary texts;
  • Explore the limits of physical space—both within and outside of literature—and the expansive possibilities of “right relationships;”
  • Determine a “right relationship” between the participants of the workshop;
  • Create a particular activist project that would facilitate right relationships among Israelis and Palestinians.    

In the course of my research, I’ve also come to realize that a workshop between Israeli-Palestinian young adults must have certain requirements if I want to achieve the goals I have outlined above.

  • I must approach Palestinian and Israeli peers and discover what advice they would have for my workshop.
  •  The historical and cultural literature in which I ground my workshop must extend beyond the “literary canon”—I must ground the workshop in various kinds of texts and media. I must also ensure that those involved in the workshop could have comparable literacies of the texts involved.
  • I must construct the workshop in such a way that I am not a facilitator but a participant—meaning that I must be open to revisions of the workshop even when such a workshop would be taking place. 

Works Cited

Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. Inextricably Bonded: Israeli Arab and Jewish Writers Re-visioning Culture. Madison, Wisc.: University of Wisconsin, 2003. Print.

Hochberg, Gil Z. In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs, and the Limits of Separatist Imagination. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007. Print.

Reed, T. V. The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism from the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

Tompkins, Jane P. Sensational Designs: the Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. Print.

Welch, Sharon. “The Ethic of Control,” “Celebrating Limits, Contingency, and Ambiguity” and “The Joy of Communal Resistance.”  A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Revised Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000. Web.

 Note: For those who wish to find out more about Israeli-Palestinian history and conflict, visit the US State Department's profile on Israel as well as the New York Times' insightful video coverage of the most recent border conflict.