Palestinians need to be purveyors of consciousness, not victimhood
Years before the US invaded Iraq in 2003, the American media introduced many new characters, promoting them as “experts.” They helped to ratchet up the propaganda and ultimately allowed the US government to secure enough popular support for the war.
Though enthusiasm for the Iraq war dwindled in later years, the invasion had a relatively strong popular mandate, allowing President George W. Bush to claim the roles of liberator of Iraq, fighter of “terrorism” and champion of US global interests. According to a poll conducted on March 24, 2003 — a few days after the invasion — 72 percent of Americans were in favor of the war.
Only in recent years have we begun to fully appreciate the massive edifice of lies, deceit and forgery involved in shaping the war narrative, and the sinister role played by the mainstream media in demonizing Iraq and dehumanizing its people. Future historians will continue with the task of unpacking the conspiracy for years to come.
Consequently, it is also important to acknowledge the role played by Iraq’s own “native informants,” as Edward Said described them. The native informant is a “willing servant of imperialism,” according to the late Palestinian intellectual.
Thanks to the various American invasions and military interventions, these informants have grown in number and usefulness to the extent that, in various Western intellectual and media circles, they define what is erroneously viewed as facts concerning most Arab and Muslim countries. From Afghanistan to Iran, Syria, Palestine, Libya and Iraq, among others, these so-called experts are constantly parroting messages that are tailored to fit US-Western agendas.
Though this phenomenon is being widely understood — especially as its dangerous consequences became all too apparent in the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan — another phenomenon rarely receives the necessary attention. In the second scenario, the “intellectual” is not necessarily an informant, but a victim whose message is entirely shaped by his sense of self-pity and victimhood. In the process of communicating that collective victimhood, this intellectual does his people a disfavor by presenting them as hapless and having no human agency whatsoever.
Palestine is a case in point. The Palestine “victim intellectual” is not an intellectual according to any classical definition. Said referred to the intellectual as “an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion.” Gramsci argued that intellectuals are those “who sustain, modify and alter modes of thinking and behavior of the masses.” He referred to them as “purveyors of consciousness.” The victim intellectual is none of these.
In the case of Palestine, the creation of this phenomenon was not accidental. Due to the limited spaces available for Palestinian thinkers to speak openly and truthfully about Israeli crimes and Palestinian resistance to military occupation and apartheid, some have strategically chosen to use whatever margins are available to communicate any kind of messaging that could be nominally accepted by Western media and audiences.
Many Palestinians, even within ‘friendly’ political and academic environments, can only see their people as victims and nothing else.
In other words, in order for Palestinian intellectuals to be able to operate within the margins of mainstream Western society — or even within the space allocated by certain pro-Palestinian groups — they can only be allowed to narrate as purveyors of victimhood. Nothing more.
In general, those familiar with the Palestinian intellectual discourse, especially following the first major Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-09, must have noticed how accepted Palestinian narratives regarding the war rarely deviate from the decontextualized and depoliticized Palestinian victim discourse. While understanding the depravity of Israel and the horrendousness of its war crimes is critical, Palestinian voices that are given a stage to address these crimes are frequently denied the chance to present their narratives in the form of strong political or geopolitical analyses, let alone denounce Israel’s Zionist ideology or proudly defend Palestinian resistance.
One may argue that Palestinians are tailoring their language to accommodate whichever political and media spaces are available to them. This, however, hardly explains why many Palestinians, even within “friendly” political and academic environments, can only see their people as victims and nothing else.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. It goes back to the early years of the Israeli war on the Palestinian people. Palestinian leftist intellectual Ghassan Kanafani, like others, was aware of this dichotomy. Kanafani contributed to the intellectual awareness of various revolutionary societies in the Global South during a critical era for national liberation struggles everywhere. He was the posthumous recipient of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association’s Lotus Prize for Literature in 1975, three years after he was assassinated by Israel in Beirut.
Like others of his generation, Kanafani was adamant in presenting Palestinian victimization as part and parcel of the complex political reality of Israeli military occupation, Western colonialism and US-led imperialism. A famous story is often told about how he met his wife, Anni, in South Lebanon. When Anni, a Danish journalist, arrived in Lebanon in 1961, she asked Kanafani if she could visit the Palestinian refugee camps. “My people are not animals in a zoo,” Kanafani replied, adding: “You must have a good background about them before you go and visit.” The same logic can be applied to Gaza, Sheikh Jarrah and Jenin.
The Palestinian struggle cannot be reduced to a conversation about poverty or the horrors of war, but must be expanded to include the wider political contexts that led to the current tragedies in the first place. The role of the Palestinian intellectual cannot stop at conveying the victimization of the people of Palestine, leaving the much more consequential — and intellectually demanding — role of unpacking historical, political and geopolitical facts to others, some of whom often speak on behalf of Palestinians.
It is quite uplifting and rewarding to finally see more Palestinian voices included in the discussion about Palestine. In some cases, Palestinians are even taking center stage in these conversations. However, for the Palestinian narrative to be truly relevant, Palestinians must assume the role of the Gramscian intellectual, as purveyors of consciousness, and abandon the role of the victim intellectual altogether.
Indeed, the Palestinian people are not animals in a zoo, but a nation of people with political agency who are capable of articulating, resisting and, ultimately, winning their freedom as part of a much greater fight for justice and liberation throughout the world.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for more than 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.