The Palestinian Patient

Raja Shehadeh in The Nation:

Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews have fundamentally different attitudes toward the origins of the conflict that at once divides and binds them. The number of Israeli books about the early settlements and the 1948 war–histories, memoirs, novels–exceeds by far the number of those written by Palestinians. In the face of a work like Joan Peters’s From Time Immemorial, which drew upon spurious demographic “data” to deny that Palestinians were ever the majority in their own land, a Palestinian is angered but not moved to action. Indeed, the rebuttal to Peters came not from a Palestinian but from Norman Finkelstein, an American Jew.

This may seem strange, but it is not. For the question of whether Palestinians did or did not exist in Palestine when the first Zionist settlers arrived is more of an American/Israeli issue than a Palestinian one, as is the question of whether Palestinians were driven from their homeland. Among Palestinians there is no debate about their roots in Palestine, or about the causes of their dispossession. They either had family living in 1948 Palestine or heard from those who had family about what life was like and the circumstances under which they were forced to flee. A Palestinian author writing in Arabic for an Arab audience is not weighed down by the burden of having to prove anything about the Nakba, “the catastrophe.”

Not so for Palestinian authors writing in English for a Western audience. This may explain why much of the historical work on the Nakba by Palestinians such as Walid Khalidi and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod was written originally in English–and why the Israeli “new” historians who reached the same conclusions much, much later found it easier to persuade readers in the West that the 1948 refugees had not simply left of their own accord. As Edward Said frequently observed, part of being Palestinian is being denied the right to narrate one’s own experience.

More here.