No Progress: Edward Said on Palestine and Zionism
Rather, I think, Zionism’s effectiveness in making its way against Arab Palestinian resistance to it lay in its being a policy of detail, not simply a general colonial vision. Thus Palestine was not only the Promised Land, a concept as elusive and as abstract as any that one could encounter. It was a specific territory with specific characteristics, that was surveyed down to the last millimeter, settled on, planned for, built on, and so forth––in detail…The Zionist challenge [is] a policy of detail, of institutions, of organization, by which people (to this day) enter territory illegally, build houses on it, settle there, and call the land their own––with the whole world condemning them.¹
That Said wrote the above text in 1979 should give us pause. Four decades later the detailed logic of Zionism continues unabated despite near-universal international condemnation. Only its key liberal imperialist patrons––the United States being chief, of course––continue to uphold the twisted “justness” of the Israeli colonial project, matching their rhetoric with funds and materiel worth billion of dollars. This “policy of detail” unfolds according to a perfectly visible logic, and its survival depends on the kind of erasure (read: displacement, terrorization, and media smokescreens) only imperialist hegemony can buy. Israel acts as if it has impunity because it feels that it does, and one more screed from an American Marxist, one more carefully constructed attack on the vice-grip of Zionism on the American consciousness, is not likely to give them pause.
Instead, I want to reflect very briefly on the depth of the kinship between Israeli and North American imperialist ideologies. Though both have their own particularities, they arise from the same set of political motivations and strategies. As Said discusses in detail in the document linked above, Zionism arose during the famed “Scramble for Africa” and absorbed almost the entirety of Western imperialist ideology about native inferiority, the European “destiny” to rule, and the use of coercion and outright slaughter to produce and extend colonial rule. In North America the acquisitive drive produced ideologies like Manifest Destiny and analogous appeals to the vagaries of a “Promised Land” that needed to be redeemed from “indolent and wasteful” First Nations. Frontier settlers backed by state money and violence figure prominently in both, serving as a vanguard for the “civilized” Europeans to clear and inhabit land they believe theirs by right. Once established, the settler-colonial state can appeal to law and order, initially established through force and terror, in a far less overtly violent or exclusive way, using legislation, the courts, and persistent ideological control to restrain attempts at rolling back the occupation. Though Israel is not nearly as secure as Canada and the United States in this regard, it has managed to avoid any accountability for its widespread abuses, largely thanks to the intercession of the latter in forums like the United Nations Security Council.
The geographical, concrete manifestations of settler-colonial society are readily visible. Canada and the United States are strewn with pockets of poverty-stricken reservations, dilapidated urban areas, and an enormous prison system. And though Canadians have a far lower incarceration rate, the trend for Canadian governments has been to mimic the American obsession with criminalization as a means of repressing dissent and disenfranchising oppressed populations without resorting to open warfare. Israel is not fundamentally different from other colonial projects; its wounds are just fresher and its methods more obviously condemnable. The logic of ethnic cleansing, even genocide, remains more vital when complacent people in North America believe that the age of empire can be consigned to dusty history books and the realm of escapist fiction. Defeating the jailers and gendarmes in Israel requires the defeat of the chief jailers in North America and Europe. This blog’s mandate is largely cultural, and as a tiger of my word, I promise you that it remains so. Yet the sickness of American and general Occidental culture has no cure other than political action. If we want to stop our fantasies and science fictions from warping into colonial delusions, if we want a culture that celebrates justice and furthers its cause rather than presenting one of its greatest stumbling blocks, we need revolution, political and cultural. The trouble is that its prospects appear dim, even impossible. We have bought into the lie that history is now on autopilot, that the proper authorities can dispose of the world’s problems without our interference. Now the results of our failures confront us, their spatial magnitude and spiritual depth horrifying to behold. I think those of us who recognize the necessity of communism would do well to galvanize ourselves and begin to amass forces so that we pose a real threat to the dictatorships of the bourgeoisie. Reject cynicism and reformism and take up our historical destiny, both necessary and contingent on our own power. If we have had no progress, we cannot shift the blame.
Unsheathe your claws.