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ALMA Reviews Blog: Writing/righting Palestine studies: settler colonialism, indigenous sovereignty and resisting the ghost(s) of history

Rana Barakat, Birzeit University, Palestine

Published in 2018 in Settler Colonial Studies 8(3), pp. 349-363

Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/2201473X.2017.1300048?journalCode=rset20

In this excellent and thought-provoking article, Rana Barakat interrogates the application of a settler colonial framework to understand Palestinian history. Settler colonialism is a form of colonialism that - as a structure, not an event - seeks to disavow the presence of indigenous ‘others,’ and to “ultimately supersede the conditions of its operation” through (a combination of) the erasure, expulsion, elimination, and assimilation of the native population (Veracini, 2011:3). Bringing an insistence that scholarship is, and must be, part of a broader political project, she asks “how can a settler-colonial analysis be part of a deeply political scholarly mode of indigenous resistance in Palestine?” (p.350) In this piece, Barakat argues that, the “writing/righting” of Palestinian narratives demands that an analysis and understanding of settler colonialism must be embedded within an indigenous framework.

Her interventions come against the background of significantly increased academic interest in applying the settler colonial framework to Palestine over recent years. As she points out, despite widespread perceptions to the contrary in some quarters, employing this analysis is not “new to Palestinian historical literature” (p.349). Rather, it “was new only to people who ignored Palestinian voices who had always been writing in that vein” (p.353), and “new only to those working within a Zionist framework” (p.351, emphasis original).  The absence of Palestinians in this scholarship, she argues, is “reminiscent of the elimination of the Palestinian body – Zionist settler colonialism functions on the land and in the scholarship” (p.353). Even in critical scholarship, she carefully documents, the analytic of settler colonialism “can and has led to a Zionist centered reading of the narrative of Palestine” (p.350). This scholarship can therefore perpetuate (even if unwittingly) framings and analyses that are tied to, and can reinforce, structures of oppression.

In particular, Barakat, a scholar of Palestinian history, outlines how the narratives of “settler triumph” and “native defeat” are “neither historically sound nor politically valuable” (p. 353). Drawing parallels, as she does throughout, between colonialism towards Palestinians and Native Americans, she emphasises that the idea of a “triumph” for settler colonialism necessarily represents the defeat of indigeneity: “the end of an ongoing Palestinian narrative, presence and future” (p.351). This privileges “the history and historical narratives of the settlers” (p.356), as does the often concomitant differentiations drawn between governance in the fragmented territories of Palestine, all of which are subject to settler colonial aims and the “demographics of elimination” (p. 350).

In another intervention, and in line with the arguments of Patrick Wolfe, on which she draws, Barakat insists on the primacy of the binary between Native and settler under settler colonialism, and the importance of this binary “in the righting/writing of Palestinian history” (p.355). Ignoring or denying this “primary and enduring” divide in the context of Palestine, Barakat claims, “must be read as a blatant denial of native histories and indigenous sovereignty” (p.356).

Barakat’s overall argument, however, is not that the framework of settler colonialism is not useful for analysing Zionism and the history of Palestine, but rather that what is necessary is to “realign our understanding of settler colonialism within an indigenous framework” (p.356). Drawing further parallels with the debates within Indigenous Studies in the United States, she echoes Robert Warrior’s call to move “toward intellectual sovereignty as a framework for remembering as well as writing as an oppressed people,” and J. Kehaulani Kauanui’s insistence that “settler colonialism as an analytic must stand in relation to indigenity,” and within an indigenous framework (p.358). She praises Steven Salaita’s work, in which he connects indigenous struggles of Native Americans and Palestinians, who together have a “shared political cause: self-determination and liberation” (p.358). Citing the work of Abdul-Rahim al-Shaikh, Fayez A. Sayigh, and Rosemary Sayigh, she then explores how centering indigenous frameworks produces different understandings and narratives of the Palestinian experience. “Palestinian Indigenous Studies” she explains “is about Palestinian narratives of resistance to imperial and settler colonial powers” (p.360).

There are numerous bodies of scholarship to which Barakat’s article has clear relevance, including the broad literatures on Palestine, on Zionism, on settler colonialism, on indigeneity, and to many of the current debates within, and at the intersections, of those fields. There is also a wider relevance, however. It is a crucial reminder of how often scholars who are from the places about which they write are sidelined and their work ignored, and how the ‘novelty’ of much western scholarship is built upon the marginalization of people, perspectives and pre-existing work. It furthermore invites a much wider reflection on how the frameworks we use, even when adopted with the explicit intention of deconstructing structures of oppression such as settler colonialism, can reproduce the frameworks, spatialities, imaginaries and understandings of those oppressive structures. As Barakat explains, “it is a question of frameworks and how those frameworks can be employed toward elevating indigenous scholarship and furthering indigenous intellectual sovereignty” (p.360).

Reviewed by Lewis Turner

Work cited: Veracini, Lorenzo (2011) “Introducing: Settler Colonial Studies.” Settler Colonial Studies 1 (1), pp. 1–12.

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