“Nothing Is Immutable”

Literary scholar Saree Makdisi discusses Zionism’s structures of denial, imperial racial logics, and the horizon of coexistence.

Claire Schwartz
April 12, 2024

A crowd gathers in London to protest for a ceasefire in Gaza, January 13th, 2024.

Erlend C. L. Birkeland / Shutterstock

Last fall, as Hamas’s militant assertion ruptured the neat sense of Israeli impunity and Israel began its US-backed genocidal assault on Gaza, Palestine was thrust to the forefront of Western consciousness. While some mainstream media outlets continued to ignore Palestinian perspectives, many started rapidly soliciting contributions from Palestinian commentators, often coercing them into narrow discursive straits. “Those of us . . . who are summoned . . . to provide a Palestinian perspective on the disaster unfolding in Gaza are well aware of the condition on which we are allowed to speak,” the literary scholar Saree Makdisi wrote in n+1 near the end of October. The condition, Makdisi clarified, is the suppression of history—no mention of the Nakba, when Zionist militias drove more than 750,000 Palestinians from their home in order to found the State of Israel; of the routine killings of Palestinians that long preceded October 7th; of “the occupation and apartheid that saturate the everyday life of every Palestinian.” “What you are not allowed to say,” he wrote, “is that if you want the violence to stop, you must stop the conditions that produced it.”

Over the past six months, Makdisi’s public-facing work has become a compass for many. In trenchant and widely-circulated essays, he has charted the systematic suppression of context and insisted it back into the frame. And on Makdisi Street, a podcast Saree and his brothers Ussama (a professor of history at UC Berkeley) and Karim (a professor of international politics at the American University of Beirut) started in November, the trio converse with scholars, journalists, and public figures, building an archive of engagement with Palestine that avoids the Zionist traps of mainstream Western media. Though his work has found new audiences in this moment, cutting through the haze of distortion with resonant clarity, Makdisi—a professor of English at UCLA, where he currently serves as chair of the department—has been engaged with questions of Palestine and Western empire for decades. His six books—which include Tolerance Is a Wasteland (2022), Making England Western (2014), Palestine Inside Out (2008), and Romantic Imperialism (1998)—span centuries and continents, manifesting an abiding interest in the formations of imperial culture and its dissidents. Making my way across Makdisi’s texts, I encountered a rich terrain, where abundant resonances between putatively disparate works revealed long histories of constructed antagonisms; by charting their emergence, Makdisi’s scholarship makes present other ways to be and know. In a time when the brutal plainness of Zionist horror has often made thinking feel impossible, this work restored me to thought—which is to say, to the liveness of struggle.

I spoke with Makdisi about the crumbling facade of liberal Zionism, what the formation of the modern racial subject can teach us about the State of Israel, and the swell of global solidarity with Palestine. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Claire Schwartz: In Tolerance Is a Wasteland, you write about liberal Zionism’s logic of “denial by affirmation”—the way that this ideology launders the brutality of settler colonialism through the language of “tolerance, diversity, and vigilance.” You point out, for example, that from the outdoor area at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem—a critical node in Israel’s own narrative that it exists to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again and “one of the compulsory stops for visiting foreign leaders”—you can see the ruins of the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, the site of one of the most devastating massacres Zionist militias perpetrated during the Nakba. Yet “no mention is made of Deir Yassin in the commemorative complex overlooking it. What remains of the village has carefully been made to disappear into the forest or among the concrete slabs [of the Israeli town that now stands on that land].” By diverting from the immense violence required to found and maintain the settler state and marshaling attention toward monuments to Israel’s necessity, liberal Zionism has made doing violence feel good without disrupting the sense of one’s own goodness to which liberals are attached. But over the past six months, much of that pretense seems to have fallen away. We see Israeli families setting up bouncy castles on the border of Gaza as they assemble to protest the delivery of aid to the besieged Strip, Israeli soldiers gleefully burning food as Gazans starve. If there was ever any doubt, it is now abundantly clear that there is, in fact, pleasure in the abject brutality. How are you understanding what we’re seeing?

Saree Makdisi: That book is an archaeology of a thought formation that, when I wrote it, was already in decline. Since October 7th, we’ve seen some attempts at reinvigorating liberal Zionism by imagining that the horror in Gaza is due to one malevolent man named Netanyahu— that it’s an exception rather than the logical culmination of the Zionist approach to the Palestinian people. For the most part, though, these narratives of compassionate Zionism are waning. Now they’re being replaced by two things. On the one hand, the Zionism that has persisted has become much more explicit in its racism and its violence. On the other, more and more people are rejecting the delusion that we can distinguish the “good Israel” of 1948 from the “bad Israel” of 1967 that “lost its way.” They are recognizing that there is only one Zionism from the standpoint of its victims, to use Edward Said’s phrase. And they are thus beginning to diverge from Zionist narratives altogether.Still, that fundamental structure of denial in Zionism—“Look at this, don’t look at that”—persists. In the old version, the pleasurable occludes the horrible: “Look at these beautiful trees, don’t look at the ruins of the villages destroyed in the Nakba that the trees were planted over in order to make them disappear.” New Zionist discourses function in exactly the same way, except they cling to the negative rather than the positive. No longer is it about making the desert bloom. Now they focus obsessively on October 7th, so that when you try to talk about what’s happened since, what is happening right now, they point you right back to October 7th. If you say, “But what about the genocide that we as Americans are aiding and abetting? What about the tens of thousands of people being killed, the children being starved, the cities being destroyed? There is, in real time, an acceleration of catastrophes in Gaza into which we can make an intervention,” they respond: “No, no, no, forget all that—we have to talk about October 7th.”

CS: Since Israel began its genocide, there has been a tremendous swell of global solidarity with Palestine. Simultaneously, this spectacular violence in Gaza can make the routine violence of Israel feel increasingly unaddressable, even as that, too, accelerates. Among those calling for a ceasefire, for example, are people for whom that is a vital immediate step in decolonization from the river to the sea, as well as people who see Gaza as distinct from the whole of historic Palestine. How would you describe the transformations in thought since October 7th?

SM: Plenty of people are connecting the dots. They understand that, in a way, what’s happening in Gaza summarizes all of Palestine, and it also summarizes how proximate a possible solution is. If you open the gates of their giant open-air prison and let people be free, many Gazans could literally walk to their former homes. At the same time, there’s an ongoing attempt to reduce Gaza to a humanitarian issue, and hence, to place Palestinians alongside victims of natural disasters, so the thought stops at, “They need emergency relief.” A lot of people are trying to bracket the political questions, without which you cannot understand what’s unfolding in Gaza. People need to eat, they need access to clean water, and so on; in that sense, what’s happening in Gaza is a humanitarian crisis—but, of course, the fact that Palestinians have been denied those things is a political act. And Palestinians have political rights that exceed their most basic human rights.

CS: There are several bad racial logics circulating with regard to Israel and Palestine: Some Palestinians and Israelis “look” the same, so it can’t be a racial conflict, Jews are indigenous to the land, so Israel can’t be a colonial project, etc. In Making England Western, you trace the development of a modern racial subject, showing how the Western “us” did not emerge wholesale, but instead developed unevenly within nations alongside their imperial endeavors—the “us” was made thinkable as a homogenous body together with the construction of a “them.” You thus offer a way of understanding racial groups not as fixed categories of people subject to processes of accumulation and dispossession, but rather as identities formed by way of those processes. How has your attention to the emergence of the modern racial subject informed the way you think about race in relation to Palestine?

SM: The best way to talk about race—as the UN does, and as the South African presentation at the International Court of Justice did—is to talk about racial groups. This framing casts off antiquated ideas of race as biologically grounded and encompasses all kinds of ways of establishing human communities, such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, and national origin. In that sense, it’s perfectly possible to see the relationship between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in racial terms, and if you look at any of the major reports on Israeli apartheid, they use this understanding of race and racial discrimination to explain the ways in which the Israeli state is fundamentally and constitutionally a racist enterprise, from the ground up.

The Western sense of self articulated during the 19th century, and specifically in England, was one that saw itself as rational and secular in a certain way—modern and progressive—whereas the sense of self that’s often evoked in Zionism takes two forms. One is exactly that same kind of rational pioneering subject. You see this in early Zionist figures like Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Those are the terms that they use: “We” are rational, modern, civilized. “They” are backward, primitive people who don’t have a claim to anything; they can be brushed aside. But then there’s the Zionism that we see more recently in people like [Israeli Finance Minister] Bazalel Smotrich and [Israeli National Security Minister] Itamar Ben-Gvir, which is definitively not premised on a Western rational secular outlook; it harkens back to the primitive language of religion. It’s almost self-orientalizing, though I’m sure they wouldn’t think of it in those terms.

This reflects a fracture within Zionism itself. There are certain Zionists, the techno-rationalists, who still maintain that discourse of Western civilizational hierarchies to reiterate an orientalist image of the Palestinian Other, and also to maintain a hierarchy within the Israeli state—to distinguish Ashkenazi Jews, for example, from Mizrahi Jews. But they simultaneously use that same hierarchy to distance themselves from people like Smotrich.

CS: Do you see that fracturing as a vulnerability?

SM: I think it’s a contradiction at the heart of Zionism itself. As the Israeli state lurches further to the right, we’re seeing a major split among Jewish Israeli Zionists. I don’t know if they can reconcile that split ideologically. Even before October, these tensions manifested in the protests over judicial reform. Having a common enemy—Palestinians—helps to push aside these tensions, but that’s only plastering over a fissure. It’s not a long-term solution.

CS: I’m wondering if there’s anything to be said about the creation of a “national culture” as a process of racialization. In Making England Western, you write about a time when it would have made no sense to think about English people—even those we now consider to be white—as members of a common social group, and the processes by which that cohesion was made not only to seem sensible, but to appear incontrovertible. Does this kind of analysis offer anything for thinking about Palestine?

SM: Part of the argument of that book is that people take for granted a sense of Englishness or whiteness in the 19th century that just wasn’t there. So members of the English elite looked at what they regarded as the lower orders in England as effectively “not white,” “not ‘like us.’” When we look at Palestine, this awareness allows us to consider the extent to which certain forms of identity can be taken apart and put back together. The figure of the Palestinian Jew jumps to mind. At one point, such an identity did exist. But by 1948, you couldn’t be simultaneously Palestinian and Jewish. This raises the question: Why not? What political project made the identity of Palestinian Jew, or Jewish Palestinian, unthinkable—and problematized the status of Arab Jews throughout the entire Arab world? Of course, the answer is Zionism. Looking back at that history reminds us that the identities we see before us are also subject to contestation and revision. That’s among the lessons that history teaches us: Nothing is immutable. Everything can be changed. There are things we can salvage.

CS: What can we salvage?

SM: A sense of coexistence. There shouldn’t be—there should never have been—a contradiction between being Jewish and Palestinian, or being Jewish and being Arab; and for centuries, there wasn’t. So what can we do to insist that these are not inherently antithetical identities? How can we reestablish the kinds of relationships that cancel that contradiction?

CS: It strikes me that so much of the work of re-narrativizing these identities—of producing these contradictions—takes place in the cultural realm. I’m thinking, for example, of Palestinian writer and revolutionary Ghassan Kanafani’s On Zionist Literature, which examines how Zionist literary production was critical in making the establishment of the State of Israel even imaginable. How do you understand the role of writing in assembling and disassembling these brutal antagonisms?

SM: I think of Kanafani’s novella Returning to Haifa, in which a Palestinian couple goes back to the port city, where they lost their home and where their infant son disappeared in the chaos and crisis of the Nakba. After 1967, they’re able to return from the West Bank to what had been their home, where their son is now living with a Jewish couple, survivors of the Holocaust. As far as I know, it’s the first instance of Jewish Holocaust survivors in an Arabic story, and it’s extraordinary to think about how this Palestinian revolutionary has in his mind, in his heart, the orientation toward narrating the Jewish experience of the Holocaust—and this recognition that Jewish pain is not a contradiction to the Palestinian assertion of right. Are there Israeli novels capable of narrating the experience of the Nakba? Certainly not many. In Tolerance Is a Wasteland, I talk about a short story by A. B. Yehoshua called “Facing the Forests,” where the Palestinian character literally doesn’t have a tongue. On the rare occasions that the Palestinian does occur in Israeli literature, it’s often as a figure incapable of self-representation.

CS: If cultural production is a terrain in which relational configurations are shored up or contested, how do you think about the conditions under which this work can be effective? Today it seems clear that there are people who do not feel Palestinian suffering as suffering, so putting evidence of suffering in front of them does not catalyze that recognition. Or, to put it differently: There is no shortage of documentation of Zionist brutality—from the stated colonial aspirations of its early practitioners to the thousands upon thousands of images of the genocide in Gaza today. Evidence does not seem to contradict ideology.

SM: It boggles my mind. There is also an incredible Zionist anger that distorts wildly in the face not only of the assertion of Palestinian rights but of the very principle of equality. I’ve faced this myself: All I’ve ever said is that people should live equally, and yet a certain strand of the Zionist establishment demonizes me (and plenty of others) as diabolical, antisemitic monsters. And there is a structural denial, an unwillingness to understand what’s happening—and not only by the self-avowed right. Even during this assault in Gaza, Palestinian spokespeople are almost never featured in the Western press. There’s such a disinterest about what [Hamas media representative] Ussama Hamdan, for example, has to say. There’s a refusal to countenance that there are Palestinian narratives, that Palestinians speak, that we represent ourselves

CS: Can you speak to the material infrastructure of Zionist denial?

SM: There is a literal lack of space for Palestinian voices. Compared to Jewish Americans or Israelis, we’re barely represented in the op-ed pages of major newspapers in the West. We’re censored on social media. It’s the same dynamic on campuses: Where is the institutional space for discussions of Palestine? At my university, for example, there are many places for people to talk about Israel—there’s a Hillel, a Center for Jewish Studies, a Center for Israel Studies. There is no Center for Arab Studies, no Center for Palestinian studies. We have a Center for Near Eastern Studies, but it’s constantly facing harassment and interdiction, so it doesn’t go anywhere near Palestine. Imagine a Center for Near Eastern Studies that doesn’t cover Palestine! So there is no dedicated institutional infrastructure on our campus to present Palestinian narratives. And we’re seeing a shrinking of the little space that does exist, and intensified patrolling. If somebody does want to speak about Palestine, we’re seeing this vitriolic reaction: They should not be allowed to speak, they don’t have a narrative, there’s nothing to hear, they’re like vermin.

The amazing thing is that, despite that, so many Americans, including Jewish Americans, are changing their minds about what they’re seeing in Palestine. It’s miraculous. I don’t think there’s any issue where so many people have such divergent attitudes from the political positions of the US government as they do around the question of the ceasefire, or even support for Israel at large, without there being some major public platform that’s constantly saying, “This is what we should do.” Certainly, there are intense disagreements in the US about questions such as reproductive rights, but there are major, well-funded platforms that articulate various points of view. When it comes to Palestine, there is no significant establishment presence anywhere in the US. There is no Palestinian AIPAC, no Palestinian ADL. There are no Palestinian media censors. There’s no Palestinian equivalent of blacklisting initiatives like Campus Watch or Canary Mission. And yet people are not drinking the Kool-Aid that the Biden administration and other Zionist-affiliated establishment parties are serving up. Against all odds, they’re imagining a more robust vision of community.

Claire Schwartz is the author of the poetry collection Civil Service (Graywolf Press, 2022) and the culture editor of Jewish Currents.