Thursday, October 15, 2009


Book Review of Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood

By: Joel Gordon

From the opening lines of The Iron Cage Rashid Khalidi confronts the tough question facing Palestinians: Why did they fail to establish an independent state before 1948 and what was the impact of that failure in subsequent years? Couching this work in terms of "failure" rather than victimization, Khalidi turns history on its head, leaving doors open for a far-reaching discussion of the predicament faced by nascent, then aborted, Palesntinian nationalism. A nationalism that is rooted in indigenous rather than Zionist and, by extension, Western/European history and historiography. ( Or at least a discussion that is not dominated by the latter.)

Khalidi recognizes, for example, the importance of the pioneering work of Israel's "new historians," many of whom have played a vital role in challenging and ultimately undermining the Zionist meta-narrative. Yet he also recognizes that their work - with all its strengths and shortcomings - ultimately tells us little about the history and evolution of the Arab community of mandatory Palestine before and after the nakba/catastrophe of 1947-48.

The bars that make up the "iron cage" are a series of constraints that have confronted the Palestinians, many of them imposed from without, since the inception of the British Mandate and with which the populace and its shifting bases of leaders - many found wanting but all operating at a distinct disadvantage relative to Zionist colonizers - have had to confront.

Khalidi's is not a standard narrative history. Rather, it is an extended interpretive essay that provides a framework for reconsidering Palestinian history. Khalidi does not seek to create a new Palestinian meta-narrative; rather his aim is to incorporate the predicaments faced by Palestinians over time in both specific local and broader regional, colonial and postcolonial contexts. In doing so, he goes a long way toward achieving his lofty goal of uncovering a "hidden history... obscured, at least in the West, by the riveting and tragic narrative of modern Jewish history" (xxix). And he restores a sense of agency to Palestinians, whatever their failings or shortcomings, in attempting to confront institutional and ideological barriers toward a national sovereignty similar to their neighbors in the Arab world.

For readers familiar with Khalidi as an articulate exponent-analyst of contemporary Palestinian politics, particularly since Oslo, the earlier chapters may prove to be the most stimulating. He begins Chapter 1 by examining classic arguments concerning under what circumstances Palestinians were driven from their homes in 1947-48. He does not shy away from confronting head-on "Orwellian euphemisms" such as "transfer" that have too long dominated the historical debate (5). Quickly, however, he cuts to the heart of the matter: why did Palestinian society crumble so rapidly during the Palestine war?

Seeking answers, Khalidi examines factors of "incommensurability" (13) between the Zionist Yishuv and local society - political and economic development, human capital, disparities between urban (Zionist) and rural (Palestinian) majority spheres, and the reality that, relative to Palestine's Arabs, the "highly cohesive and unified yishuv" (8) was privileged by a "self-selecting sample" of ideologically-driven pioneers (18). He compares Palestinian society to surrounding Arab countries, all of them relatively new states (having experienced a much more common style of colonialism than Palestine, as well as at least partial liberation). Looking at literacy, education, the press, and economic statistics, he finds no specific explanation for the nakba, but persuasive evidence to dismiss the "canard" that Palestinian society was either less than "complete" or "irremediably mired in social backwardness" (29).

In Chapter 2 Khalidi examines the peculiar colonial institution that was the Mandate. Starting with the constitutional structure created to address Britain's commitments under the Balfour Declaration (the text of which was reprinted in its entirety in the mandate charter) - he notes how ninety percent of the country's population "was effectively ignored as a national or political entity." Palestinians found themselves thereafter facing a "cruel dilemma" (33). The British withheld official recognition to the Arab Executive composed of local notable leaders, "denying the representative nature of any body purporting to speak for the Palestinians, unless, as a precondition it accepted Britain's policy of support for the Jewish national home and the concomitant denial of Palestinian national rights" (42). By contrast the British and the League of Nations granted the Jewish Agency "quasi-official diplomatic status," which lent the Zionist movement "an international legitimacy" (45).

If that did not condemn "Palestinian politics to an even higher level of frustration than politics in other Arab countries" (45), the British imposed a "communitarian paradigm" on Palestinian society that followed on the "well-established British predilection... for developing privileged relations with real or invented aristocratic elites, rather than political formations rooted in the middle classes or the mass of the people" (52). The "unique institution" (61) was the Supreme Muslim Council under the direction of a newly reconfigured mufti - an official who now bore little relation to what he had been under Ottoman rule (the office had generally been held by an outsider, rather than a member of a local family engaged in competition with other notable families) and which now put mandate-sanctioned authority over religiously diverse Arab Palestine in the hands of a Muslim cleric. And a relatively minor figure to boot, the notorious Amin al-Husayni, polarizing even before he turned on his colonial patrons in the 1930s, when he "felt obliged to align himself with a growing popular rebellion" (62).

With Palestinian elites "hopelessly divided internally" (80) - not in small part due to British and Zionist strategies of "divide and rule" - how could one speak of anything other than "a failure of leadership" (the title of Chapter 3)? Those who "felt themselves to be the natural rulers of the country," the "legitimate heirs to the Ottoman dominion," equal to their peers in other Arab lands (80-1) were horrified, and ultimately paralyzed, by the rise of militant nationalism from below with their attendant calls for social reconfiguration. British repression of the revolt of 1936-39, as Khalidi notes in Chapter 4, "largely determined the outcome of the 1948 war" (105). He reminds us that no colonial rebellion succeeded in the interwar period. But with casualties running to more than ten percent of the male population, existing political divisions "became envenomed"(108). Rejection of the 1939 White Paper, against the grain of majority opinion, represented "the last important decision the Palestinians took by themselves for decades" (118).

Khalidi suggests that a more militant stand prior to 1936 might well have furthered Palestinian national aspirations. But having acted too late, the Palestinians entered a low point; between 1939-1949 they "lost agency" and "were either not consulted, or were effectively ignored" by an international community that eventually approved partition (125). The "thin reed to hang on" (129) remained support for antagonists of Jordan's Abdullah, who conspired with Zionist leaders to occupy Arab Palestine. Paradoxically, the "traumatic impact of the shared experience of 1948 on the entirety of Palestinian society helped to weld it together even more strongly, obliterating much that had transpired before 1948, rendering many earlier divisions irrelevant, and creating a sort of tabula rasa on which Palestinian identity could be reestablished" (135).

That "tabula rasa" Khalidi treats in the final two chapters. In Chapter 5 he assesses the long career of Yasser Arafat, who, compared to earlier nationalist leaders, attained "unrivaled, universal recognition" (144). Arafat must be assessed in terms of the vacuum that he filled, before his rise to prominence - Ahmad al-Shuqayri, the bombastic original chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, does not even merit mention - and following the assassination of his closest early collaborators, Abu Jihad and Abu Iyad. After that, "virtually no one could stand up to him" (147). Khalidi does not refrain from taking issue with political failings of the movement between June1967 war and Oslo. Under Arafat the PLO failed to develop a "framework for a full-fledged Palestinian state" (175) or to move from a "liberation strategy" (177). Palestinian leaders are judged "ill-prepared to lead such a transformation" and unable to "understand the limits of violence" (178). The establishment of the Palestinian Authority produced "the effective abandonment of the majority of Palestinians who live outside of Palestine" (180).

Penning his final lines last summer as bombs rained on Lebanon and Israel moved back into Gaza, Khalidi's final chapter is understandably bleak. The two-state solution, supported by a succession of American governments, has given way to a one-state "default option" (201) imposed by Israel and, for now, approved by Washington. This leaves Palestinians "stateless in Palestine" (the chapter title), foreclosing the agency that Khalidi has attempted to insert into the narrative. He writes, metaphorically, of an "iron cage." But, as the photograph on the dust-jacket reminds us, the concrete separation/apartheid wall that Israel is constructing in the West Bank may be more apropos. The essential precondition for any solution, Khalidi contends, is dismantling the "structures of colonialism and repression that originally engendered it" (216). Instead, the wall serves to formalize the annexation of Israel's 1967 war spoils, further uprooting Palestinian society, along with the precious groves that are confiscated.

Iron Cage or Concrete Wall, the struggle continues. Khalidi's book is ever timely, a provocative, dispassionate evocation of his people's yearning to fashion their own history.

Joel Gordon, Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, is the author of Nasser: Hero of the Arab Nation (2006).

Reposted from: Logos a journal of modern society & culture. 2008: Vol.7, Issue 2. ISSN 15430820.