In his seminal text, The Question of Palestine, Edward Said argues that the “almost total silence about Zionism’s doctrines for and treatment of the native Palestinians” is “one of the most frightening cultural episodes of the [20th] century”. For years, photographs were perceived – as is clearly the case in Said’s own collaboration with the photographer John Mohr, After the Last Sky (1998) as a special site where this silence is broken. Over the last two decades photography contributed to the narration of the Nakba as a Palestinian catastrophe. Photography, I shall argue, is a special topos where one can reconstruct not only the trace of the catastrophe that affected its direct victims but also the traces of the transformation of a catastrophe into a Palestinian catastrophe, i.e., a catastrophe from “their” point of view. To think about the catastrophe as a “Palestinian” matter only implies the acceptance of partition as inevitable, almost natural and forget the fact that it is an outcome of the same violence that generated the catastrophe and was used to suppress the opposition of the majority of the land’s inhabitants to the partition. When photographs are read as bearing testimony for the fate of Palestine and all of its inhabitants it can serve as a source and basis for a counter history, a history common to inhabitant of the land between the sea and the river, which is also a potential history. According to such history, the “constituent violence” exercised in the late 40s, was not simply the force responsible for the establishment of State of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinians and their fate as victims of disaster; it was also the force that constituted the Israeli Jews as perpetrators, those who committed the acts that generated the Palestinian disaster. The same violence also put a brutal and abrupt end to intense bi-national civil activity that took place throughout Palestine during the last year of the British mandate. In more than hundred towns and villages Palestinians and Jews put forward mutual demands and complaints, negotiated compromises, set rules, wrote down agreements, made promises, asked for forgiveness, and more generally made efforts to reconcile and compensate, doing everything possible not to give in to the rule of nationalist violence.
Reading a series of photographs from the years 1947-1950 in relation to these documents of civil alliances (all of which are available to the public in Zionist archives yet so far have been ignored by historians), I’ll articulate the double meaning of potential history in the context of Palestine: on the one hand, the reconstruction of unrealized possibilities, practices and dreams that motivated and directed the actions of various actors in the past and were not realized, but rather – in the case of Palestine – disrupted by the constitution of a sovereign regime that created a differential and conflictual body politic; on the other hand, the transformation of the past into an unending event, what Walter Benjamin had called “incomplete history”, where our deeds in the present endow earlier deeds with a new sense, preventing what has been achieved through violence and injustice from governing our present and determining our future.
Thus, when photographs of the violence from the years 1947-1948 are read carefully, both protagonists appear as part of the same history that cannot be narrated separately. Both appear in their mode of becoming – becoming victims or perpetrators. From this perspective, their fateful trajectories appear inseparable, and the partition of their history into two national narratives turns out to become an unproblematic acceptance partitions not merely as a political fact but of as an unsurpassable historiographical framework.
Constituent violence cannot be undone without redeeming both victims and perpetrators, which the present regime that governs Israel/Palestine keeps producing as readymade positions for Palestinians and Israeli Jews. For this to come, one has to shatter that other “almost total” silence of the 20th century, the silence regarding Zionism’s doctrines regarding and indoctrination and treatment of Israeli Jews.
This lecture was given at the Edward Said Memorial Conference, which focused on Edward Said’s legacy and paid tribute to the 10th anniversary of his passing. Each day of the conference featured renowned speakers and established academics on Edward Said’s work. Major attention was paid to cultural activities that resounded with Said’s vision in combining scholarship with the Arts so as to support the quest for justice, self-determination and equality.