The Phoenix in Conversation with Nadia Abu El-Haj

Courtesy of Institute for Palestine Studies

Hillary Tran: How do you respond to critics who might accuse your work of being one-sided or biased against Israel? 

Nadia Abu El-Haj: I would say my analysis of the state fits in with the large comparative literature on colonialism and recognizes both the distinctiveness of Israel and the ways in which it is born of the European colonial flag. And that, in fact, it’s not as much of an outlier as those content creators. There’s an argument that the colonial state is a lot of fantasy, but many of the basic parameters of what Zionism meant for opinions and for the expulsion in ’48, and ongoing displacement in the business even before the Gaza war, are by and large, accepted by most Israeli historians and anthropologists as well. There are ways in which we do differently. We’re all positioned in different ways, but I’m not making outlandish claims. And the accusation of bias could be inverted in the same way. Why are they normalized? Why does the accusation bias only hold against Palestinians for criticism? Nobody ever accuses Zionists, colonists, or Israeli scholars who are committed to their narrow bias. 

HT: The title of the talk is “The Impossible Genocidaire: Gaza, the Jewish State, and the Shadow of Auschwitz.” Specifically the “Shadow of Auschwitz” part, how do you see the irony of the memory and legacy of the Holocaust influencing Israeli-Palestinian discussions and actions surrounding the Palestinian genocide? 

NA: I don’t see it as ironic. I see it as a historical reference framework that has become deeply embedded in both Israeli political and cultural life and in the West that makes what’s happening today. I think it’s the twist of history. Mahmood Mamdani has a book called “When Victims Become Killers.” The question is, what do you learn from your own oppression? To quote again from Naomi Klein GSPC trauma proprietary, is it only caring about one’s own national self? Or do you learn a different kind of lesson? Which is, never again for anyone or never again for the Jewish people? So I don’t think it’s ironic. I also don’t think it’s unprecedented, right? I think nation states tend to care about their own nation at the expense of others as a settler nation should have eliminated indigenous populations. 

HT: The Holocaust is taught in many history books throughout the United States, but studies show that a number of Americans are unaware that the entire event ever happened. What do you make of this information and how it is connected to their response to the current Palestinian genocide? 

NA: Well, Americans are very badly educated. I would say that is particular to the U.S. but not the American elites. People who were educated in public schools, wealthy neighborhoods, and private schools, they know, but that’s more of a comment on the failure of American education. I think it is fair to say there are no European students who do not know because it’s an integral part of getting history and the Constitution. I don’t know the answer for how that affects us. I think the U.S. population as a whole is pretty poor politically and mobilized around all sorts of issues, including post-9/11 wars. The question is more like for the people who are mobile, how, then, are they rethinking this relationship like the Holocaust, Palestine, what’s happening today? How do we think about them in such a way that we don’t get stuck in having to accept the behavior of the Israeli state? 

HT: And finally, looking forward, what do you see as potential avenues for progress or resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly in addressing the challenges faced by Gaza and its residents? How would you go about pressuring the government to call for a permanent ceasefire? 

NA: I think that the movement on the ground that’s what they’re really trying to do. The UAW voted for a ceasefire. So I think the very disruptive demonstrations, people taking on the Capitol, people closing down the Brooklyn Bridge, is a way of demanding attention. And I think the vote of uncommitted was that too, so I think there’s all sorts of pressure to push the administration to call for a ceasefire. And now today the U.S. has abstained from vetoing a ceasefire in the United Nations, and as I said earlier, I think that does have to do with domestic events. I don’t know what more can be done now, but this has to continue. 

HT: And individually, are there other ways people could help with providing for Palestinian refugees? 

NA: There are lots of people who are donating to Save the Children. I bet you if you get on the web, it would not be hard to find and my guess is there are a lot of local efforts. If you get on the right social media in the Philly area, you will find a lot of people. I mean, it’s a drop in the bucket.


[This article is online-exclusive.]

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