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Palestinian Fragmentation and Political Expression: An Interview with Dr. Amahl Bishara

By Garrett Sander

One aspect of Praxis Center’s mission is to amplify the voices of scholars who are engaged with pressing issues in human rights and social justice. Through making their research and experience visible to a broader audience, we hope to support the endeavors of radical scholars and develop a repository for their work.

I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Dr. Amahl Bishara this past winter while she was giving a lecture on her current research at McGill University. During our conversation, I was able to learn more about her current scholarship, her motivations as a researcher, and her experiences in the field in Israel and Palestine.

Could you briefly explain the focus and the scope of your current research?

My research is currently on the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank. The idea there is to think about the barriers to them speaking to each other and as a collective. The broader theme is one of Palestinian fragmentation and the way that Palestinians have been fragmented, particularly after the Nakba [1] since 1948, into different locations and also given different legal statuses. Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians in Jerusalem, Palestinians in Gaza and Palestinians in the West Bank each have different statuses. Palestinian refugees can be either registered or unregistered, and they live in camps in several different locations such as the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and in each of those places they also have different statuses. So, there is this process of fragmentation that has made it really difficult for Palestinians to relate to each other’s political experiences or to even actually have exchanges with each other, and that’s what this project is looking at.


I was looking over your faculty page on the Tufts University website, and I noted that much of your work focuses on “expression.” I was hoping you could expand on that notion. What exactly is expression, and how does it come to bear on being a political issue, or even an issue for survival?

I try to think about expression really broadly. When is journalism expression? Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, the interactions that go into producing a news text are where someone gets to express themselves politically, but the final text isn’t because it gets edited in one shape or another. For me, expression is a broad enough rubric that helps me think about linking a lot of different forms of activity. One thing I look at is individual expression at a political commemoration, and expression at a protest is certainly a paradigmatic form of political expression. Facebook posts, photography, those are all different kinds of expression that I’m thinking about in my book. The other thing I want to think about is that all kinds of expression are also kinds of action, and I don’t want to have a hard line between saying something and doing something. I think it’s really important to break that apart, and that’s something I’m really concerned about in this project.

What are some specific challenges related to social justice and human rights that you are addressing in this work?

Palestinian human rights are systematically repressed and violated under Israeli rule. In other places too, such as in refugee communities in Lebanon, Syria, and Georgia, but my work focuses on the rights of Palestinians under Israeli rule, and you can’t really look at the violation of one right without looking at the violation of others. This is related to the idea that speaking is a form of action, and that the ability to politically express yourself depends on a lot of things, including a vibrant press, a vibrant education system, and living in a place where you regularly get enough to eat. If you’re not able to eat, you’re probably not going to spend a lot of time getting your ideas out there, or most likely you’re going to be less effective at doing that. So, I try to think about all of those things as interrelated. As far as specific violations, in this book and in my previous book I’ve looked at the shootings and killings of journalists who were covering protests and the war in Gaza, as well as the rights of prisoners and how their rights are violated in many different ways. There are even arrests because of people’s Facebook posts because they are regarded as incitement…so Israel creates these laws and then enforces them in ways that suppress Palestinian dissent and also make Palestinians less safe.

How do the Palestinian people struggle against institutional barriers to political self-actualization? How do they organize themselves in an attempt to achieve their ambitions?

In lots of different ways, and obviously this is something I’m interested in because it’s very different in different locations. I look at two different kinds of Palestinian protests. One kind is inside Israel where there are these really amazing chants and poetry in the streets that evoke a history of dissent, of taking up space in the street, of speaking Arabic in the streets, of holding Palestinian flags in a way that completely transformed the public space. In the occupied territories, I went to protests where you hardly got the chance to do these things because in some ways there was no audience—no Israeli audience—to hear those chants anyway. Instead what you get is that as the protesters approached a wall, from one hundred meters away they would encounter a volley of bullets and tear gas. Again, there’s no possibility for Palestinians in the occupied territory of even being heard, so instead it’s about direct confrontation using rocks, slingshots, firecrackers and so forth. In return, as I’ve said, they’re receiving bullets and tear gas. In terms of the forms of Palestinian dissent, they are really many and various. There is even some great Palestinian hip-hop out there!


What is your personal attachment to this topic, and what political issues are you trying to bring to light by performing this research?

I think a lot of things got me interested in this work. Part of my family are Palestinian citizens of Israel, and my partner’s family are Palestinian refugees from 1948 and my partner grew up in the occupied territories. We have strong ties on both sides of the Green Line [2] in that sense, and it’s been dizzying for me to move across the line between those two spaces. That’s what spurred the intellectual or experiential component to it. Politically, it’s really important to think about how settler colonialism divides people and how fragmentation itself becomes an instrument of suppression, and I do think that could be something that could help us think about everyday politics beyond Palestine.

How do you choose to perform your research, and why do you choose to employ that particular methodology?

I’m trained as an ethnographer, and I like doing that work. Primarily what I do is participant observation in places like commemorations and protests, and then I make sure that I experience enough of everyday life in multiple places so that I can write about that as well. I do formal interviews that give people a chance to speak in planned out ways about politics, which is important, but also informal interviews that fill out what the everyday sense of politics is, which allows me to gain more of an understanding of the political habitus of people. I also do media analysis, and that comes from an anthropological perspective as well. The other thing about my research methods is that in some senses, I become an instrument of my own research because again, as I’ve suggested, moving across those spaces between Israel and the occupied territories, your body becomes a collection device. Where do you feel nervous, where do you feel angry, where do you feel anxious, where do you feel uncomfortable? And where do you notice other people becoming those things? That helps you gain a better understanding of people’s everyday lives.


Is there anything else you would like readers to know about the research you’re currently involved in?

I’ll just say one thing – the first book I wrote was about the production of U.S. news about Palestinians, and I really did have an American audience in mind, which makes sense because I had never spent a huge amount of time in the Arab world. My second project, while I think it speaks to broader issues around settler colonialism, racialization, and militarization and would certainly be relevant to an American audience, in some ways what I really wanted to be involved with was a Palestinian conversation around how to get these different groups to understand something about each other’s political experiences. Doing that is still a challenge, but I also think that me being an outsider – or half-outsider – to Palestinian contexts is what also allows me to ask some of these questions and do some of this work.

It reminds me of the status of existing as an “in-betweener.” In spite of feeling like we might not belong entirely to one geographic location or culture as opposed to another, it grants you this transient ability to have these sort of conversations and situate yourself in both realms.

Totally. As a person who lives here, people might think it’s weird how much I go and spend time in different Palestinian communities across the Green Line. Since they don’t do it, it seems unusual and it stands out. I have the luxury of doing those things because I’m not holding down a job while I’m there, or because I have the legal privilege of having US and Israeli citizenship that lets me move in ways that most Palestinians cannot.

 

​Though my interview with Dr. Bishara draws attention to certain facets of her personal background, her scholarship, and her experiences in the field, the breadth and importance of her work cannot be captured within a single conversation. With that in mind, I hope to encourage our readers to not only familiarize themselves with her scholarship, but also to consider how supporting and engaging with activist academics is of critical importance to broadening conversations about human rights and social justice in the public sphere. Scholars like Dr. Bishara recognize the urgency of performing research which centers upon the experiences of routinely repressed populations. Additionally, she illuminates the myriad ways in which these populations organize and express themselves in order to claim their political autonomy. Doing so allows the relevancy of her work to move beyond the isolating confines of the ivory tower in order to interact with the world at large.

 [1]The Nakba, or “catastrophe” is the term used to describe the displacement and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 by Israelis. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/the-meaning-of-nakba-israel-palestine-1948-gaza/560294/

 [2]The Green Line refers to the demarcation lines which separate Israeli territory from Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. https://www.adl.org/resources/glossary-terms/the-green-line


Garrett Sander is the Praxis Associate at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. He is a graduating senior at Kalamazoo College where he studies philosophy and political science. Among other things, his academic interests include queer history, international politics, and critical theory. He is passionate about interdisciplinary problem solving, learning languages, and charcuterie boards. Throughout his time at Kalamazoo College, he has been involved with several student organizations including the Kalamazoo College Democrats, Naked Music and Culture Magazine, Kaleidoscope (LGBTQ+ student organization), Kalamazoo College Climate Action Network, and Students for Anti-Racism. During his time with the ACSJL, Garrett hopes to gain skills and perspective from his colleagues and fellow students that will allow him to more effectively work towards a just world.

1 Comment

  1. Great Interview on some really important questions, Dr. Garrett.

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