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“I believe in a nonviolent transformation”: An Interview with Saree Makdisi

Saree Makdisi’s 6th book, Tolerance is a Wasteland, addresses the current political problems in the Middle East as Israelis and Palestinians contest rights to land, citizenship and equality. He writes in light of the current construction of a Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem, which is being built upon a Muslim cemetery and being funded mostly by American donors (including some based in LA). He argues that Israel has been using various tactics to occlude Palestinians and deny them political, social, and legal rights. While promoting itself as a liberal democratic state and gaining the support of Western publics, it concurrently operates as what he calls an apartheid state.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cory Chen: You split the book into four different chapters: Sustainability, Democracy, Diversity and Tolerance. What was the thought process for choosing those four specific topics to deal with?

Saree Makdisi: The book’s overall argument is that in general, support for the Zionist project in Palestine in the West has been historically on the left. More recently, the cause has been taken up by right wing forces, but historically going back to the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, the cause of Zionism in the US was always associated more with the liberal wing of the Democratic party, and in Europe with various left-wing parties. So the main question the book seeks to ask is: what are the processes that allow us to explain how somebody who is a “good” liberal Western American subject; who believes in equal rights, is tolerant on questions of sexual freedom; who is ecologically sensitive—how can somebody like that turn around in the same breath and support the Zionist project in Palestine, which is ultimately an apartheid project premised on ethnic cleansing and colonialism?

CC: Why do you think support for Israel has gone from the left to more of the right?

SM: All through the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s, Israel was marketed as a “socialist paradise.” The idea that people were supposedly treated equally and most of the property was state land appealed to many people on the European and American left. It began to change after the events of September 11. There was a shift in the way the world thought about the Muslim world generally and the Arab world in particular. Historically, the Zionist project has always looked for ways to affiliate itself with Western imperial powers, originally France and Britain. It was the British who enabled this whole project to unfold. After 9/11, the American population was being whipped up into a frenzy, and an orientalist “us” versus “them” mentality started to form. The 21st century version of Orientalism paints the western “us” as the democratic, scientific, and secular West versus “them” in the East, who are primitive, barbaric and religiously crazed. What the Israelis did after 9/11 was very carefully to insert themselves into the new version of this “Us” versus “Them” paradigm. As a result, they present themselves as the “vanguard of western power” against the supposedly barbaric eastern fundamentalism. Israel has shifted the way it is perceived in the United States. It’s less and less about progressive democratic values and more about the elements in the western world that really do believe in the “us” vs “them” paradigm. In this case, “we” need technologies, surveillance, drones, remote control observation and spyware and the Israelis are very good at marketing and developing those kinds of technologies. This in turn appeals to those on the right who idealize militarization and staunch nationalism, and less so those on the left.

CC: One thing that struck me, being an English major myself, was your use of quotations and excerpts from Palestinian literature. I really enjoyed the line, “My absence is entirely trees” (from Chapter 1: Sustainability) and the story of the person walking through the forest. What kind of Palestinian literature was influential to you when you were writing this book?

SM: That chapter opens with a long passage from an amazing book called The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, by the Palestinian novelist Emile Habibi. The character, Saeed, a Palestinian from Galilee, flees during the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine to Lebanon, but he’s able to come back. And so there's a scene where he's with other refugees in northern Palestine and everybody’s saying which village they’re from. “We are from al-Ruweis. We are from al-Hadtha” etc… These are the villages which were systematically destroyed after their people had been forced from their homes—here it is with a kind of meditation on the living Palestinian memory of those villages. Palestinians haven’t forgotten those villages. If you talk to Palestinians today who are still living in refugee camps in Lebanon, they know what village they came from, they know the ecology. There’s a very strong locational identity that Palestinians have, and it exists in their literature as well as in their political and cultural practices.

And that poem by Mahmoud Darwish, where he says “This is my absence, entirely trees.” What he’s trying to convey is what that chapter is about, which is the way the Israelis planted forests over the ruins of the hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages they demolished after the ethnic cleansing of 1948, to make those ruins, and the memories associated with them, disappear. “My disappearance is this forest; this forest represents the way in which I am made to disappear as a Palestinian from my own landscape.” So Palestinians have a very vivid, very lively literary and aesthetic set of connections to the land, not just political and cultural.

CC: Thank you, that was very beautiful. The other question I wanted to ask you was about the planting of the trees themselves, especially at the site of the massacre of Palestinians in Deir Yassin, which is overlooked by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Provided that the planting of these trees has an unjust symbolic significance, what should the Israelis do instead of this ecological project?

SM: That’s a good question. I’ve said this in other contexts but I’ll just give you the answer that I always give. The idea that somehow the Israelis are going to be persuaded that what they’ve done is wrong, unjust, shameful and that they will end up horrified by the massacres and home demolitions that they have undertaken and because of that change for the better—that is not going to happen. Never in the history of the world has a group in a position of privilege or power given up its position of privilege and power because it was the right thing to do or because they were persuaded that what they were doing was immoral and unjust. Historically, people in positions of power have given up their power and their privilege when they were compelled to do so. A lot of it has happened nonviolently and this is what I believe in the case of Palestine. I believe in a nonviolent transformation of this racist ethnic cleansing project into a different kind of social space.

If you think back to South Africa for example, the apartheid government didn’t give up apartheid because they were reading the letters of Nelson Mandela. They gave it up because they were ostracized by the entire world, because of a mass program of boycotts and divestments. In the case of the US, the white plantation owners in the South didn’t change their mind and abandon slavery because they started reading great novels by African Americans. They gave up their privileges because they were forced to give up their privileges. The British aristocracy did not give up their monopoly on government because they read Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man or Mary Wollstonecraft; they gave it up due to massive protests by the working class, the middle class, and the women’s movement. This is another case like that, I think. Israel will change when it is sufficiently isolated from the world that it’s forced to change. So what the Israeli state most fears is not armed resistance, but boycotts, divestments, and sanctions.

CC: I want to bring up the main reason why you wrote this book— the current construction of the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem that is on top of an excavated Muslim grave site. In your book you analyzed the symbolism of the original Frank Gehry design. Can you briefly walk me through that?

SM: When you look at the original design, you can see right away towers and walls. Those are the main architectural forms that are in play here. And if you look at Israeli architecture throughout the occupied territories and throughout the pre 1967 state as well, you’ll see that the main themes of Israeli militaristic architecture are towers for surveillance, domination and control of the landscape and separation walls that express power over the indigenous Palestinian population.

What’s striking about the location of the Museum is that it overlooks the remains of the Muslim cemetery it is built on.. When you look at the artists’ impressions of the site, however, you won’t see graves or tombstones; they’ve made it disappear into a bunch of trees. What does that remind you of, but the “ecological” project in which Israelis plant forests to cover up sites of massacres and home demolitions that I mention in my chapter on sustainability? Again, there’s this attempt to cover up the damage done to Palestinian heritage and claim to the land by making it all green. This is an attempt to greenwash the Palestinians out of sight.

CC: Do you think the Israeli architects who took over the building from the original Frank Gehry design were conscious of these colonial ideas when they were approving the design of the museum or do you think they were just trying to build some sensationalist project?

SM: I don’t know what they were thinking. After Gehry pulled out, they gave the project to an Israeli architect. If you look at their design, it’s even more interesting in a way because the Israeli architects are constructing the main displays in what they call “the black box,” which is a subterranean room buried below ground level. They’ve taken a cemetery, they’ve removed bodies from the cemetery, and they’re putting this “ black box” with these exhibitions of what they call “tolerance” into something like a coffin. They’re sinking it into the former Muslim tomb, and they’re patting themselves on the back about how wonderful and “tolerant” they are. It’s breathtaking in its… audacity is not the right word, I don’t even know what the right word is for this.

CC: In your book, you talk about the definition of tolerance in that it's inherently constructed with a sense of otherness. Tolerance is the ability to live and let “others” live. What do Zionists want to express Tolerance for? Are they the ones needing tolerance or are they the ones expressing tolerance?

SM: If you look at the names of the displays that they talk about curating, you think it’s going to be about tolerance between self and other, but in fact what they talk about in all their websites and pamphlets is an attempt to re-narrate the history of the Jewish people and convert it into a history of Zionism. In other words, they’re trying to make Zionism and the Zionist state the culmination of the history of the Jewish people. And of course, there’s plenty of Jewish historians who would say Zionism is not the culmination of the Jewish experience and there are plenty of Jewish people who are anti-Zionist, but that is what the museum wants to do.

I think this is amazing because this is the very question you're asking. If you want to say this museum is a history of the Jewish people, fine. If you want to say this is a history of Zionism, fine. The museum as such is not the issue; the site is the issue. But then there still is this other lingering issue: if you want to have a history of the Jewish people, or a Museum of Zionism, why don’t you call it the Museum of the History of the Jewish people or the Museum of Zionism? Instead, it’s called the Museum of Tolerance. Given that tolerance has to do with otherness, the question is, what’s at stake in packaging this museum of Zionism as the Museum of Tolerance? This is the mechanism I argue about in my book. We’re all for tolerance, but we’re not all for Zionism. So if you can repackage Zionism as a discourse of tolerance, it’s like a win-win. Everybody supports tolerance; therefore, they can be conscripted to supporting Zionism whether they’re aware of it or not. And, as though by magic, criticism of Zionism and racism becomes “intolerance.”

CC: I want to touch on this conflict from Israel's point of view. I talked with UCLA history professor, Vinay Lal, about this issue because he mentioned it in one of his lectures. One thing he brought up for why Israel might do these things and deny that they’re doing it is the remembrance of the Holocaust being almost a civic religion in Israel. Coupled with this idea is the feeling that Israel’s historical oppression is the only one that matters. I’m curious what you think Israelis think and feel when they view this “ethnic cleansing” project.

SM: Well I think like in any other society there are different kinds of people and hence different kinds of attitudes around these questions. As I mentioned in the introduction of the book, there are some Zionists who are very blunt, like the Israeli historian Benny Morris who stated in a 2004 interview that there are certain circumstances in history that “justify ethnic cleansing.” There are other Israelis who are like that too. But I would say, most people probably don’t care as long as it doesn't affect their immediate lives. What’s interesting about the question of the Holocaust is that the first place that any foreign president or prime minister goes (or at least the culmination of their visit) is to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Center. The highly politicized commemoration of the Holocaust—I think Professor Lal is right—has a kind of quasi-religious element to it. So it’s ironic that a country whose slogan is “never forget” is so busily involved in forgetting somebody else’s tragedy and loss—for the Palestinians, it was the loss of their entire country and society.

CC: I want to bring up the idea of responsibility. Perhaps Israel is at fault, but perhaps so is Britain and so is the US to a certain extent. Do these countries have a responsibility for their actions in the past and what should they do about it?

SM: Of course they have responsibility. They’re the ones who enabled it historically, and they continue to enable it to this day. The Israelis could not do what they do and they could not sustain themselves as an ongoing enterprise without the support of the US and Europe. This is why in so many ways the struggle of Palestine takes place here almost as much as it does in Gaza or the West Bank. This could not happen unless the US government, the British government, the French and the Germans… the Germans of course have a lot to atone for because they feel rightly guilty about the Holocaust. The Germans have assuaged their guilt for the Holocaust at the expense of the Palestinians; the Palestinians are being made to pay the price for what the Germans did.

All these countries have a lot to atone for in their own histories generally but specifically in the question of Palestine, yes. They should be at the forefront of seeking justice, which is why the Palestinians turn to the people of Europe and the people of the United States. “You helped make this happen but you also helped sustain it until now. Stop! Stop doing this! Support justice. Support equality. Support democracy.” And if they did, we would be in a different place.

CC: Regarding the one state solution, can you briefly explain it (because I know there’s a few different perspectives on it). What is the one state solution according to you?

SM: You kind of already answered the question. It depends on who you’re asking, so I’ll give you my version of the one state solution. My first book on Palestine has a longer discussion of the one state solution at the end of that book. So look at that for my fuller explanation for my understanding of what the one state solution looks like. But essentially if you look at where Palestine was historically, that territory is now controlled by one state. On the other hand, the idea of the two state solution was that Palestinians would accept the loss of the vast majority of their land and settle for a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza joined together somehow. Israel and the US rejected the two state solution at one time as nonsense.

Fast forward 20-30 years, and the Israelis had been steadily colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem such that even if you wanted to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank, there isn’t any more land because it’s all been taken over. There’s currently 600-700,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem which are occupied territory. To create a Palestinian state would involve the removal of thousands of people. It’s just not a feasible solution and opens up impossible conundrums. And even if there were a Palestinian state that was somehow magically created in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and Gaza (the maximum version of the 2 state solution) it doesn’t address the rights of the second class Palestinians of the state of Israel. Not only would they still be a disenfranchised minority, they would be under even more pressure because now there would be a whole Palestinian state to which they could be told, “that’s where you can go if you want rights.” So what Palestinians have been interested in more and more recently is a one state solution in which we look at the map and say there’s only one state. Today it is the Zionist state that controls all of historical Palestine in unequal ways, more indirectly in Gaza (by siege and isolation), more forcibly in Jerusalem, differently in Galilee, differently in the West Bank.

The point is that this one state is an apartheid state and so what needs to be changed is the apartheid nature of this state. We need to have a state that treats all citizens, whether they’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Arabs or Jews, as equals. That’s what most Palestinians Palestinians and some Israelis are now calling for. What they’re demanding is one state that is shared equally and to which the Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 and their descendants descendants would have the right of return, which is absolutely central to the Palestinian political project. So that’s what the one state solution is: it’s a democratic and secular state and that’s what I endorse. Of course, one objection that comes up is how can those people who’ve been fighting for so many years live together? Well, if you look at the U.S. there are some people who think that it’s miraculous that Black people want to live in the same state as white people whose ancestors owned their ancestors. It wasn’t that long ago. But look, we do live in such a state. People who have suffered extreme injustice can still be persuaded to live as equals as long as they’re granted equality. So we can all live in peace as long as we put our minds to it.

CC: The last question I have is about UC schools in general because obviously this interview is taking place at a UC school—what is our current policy toward Zionism because I know there was an attempt to brand anti-Zionism as hate speech.

SM: Yes, there was actually a series of attempts which culminated as a proposal to the UC Regents in which anti-Zionism would’ve been equated with hate speech and hence it would’ve been banned. Which is to say the criticism of the Zionist state would be illegal at UC.

CC: In every single context? Like even in essays?

SM: Yeah, because it would have become classified hate speech. It’s madness. But there are some very interesting things in the madness. First, the proposal failed ultimately. The regents weren’t going to abolish the criticism of a state and state policies and they weren’t going to suppress the principle of scholarly inquiry. If I want to investigate this state and if I find it to be a racist state, I have the right to say, “This is a racist endeavor.” Of course I have to back up my arguments, as I do in the book. But this attempt to suppress criticism of the Israeli state is an act of absolute desperation. They’ve realized that they’ve lost all the arguments, and the only way to suppress critique of their apartheid project is to abolish the critique itself and make it illegal. Some people see that as an expression of power. To me, that is the expression of not just cowardice, not just abysmal moral failure, not just intellectual collapse, but total desperation.

CC: Let’s end on this last note: If you wanted to give a call to action to individual UCLA students, what would you like to tell them?

SM: Listen to Palestinians. Read. Do your own research. Connect to Palestinians. Connect the dots between the Palestinian experience, the Native American experience, the experience of other minorities in the US, and once you connect the dots and how the various networks of power and injustice that we’re up against operate, it’ll become clear to you what’s going on. I’m happy to talk to UCLA students about these questions at any time because I think it’s important for professors to engage with students and talk with them about these kinds of questions that are of urgent public consideration in our moment.

Saree Makdisi is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UCLA. His previous books include Making England Western: Occidentalism, Race and Imperial Culture; Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation; and Reading William Blake.

Cory Zenus Chen is an English literature student with a professional writing minor at UCLA. He has poems published in Westwind, Icarus, Open Ceilings, Fairy Piece Mag, and 300 Days of Sun. He also writes articles for UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability. He served as editor at Westwind Poetry for 2 years.

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