What has been the legacy of 1967 in the field of postcolonial studies? I am tempted to answer the question in two different ways. On the explicit, conscious level: 1967 has left little or no mark upon the field, to the detriment of the field. But on the implicit, unconscious level: 1967 and its aftermath have shaped the field in important ways. The inability of many scholars working in postcolonial studies to acknowledge this split between the spoken and the unspoken represents the problem that remains to be addressed today.
Explicitly, postcolonial studies has had, by and large (I am speaking in intentionally broad gestures here), little to do with the question of Palestine.[viii] This is why the dates that are more likely to mark the field would be, for example, 1947 (the partition of India and Pakistan) or 1962 (Algerian independence from France). These are also indicative of the field’s understanding of postcoloniality: it is marked, in these and other cases, by a form of political independence that has little or nothing to do with true decolonization. The best work of the field helps us to understand that “postcolonial” defines a condition that urgently needs to be struggled towards and achieved, in a world still marked by proliferating forms of neocolonialism.
But most of this work is also premised around the notion that the era of “classical colonialism”—particularly forms of settler colonialism—is at an end. South Africa became the exception that proved the rule. Apartheid rule came to be seen—only as a result, it must be added, of massive popular struggles—as an anachronism, a throwback to a bygone era. Sadly, post-apartheid South Africa has subsequently also fit the pattern of analysis, evolving into an “independent” state marked by a vicious regime of political neocolonialism and economic neoliberalism.
One reason why the question of Palestine constitutes a scandal for the field of postcolonial studies is precisely because it completely undoes this model, since the condition of Israel/Palestine is so clearly one of settler colonialism. As against 1947 and 1962, which mark the beginning of “independence” and the end of “classical colonialism,” the key dates in Palestine—1948 and 1967—mark the intensification of an ongoing settler colonial project. The general acceptance of the re-naming of the nakba of 1948 as the beginning of “Israeli independence” shows the success of this colonial project, at the ideological and cultural level.
And yet: scratch the surface, and 1967 is lodged at the heart of postcolonial studies. Take two of the field’s founding texts: Edward Said’s Orientalism and Frantz Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth). The fundamental effect of June 1967 upon Said as a young critic can be traced throughout his early work, for example in his essay “The Palestinian Experience,” published in 1970.[ix] The massive, and massively influential, work that came to be Orientalism was commenced in his essay titled “The Arab Portrayed,” written in 1968, which Said himself described as coming out of the “smoldering extracts” of notes written during the summer of 1967.[x] I think it is not an exaggeration to say that it would be impossible to imagine Orientalism without 1967, and it would be impossible to imagine postcolonial studies without Orientalism.[xi]
Fanon’s Les Damnés de la terre, which continues to inform and inspire all sorts of theoretical and creative work in the field today, is also indelibly marked by 1967, even though it had been published six years previously, shortly before Fanon’s death in 1961. The book was originally published with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. The preface was initially, in some circles, better known—and more infamous—than Fanon’s book itself. Subsequently, however, French editions of the book have been published without Sartre’s preface. Asked about its removal by an interviewer in 1978, Fanon’s widow and literary executor, Josie Fanon, replied:
[I]n June 1967, when Israel declared war on the Arab countries, there was a great pro-Zionist movement in favor of Israel among western (French) intellectuals. Sartre took part in this movement. He signed petitions favoring Israel. I felt that his pro-Zionist attitudes were incompatible with Fanon’s work. Whatever Sartre’s contribution may have been in the past, the fact that he did not understand the Palestinian problem reversed his past political positions.[xii]
Josie Fanon’s quiet but forceful indictment of Sartre—that his failure (or refusal) to understand the Palestinian problem as one of colonialism undermines the power of his previous work—can, I am afraid, be applied quite directly to the relative silence within the field of postcolonial studies regarding the question of Palestine. (I say this as one of a dwindling number of scholars who still define ourselves as “postcolonialists.”) At the same time, like most silences, it also involves a continual disavowal of what would otherwise have to be viewed as a site of ongoing, and ever-increasing, settler colonialism of the most recognizable sort. Is this why, within my own field of literary studies, so many practitioners are so ready to pick up the term “postcolonial” (“Postcolonial Chaucer,” “Postcolonial Austen,” “Postcolonial Dickens”) but so unwilling to address actually-existing settler colonialism in Israel/Palestine—so much so that the Modern Language Association is on the verge of adapting a resolution that would in effect banish future discussion of the BDS movement? Whether this fiftieth anniversary of 1967 will offer an opportunity for an end to this silence, or instead simply be one more “introduction to the end of an argument”remains to be seen.