Lori Allen, A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Lori Allen (LA): This book is the result of a curiosity about why so many Palestinians and their advocates have resorted to international law as a means of achieving their rights. It has been a puzzle to me since the time of my fieldwork in the occupied Palestinian territory, which I began during the second intifada in 2000. It was around then that I started to realize what a sham form of politics the human rights system was, and what the smoke and mirrors of the United Nations was doing to confuse and obscure political thought in and about the conflict. So many smart and well-intentioned people kept the merry-go-round of the international legal system spinning, despite all evidence that it provided mostly dizziness, and little to nothing in the way of protection of Palestinians’ rights and security. It certainly offered no kind of strategy for achieving their national self-determination. I wondered where this compulsion came from.

I do not remember how I hit on investigative commissions as the lens through which to examine these issues. But like a magnifying glass angled just right onto a dry leaf to make it burn, commissions of inquiry emerged as an enlightening way to let the ideological shelter of liberal legalism crumble. Liberal legalism has at its core the idea that law is a distinct sphere of action that runs on the basis of objective rules, which can yield predictable and fair results when applied in a juridical process. This is a source of the false hope of my book’s title. Usually consisting of academics, lawyers, military, and other experts, investigative commissions are favored by governments the world over as a mechanism for looking like they are producing policy on the firm basis of fact. Through their activation of international law, commissions have propagated liberal legalism as a useable norm of political practice among Palestinians and others seeking a means to end the conflict. This book is my attempt to understand the power of international humanitarian and human rights law—and the liberal legalism on which it rests—as ideological force and propagator of false hope.

In a way, this book is an expression of my naïve astonishment at how Palestinians have been denied their freedom, so brazenly and brutally, for so long. I still ask, how can this be? A History of False Hope is another attempt to understand the intransigence of Palestinians’ unfreedom. Investigative commissions are not the reason, but they help reveal some of the characters, expectations, norms, and biases ensuring a political stasis that entrenches Israeli control over Palestine and Palestinians. Investigative commissions, despite their apparent lack of political efficacy, and despite being labeled by critics as a political smoke screen, have been for decades a consistent feature of international engagement with Palestine. Through each commission, in each historical era, we see specific demands made of Palestinians who are urged to perform an ever-shifting range of sentiments—from properly contained nationalist passion to humanitarian sympathy, balance, and compromise, to hope and sincere suffering—to prove their political worthiness. The continually shape-shifting criteria end up being impossible to fulfill. New assurances of globally dispersed democracy and new audiences that promise empathetic listening inspire hope that the latest manifestation of the international community will live up to its liberal ideals. I wanted A History of False Hope to reveal how the power of international law as ideology functions in so many people’s lives.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LA: A History of False Hope traces the life of international law in Palestine to explain how some Palestinians have found in liberalism an ideology and political methodology through which to speak to that nebulous audience, “the international community,” and mobilize solidarity around their fight for independence and human rights. In analyzing six major investigative commissions covering the period from 1919 to today, I show how Palestinians have engaged with various permutations of “the international community.” The book presents a different kind of transnational history of Palestine. For over a century, commissions have been convening a motley crew of characters, from UN diplomats like Fayez Sayegh and politicians like US Senator George Mitchell; Palestinian nationalist firebrands such as Akram Zuʿaytir and ʿIzzat Darwaza; judges including Richard Goldstone, alongside Palestinian lawyers and legal scholars from all over; humanist advocates such as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Albert Hourani; and Palestinian victims of Israeli military attacks and their human rights defenders. A thread of liberal commitments runs throughout, entangling Palestinians and those who would deny them their freedom together with international law.

I hope to intervene in both critical legal studies and legal anthropology to open up our view of how expansively the tentacles of international law reach—and here it is specifically international humanitarian and human rights law. International law is a realm in which subaltern subjects, functionaries of imperialism, middle-class bureaucrats, nationalist aspirants, and internationalist visionaries have all engaged, asserting their own interpretations of what is universal and what counts as order. Drawing on ethnographic research and an anthropological approach to the archives, A History of False Hope is an alternative history of liberalism and international law. It places actors from the Global South in the same analytical field—and on the same liberal plane—as the Euro-Americans who typically populate histories of international law. In so doing, it presents a historical ethnography of lived liberalism that throws the limits, blind spots, and contradictions of liberal internationalism into relief.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LA: This book is something of a prequel to my first book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2013), which was an ethnography of the human rights world in Palestine. The story in that book reached back to the 1970s, and tracked the increasing entrenchment of a human rights imagination in Palestinian politics and society throughout the first and second intifadas and into the evolution of the Palestinian Authority. A History of False Hope extends that story further in the past via research through seven Arabic language newspapers and twenty-one archives in several countries. It brings the story up to date with an examination of how the Goldstone Mission and the International Criminal Court sparked further hope that an end to Israeli impunity was at hand.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LA: I hope that anyone interested in Palestine, Israel, international law, liberalism, anthropology, human rights, political theory, and history in general would read this book and learn something new.

Even the most avid partisans to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may be surprised by some of my findings, including the expressions of compassion by Palestinians towards the plight of the Jews after World War II, and the level of interest expressed by Arab states in trying to help Jewish displaced persons in that period. They may be shocked at the depth and breadth of liberalism guiding Palestinian politics over the past century. That Palestinians had detailed plans in place for a democratic Palestine with constitutional guarantees of equal citizenship for all, including Jews and other minorities, in 1919 and 1946 may also prompt a fresh look at this conflict. What the standard histories normally report (and condemn) are the Palestinians’ refusals to agree to bad deals for partial autonomy and partition of their country. I hope this book contributes to setting the record straight, provoking a greater appreciation of the recurrent refusals by Zionists and Westerners to agree to democratic solutions to “the problem of Palestine.”

Another goal is that this reassessment of the deep and more recent past will prompt in those who place their trust in the liberal international order a reconsideration of where they put their political energies.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LA: Although my book is 408 pages long, it was set to be longer until an editor suggested politely that I cut a chapter lest the tome be mistaken for a recyclable door stop. (She did not really say that last part.) So, my blow-by-blow account of the Peel Commission—the British Royal Commission that sought to tamp down the Arab Revolt of 1936 and made the partitioning of Palestine an official recommendation—is awaiting transformation into a journal article. Or perhaps a pilot for a television series.

I have been moving away from Palestine-specific research with a more internationally ambitious study I am planning on the topic of academic freedom. Any student or teacher can see that the legal space for critical thought and status-quo-disrupting discussion on campus is being chiseled at the knees—by everything from the elimination of gender studies programs in Brazil to universities adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism that is being deployed to stifle speech critical of Israel throughout Europe; from death threats, harassment, and dismissal of radical scholars in the United States to the purging of academics in Turkey. The list goes on. I am interested in why “academic freedom”—seemingly a niche interest of a privileged elite cosseted within their ivory towers—has become such a fraught political battleground these days. I want to write about the uneven history and presence of such clashes.

Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion: Toward an Anthropology of International Law, and Next Time and Again for Palestine, pp. 240-242, 250-251)

As ethnographers tend to do, I have developed some kind of personal relationship with many of the characters who populate these pages, though I met only a few of them in person. The wry sarcasm of Fayez Sayegh impressed and amused me so much that I had to read out quotes to my partner, Fayez’s nephew. The hubris of William Yale and the authoritarian grouchiness of Judge Singleton infuriated me as much as Texas Joe’s civil rights sincerity and his blindness to its limitations. The tension of personal ambition and political goodwill in Howard Lybyer left me strained between appreciation for his anticolonial efforts and irritation at his petty self-regard. And the fire of the Palestinian women’s righteous anger written into petitions to the Peel Commission bowled me over, and then flattened me with the knowledge that the deaths of their sisters-in-arms left nothing more than families without mothers, daughters, and sisters, not liberation.

Like some historians, I have tried to become familiar with these people, their “faces and pains, emotions and the authorities created to control them” (Farge 2004: 96) in order to articulate the past historically and, in Walter Benjamin’s (1974) words, seize hold of memory “as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” And like any anthropologist, out of respect and gratitude to those who have shared something of the dangers of their lives, even those who have done so without consent from the grave, I have been anxious to prevent any imposition of meaning upon them, and eager to allow their sense and sensibilities—including those I found objectionable—to come through, not without interpretation, but by some humble facilitation. In attempting this, the obverse of a magician’s trick, I have included many long quotes of speeches and interchanges between Palestinians and their interrogators, investigators, and sympathizers. It is from a sense of humility, respect, conviction, and mission that I have attempted to smuggle them past the editor’s scythe.

While the transcripts of words exchanged in the sometimes stilted frame of a commission room may not bring the people who spoke them fully to life, their words do, I think, reveal much of their humanity. Yet this is something which, when it comes to Palestinians, astonishingly still has to be proven today. Their considered arguments, their refusals to be baited, the heated and calm assertions of what is right and what was at risk, the litanies of historical facts that Palestinians brought to bear to try to convince those who might see sense. They reveal how much (confident expectation, puzzle-piece logic, sublimated anger, personal experience that made arguments known in the bones) they deployed at every moment when it seemed like a system of terrible injustice might finally be righted, when a people might finally be freed, a future opened up. I have sought to show how reasonable were their expectations when seen through the liberal lens; how emotionally satisfying and maybe politically necessary were their hopes; how sincere were their desires to be heard; and how enraging, how tragic, was the devastation of disappointment at each turn.

This effort at bringing the methods and intentions of subaltern studies to a history of international law “from below” is meant to do something more than recover the lives, aspirations, and agency of those largely written out of history—although it has, I hope, done something of that too (and more on which below) (Rajagopal 2003). It has also been aimed at revealing a record of hopeful proposals that, had they been taken more seriously by those who had the power to act on them, might have saved the lives of countless. They might have eliminated the chains of events that have left so many people drenched in the sorrow of dispossession and separation, abandoning them to exist for generations with the simmering and sometimes explosive frustration of lives immobilized and deaths mourned under siege. How many today know, or could be induced to believe, that Arab leaders repeatedly and with avowed compassion invited refugee Jews to find harbor and home in their Middle Eastern countries after World War II? That Palestinians had detailed plans in place for a democratic Palestine with constitutional guarantees of equal citizenship for all, Jew and Arab, in 1919 and 1946? What the standard histories normally report (and condemn) are the Palestinians’ refusals to agree to bad deals for partial autonomy and partition of their country. There is little record of the Zionists’ and Westerners’ refusals to agree to democratic solutions. With a nod to liberal values, let these pages help balance that historiographical scale a little.

Subaltern studies’ research methods and attitudes produced a democratized historiography, a broadened view of the more diverse range of actors and movements playing starring roles in their own stories. It opened up conceptions of where history happens and who makes it, away from the authorized versions that supported the already dominant. In proffering a critique of Whig history, it helped redefine the meaning of history itself. In this spirit, A History of False Hope has sought to expand understanding of international law, to recognize its functioning in the lives and imaginations of regular people. Finding it in the everyday of newspaper commentary and commission transcripts, in street banners and tapestries, in the words of Kuwaiti poets, housewives at the UN, and grandfathers in Gaza.

[…] In the midst of this crosshatch of approaches to engaging with international law, there have always been, and continue to be, voices whispering for wariness toward it. Palestinians did, after all, greet every early investigative commission with trepidation (before they decided to engage). More recently, the whispers have grown into something more resounding, with a notable generation of intellectuals calling for a stance of “disenchantment” toward international law. As legal scholar Nimer Sultany (2011) has put it bluntly:

Let us face it: it is not only that the reality of power often trumps humanist and universal moral codes like those expressed in the law of nations (e.g., international humanitarian law); it is also that these universal codes are often too abstract, contradictory and ineffective to be instrumental in advancing concrete outcomes.

With perhaps more optimism, human rights attorney and legal scholar Noura Erakat (2019) likewise encourages advocates to “tempe[r] their faith in the law’s capacity to do what only a critical mass of people are capable of achieving.”

And yet, as A History of False Hope has shown, many Palestinians and others have acted as if international law’s methods could have an effect on their own, or that the support of Palestinian rights through international legal terms was a concrete positive outcome in and of itself. Palestinians have often turned to international law as if it is the end of the story, not as a singular instrument of what has to be a much larger and more complicated orchestra. This lack of strategy has been evident in every era, but the PLO/PA under Yasir Arafat’s leadership is perhaps the most obvious instance. As someone active in the NSU during the time of the Mitchell Committee commented to me, “The leadership was flailing, as always. They engaged with the Mitchell Committee as if it were just another arrow in the quiver to be tossed about.” When I asked another member of the team what plan had been in place to make use of the committee’s report, he just laughed through his nose and shook his head. There was no strategy.

[…] In Palestine (laying down the gauntlet now), international law has been an antirevolutionary pacifying force. (Certainly, some will see that as a good thing, and others not.) For a hundred years, international law has been a black hole: the massive weight of its mechanisms, both ideological and institutional, have pulled energies and actors, ideas and motivations deep within it, suffocating their vitality. International law has channeled nationalist passions into “reasonable” discussion; expressed the ache for justice in the numb language of UN resolutions; condensed histories of agony, exile, repression, and dispossession into false assertions of balance in the here and now. The activation of international law through investigative commissions has been a dominant mechanism through which liberalism exercises its power: it spins a vortex that vacuums liberalism’s bright ideals into itself where those who would be saved clutch onto it, eager to combine with it, to be lit—to be seen—by the brightness. And then it throws them back out, only to be caught up in the whirlwind again next time. “Next time” and “again” it has always been for the Palestinians.