Sherene Seikaly, “In the Shadow of War: The Journal of Palestine Studies as Archive,” Journal of Palestine Studies, April 2022.

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

Sherene Seikaly (SS): I joined the Journal’s editorial board in 2015 and became its first co-editor, and first woman editor, in 2020. Shortly thereafter, the editorial team—Rashid Khalidi, maia tabet, Emily Smith, Maggie Nye Smith, Maria Khoury, and Laura Albast—began planning the commemoration of the Journal’s fiftieth anniversary. To take part in this fraught and demanding labor, I looked for ways to read across the fifty volumes of JPS articles, interviews, reports, media roundups, photographs, and testimonies. I decided to focus on article titles, searching for keywords like war, peace, land, liberation, Nakba, Oslo, return, state, freedom, and the future. Each keyword returned tens of articles. Each result promised a unique window on the Journal’s trajectory as well as its shifting form and content.

I settled on the keyword “war” for a number of reasons. It yielded abundant results: from the first through the fiftieth volume of the Journal, forty-one article titles featured the word “war,” which was outnumbered only by “peace.” “War” shed light on multiple spatial, geographic, and political scales, and Palestine’s role and place therein. It inspired the sort of discomfort that is productive for the complicated work of commemoration. Most of all, it was war’s centrality to the Palestinian condition that was most compelling.

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

SS: The sample that featured “war” in article titles spanned the decades: there were ten in the 1970s, seven in the 1980s, eleven in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, twelve in the 2010s, and one in the two years of the 2020s up to this writing. The sample featured film studies, media analysis, literary studies, and history, as well as more journalistic and humanitarian reporting. Political science, diplomatic studies, and international relations dominated the sample. The authors included Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, Americans, Israelis, and Europeans. In fifty years of articles with “war” in their title, I found one woman author in the twentieth century and another two in the twenty-first. [Claudia Wright, “The Turn of the Screw – The Lebanon War and American Policy,” Journal of Palestine Studies 11/12 (1982): 3–22; Jeannette Greven, “U.S. Security Coordination and the ‘Global War on Terror,’” Journal of Palestine Studies 49, no. 1 (November 1, 2019): 25–46; Elizabeth M. Holt, “Resistance Literature and Occupied Palestine in Cold War Beirut,” Journal of Palestine Studies 50, no. 1 (January 2, 2021): 3–18.] Certainly much seminal work by women scholars, such as Rosemary Sayigh, Irene Grandzier, Sara Roy, and many others, addressed war and its consequences but they do not appear in the sample with “war” as a title keyword. I am grateful to Sreemati Mitter for pushing me on this point.

The article explores the Journal’s first two decades by surveying seventeen articles and one interview that feature “war” in their titles. The sample is neither representative nor complete. It offers glimpses into JPS’s shifting form and content, its empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions and absences, and the relationship between commitment and academic rigor that Hisham Sharabi spoke of some fifty years ago. While I am solely responsible for the analysis here, I have called on the generous insights of scholars, artists, writers, and organizers to make sense of this historical record. For generous comments, insights, time, and labor, I thank Kareem Abdelbary, Gokh Amin Alshaif, Sinan Antoon, Tareq Baconi, Rana Barakat, Nimrod Ben-Zeev, Leena Dallasheh, Nada Elia, Julia Elyachar, Noura Erakat, Basma Fahoum,  Amy Fallas, Samera Esmeir, Anthony Greco, Sarah Ihmoud, Nour Joudah, Rashid Khalidi, Maria Khoury, bridge mcwaid, Maya Mikdashi, Sreemati Mitter, Jennifer Mogannam, Nadine Naber, Haneen Naamnih, Mezna Qato, Loubna Qutami, Tareq Radi, Salma Shash, Hana Sleiman, maia tabet, Abdel Razzaq Takriti, Lana Tatour, Sharif Waked, Alex Winder, and Himmat Zoubi. These thinkers, past and present, together offer what Naamnih suggested was “a call to read historiography as we have created and shaped it, and not as external to it.”

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

SS: This article is part of my work in Palestinian studies more broadly, although it is much more contemporary than anything I have done before. One of the main questions that has inspired me is thinking about statelessness and archival practices, and delving creatively into how we might find new ways to think about the generations before us and their lessons.

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

SS: I hope students of Palestinian studies, Middle Eastern studies, American studies, and the Cold War might read this piece. Ideally, it will invite people to think about how important it is to take a longue durée view of periodicals. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: I am primarily working on my book project “From Baltimore to Beirut: On the Question of Palestine,” which traces my great-grandfather’s trajectory from nineteenth-century mobility across Baltimore and Sudan to twentieth-century immobility in Lebanon, and places the question of Palestine in a global history of race, capital, slavery, and dispossession.

J: What was it like to commemorate a journal you are an editor of? 

SS: As I said above, this process was very fraught in many ways, but it was also joyful because I sought to facilitate a conversation between the generations of the 1970s and 1980s with scholars, organizers, and artists of the present. Almost thirty-five people, each of whom are cited in the piece, gave generously of their insights and analysis. The article is a conversation across generations and decades.


An excerpt from the article (from pp. 15-17)

Who was at war? What were the sites of battle? What can such a historiographic exercise reveal about the content and form of the Journal of Palestine Studies? The logic of war shifts over the two decades of the Journal’s youth. We move from the command center to the media room, from the prescriptions of the great men of history to the artist’s access to the “plenitude of existence.” A political and ideological geography comes into view; it does not resemble our present, but still shapes it. There is a “Third World,” a bloc of “socialist countries,” and the Soviet Union, a source of power, leverage, and “danger.” A patriarchy consolidates over time. It is invested in affirming the precarious potentiality of the “Arab idea” and binding it to the state form. It embodies an establishment politics that in its earliest versions apprehended a revolution on the horizon. But the horizon is bifurcated. There is the Revolution, it too seemingly bound to the state form, fragile and not quite realized, and the smaller Palestinian, Sudanese, and Marxist revolutions. We see here “the buried history of Sudan as a vanguard site of the Arab left as opposed to the more customary focus on Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.”There are the adults, the big men, who make history happen, and a spectrum of parvenus from Sudan to Palestine and to “radicals” in the United States. Defeat was certain in 1967, even if assuaged as a Naksa, or temporary diversion.

The October War and its analysis on these pages offer some instructive lessons. The leverage produced by that war was inextricable from Sadat’s definitive separation of the question of Palestine from the certitude of Egyptian territorial sovereignty. Perhaps it was this war more than any other that was the final death knell of what Heykal had called the “the notion of an Arab entity.” We move from the testimonials and prognostications of high politics (Heykal, Nasser, Bitar) to the analysis of that high politics (Ibrahim, Sus, Shihata). Palestine throughout appears as a backdrop to a global competition for power and privilege; it is a place to track the shifting membership of the “great power club.” We see the tilt to Capitol Hill as the place to effect change (Ibrahim).

By the end of the first decade, media representations and public opinion are a permanent fixture. The United States comes into a view as a place to survey and understand. The Arab civilian makes a quick appearance. The Palestinians begin to have proper names; they are historical actors who have something to teach us. The PLO becomes a primary actor, capable of waging war against a force superior to it in scope, technology, and size. Language comes to the fore as a field of battle; grammatical turns like the passive voice and metonymic construc- tions become weapons in the struggle for representation (Jalbert). U.S. aid unravels as an infrastructure of dependency and uncertainty, ultimately benefitting Israeli power (Richardson). The long shadow of Vietnam on U.S. policy and popular opinion haunts a U.S. public alternately “amorphous” and accessible.

War was an arena that required popular support and shaped cultural production. Throughout the sample we are immersed in establishment politics, which is consistently subject to inter- ruptions in spatial imaginings, in angles of vision, and in the characters who fight for a place on the stage. The authors on these pages search for “possibilities to shift the balance of power, to undo defeats, to regain territory, or merely to hold on to it, materially or discursively.” Many of the concerns they grappled with “remain the political and intellectual matters we are still sorting out”—Palestine’s place and role in the Arab world, the history and legacy of the PLO, the debilitating infrastructures of aid, the role and power of U.S. empire, and racialized media representations. Radical critique interrupts the clinical confidence of the men, and one woman, diagnosing the disease and prognosticating its cure. We see, then as now, the complexities of navigating “shifting notions” of academic rigor and political commitment. Palestine and the Palestinians are defined by war. They redefine it as an experience and a condition. In all of these articles, Palestine’s geography “supersedes place”: it stands in relation not only to its neighbors but also to its past and future. It is a site to “challenge territorial spaces as all-encompassing social containers.” It is a site where “imagination is central to possibility.”

It may seem ironic that it is the Palestinians themselves who do not appear as fully shaped historical actors in the sample. In the beginning of the first decade, we see them as alternatively fedayeen or masses. With the shifts to the media room and the intense tracing of publics and their opinions after 1973, the PLO takes shape as the “villain of the late Cold War while the Palestinians as a people remain largely invisible.” By the end of the 1970s, a new category emerges: the Indigenous facing the settler colony. And by the 1980s, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has forged the Palestinian as an object of humanitarian assistance. If the PLO only starts taking shape as a subject of history and historiography in 1982, we can only begin to imagine the layers of silenced subalterns sedimented in the Palestinian experience and beyond.

How do we make sense of these silences? Were these authors navigating censure or exercising political caution as the struggle on the ground took place? Certainly, the present-absent Palestinian, her silencing and erasure, were contingent on “patriarchal and androcentric renditions of the political” that enforced strict hierarchies of “maturity and relevance.” Certainly, the keyword “war” also produces gendered erasures, not just in the absence of women as scholars but in our understandings of “political violence,” which leaves out phenomena such as wartime sexual violence. Historically dominated by masculinist forms of knowledge production, the Journal embodied both class privilege and respectability politics. It is crucial to note here, of course, that JPS took part in a much larger Palestinian discursive archive.

But perhaps the Palestinians’ absence as fully shaped historical actors in this sample is not so ironic. It embodies the current informing the Journal of Palestine Studies, then and now, the struggle for a name, for legibility, for possibility. Evidentiary rigor is still a site of contestation. A politics of recognition still polices the truth content of historical writing. Thus, the “battle for sovereignty moves from the land to the text.” In these parallel and overlapping spaces, land and text, we can trace internal and external contestations, classed notions of respectability, patriarchal and state-centered structures, and radical imagination. In this sense, language as a battlefield “exceeds its metaphorical power.” In this sense, the Journal “was not only publishing about war, it was at war.” In this sense, the Journal is “a site and a place of memory.”

Then as now, the object of writing and the process of shaping language are inextricable. On these pages, a record unfolds, a record of the labor of people who balanced their analytical precision with their political and intellectual commitments. The thinkers on these pages, the ones from those formative decades, and the generous people who read them along with me, shape a capacious, contentious, and living archive.