Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh (eds.), The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond (Columbia University Press, 2020).

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

Bashir Bashir and Leila Farsakh (BB & LF): This book is one of the main results of an ongoing intellectual and research project entitled “Jewish Engagements with the Arab Question” and “Arab Engagements with Jewish Questions,” which is hosted at The Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue in Vienna. This project has brought together leading international, Arab, and Jewish intellectuals to critically discuss these foundational questions in small workshops. The workshops have unpacked the ways in which Arab thinkers have engaged with the Jewish question—namely the question of Jewish rights and history of persecution in Europe—over the past few decades, highlighting how the mediums of literature, political theory, and cultural studies have provided fertile venues to uncover untold histories and engage with question of rights and political equality. These workshops have also shed light on how Arab and Jewish scholars are highlighting the links between antisemitism and Islamophobia, colonialism and orientalism, and challenging Zionist denial of Arab rights. We felt the need to spread what we have learned by compiling some of the papers presented at these workshops and opening up an impending, as much as necessary, conversation on the meaning of Palestinian and Jewish rights to self-determination in the twenty-first century—and how to reconcile them.

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

BB & LF: The book presents refreshing and provocative views on the links between antisemitism and Islamophobia, as well as interrogates European, Arab, and Jewish nationalisms in new ways. The book’s most original claims are that three seemingly unrelated questions, namely the Israel-Palestine question, the Arab-Muslim question, and the Jewish question are not separate from one another. They are rather deeply entangled and belong to the same history—one that continues to foment tensions in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. 

One of the strengths of this book is that it draws on multiple disciplines, ranging from political thought to cultural studies, and history to anthropology. It seeks to fill a lacuna in the literature on European colonialism, Jewish and Arab nationalisms, and Israel/Palestine by examining the inseparability of the Arab and Jewish struggle for self-determination and political equality.

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

BB & LF: This book is intimately linked to our joint interests in exploring paths of decolonization in Palestine and beyond. It fits in our larger research interests that revolve around alternatives to partition; rethinking statehood and Palestinian nationalism; and binationalism and the Holocaust and the Nakba.

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

BB & LF: We think the book would be of interest to scholars and students interesting in understanding the link between Islamophobia and antisemitism in explaining the failure to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also would be of interest to readers who want to understand the limits and dangers of ethno-nationalism, be it Jewish, Arab, or European. It encourages attempts to uncover untold histories on the Arab Jew, for example, and invites scholars to investigate a different history of the Middle East, one that gives space for different communities whose place in the Middle East has been denied or undermined through the grand hegemonic narratives of national unity. We hope the book will help open new conversations on the meaning of collective and individual rights, self-determination, and equality in the Middle East, as well as unleash discussions on how to reconcile with the past while forging a present based on equality and justice.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

BB: My current research focuses on two major research projects. Firstly, in light of the recent return to and revival of liberal principles and values like constitutionalism; the rule of law; common civic identity; and neutrality of state institutions as guardians against the tribalism, fragmentation, and other risks of identity politics, I have started a research project that explores various attempts to reinvigorate liberal democratic thinking. Secondly, now that I have completed three co-edited volumes: Alternative to PartitionThe Holocaust and the Nakba; and The Arab and Jewish Question, my plan is to write a book in which I extensively and coherently present my political theory of egalitarian binationalism.

LF: My current research focuses on the meaning of statehood in the twenty-first century, looking more specifically at the need to rethink the state in Israel/Palestine, and in the Middle East more largely. My central premise is that the state cannot be bypassed but needs to be tamed by revisiting legal premises and promises defining collective and individual rights, fostering new venues for political participation, and understanding the changing political economy of the region. I am also working on a memoir centered on the meaning of Palestine, one that explores the links between the diaspora and the territoriality of Palestine and of those who live in it today, unpacking how and why Palestine matters for those living outside it and those living in it beyond a romanticized notion of belonging or return.

J: The subtitle of the book, “Geographies of Engagement in Palestine and Beyond,” suggests that your focus goes “beyond” Palestine. How?

BB & LF: The book invites a discussion on how Palestine not only matters to other Middle Eastern countries but also is still central to Europe’s attempt to deal with its internal and external colonial past and its problems of antisemitism, orientalism and Islamophobia. It thus engages the reader to challenge Europe’s intellectual hegemony and silencing as much as pushes us to uncover the ways in which Arab nationalism has denied or undermined the diversity of the Arab world and its cosmopolitan legacy. The book invites us all to think about how we need, and can revive, this cosmopolitan legacy and foster a sense of inclusive citizenship by confronting this assimilative history with honesty and courage.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction pp. 1-2)

Over the past two decades, Middle Eastern and European politics have been impacted by three critical developments that call into question dominant understandings of nationalism, citizenship, and decolonization. First, “the question of Palestine” has not yet been answered. The aggressive and ongoing colonization of Palestine created irreversible realities that cast serious doubts on the feasibility of partition and the “two-state solution.” At the same time, Palestine’s colonization deepened the entwinements between Israeli and Palestinian lives, rendering inseparable the question of present and future rights of Arabs and Jews. Second, the Arab uprisings that erupted in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries in 2011 signaled the demise of grand assimilationist ideologies like Arabism, Ba’athism, and Islamism, calling thereby into question the overarching “we” that cements the citizenry together. Those who rebelled against their authoritarian regimes also brought to the fore the diverse ethnic and cultural realities of their societies, a diversity they are reclaiming but which their authoritarian regimes denied by repressing, or oppressing, many minorities, such as Kurds, Yazidis, Arab Jews, Chaldeans or Berbers. Third, Islam and Muslims have become the new internal signifiers of otherness, particularly in the West, posing serious challenges to existing conceptions of citizenship and democracy in the West. The rise of Eurocentric and Islamophobic notions of citizenship are connected to the suppressed memories of Europe’s colonial “past” as well as to the globalization of the neo-liberal political economy and the associated decline of the welfare state. They reflect, though, an intimate conceptual and historical link between Judeophobia and Islamophobia in Europe that has not always been well explored.

Many scholars have studied the causes underlying these developments. Gilbert Achcar, for example, argues that deep roots of the Arab uprisings are located mainly in the specific economic features that characterize these societies rather than in simplistic political or cultural explanations. Sholto Byrnes maintains that Islamophobia in Europe is being normalized by intellectuals who depict Islam and Muslims as aliens and external to Europe. Virginia Tilley, meanwhile, opposes territorial partition as the best way for meeting the demands of rival ethno-national projects for self-determination, and calls instead for decolonized political unification models of sovereignty premised on individual rights. These perspectives provide a much-needed critical analysis that goes beyond the dominant discourses on Arab uprisings, European Islamophobia, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, they overlook the underlying links between these supposedly disconnected developments that are taking place in three different geographical sites.

No study has explored the intersections between the rise of Islamophobia in the West, the failure to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the political meanings of the Arab uprisings. Neither have many scholars examined how these developments are tied to three seemingly unrelated questions, namely the question of Israel-Palestine, the Arab-Muslim question, and the Jewish question. These questions, this book argues, are not only entangled, but also belong to the same history—one that continues to foment tensions in the Middle East, Europe, and the US. The book seeks to shed new light on this history by offering a new, critical investigation of the Arab and Jewish “questions.” More specifically, it aspires to revisit contemporary Arab engagements with the question of Jewish political rights (as individuals, religious communities, and/or a national collective) under the light of European anti-Semitism and Zionism. It also explores Jewish engagements with the Arab question, namely how Zionism and non-Zionist Jewish voices dealt with the Palestinian presence and political rights in historic Palestine. These two key political questions have been historically debated, but not juxtaposed, despite the fact that they have become inextricably intertwined.