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Doing Palestinian Ethnography While Palestinian

Session VI-01, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of Insaniyyat and the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 4:00 pm

RoundTable Description
This roundtable builds on a 2019 roundtable entitled “Doing Palestine While Palestinian: Overcoming the Fragmentation of Our Intellectual Diaspora.” This year’s continuation asks participants to reflect upon the specific challenges of being a Palestinian ethnographer of Palestine. In the decades since Lila Abu-Lughod and Kirin Narayan problematized the category of “native” and “halfie” anthropologists, much has been written about positionality in the field and responsibilities to interlocutors. The anthropological literature on Palestinians has flourished. Recent research by Jessica Winegar and Lara Deeb has addressed how American anthropology of the Middle East has been shaped by state politics and the related politics of the academy. It is crucial to reflect upon Palestinians’ experiences of doing anthropological research and teaching anthropology through the analytics of state violence, settler colonialism, and racism, both in the field and in the academy. As Palestinians conduct ethnographic fieldwork, we not only confront the possibility of state violence and anticipate critical responses from dominant audiences in North Atlantic universities or in academia, we also may navigate complex politics within Palestinian societies. Palestinian anthropologists come from a diverse set of political positionalities, due to the politics of Israeli fragmentation and to Palestinian migration. This can present logistical challenges of maintaining access as well as epistemological and political ones of working across boundaries. Palestinians must also manage racism—both subtle and overt—against them in many locations. In this roundtable, we consider: What are the distinct challenges of doing ethnography while Palestinian due to embodied dangers of state and non-state violence and surveillance that many Palestinians face? How do Palestinian ethnographers manage kin relations and other complex forms of sociality in the field? In what ways does conducting ethnographic research help to change our sense of what it means to be Palestinian? What special commitments do we identify as we work in Palestinian communities, and how do we attempt to fulfill these commitments? For Palestinian scholars working in Israeli or Palestinian universities, the challenges multiply as we might be forced to manage (and help Palestinian students manage) dominant Israeli ideologies and ongoing threats of state violence. How do these conditions shape Palestinian scholars’ teaching, careers, and forms of inquiry? How can scholars address and contest the dominance of North Atlantic forms of anthropology to prioritize other voices and approaches? How can we work to make anthropology more visibly relevant to Palestinian discussions about politics and society?
  • I have just completed an ethnographic research project on the relationship between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians of the West Bank: What makes it difficult for them to speak to each other and as (part of) a collective. This is a project about Palestinian fragmentation caused by Israeli settler colonialism and the practices that sometime bridge across this fragmentation. During the course of this multisited research project, reflecting on my different connections to “48” and “67” lands was productive. My father is a citizen of Israel and my father’s family remains in the Galilee; my partner’s family is in the West Bank, and most of my previous research has been in the West Bank. Writing about my own experience in a way that takes into account embodied and emotional dimensions is productive as a complement to writing about other Palestinians’ political affect. I found that as I traveled between Israel’s 1948 territory and the West Bank, my senses needed to be constantly retuned. Neither the West Bank nor Palestinian communities inside Israel felt like a comfort zone to me, both because of the frequent threats of political tension or outright violence and also because as an outsider moving between them, I so often felt productively off balance. If in the ethnographic project as a whole I was interested in how Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians under military occupation often experience politics through different affective lenses, then it was very productive to also recognize my own distinct location as a Palestinian American who is differently socially comfortable in the West Bank than in the territory Israel has controlled since 1948, and who has quite distinct ties to the two locations. Fear, outrage, and despair, along with senses of solidarity and love for Palestine as an idea or a territory or both, as well as for specific villages, cities, neighborhoods, and camps all motivate Palestinians’ political expression and action. While there are similarities across the Green Line—and while there are certainly important differences within Palestinian societies in Israel’s 1948 territory and the West Bank—Palestinian citizens of Israel and subjects of Israeli occupation do, I have found, have differences in the structures of feeling, or inchoate senses of social structures and political experience, that motivate political life. Tuning my senses through my own movement through space has been one way for me to attend to these differences.
  • In my remarks, I will reflect upon what studying Palestine while Palestinian has meant for me given my experiences in this domain. I will draw upon anthropologist Amahl Bishara’s concept of "epistemic others" from her work with Palestinian journalists who are local fixers for international news agencies. Bishara demonstrates how their voices and meaning-making are not valued in the same ways by these agencies, instead privileging Western journalists who are seen as more rational and objective. Thus, these Palestinians remain deeply suspect. Similarly, we as Palestinian scholars are often met with similar suspicion when working on the issue of Palestine, having to confront our status as epistemic others and the weaponization of charges of ‘bias’ against us and our work. My remarks on this roundtable will extend this analysis to the work that went behind the publication of my own scholarship. I will discuss both the positive reception to my work as well as some of the criticism. The latter has been focused on questions of authenticity. I want to problematize such notions of authenticity or the notion that one voice can speak for all Palestinians. Instead, I will advance the case for recognizing the heterogeneity of Palestinian voices and political subjectivities, rejecting the impulse to laud certain subject positions as archetypical. Palestinians want to be known for both the oppression we face and the resilience and resistance that animates our lives. Finally, I will discuss how the Jessica Krug controversy maps onto these debates on Palestinian scholars. Krug was an Africanist historian who lied about being Black and was discovered to be white, leading to a major crisis across American academia, and her subsequent resignation. Yet Krug’s stereotypical performance of Black identity was also a result of a demand within academia for such ‘authentic’ performances by scholars of color. Scholars who do not subscribe to such reductionist caricatures can be accused of engaging in respectability politics and undermining their communities. I have experienced the latter and know of other Palestinian scholars who have as well. The Krug affair is a cautionary tale not only for scholars of American Studies but for those in Palestine Studies and beyond.
  • Due to the urgent need to address issues in their own society and culture, the vast majority of Palestinian anthropologists conduct their research with other Palestinians. This results with intense entanglements between theoretical literature, comparative studies, and very intimate relations with interlocutors in the field. However, Palestinian anthropologists employed by an Israeli academic institutions face even greater complications while navigating their relations with Israeli colleagues, students, and interlocutors in the field. With their own sets of expectations, conceptions, and acts toward Palestinians, Israelis become directly and indirectly involved in the research, writing, and teaching of Palestinian anthropologists. As a Palestinian anthropologist employed in an Israeli university, my contribution to this roundtable will aim to examine the complex situations that this ambiguous position entails, such as how to engage in political discussions with Israeli colleagues, how to publish politically engaged research amidst institutional evaluations, or how to teach about Palestine and Palestinians to Israeli students, whose majority went to the army. While Palestinian anthropologists become sensitive authors, powerful advocates, and unique mediators of their society, as colonized indigenous academics they face institutional violence and emotional pressure. Often located in between conflicted interests, their professional career is deeply intertwined with their political positionality. Relating to both moral or tactical dilemmas in everyday academic life, I wish to discuss how Palestinian anthropologists in such positionality find their balance between maintaining their obligations to their native community, their relations with Israeli colleagues, and developing their careers in Israeli academia. In addition, I hope to elaborate on how different societal, disciplinary, and institutional loyalties demand careful choices of academic conduct that oscillates between refusing and appeasing Israelis, and between resisting and succumbing to their power. This contribution will hopefully continue the discussion about the navigation of subjugated anthropologists working from within imperial academia.
  • Violence in this part of the world is not something to be encountered, that is to say it is not an event but a structure, a way of living and experiencing life, something that is lived continuously, and that people are exposed to daily. It is an integral part of everyday life and experiences. Living in violence, whether as a university professor or as a colonized student, after all, regularly and restlessly shapes subjectivities and perceptions of life, knowledge, and death. Given the complexity of this context (of life, violence, and settler colonialism), critical autoethnography and phenomenological approaches to anthropology serve as crucial tools and approaches to understanding and elaborating lived experiences and perceptions. Autoethnography, translate the researcher’s lived experiences as an essential component of the research and places those experiences at the center of inquiry, connecting what is personal with the broader and collective social realm. On the other hand, anthropology's phenomenological accounts encourage consideration of subjectivities, lived experiences, violence, and perception. It places the body as the constitutive horizon of different and various lived experiences; mind and consciousnesses, sensory perceptions, suffering, illness, healing, and pain. My contribution to this roundtable will aim to draw upon anthropology to discuss the implications of writing and teaching from Palestine, and it is composed of two parts: first, concerned with writing and of being a colonized anthropologist and ethnographer. Second, concerned with teaching by incorporating autoethnography and phenomenological anthropology about being a bodily-colonized-student-in-the-world.
  • My intervention addresses my complex positionality as a Palestinian anthropologist who navigates multiple spaces of settler-colonial realities. For the past 15 years, I have been embedded in the Canadian academic landscape. As a settler of colour, having lived in the 'Dish With One Spoon Territory’- a treaty between the Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee Nations- AKA Toronto, and more recently residing in Kanien’kehá:ka territory in Tiohtià:ke, AKA Montréal, I am continuously confronted with the harmful ways in which settler-colonial violence seeps into my epistemological inquiries and methodological practice. At the same time, growing sentiments in the legislative bodies in the Canadian context are equating critiques to the Israeli nation-state with antisemitism, like Ontario Bill 202, or in public discourse, for example, CBC radio was called out for allowing a host to refer to Palestine as such instead of “The Palestinian Territory”, or on university campuses where anti-Zionism gets conflated with antisemitism. How do I write and talk about Palestine as a colonized space and Palestinians as a colonized nation, while knowingly being imbricated in state violence, as a settler? How do I make space for questions about Palestine in this settler-colonial context that is increasingly ever so hostile to the idea of Palestine? Is there a space for knowledge production about Palestine in the Canadain academy that is premised on alliances with Indigenous scholars? In my intervention, I will explore the epistemological entanglements that Palestinian anthropologists are contending with while joining this decolonial moment of Indigenous and Black resurgence and resistance across geographies in academic and community spaces.