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Palestine and the Rhetoric of Human Rights

RoundTable I-4, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

RoundTable Description
Advocates of Palestinian human rights have long decried “the Palestine exception” to international law when it comes to the State of Israel’s policies and practices towards Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. While IGOs such as the UNSC and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem have identified Israel’s policies as in violation of international humanitarian law as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), military occupation, settlement construction, forced displacement, the destruction of private property, and Apartheid have only accelerated since the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995. The Peace Process and the deferred dream of a two-state solution have not only deprived Palestinians of “the right to national self-determination,” however–they also continue to deprive Palestinians of the rights of return, food security, healthcare, education, mobility, narration, identity, and life. In the US and elsewhere in the international arena, the rights of free speech and academic freedom are consistently stripped from scholars and activists who point out these facts. Is it time to rethink “rights” as the organizing framework of international advocacy for Palestine and Palestinians? This panel critically examines this question from a number of angles. Taking the reality of Palestinian life as its limit case for considering the international human rights framework, it highlights the aporias of “human rights” in global context. Panelists address and discuss the following questions: • How have the origins of discourses of “the human” and of “rights” in Enlightenment philosophy and law shaped their understanding and application today? • How and to what extent was the post-War codification of human rights in the UDHR shaped by national and / or imperial interests? • Is the failure of the human rights framework in the Palestinian case a matter of definition or of implementation, or otherwise? • Have the categories of “the human” and of “rights” ever applied to Palestinians? • How have international actors supported, legitimated, or ignored the State of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights? • How has the right to free speech been violated in international settings in response to criticisms of the State of Israel’s policies and practices towards the Palestinians? • What are the pros and cons for international Palestinian advocacy of frameworks alternative to that of “human rights,” such as “anti-racism,” “anti-colonialism,” “resistance,” and others? • How might teachers, scholars, writers, artists, and activists best shed light on the realities of Palestinian life, under the conditions of repression to which Palestinian advocacy is globally subject?
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Mr. Jeffrey Sacks -- Presenter
  • Prof. Nouri Gana -- Presenter
  • Prof. Karim Mattar -- Organizer, Presenter, Chair
  • Yasmine Khayyat -- Presenter
  • Stephanie Kraver -- Presenter
  • Prof. Karim Mattar
    Towards a New Humanism: Handala and the Enlightenment Tradition This paper mounts a defense of Humanism in light of critiques of its imbrication with global projects of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Drawing on Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and focalized around Naji al-Ali’s iconic cartoon Handala, it argues that Handala has become the true heir of the universal values and ideals encapsulated by the Enlightenment tradition. It demonstrates how such values and ideals have been captured by vested interests in the case of the Israel / Palestine conflict and its representations, and spells out that the task of Humanists today is to insistently, unceasingly, and passionately restore Palestinian humanity—figured by Handala—to its rightful place at the heart of the international human rights discourse.
  • Stephanie Kraver
    Anti-colonialism and Futurity in Mahmoud Darwish's Poetics This paper argues in favor of employing poetry and poetics as a methodology for imagining anti-colonial frameworks and possibilities in Palestine and for Palestinians. By probing a selection from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s oeuvre, as well as his contention that “all poetry is political poetry, concerned mainly with rewriting the future,” it will seek to explore how intertextuality and allusion in poetry can serve as modes for liberatory, forward-facing expression. The paper will inquire how lyrical verse can envision and help engender an alternative to the limits of human rights advocacy and discourse in the case of Palestine.
  • Prof. Nouri Gana
    "Minima Humanitas: Kanafani’s Literary Moralia" The purpose of this paper is to revisit the debates surrounding questions of rights--and human rights in particular--through a literary lens. I focus on Ghassan Kanafani’s 1969 novel, Return to Haifa, as a literary exemplar in the advocacy for a basic human right—the right to frailty, to failure, to weakness, and to vulnerability. Such an inalienable right ought not, for Kanafani, be compromised, much less taken advantage of by other humans. For, “the greatest crime any human being can commit, whoever he may be, is to believe even for one moment that the weakness and mistakes of others give him the right to exist at their expense and justify his own mistakes and crimes.” What could this Kanafaniesque line of thinking offer to the polarized and polarizing debate on human rights? No less than a reframing of the narrative of human rights from a minimalist perspective whose endgame is solidarity rather than hostility and political strife.
  • Yasmine Khayyat
    Palestinians have been denied, as Leopold Lambert put it, their own "right to the ruin." The plight of the Palestinians involves a double erasure: not only the erasure of the violence congealed in the ruins that testify to their prolonged habitation on the land, but also the erasure of their violent removal. How does this denial play out in literary fiction, especially in the poetics of the famed Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, as he stands before the ruins of his own dispossessed birth town, al-Birweh? This paper delves into the poetics and politics of ruins and their role in reshaping the topography of remembrance and resistance in the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish. I show how Darwish's poetry expresses outrage at the routine indifference to Palestinian suffering by casting doubt on the shared sentience of bodies in ruin, uncertain if the human is an expansive category or an exclusive one—if, indeed, a human is perceived at all amid the still-smoldering wreckage. I argue that his poetry and prose signals what remains of Palestinian human rights through a sustained engagement with the trope of the ruin that points not towards a nostalgic past, but towards the denial of basic rights of mourning which are inextricable from the right to remain, exist, and ultimately resist.
  • Mr. Jeffrey Sacks
    What Edward W Said called “the militantly oppressive discriminations” of Zionism (The Question of Palestine, p. 57), points to a history of the racialization of thought and social existence globally and in European modernity since at least the fifteenth century. If the figure of a subject that is capable of rights, a legal subject, has always presupposed a subject of thought and language that is foundationally racialized—from Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding to Kant’s first Critique—the task of a collective struggle against the ongoing devastations of Palestinian life ought to entail a collective refusal of this social form, which is to say: a refusal of the autonomous, self-determining subject of language, thought, right, and social being. Because the legal subject has always been a subject of and for what one may call “settler life,” by which I mean not only the life of whiteness but also that form of life which draws all of the other distinctions—between those capable of language, thought, self-reflection, and sociality, and those incapable of it, and who are therefore allocated to death, demise, and suffering—and because colonial and settler projects in their globality have always been projects for this form of life, the question of right takes on an acute reference in the thinking of and in the struggles for decolonization—struggles which, in Palestine and elsewhere, have hardly ended. In a frame Said’s reading of Zionism in The Question of Palestine may be said to invite, and in a frame I’ve outlined here, this paper considers the contemporary resurgence of right as a form in collective anticolonial struggle—for example, in the global movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction the state of Israel (BDS)—in relation to a single literary or poetic performance one may call “rightless,” or even “subjectless,” as it is given to be read in a novel by the Palestinian writer Adania Shibli entitled “Touch,” “Masās,” published in Arabic in 2010. Paying close attention to language, form, and articulation in Touch, this paper argues that Palestinian life already makes manifest modes of social existence in excess of the normatively presupposed forms of social life, including the life of legality, and that through this the colonized, in a certain exertion of “right,” give to us a politics of a wholly other sort, a politics without rights, an oxymoronic, wholly aporetic, rightless politics.