The Politics of Suffering: A Comparative Perspective on Colonialism, Nationalism and Religious Claims

April 10 – 11, 2014
Workshop Report

 

From April 10-11, 2014 Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University hosted a workshop entitled “The Politics of Suffering:  A Comparative Perspective on Colonialism, Nationalism and Religious Claims” at the historic Ambassador Hotel in occupied East Jerusalem.  Co-convened by Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, director of the Gender Studies program at Mada al-Carmel and Dr. Nadim N. Rouhana, Tufts University, the workshop invited the participation of a host of renowned Palestinian, Israeli and international scholars to discuss themes of human suffering, religious-national conflicts, colonialism, war, violence, biopolitics and necropolitics, trauma and more. 

nadem-rohanaDr. Nadim N. Rouhana opened the workshop by introducing the framework of human suffering in the context of a fusion between nationalism and religious claims. A key goal of the workshop, he explained, was understanding Israeli social and political conditions in relation to other situations conducive to suffering, mass crimes and atrocities.  Following his discussion, oral historian and anthropologist Dr. Rosemary Sayigh joined us via skype in Beirut to present narratives of bodily and psychological suffering recorded with Palestinian women living in camps in Lebanon.  Meanings of the Nakba, she noted, are not restricted to the expulsions of 1948-49, but to everything that has happened since. Dr. Sayigh theorized Palestinian camps as “communities of memory”, important spaces where Palestinian identity is reproduced.  She highlighted the ethical questions around producing knowledge in alliance with indigenous peoples, and the priority of indigenous peoples having ownership over their archives of memory.

 Based on the testimonies of Nakba survivors and returnees who were later deemed “infiltrators” by the Israeli state, Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian presented a new study on the political work of human suffering.  Her paper presented a holistic analysis of how suffering of Palestinians is transformed into a tool of colonial dispossession. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian emphasized how the political work of suffering is inscribed onto the bodies and lives of returnees.  Nakba-era suffering cannot merely be located in a fixed moment of the past, but are political moments that continue to energize the Israeli settler colonial state’s biopolitical, geopolitical and necropolitical matrix of violence and dispossession. 

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The workshop’s International participants included Dr. Suvendrini Perera and Dr. Joseph Pugliese, who joined us from Australia. Dr. Perera analyzed questions of visibility, witness, suffering, accountability and disposability in the context of the 2009 atrocities in Sri Lanka.  Retreat of the international community following the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, she argued, sets the conditions for visibility/invisibility, and delimits our knowledge of suffering and measures of accountability.   Dr. Perera questioned whether recognition or visibilization of violence and suffering within a neoliberal human rights framework is a positive development, or whether it signals inclusion into the hegemonic regime. 

Drawing on testimonies from drone attack survivors, Dr. Pugliese worked to extend Fanon’s groundbreaking work on corporeal economies of suffering and trauma by delineating what he termed “multi-dimensional matrices of suffering that envisage the understanding of suffering beyond the body of the human subject” in the context of drone-secured occupation in Gaza.   Suffering, fear and trauma, he argued, inscribe not only human subjects, but also animals, non-animate entities, buildings and land.  As such, Dr. Pugliese worked to enable an understanding of suffering that moves beyond liberal-humanist, subject-centered approaches, and enable us to track suffering’s communal dimensions. 

nadaOther workshop participants included Dr. Magid Shihade, Dr. Esmail Nashif and Dr. Nada M. Sekulic, joining us from the University of Belgrade.  While Dr. Abdel Aziz Mousa Thabet and Dr. Sana Sabah Thabet were not able to obtain permits to join us from Gaza, their colleague from Al Quds University, Dr. Khulood Dajani shared their study investigating the effects of the 8 day war’s traumatic events on children, a particularly vulnerable group in war and military occupation.  Lively group reflection and discussion followed each session, where we were also joined by a number of notable scholars, including Palestinian historian Dr. Adel Manna, critical feminist Dr. Rima Hammami from Bir Zeit University, Dr. Musa Budeiri- Bir Zeit University, Dr. Nashef- Ben Gurion University, and researchers, activists, students and other members of the community.  Workshop participants also had the opportunity to witness the ongoing processes of settler colonial expansion and violence during a tour of occupied East Jerusalem, where they met with members of the Palestinian community facing eviction in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. 

“The Politics of Suffering:  A Comparative Perspective on Colonialism, Nationalism and Religious Claims” opened a discussion on the dynamics of human suffering in various contexts, with particular focus on ongoing Palestinian suffering under Israeli settler colonialism.  The workshop rooted a Palestinian feminist theorization, taking the 1948 Nakba as a point of departure for analyzing the structure of Israeli settler colonial oppression, which continues to shape the everyday experiences of Palestinians living under military occupation today.   The workshop challenged us to be attentive to the dynamics human suffering in finding ways of holding the Israeli state accountable for crimes against humanity. 

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KEY INTERVENTIONS

In this section, I outline what I believe to be key intervention throughout the workshop, which merit further attention and development in terms of long-term engagement with the theorization and politics of human suffering.

The Exclusion of Palestinian Suffering from the Trauma Genre + Decolonizing Methodologies

  • During her talk, Dr. Sayigh noted the exclusion of the Nakba from the trauma genre as part of an academic silencing of Palestinian suffering.  One aspect of this is scholars’ restriction of the Nakba to the event of 1948, silencing the Palestinian people’s continual suffering. 
  • Dr. Sayigh’s talk also raised important methodological issues. Recording Palestinians’ memory of the Nakba is critical, because the zionist project can only be fully accomplished by the elimination of all forms of Palestinian peoplehood, which includes the camps’ reproduction of Palestinian identity by relating histories of suffering and survival in these “communities of memory”, as all expressions of Palestinian identity subvert the Zionist claims to indigeneity.  However, Dr. Sayigh first noted the issue of raising suffering in the memories of survivors.   Second, she raised the need to include the ways survivors deal or have dealt with their suffering, so that we do not overemphasize their victimhood.  Finally, any project that records Palestinians’ suffering must be initiated with the people living in the camps.  We must utilize a decolonized methodology, where histories and memories of suffering recorded from camp inhabitants are collectively held by the communities themselves—as a way to mobilize cultural resources to further cause.
  • Dr. Perrera asked whether Dr. Sayigh was calling for a new form of writing—whether the exclusion of the Nakba from the trauma genre [a form of holocaust exceptionalism] actually exceeds the limits of the trauma genre.  Dr. Sayigh responded that we should not ask for its inclusion, but should rather call for a modification of the trauma genre in itself, its theoretical basis, or to research the effects of Nakba suffering outside the genre completely, on new grounds, using decolonizing methodologies. 
  • Dr. Pugliese reiterated the importance of facing the ethical questions around producing knowledge with indigenous peoples.  If trauma is only legible through a certain lens of intelligibility in the hegemonic trauma genre, how do we deal with that? 

The Political Work of Suffering + The Nakba as Structure

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  • Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian posited a theorization of human suffering, interrogating the political work of Palestinian suffering through a holistic analysis of how suffering is transformed into a tool of colonial dispossession.  Through the testimonies of Palestinian returnees who were deemed “infiltrators” by the Israeli state, she examined how the political work of suffering is inscribed on the bodies and lives of returnees.  Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s intervention is key not only because of its relevance to the Palestinian case, but also because her theorization of suffering is an intervention into the field of affect studies, demonstrating the material aspects of affective economies of suffering, which could be drawn on in other global cases. 
  • Another key intervention made by Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian is the framing of the Nakba and this era’s suffering as not located in the past, in a fixed moment, but as political moments embedded in the present of Palestinians.  This analysis of the Nakba as a structure, not an event, is a key intervention into the field of settler colonial studies.  Moreover, it represents the furthering of a Palestinian feminist analytics that takes the Nakba as analytical point of departure for understanding the contemporary conditions of Palestinians globally.
  • Finally, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s research on Palestinian returnees represents a major contribution to the study of Palestinian citizens of Israel, which has been vastly underrepresented in anthropology and other disciplines.
  • Dr. Mana noted how telling the stories of returnees challenges the hegemonic Palestinian narrative that situates us as either victims or heroes.  The Palestinians in the past did not integrate the story of the returnees, in the North of Palestine in particular, because it didn’t fit the national narrative, a collective story of loss and expulsion.  If we recognize that 15-20,000 Palestinians succeeded in returning, it challenges, in part our story of collective victimhood. The Palestinians of Israel in general have not been included in the Palestinian historical narrative at all- claimed Dr. Mana.
  • Dr. Mana also commented on the issue of trauma—why Palestinians didn’t tell their story as trauma is an important issue, which he feels is connected to this denial of suffering from the historical narrative.  The Palestinian story was told as a collective story of loss, victimhood, expulsion, and did not include the individual experiences of people discussing what they suffered.  He noted that as a historian he feels that we “lost a lot, we didn’t tell the world our story, we didn’t succeed in telling our story, partly because we didn’t tell our human and individual story.”  Dr. Mana seemed to be calling for the inclusion of individual stories of suffering and resilience, including the stories of Palestinian citizens of Israel, as a way of complicating the Palestinian narrative and understanding the effect of the fusion between religious claims and nationalism, on suffering.

Suffering and the Politics of Visibility

  • Dr. Perrera’s talk raised the politics of visibility/legibility of suffering.  She asked how suffering is made visible and invisible by powerful international actors (how bodies are counted and discounted), as she discussed how the withdrawal of the international community sets conditions for visibility/invisibility, and delimits our knowledge of suffering and measures of accountability.  This “military-visual complex” called on us to question how we bring suffering into view, and whether a shift from invisibility of suffering to visibility—a seeming moment of triumph for human rights—establishes a threshold of acceptability and authorizes human rights as a form of disciplinary power.  Is recognition or visibilization of violence and suffering within a neoliberal human rights framework a positive, or does it signal inclusion into the hegemonic regime?
  • Dr. Suvendrini also raised the question of international accountability through mechanisms such as the tribunal or truth and reconciliation.  Such accountability processes, she argued, are part of a geopolitical order that discounts certain bodies.  The “humanitarian present” (Weizman) authorizes new forms of violence.

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Palestinian Suffering Animating Global Suffering, Ecologies of Suffering

  • Dr. Pugliese raised the fact that the Gaza strip is a laboratory for testing weaponry that is globally exported, contributing to the military-industrial complex.  Israel is the world’s largest seller of drones worldwide; the selling point is that they are field-tested, on a captive Palestinian population.  825 civilians have been killed by drones in Gaza to date, yet these drone strikes are not getting the same coverage as drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.
  • Dr. Pugliese situated his examination of Palestinian suffering within his analysis of the bipolitical caesure between animal and human in the so called war on terror, which has positioned certain subjects as torturable and killable with impunity because they’ve been characterized as mere animals.  Through his analysis of Israeli drone use in Gaza, and the lemon tree in Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s work, he raised the relationship between Palestinians and non-human entities.  In analyzing human suffering, he argued, it is critical we investigate both the use of non-human entities as a “prosthetics of occupation” (e.g. drones) and state violence’s effects on non-human entities (e.g. the lemon tree) in terms of the destruction of an ecology of place. What does this focus on the larger ecology of place—the relations between human and non-human actors—do for the political?
  • The theorization of non-human entitities and an ecology of place under military occupation and violence represents a major contribution to the emergent theorization of “inter-species” anthropology. 

 

AREAS FOR FURTHER DEVELOPMENT + ACTION ITEMS

Participants agreed that the workshop on the politics of human suffering represents the opening of a discussion and not an answer.  Here, I outline potential aspects for further development as well as action items and ideas for follow-up.

  •   Multiple workshop participants’ interventions raised the need to situate Palestinian suffering within the global economy of suffering—not only in terms of Palestine’s relation to other colonized and oppressed people’s suffering, but also in material terms, there is a need to further examine how the Palestinian “laboratory” as a testing ground for military, surveillance and security technologies (such as the apartheid wall, and drones) energizes and affects other oppressed people’s suffering globally.  This should be a key area for further research and political efforts, as a point through which we can build further solidarity with other indigenous peoples and oppressed people worldwide.
  •  Dr. Perrera and Dr. Pugliese proposed a special journal issue of Borderlands on the politics of suffering that might include not only papers given at the workshop but also others who were not able to be presented.  They noted that they were struck by the demolitions that we saw and were asking if there is a body of work in critical legal theory around this.  They raised the possibility of developing a series or a book around the politics of demolition, and  demolition and the law that might look at other settler societies as well to theorize demolition to look at the material and also epistemological, psychological demolition. 
  • The workshop, and particularly Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian’s intervention, represents the furthering of a Palestinian feminist analytics that takes the 1948 Nakba as point of departure for understanding the contemporary Palestinian condition.  I would like to propose that the Mada al-Carmel Gender Studies Program develop a program to further this Palestinian feminist analytics, situated in the framework of the continuous Nakba within a settler colonial analysis. While the settler colonial analytical perspective is gaining more traction, theorization of settler colonialism, including in the Palestinian context, is primarily advanced by Western, non-Palestinian scholars.  There is a serious need to help further the development of scholarship on Israeli settler colonialism and Palestinian indigeneity by Palestinian scholars.   A program through Mada al-Carmel could help advance these endeavors by including activities such as:
  • A Palestinian feminist settler colonial studies seminar, inviting the participation of Palestinian feminist scholars and activists from multiple generations and locations within ’48, the occupied Palestinian territories, and the diaspora, which would allow us to come together and study settler colonial theory, and further develop and support Palestinian feminist settler colonial theorization and scholarship.  I have drafted a syllabus for such a seminar and would be happy to follow up on this.
  • An international conference on Israeli settler colonialism, inviting the participation of international scholars, activists, and community stakeholders, where we can come together to present scholarship of Israeli settler colonialism, situated in a decolonial framework that aims to create scholarship that derives from the Palestinian experience and furthers our struggles against Israeli settler colonialism and oppression.