Maha Nassar


On her book Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World

Cover Interview of March 12, 2018

The wide angle

Most of the existing scholarship on Palestinian citizens of Israel revolves around Israeli policies and majority-minority relations. This approach reflects in part the dominance of anthropologists and sociologists and social science methodologies in studying this community. While some of this work is quite strong, it is mostly limited to dynamics within the state, and it glosses over the earlier years of the mid-twentieth century, which is my focus.

There exist also some great historical studies of this group, but they, too, tend to focus on Israeli state actions and Palestinian reactions to them. This focus tends to reflect the documents found in state archives, where most historians undertake their primary research. Naturally, state archives are going to reflect matters that are of concern to the state, such as domestic security and developments in the political landscape. But such state-centeredness can obscure larger transnational dynamics, and it risks turning the people under study into objects, rather than subjects, of their own history.

When I decided to undertake a historical study of Palestinian citizens of Israel, I initially assumed that I would have to go to the Israeli State Archives. But I embarked on my dissertation work during the height of the Second Intifada in 2002, and travel advisories were put in place for the region. Moreover, for a variety of reasons, I concluded that I could not, as a Palestinian-American who was visibly Muslim, go into the Israeli archives and realistically expect to receive sensitive documents pertaining to the Palestinian minority. I needed to find a new angle.

I was fortunate that my departmental home at the University of Chicago was in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. My professors—and the scholarship I was exposed to—tended to adopt more text-centered approaches for studying various historical time periods. That approach, coupled with my undergraduate training in English literature and my knowledge of Arabic, led me to decide to write more of a literary history, especially since so many famous Palestinian writers and poets came from this community.

As I pored over the works of these writers, I found that while they were certainly concerned with Israeli structures of oppression, that was not the outer limit of their intellectual work. I was struck by how closely engaged they were with political, social, and cultural developments taking place around the world. They celebrated popular victories against colonial and imperial regimes, not just in places like Egypt and Iraq, but also in the Congo and Vietnam. I was especially struck by how this Afro-Asian solidarity was taken up by Palestinian intellectuals who were physically and politically isolated from the rest of the world.

I was also intrigued by how Arab intellectuals understood the condition of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, and how that understanding developed over time. There was a lot of ignorance—and suspicion—about this community in the Arab world. Examining Arabic literary and journalistic writings from a wide variety of outlets helped me trace how that suspicion gradually turned to admiration, especially after the Six-Day War in 1967. But it wasn’t a straightforward transition, and I tease out those complications in the last chapter.