In the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, Palestinians have had to contend with different forms of erasure and fragmentation of Palestinian identity, while acquainting themselves, without choice, with a colonial reality which thrived upon exclusion. Manar Makhoul’s study regarding the evolution of Palestinian identity explored in Palestinian literature brings a sequence of changes to the helm. In chronological order and at times overlapping, Makhoul illustrates how Palestinians navigated Israel’s colonial control and how this control wrought distinction between Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories.
In her introduction, Makhoul writes: “Ultimately, the settler coloniser aims not to exploit the indigenous, but rather to replace them altogether – becoming the indigenous themselves.” The exclusionary process, which most of the time is highlighted through resistance literature, is brought to the fore through an in-depth analysis of 75 Palestinian novels, highlighting the individual and social process of Palestinians living in Israel and how they relate to their reality and the rest of Palestine – the latter experiencing different forms of colonial violence.
The novels analysed by Makhoul are categorised according to decades: from 1948-1967, 1967-1987 and 1987-2010. Each stage deals with different realities and reactions for Palestinians in Israel; the Palestinian identity, which is in danger of obliteration, is also intertwined with the politics of the national dream of statehood and the gradual turn towards diplomatic outcomes – the latter also characterised by alienation and exclusion.
Novel writing, Makhoul notes, seeks to preserve Palestine’s historical memory. Palestinian literature is partly driven by a fear of erasure; hence the documenting of narratives which reflect the power imbalance and how Palestinians navigated the absence of space to thrive within their culture. The first years of colonial experience at times led to literary self-censorship, while Palestine, albeit a strong memory, was ambiguously referred to as “the country”. Literature was a vehicle for Palestinians to assess their position within Israeli society and how they related to the contradiction of holding the pre-1948 memory close, while at the same time having to adapt to the post-1948 era, characterised by modernisation.
The concept of modernisation, the author writes: “Existed in Zionist thought since its inception.” Makhoul’s literary analysis focuses upon the concept of reforming, or modernising Palestinian villages, according to Zionist influence and how this coercion feeds into the Zionist narrative of “present-absentees”. The book discusses this factor by juxtaposing the Zionist erasure of Palestinian existence, which is at the core of its ideology, and the Palestinian presence in Israel. Through the literature discussing how Palestinians are blamed for lack of co-existence, the author shows how: “Coexistence intrinsically requires the erasure of any political reality or identity that may disturb such a discourse.” Integrating into Israeli society is tantamount to a loss of memory and identity.
From 1967 until 1987, Palestinian literature moved towards a critical discourse of the modernisation coercion required by Israel. Emphasising the difference between differentiation and rationalisation, the post-modern Palestinian novel is concerned with the individual and society within the context of a disintegrating Palestinian society in Israel. Counter-erasure, however, Makhoul argues, must be approached with caution. Following the same trajectory of Zionist omission of Palestinians risks erasing the colonial historical process which led to such effacement. The author notes that counter-erasure takes place in Israeli space: “But with near-complete absence of any Jewish characters.”
Politically, the novels also deal with the “doubly-contradictory identity” of Palestinian citizens in Israel as they navigate the spectrum between being portrayed as a security threat and being expected to play the role of peace partners. What forms of resistance should be employed by Palestinians? While the concept of armed resistance as futile is explored in Palestinian literature, there is also a realisation that such passivity contributes to the fragmentation of Palestinian identity.
Once again, the Palestinian efforts at countering Zionist extinction are prominent when it comes to toponymy – “naming the villages unerases them” – the author writes, with reference to the literary trend of mentioning the Palestinian villages destroyed by Israel by their Palestinian names.
Political discourse addressing Zionist colonisation became more prominent from 1987 until 2020, when Palestinian literature sought to “revive and reaffirm Palestinian history and culture.” The Intifadas influenced this shift in which identity, once again, asserted itself as a priority in Palestinian consciousness and literature. The uprisings also brought out the different political experiences of Palestinians in Israel, in particular how they were excluded from the Palestinian national struggle. However, the experience of the uprising, which is also linked to the Palestinian right of return and which unites the fragmented Palestinian identity, enabled Palestinians in Israel to adapt the political discourse to their particular situation. Novels in this period dealt with nostalgia and folklore as they associated with the national struggle. In this dynamic, Makhoul explains: “Intifada novels do not deal with the Palestinian past at all, since the orientation of these novels is towards the future.”
The author skilfully portrays the trajectory of how Palestinian identity evolved from 1948 onwards, while explaining the dynamics of preservation and erasure. The bulk of novels analysed – 75 works in total – contribute to a better understanding, through various authors, of the perceptions and processes which Palestinians in Israel have experienced since the 1948 Nakba. The wider experience of Palestinian identity, as opposed to the usual cloistering into resistance, enables the reader to appreciate the individual and societal dynamics contributing to political resistance against Zionist deletion. The book is by no means a light read, yet it enhances understanding of a significant part of the Palestinian population which is less visible, yet incredibly significant.