Thursday, March 19, 2009

David A. Wesley: Information or Obfuscation?

Weeks ago, the impending visit of David A. Wesley, PhD to our fair city was brought to my attention and I decided to see what I could find out about him. Below is some of what I discovered.

Wesley was born in the United States and left Detroit to move to Israel in 1955. He currently lives in Yafa, a.k.a Jaffa. Dr. Wesley has written a book entitled State Practices and Zionist Images: Shaping Economic Development in Arab Towns in Israel (Berghahn Books, 2006) and he is currently on a US book tour
organizedsponsored and promoted by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues (IATF).

The IATF bills itself as a "diverse, broad-based coalition composed of 80 North American Jewish organizations, foundations, federations and private philanthropists, who are committed to the welfare of Israel and support the Jewish state's right to a secure and peaceful existence." It counts Abraham Foxman as one of its more infamous Executive Committee members. The rest of the IATF's leadership reads like a Who's Who of American Jewish Zionism.

It follows then that on the major issues, Wesley's book is an obscurantist work and consciously so. Wesley justifies his approach by invoking the work of Michel Foucault but his reading of Foucault is faulty. While it is true that in analyzing power Foucault eschewed the simplistic notion of "a binary structure with 'dominators' on one side and 'dominated' on the other" ("Power and Strategies," 1977), Foucault never used complexity to obscure domination or excuse power exercised unjustly.

In place of a simplistic binary, Foucault argued that "domination is organised into a more-or-less coherent and unitary strategic form ("Power and Strategies," 1977). In the context of Palestine, the "unitary strategic form" is Israeli Jewish society, of which the state is an important part, and indigenous Palestinians are embedded within it. In 1982 (Afterword to "The Subject and Power"), Foucault argued for a "new economy of power relations" which "consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point." He suggested, "As a starting point, let us take a series of oppositions which have developed over the last few years: opposition to the power of men over women, of parents over children, of psychiatry over the mentally ill, of medicine over the population, of administration over the ways people live."

Clearly, resistance/opposition to the power of Jews over Palestinians falls within this schema but that is not an "opposition" that Dr. Wesley cares to explore in such terms. No, Wesley has a different agenda. Emanuel Marx wrote the Foreword to Wesley's book, he says:
[Wesley] makes it quite clear that violence plays only a limited role in the transactions he describes, and that it certainly does not underlie the countless other forms of power. [p. xi]
I take Marx's Foreword as an accurate characterization of Wesley's book. I agree Wesley is obscuring and downplaying violence in the creation and maintenance of Israel. This is curious on at least two levels. First, Israel is one of the most militarized societies in the world.

Second, as I mentioned earlier, his book tour is sponsored by the IATF, which came into being as a Zionist public relations operation in the aftermath of the Or Commission report. The Or Commission being the Israeli government commission created to deal with the brutality of Israel police to Palestinian Israelis in October 2000, as described below in this excerpt from a report by Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel:
In early October 2000, Palestinian citizens of Israel staged mass demonstrations in towns and villages throughout the country to protest the government's oppressive policies against Palestinians in the 1967 Occupied Territories. These protests erupted soon after al-Aqsa Intifada began in the Occupied Territories, during which the Israeli army and security forces killed and injured scores of Palestinians. The protests in Israel developed and were directed shortly thereafter in opposition to the use of lethal force by the police against Palestinian citizens in Israel.

During these demonstrations in Israel, the police and special police sniper units killed 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel and injured hundreds more using live ammunition, rubber-coated steel bullets ("rubber bullets"), and tear gas. The firing of live ammunition and rubber bullets at protestors, including the use of snipers, are all prohibited by law and even violate internal police regulations. Israeli Jewish citizens also attacked Palestinian citizens of Israel, their property and their holy sites in early October 2000. Close to 700 Palestinian citizens of Israel were arrested in connection with these events, and hundreds, including scores of minors, were indicted and detained without bond until the end of trial.
In 2005, another Palestinian Israeli human rights organization weighed-in: "The Mossawa Center says that the only recommendations of the Or Commission that have been implemented were the ones going against Arab citizens. More than 500 Arabs were taken to court and Arab political leaders, including two mayors of the Um El-Fahm municipalities and leaders of the Islamic movement." In January, 2008, the Israeli Attorney General, Menachem Mazuz, issued a final decision announcing that none of the police officers or commanders involved in the fatal shootings of Palestinian citizens of Israel in October 2000 would face criminal indictment.

If Wesley mentions the Or Commission or the police killings in October 2000 in his book then I have missed them. Wesley has nothing to say about the violence involved in putting Jews in control of his adopted hometown of Yafa. The story is worth a long excerpt from "Jaffa: from eminence to ethnic cleansing":
Jaffa was the largest city in historic Palestine during the years of the British mandate, with a population of more than 80,000 Palestinians in addition to the 40,000 persons living in the towns and villages in its immediate vicinity. In the period between the UN Partition resolution (UNGA 181) of 29 November 1947, and the declaration of the establishment of the State of Israel, Zionist military forces displaced 95 percent of Jaffa's indigenous Arab Palestinian population. Jaffa's refugees accounted for 15 percent of Palestinian refugees in that fateful year, and today they are dispersed across the globe, still banned from returning by the state responsible for their displacement. ...

Zionist forces initiated a cruel siege on the city of Jaffa in March 1948. The youth of the city formed popular resistance committees to confront the assault. On 14 May 1948, the Bride of the Sea fell to the Zionist military forces; that same evening the leaders of the Zionist movement in Palestine declared the establishment of the state of Israel. Approximately 4,000 of the 120,000 Palestinians managed to remain in their city after it was militarily occupied. They were all rounded up and ghettoized in al-Ajami neighborhood which was sealed off from the rest of the city and administered as essentially a military prison for two subsequent years; the military regime under which Israel governed them lasted until 1966. During this period, al-Ajami was completely surrounded by barbed wire fencing that was patrolled by Israeli soldiers and guard dogs. It was not long before the new Jewish residents of Jaffa, and based on their experience under Nazism in Europe, began to refer to the Palestinian neighborhood as the "ghetto."

In addition to being ghettoized, the Palestinians who remained in Jaffa had lost everything overnight: their city, their friends, their families, their property and their entire physical and social environment. Most had lost their homes as the Israeli military forced them into al-Ajami. Legislator, judge and executioner in the Ajami ghetto was the military commander; without his permission one could not enter or leave the ghetto, and rights to things like education and work were among those rights that Palestinians were denied. Arab states were classified as enemy states, and so making contact with the expelled family and friends, the refugees, was strictly prohibited. This was the nightmare lived by the Palestinians of Jaffa after the 1948 Nakba.

In the early 1950s, Jaffa was administratively engulfed by the Tel Aviv municipality that became known as Tel Aviv-Yafo; the Palestinians of Jaffa went from being a majority in their city and homeland to the two-percent "enemies of the state," a minority of Israel's main metropolis. The municipality immediately began drawing up plans for what they called the "Judaization" of the city, renaming the Arabic streets of the city after Zionist leaders, demolishing much of the old Arab architecture, and completely destroying the buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods and villages that were depopulated during the 1948 Nakba. The new curriculum introduced in Palestinian schools denied that the place had any Arab-Palestinian history at all, a facet of the Israeli education system that continues until today.

The largest armed robbery of the 20th century

After expelling most of Jaffa's residents, militarily occupying the city and ghettoizing the remaining original inhabitants, Israeli authorities passed the Absentee Property Law (1950) through which it seized the property of all Palestinians who were not in possession of their immovable properties after the Nakba. Through the implementation of this unjust law, the state of Israel sent its operatives to all corners of the land, surveying the properties left behind by the expelled refugees, the internally displaced Palestinians banned from returning to their lands, and those relocated to the ghettos of Palestine's cities. Title to these lands, buildings, homes, factories, farms and religious sites were then transferred to the state's "Custodian of Absentee Property." This is how the Palestinians of Jaffa, the refugees and the ghettoized, had their properties "legally" stolen by the State of Israel.
As a Jewish American immigrant, David A. Wesley was the beneficiary of this exercise of power, the violence of the Nakba but he obscures it.

Below are some excerpts from Wesley's book with my comments in italics.
Rosenfeld, writing from a class approach, attributed the underdevelopment of the Arab village economy to Israeli state policy, which "fosters a Jewish state-nation ethos and economy ... and regards development as relating specifically to Jews" (400). Zureik (1979) argued that the economic situation of the Arabs in Israel is a manifestation of internal colonialism, that is, the domination and exploitation of a native population by a colonial settler. Lustick (1980) described economic dependence as a major component of the system of control to which the Israeli Arab minority has been subject. [p. 4]

PM: These are the approaches that Wesley, in the main, rejects in developing the arguments presented in his book.

It should be emphasized that it is not collective identity that concerns me here -- neither the mobilization of identity, in the case of the Arabs in Israel, nor the state as an instrument of collective will, in the case of the Jews. The view of representation as exterior to either individual or collective consciousness is one of the conceptual elements that make it possible to sidestep the ultimately futile question, Who is the oppressor? and to focus instead on how power relations work themselves out in practice. [p. 6]

PM: In a society consciously constructed around identity, downplaying "collective identity" seems to me a luxury that comes with Jewish privilege. And how self-serving is it to argue that "Who is the oppressor?" is a "futile question."

The problem of the Palestinian refugees and appropriate compensation is, of course, a serious issue in its own right. That is not my subject, however. [p. 109]

PM: Okay, Wesley is not writing a book about the ten 6.4 million Palestinian refugees, fair enough. But it is interesting to note that he characterizes them and their rights under international law as a "problem" and while "compensation" figures in his remarks, repatriation does not.

But struggle for change is itself a discursive space, and one may choose to take one's stand within it: what I would present here is the challenge of an attempt to imagine a world in which Jews and Arabs, to paraphrase the prominent Israeli planner I cited near the end of chapter 1, share this land as the homeland of each.

I close with a personal note in the register of Jewish self-interest. It is my sense that, by and large, the Jewish people in Israel has, at least since the advent of the state, been embarked on a course of closing in on itself in ever narrowing circles. That way, I feel, lies not existence but eventual suffocation. Part of our constriction inheres in our attempt to exclude those others, our Palestinian fellow citizens, who, like us, may claim this land as their homeland. To share the land would mean to choose, instead, breath and life. [p. 197]

PM: Notice here that Wesley, a man born and raised in America posits an equal claim to Palestine as the homeland of himself and, presumably, all Jews. Does he propose to share this homeland with the ten 6.4 million Palestinian refugees or only his "Palestinian fellow citizens"?
I am going to wrap up this discussion of Wesley's book with two excerpts from Nimer Sultany. Sultany reviewed State Practices and Zionist Images for the Journal of Palestine Studies (Vol. 37, No. 1, pp. 115–116). He writes:
The book is an important contribution to current scholarship on the Arab economy inside Israel. By taking into account administrative practices (including outline plans, municipal jurisdictions, industrial areas, national priority areas, and foreign investment) and their accompanying rationalizing discourses, the book sheds light on a vital area that has a crucial effect on impeding Arab development.

The author confines himself, however, to the domain of distributive justice and does not address questions of redistributive, let alone corrective, justice. While Wesley acknowledges that politics always plays a role in planning and bureaucracy, his conclusions remain limited to the domain of planning and bureaucratic access.

Would an inclusion of Arab representatives in planning bodies change the inferior citizenship granted to Palestinian citizens in a Jewish and Zionist state? This approach takes the ethnic order as a fait accompli and aspires only to mitigate its discriminatory effects, rather than, say, to annul or alter the order altogether. Demands for inclusion and participation fall short of resolving the predicament of the indigenous Palestinian minority. So long as the macro-order is in place, inclusion will be conducted on the order's own terms, complying with prevalent discourses and traditions and performing through well-established institutions. Save for some adjustments, the flawed design remains unquestioned.
In a letter responding to Wesley, Sultany reiterates:
My critique of Wesley's book is that it does not go far enough in criticizing the "regime of truth." The book emphasizes the demands of distributive justice, and in doing so, it falls short of understanding how current predicaments can be overcome. One can see this approach in the author's choice of terminology (how he refers to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, for example) where he again chooses not to challenge the orthodoxy. The book's desire is to analyze administrative practice while "bracket[ing] the issue of identity" (p. 16). This choice, however, does not really bracket identity; it merely leaves identity politics unchallenged.

While he provides a historical narrative of dispossession, he underestimates the foundational role of violence, as well as its role in maintaining the ethnic order and the planning system as the main beneficiary of the spoils of violence. Demands for inclusion and distribution might be a "fundamental change," to use the phrase that appears in the author's letter, from the point of view of Zionist supremacy, but it certainly does not redress the historical injustice. Wesley frames the question of Palestine as one of homeland versus homeland and right versus right (p. 197); at another point he might be understood as referring to Zionism as colonialism (p. 195) without telling us what this entails.

The author's interest in understanding and analyzing the dynamics of power is of course commendable and appropriate. Yet this move is lacking if it is not combined with an analytical framework that tells us why these power relations and their effects are wrong or unjust. At times it seems to me that scholars who are interested in these questions tend to lose sight of the forest (ethnic macro-order by a colonial project) while gazing at the infinite trees (techniques of power).
Henry Herskovitz, founder and leader of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends also made some inquiries of Wesley via the Middle East Task Force. Henry has been the point person on the Middle East Task Force concerning a letter sent to Wesley. In his vigil report for the last Saturday of February, Henry writes, in part:
A speaker is planning on addressing Ann Arbor's peace community later on this month, and since this person has just received a few questions from METF, this Report will keep the name confidential until the speaker has enough time to provide METF with answers. This speaker shares some common ground with other speakers that have appeared in Ann Arbor, in that they are members of a privileged population which enabled them to make Aliyah to Palestine. The Middle East Task Force does not wish to censor speakers, or alter their prepared messages. On the contrary, many members of the group are eagerly awaiting the information this speaker has to offer.

But METF feels that listeners should have the right to know where any given speaker who had US citizenship, then moved to the Jewish State and acquired Israeli citizenship, stands on issues at the core of the colonialist project in Palestine. Excerpts from the letter, which are applicable to any Israeli citizen born in the US, follow:
  • Do you feel that as one who partook of Jewish privilege in [year] and "made Aliyah", that it is correct to identify you as a Zionist?
  • Do you support Israel's claimed "right" to exist as a Jewish (supremacist) state in Palestine?
  • While you still maintain an Israeli address, are there actions you could do to repudiate your participation in the Zionist project in Palestine?
  • Is there any way the Middle East Task Force can assist you in determining and/or carrying out these actions?
Henry, who knows David Wesley personally and has stayed in his home in Israel, made his inquiry via electronic and postal mail. As of this writing, Wesley has not responded.

See also: Update on David A. Wesley

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