The question of representation

At a summer school about decolonialism in Granada at the moment, and a very interesting issues came up at one of the lectures today.

Tom Reifer, an anti-Zionist Jew, was presenting on the Palestinian question. He identifies as a radical of Jewish background, and his entire presentation was extremely critical of Israel and the manipulation of the memory of the Holocaust in order to occupy and ethnically cleanse Palestine today.

Afterwards, a Palestinian woman in the audience criticised his talk and claimed it was not decolonial, because in a talk about Palestine she had expected a Palestinian to be present as well. In the end the talk had focused more on the Holocaust and his experiences as an anti-Zionist of Jewish background, than on Palestine. Her critique was mainly that in a talk about Palestine, we were hearing the narratives of Jews who are against Israel.

This critique is interesting because it brings up the question of representation. On the one hand, Tom is a radical and decolonial speaker who was as critical of Israel as many Palestinians I have heard speak, if not more so. But he is not speaking from personal experience, living as a Palestinian, either in occupied Palestine or in the diaspora.

But this debate brings up the question of whether someone who comes from an oppressed group is automatically decolonial? We know that not all women are anti-sexism and that not all Arabs are anti-imperial. The reason these systems work so well is because they have been internalized not only by those who benefit, but by those who are oppressed.

Does that mean that having a Palestinian speak on a panel about Palestine is necessary? Does it mean they will present a more decolonial perspective than an anti-Zionist Jew? In other words, can someone who doesn’t have these experiences be the only one to speak on the Palestinian question? (I’m not suggesting Tom shouldn’t have been on the panel, but that perhaps he shouldn’t have been the only one.)

But then I started thinking about this in terms of gender. How many times have we been to panels on gender, comprised of only women, that present very sexist views on gender, femininity, masculinity etc.? Being a woman, and having the experiences that come with that, does not necessarily mean being anti-sexist and it doesn’t mean that one has unlearned all the internalized sexism and patriarchy we are bombarded with from when we are born.

I don’t have an answer to this dilemma. On the one hand, I don’t agree 100% with standpoint theory, which states that those who have experienced oppression should be the ones to speak on oppression, since they have experienced it. There are many who haven’t experienced oppression and yet are very good at critiquing these systems. On the other hand, I do sympathise with the idea, especially after hearing white feminist after white feminist demand the right to talk about “third world women” because everyone should be able to.

There is also the issue of authority. At the end of the day, anti-Zionist Jews are better able to influence audiences that are not pro-Palestine, because they are seen as “more objective” than Palestinians themselves (which is bullshit, but unfortunately widespread) and that if a Jew is criticising Israel, it might be something worth paying attention to. This process happens in terms of gender too, where male feminists get much more attention (and praise) for criticising patriarchy. Of course it is always meaningful when someone who benefits from a system then criticises that system, although this should not simultaneously de-legitimise or silence critiques from those oppressed by the system. But in terms of effectiveness, there may be something to be said for anti-Zionist Jews speaking on Palestine. I am pretty sure, for example, that many Dutch people would have been more likely to take Tom Reifer seriously than a Palestinian.

So what to do? Should we be able to speak (authoritatively) about systems and situations we have not experienced? Does this mean we will lose decolonial voices who have not experienced these systems and yet are critical of them? But at the same time, does it mean we have to continue accepting that the voices who dominate these debates are those that have not experienced oppression and are also not critical or decolonial? And I guess the most important question: who decides?


10 thoughts on “The question of representation

  1. Marijan

    The closing paragraph converges neatly to an alternative of compromise – ‘decide’ to listen to each other unbiasedly, w/out prejudice based on experiences (or lack thereof). Smart people should be more than able to detect grounds for further discussion and try to “match up” with counterparts whose deliberations are worth considering (however close or conflicting to their own), while wisely holding off personal frustrations, ambitions and prejudice in order to not hamper a hoped-for enrichment of opinions. The extent of successfully achieving all this depends on each person’s mindset, goals set and results projected.

    P.S. Significantly influential to the success of enrichment of opinions is the general ambient where minds meet. High-profile gatherings are not that rarely directly related (or can be traced back) to a group of interest (usually “anything but” public interest) that maintains its focus on promoting “profitable” initiatives. Low-profile gatherings (even informal hangouts) lack spotlight and are therefore excellent for exchange, giving novel concepts the time to mature before seeing daylight.

    Respectably, my two cents.

    1. Wow, this is an amazing comment! Couldn’t agree more with everything you said.

      “Try to “match up” with counterparts whose deliberations are worth considering (however close or conflicting to their own), while wisely holding off personal frustrations, ambitions and prejudice in order to not hamper a hoped-for enrichment of opinions.”

      Brilliant 🙂

      And you are very right about high profile vs low profile gatherings.

  2. What most people do in this situation is projecting their emotional or judgemental views on others (the anti-zionist jew in this case) because in the subconscious level they are still perceived as the oppressor and they have no right to speak before an oppressed. This is overcourse of righteousness that is unfortunately accepted in the nowadays righteous movements.

  3. masrwatouness

    Very interesting article. If I may add my little thoughts and remarks here:

    * it would be a more sensitive and critical point if Palestinian voices were AUTOMATICALLY replaced by Jew and/or Israeli voices. Frankly it is not the case. Most of events/talks related with Palestine I have been to, Palestinian voices are the focus, which is the way it should be. Moreover, these Palestinian voices we hear are diverse, from the most decolonial to the less decolonial. So I don’t say it wouldn’t have been a good idea if there was a Palestinian on the panel of the conference you’re mentioning, I just say that it is, regarding to global treatment of Palestinian question, the non-presence of a Palestinian at this precise event is not so critical. Would be critical if they were absent from a majority of events.

    * On the contrary, if we’re back to your comparision with feminism cause, it is much more critical, because it is true that white women are over-represented and women of color voices are often “framed” within a very white perspective or silenced.

    1. Fair point. It’s true that overall, Palestinians are quite present at events on Palestine, whereas when it comes to feminist events, white feminists are over-represented.

  4. It is all very circumstantial. The question of who gets to speak for who and why has always been contentious. In my opinion, outsider perspectives are helpful because it is removed from trite criticisms or applause that often gets repeated. However, if this was a conference or program strictly about Palestine and there were no Palestinians contributing, then I might have an objection for several reasons (as you stated above). Additionally, hearing a number of foreigners tell me what my country is like can be a tad bit offensive no matter how well-intentioned they may be. If there is a panel, that should necessitate the contribution of a person(s) that belong to the group that is being spoken of. But I’m willing to allow a monologue from an outsider who may not have a direct relationship with the topic being discussed. And as an audience, we should be ready to scrutinize and recognize the shortcomings of what he or she says and not where he or she is from.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. I think in the end it is more useful to look at what the speaker is saying, and not just focus on where the speaker is coming from. In this situation, the speaker was very decolonial and very critical, so I didn’t find it problematic.

  5. Very good questions! Here are mine.

    I can’t help but be skeptical on the centrality of Jewish experiences in the analysis of Palestine/Israel. What I noticed from queer BDS / anti-pinkwashing activism is that too often, when queer Jews are organizing, the issue suddenly shifts from being on Zionism and decolonizing Palestine, to their own process in dealing with the Jewish state’s oppressions. This is okay, but the problem is when this crisis takes center-stage attention. Every time. Jewish experiences should not become the be-all and end-all of Palestine solidarity. It can’t all be about how traumatic it is for you – as a Jewish person – to learn that Israel is not that the safe haven they said it was on the brochure. To always center those most oppressed, basic stuff really.

    This becomes an even more pressing issue with representation: just because there are Palestinians (or women, in your other example) who are complicit with the Jewish state does not mean that there aren’t ones that are critical and capable of bringing both their experiences and analyses into the picture. And I do value experiences of oppression, even when those carry a level of complicity (don’t we all?). But this also does not mean that a token Palestinian must be brought into the picture as a balancing act. This wouldn’t be a balancing act – it’s aesthetics and formalities. Such tokenizing is ultimately harmful because it is through it that the legitimacy of Israel can and is often re-inforced.

    Building on your post, I think that interesting questions would be: Are there structural oppressions that disable Palestinians from accessing archives of their own histories? Who has the resources to produce decolonial knowledge on Israel/Palestine? In the critique of Israel, why are Jewish voices, again and again, more valued? Why is a critique less legitimate when it builds on Palestinian narratives? Are Palestinian perspectives somehow less than Jewish ones?

    Ultimately, for me, this is a question of acknowledging that knowledge is privilege, and that the location from where one speaks always always matters. It’s, again, an issue of consciousness.

    1. Amazing questions! I think, as you say, it is much more complicated than what I presented – it is both about the positionality of whoever is producing knowledge, as well as the broader context of the event, the topic, and so on.

      I think it is complicated because on the one hand, we have a speaker who is very decolonial and critical; but on the other hand, the act of him speaking brings Jewish experiences of Israel-Palestine into the spotlight once again.

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