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?