A Decolonial Framework for Justice and Peace
When Canada’s acclaimed aboriginal poet Lee Maracle first met Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, she remarked, “He spoke to something so old inside my body, it felt like floating on a sea of forever.” She composed “Remembering Mahmoud 1986” to mark his death in 2012. The opening lines of the poem read:
Mahmoud’s poems are beads of sweat
Dripping from stressed and weathered foreheads
To fall near silent amid the incessant Israeli bombs
To rise—pearls of blood—from between the bits of rubble
Clutched by Palestinians chasing a livelihood
From a shrinking land base
They become desperate word flowers
Blooming nonetheless from a land
Occupied by settlers
Chronically stealing the lives of children
What Maracle expressed when she met Darwish was a validation of her own condition as an indigenous woman forced off her land, stripped of her cultural memory, and struggling to thrive in a system designed to eliminate her people. The lines of verse describe the political reality known as settler colonialism, illustrating its distinct feature: the replacement of indigenous populations with an outside settler society. Both Israel and the United States—as well as Canada, Australia, and others—are settler colonial societies. One of the lessons we have learned from organizing for justice for Palestinians and other marginalized people is that native history must be centered. The decolonial discourse of indigenous struggles for land, self-determination, and sovereignty is the necessary lens through which to articulate and pursue visions for collective liberation.
Israel’s privileging of Jews over non-Jews ensures that it cannot be both Jewish and democratic.
The situation in Palestine and Israel is often described as complicated. Declaring the issue as complicated is a way to avoid coming to terms with our own responsibility; confusion; and inability to support the rights of a colonized, indigenous people. Understanding the nature of settler colonialism clarifies the struggle over Palestine. A settler colonial lens puts the focus on the root cause of the injustice and, thus, the path to justice and peace among Palestinians and Israelis. Those genuinely interested in the fate of the peoples of this land need to reckon with the reality of Israel’s foundation, reject myths, and commit to decolonization.
Grasping the full truth of Israel’s foundation requires examination of the Palestinian Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” The Nakba refers to the events of 1948 that led to the establishment of the state of Israel, the destruction of hundreds of Palestinians villages, and the ethnic cleansing of over 750,000 Palestinians. Displacement of Palestinians by Israel continues today. The logic of Zionism, the ideology of Jewish nationalism that defines Israel, requires acquiring the maximum amount of land with a minimum number of Palestinians. Jewish supremacy in Palestine is central to the Zionist project.
Israel’s own leaders openly talk about the settler colonial foundations of the state. Moshe Dayan said in 1969:
We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs, and we are building here a Hebrew, a Jewish state; instead of the Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the names of those villages, and I do not blame you because these villages no longer exist. There is not a single Jewish settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab village.
Israel’s privileging of Jews over non-Jews ensures that it cannot be both Jewish and democratic.
Quakers do not acknowledge the settler colonial nature of Zionism and Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians. The minutes and statements of Quaker meetings and organizations focus on competing national narratives, “cycles of violence,” and “two irreconcilable claims to the land.” This discourse is deeply flawed and damaging as it gives cover to oppression. How can we move forward for justice and peace if we don’t understand the root of the violence?
The “two narratives” myth brings with it a peculiar set of problems in Quaker circles.
The violence of settler colonialism can only be addressed through decolonization, a process which begins with the rejection of myths. Philosopher Karl Popper said, “True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.” Palestinian scholar Yamila Shannan clarifies this notion by adding, “Ignorance is the presence of myth.” Taking into account the catastrophic results of the creation of Israel from Palestinians debunks the myths that surround use of terms like “Holy Land” and tropes like “two peoples for one land.” Just as no person is “illegal,” all land is holy.
One oft-repeated myth is that any critique of Israel is anti-Semitic. Palestinians have the unfortunate reality of facing oppression at the hands of the victims of European anti-Semitism. Edward Said spoke to this condition when he said, “To be the victim of a victim does present quite unusual difficulties.” Many Quakers condemn Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS). They see BDS as refusing to see the humanity of Israeli Jews and, thus, as anti-Semitic. Understanding settler colonialism and decolonization clarifies that resistance to forced displacement would exist, regardless of whom the oppressor is.
The “two narratives” myth brings with it a peculiar set of problems in Quaker circles. Quakers promote dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians an an avenue for reconciliation. As Palestinians, we are constantly invited into spaces to sit opposite Zionists to engage in “dialogue.” In such settings, we are basically being asked to justify our own humanity. How do you dialogue with those who espouse an ideology and policies that are premised on a denial of your people’s humanity and its ongoing dispossession? To appear with those who insist on maintaining Jewish supremacy in our homeland is to normalize our own oppression. We don’t believe it is enough to end the military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. We cannot separate the military occupation from the fate of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are subjected to at least 50 discriminatory laws, home demolitions, and police brutality. Nor can we abandon millions of Palestinian refugees to permanent exile. It is not unreasonable for us to demand full dignity, equality, and freedom.
Finally, a settler colonial framework requires solutions rooted in decolonization. Quakers must advocate for solutions that dismantle Israel’s racist foundations. That means any logic which supports settler colonialism must also be rejected. Quakers are compelled to take an introspective look at the ways in which they contribute to colonialism in Palestine. Quakers are complicit in unjust systems through programs, policies, and institutions that act as tools of oppression. We offer these critiques to bring the Quaker community into a full keeping with its rich legacy of seeking justice.
[quote]What shift in thinking about Palestinians would take place in a decolonization of the school?[/quote]
Quaker institutions contribute to the dehumanization of Palestinians by imposing outside norms on Palestinian society and making judgments about who is fit to lead Palestinian liberation. The Ramallah Friends School and the principles guiding the work of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) are two examples of Quaker colonialism in practice.
The Ramallah Friends School was originally opened in 1889 as the Girls Training Home of Ramallah, a boarding school teaching Western and Quaker values. While today the school is praised for its legacy of producing Palestinian intellectual, social, and political leaders and for its rich tradition of antiestablishment politics against the Israeli occupation, the origins of the school and its history are reminiscent of “Indian” boarding schools, as the Ramallah Friends School is a product of U.S. educational imperialism. Otherwise, why is it that the head of school for such a prominent Palestinian institution is appointed by Friends United Meeting (FUM) of Richmond, Indiana? Further, the school boasts that its graduates attend top universities around the world. Of these top universities, 106 of the 123 schools on the list are Western universities. There is a subconscious (or perhaps conscious) emphasis that Western institutions are inherently better than others. Institutions like the Ramallah Friends School are tools of colonialism because they package and impose what is idealized by Western Quakers on an indigenous Palestinian population. What would decolonization of Ramallah Friends School look like? What shift in thinking about Palestinians would take place in a decolonization of the school?
An essential part of decolonizing Quaker spaces and actions means that Quakers must acknowledge and respect that Palestinian communities have immense knowledge and resources, which predate the establishment of Quaker institutions in Palestine.
American Friends Service Committee also perpetuates colonialist tendencies. For example, there are no Palestinians in leadership positions on the organization’s Israel-Palestine Coördinating Committee, and the country representative for Israel and Palestine is European. It is not that those currently in these positions are ill-informed on the subject or unqualified to lead others. We also acknowledge that the current program leadership has inherited staffing structures that have been difficult to remedy in times of budget crisis. Rather, this observation illustrates that AFSC, as a non-governmental organization, exercises colonialist practices by excluding Palestinians from leading their own struggle for liberation. The decision to put white Americans and Europeans in positions of power implies that Palestinians are not fit to govern themselves or to have agency over their own liberation work. An essential part of decolonizing Quaker spaces and actions means that Quakers must acknowledge and respect that Palestinian communities have immense knowledge and resources, which predate the establishment of Quaker institutions in Palestine.
AFSC’s “Principles for a Just and Lasting Peace Between Palestinians and Israelis” has largely remained static since 1999. The principles are outdated and present a problematic framework for understanding the situation in Palestine. The document attempts to lay out solutions for Palestinians and Israelis including a section on self-determination that reads in part:
AFSC affirms the right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live as sovereign peoples in their own homeland, a right that encompasses the possibility of choosing two separate states. We acknowledge that other options such as a bi-national state and confederation are being discussed.
Quaker process can be slow and biased toward a continuation of the status quo.
The “Principles” document goes on to say that “the issue here is of one land and two peoples” and that “no one’s right to self-determination should be exercised at the expense of someone else’s.” This framework is problematic in that it makes permanent the subjugation of the Palestinians. Jewish self-determination in the form of Zionism, an ideology as we explained earlier espouses Jewish supremacy on the land, is not justice. This principle essentially condones the existence of a Zionist (read white supremacist) nation. While a decolonial solution does not necessitate the expulsion of the colonizers, it does require that settler mentalities be expelled. Jews living in the land must concede power and supremacy over Palestinians. Maintaining Jewish supremacy in the interests of self-determination ensures continuing Palestinian oppression. What does Jewish self-determination mean on stolen land? What does self-determination for Palestinians mean when millions of Palestinians remain in exile to maintain a Jewish majority?
Quaker process can be slow and biased toward a continuation of the status quo. Given these hurdles, we challenge the AFSC board to take bold moves to adopt principles for a just peace for Palestinians and Israelis that is grounded in a decolonial framework guided by the indigeneity of the Palestinian people.
Melanie Yazzie, Dine (Navajo) scholar and artist, defines the decolonization nation-building process this way:
Decolonization is a future-oriented project that requires imagining, building, and fighting for forms of nationhood and self-determination not premised on the relations of exploitation, dispossession, elimination, and extraction that define liberal nationalisms and capitalist, imperial, and colonial formations.
Palestinians have the right to sovereignty simply because they are human and fully deserving of the same dignity and respect to which all other humans are entitled. AFSC’s “Principles” document says, “The surest road to peace is the path of empathy, where self interest can give way to shared interest, where separateness can give way to reconciliation, where domination can give way to justice.” We need much more than empathy for a “just peace.” The issue is one of land and control. The ability of Palestinians to empathize with and reconcile with Israelis is dependent on decolonization.
Quakers have a long history of standing up for justice, speaking truth to power, and railing against the status quo. We are calling for a more prophetic, courageous, and unapologetic Quaker position on justice for Palestinians. What prevents us from acknowledging the roots of this conflict? A settler colonial lens gives us insight to see clearly the way forward. This framing is vital for justice for Palestinians and Israelis, but it also is essential for coming to terms with this country’s settler colonial origins. It should inform how Quakers engage on issues of saving our environment, justice for indigenous peoples, and eliminating anti-Black racism. Decolonization promises freedom for us all.