A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America. By Keith P. Feldman

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A Shadow over Palestine: The Imperial Life of Race in America. By Keith P. Feldman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 312 pp. $24.95, paper.

In August 2014, protests erupted in Ferguson, Missouri, after police killed Michael Brown, Jr., an African American teenager who had stolen some cigars. Meanwhile in Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas following Operation Protective Edge, attending the abduction and murder of three Israeli teenagers. But the slogan at Black Lives Matter protests in Missouri read “Ferguson is Palestine.”

Feldman’s A Shadow over Palestine is a detailed but deeply flawed account of the origins of the radical romance between American Black nationalists and Palestinian rejectionists in Gaza, Beirut, and the faculty lounges of Columbia University. The current cant of “intersectionality” and “resistance” revives the post-1967 alliance between Black nationalists and the New Left in the United States and among anti-liberal nationalist and Islamist movements in Arab societies.

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The outcome of the 1967 Six-Day War deepened the Kennedy-era U.S. support for Israel into a Cold War alliance but also coincided with dramatic shifts in American political life. The legislative victories of the civil rights movement tipped American politics towards a Tocquevillian “revolution of rising expectations” and a radicalization that would break the Black-Jewish coalition of the early 1960s. The New Left, its expectations of working-class revolution thwarted by prosperity, found new allies in Frantz Fanon’s “wretched of the earth,” the peoples of the postcolonial Third World.

In his first chapter, Feldman of the University of California, Berkeley, traces how the definition of Zionism as “a new offshoot of European Imperialism and a new variety of racist Colonialism” made its way from the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Palestine Research Center (PRC) in Beirut to the 1975 United Nations General Assembly resolution identifying Zionism with racism. Significantly, Feldman does not mention that Faeyez Sayegh and other theorists at the PRC were merely regurgitating Soviet propaganda from the 1950s. He does, however, characterize diplomat Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s campaign against the resolution as an attempt “to delink racism from history” and to export “racial liberalism” as the imperial face of neoconservatism.

Next, Feldman describes how the Black Panther Party and the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) disseminated propaganda for the “colonial analogy” linking race revolution in America with the Palestinian cause. SNCC’s 1967 position paper on Zionism, “Third World Round-Up,” was “purportedly drafted within the organization.” In fact, it reproduced “almost verbatim” the PRC’s 1966 pamphlet “Do You Know?: Twenty Basic Facts about the Palestine Problem.”

To be fair, SNCC did expand on the PLO’s propaganda; it accused “the Rothschilds” of having conspired with the British to create Israel and of controlling much of Africa’s mineral wealth. SNCC also commissioned a cartoon depicting “a disembodied hand with a six-pointed Jewish Star of David overlaying a U.S. dollar sign.” Characteristically, Feldman prefers not to think of this image as “another anti-Semitic trope of Jewish financial domination” but as a symbol of “U.S. material backing for the Israeli state.”

Two chapters narrate the familiar trajectories of Norman Podhoretz and Edward Said in the 1970s but add little. Irving Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative as a liberal mugged by reality is borne out by Podhoretz’s realization in 1967 of “Jewish vulnerability” in Israel and in America’s new communal politics. But Said’s Orientalism,1 Feldman writes, should be “read contrapuntally, locating the text within the ‘over-lapping and intertwined histories’ of U.S. imperial culture.” In other words, propaganda by lit crit.

Feldman pursues this theme in his final chapter by linking Black feminism in America with Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. “I was born a Black woman / And now / I am become a Palestinian,” the poet June Jordan wrote after a Christian Lebanese militia massacred Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila. Jordan, Feldman writes, believed that “the ineluctably human status of Palestinians served as a foundational taboo figure in the United States, one that required enacting a different kind of feminist antiracism.”

But Feldman inadvertently shows that this “contrapuntal” rhetoric rings hollower with each repetition. Saul Bellow’s rightward turn in his 1970’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet2 and the embrace between Eldridge Cleaver and Yasser Arafat at that year’s Pan-African Cultural Festival in Algiers are interesting cultural phenomena. However, they were trivial compared to the contemporaneous flood of American and Soviet weaponry into the Middle East.

Feldman condemns Zionism as “racist settler colonialism” but does not justify this judgment. Nor does he consider how Islam and Islamism influenced Palestinian and American rhetorics. His linkage between Palestinian nationalism and Black and feminist radicalism in the United States is similarly insubstantial. His syllogism holds that Americans live under “racialized capitalism.” Jews, American or Israeli, are somehow inspirational to this system with Israel serving as a “storehouse of symbolic and material experiments” for America’s “racialized neoliberal project.” Thus, Jews and Israel are racist capitalists with exceptions for those fellow travelers who disavow this heritage.

Of course, American racism and capitalism had long predated the advent of Israel’s symbolic “storehouse” after 1967. And Israel, in the decade in which it supposedly became the “storehouse” of American racism and capitalism (1967-77), was governed by socialists. Its conflict with the Palestinian Arabs is national, religious, and cultural—not racial, as are the struggles of African Americans.

Feldman praises the United World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa, days before the 9/11 attacks, at which “hundreds of nongovernmental organizations” worked towards reinstating the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution. Yet he ignores the overt anti-Semitism that accompanied those efforts and the withdrawal of the U.S. delegation in protest at what Secretary of State Colin Powell called the “hateful language” of the conference’s draft resolution, which singled out “only one country in the world, Israel, for censure and abuse.”

A Shadow over Palestine is preaching to the choir. There is plenty of interesting historical material but little flair for narrative or analytical nuance. Feldman’s argument is grounded in theory; which is to say, not at all. The extensive footnotes do not contain a single source in Hebrew or Arabic—much less Turkish or French.

Indeed, large tracts of the book are written in an abstruse dialect of academic English, baffling to all but the initiated: “US culture work about Israel mediated the racialized social formations in the United States that achieved cultural hegemony in the 1970s, even as it informed the antiracist imaginative geographies that persistently exceeded hegemony’s norms of references.” The only readers likely to understand this are Feldman’s tenure committee. They, not the wretched of the earth, are his intended audience.

This subject requires a complicated work of comparative history. Unfortunately, Feldman, with an English Ph.D., is only comparatively a historian. His elaborate theoretical procedures fail to mask the historian’s elementary error, the presumption that correlation means causality.

Dominic Green, Ph.D. and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is a historian and critic. The author of four books, he writes for The Wall Street Journal and is a columnist for the London Spectator.