What's in a name? A lot, not surprisingly, when the label is "Palestinian" and the subject is Arabs in military service in Israel. Rhoda Ann Kanaaneh, who was born in an Arab village in the Galilee and who identifies herself as Palestinian, is no stranger to the contentious politics of naming. The anthropologist met it again early in work for Surrounded: Palestinian Soldiers in the Israel Military (Stanford University Press), a punchy take on a delicate topic.
Kanaaneh recalls in the book how she wrote to a prominent Israeli academic looking for suggestions on researching "Palestinians serving in the Israeli armed forces." His reply appears as carefully crafted disbelief. Apparently she had made a kind of category mistake, although discussing Arab soldiers would be another issue.
Language also came up, she writes in a footnote, with a "major university press" that had previous dibs on the project. She elaborated in a phone interview. The process was going well, said the author, a visiting scholar in the department of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University. She had a "gung ho" editor, and peer reviews were favorable. But things changed when the proposal and manuscript reached a faculty review committee for the press. Her editor told her of intense debates over terminology that some said showed an "unexplained adoption" of a Palestinian nationalist perspective. Kanaaneh was asked to make various clarifications and changes and resubmit. She decided to withdraw.
Such wars over wording extend beyond the text's back story to its content. The anthropologist argues that from Israel's beginning, Palestinians inside its borders have been segmented in an effort to discourage unity. A hierarchy was created, she contends, placing Druze at the top, followed by Bedouins, Christians, and finally non-Bedouin Muslims. The first three groups, she says, quoting a journalist from Haaretz, are considered "Arab lite." Although when it suits the state, all are lumped together.
Ask Israeli Jews about citizen Arabs in their midst, and descriptions range, she says, from generally docile to an enemy within. Ask Palestinians in the West Bank, and they call their cousins anything from co-opted to steadfast. Meanwhile, she writes, Palestinian citizens of Israel are in a constant dance of negotiating their conditions, sometimes silent, sometimes brash. On issues of identity among soldiers she interviewed, responses ranged widely across all categories and could be contextual. As a soldier told her: "Frankly, 'how do you identify yourself?' is not a good question. It depends on where I am." He went on to describe how he moved from "Israeli Arab" at the tax office or mall to "Palestinian Arab" in the village.
A distinction must be made about the Druze, a sect that was an early offshoot of Islam. The Druze are defined, Kanaaneh writes, as a special and loyal minority and are subject to military draft. Yet, she says, that has not always protected them from discrimination or land expropriation. Druze, the scholar muses, are "Arabs after all." While she included Druze in interviews, the fieldwork's focus was on the experiences of Arabs from the other three groups who have volunteered as soldiers or police officers.
Regarding motivations, a few explain their choice in patriotic terms, but a more prevalent explanation is economic. A policeman is blunt. "The pay is 5,000 shekels a month. Find me a job that pays 6,000 a month, and I won't work for the police." Beyond wages received, military service in Israel affects individual and familial access to land, housing, employment, education, and social services. Kanaaneh details the mixed success soldiers have had reaping those benefits and pushing the boundaries of Arab citizenship but shows also how they counter critics in their efforts to fulfill the Palestinian masculine ideal of a good provider.
Though Jacques Derrida died in 2004, his textual wake is far from over. Publishing has continued apace with posthumously released writings, translations, and interviews, as well as meditative works that engage Derrida on a personal level as man and memory.
Just out in translation, Mustapha Chérif's Islam and the West: A Conversation With Jacques Derrida (University of Chicago Press), blends several of those approaches. In it, Chérif brings Algeria, a shared place of origin, front and center in his encounter with the philosopher.
The genesis of the book was an invitation extended by Chérif, a professor of philosophy and Islamic studies at the University of Algiers and a visiting professor at the Collège de France. In May 2003, he invited Derrida to a colloquium on Algeria and France at Paris's Institut du Monde Arabe. What made the occasion unusual and in fact poignant was that Derrida arrived from the hospital only having just learned of the cancer that would kill him 15 months later. "For any other meeting," Chérif says Derrida told him, "I wouldn't have had the strength to participate."
In a foreword longer and more telling than forewords tend to be, Giovanna Borradori describes the two men as an "odd couple" and says that a profound love of Algeria is almost all they share. However, the Vassar College philosopher argues that the book advances the "crucial but largely underestimated role" Algeria played in Derrida's "philosophical itinerary." She also says that despite his anti-institutional bent and preference for "fluidity over rigidity," Derrida was a highly guarded man. The book, she argues, "pierces that reticence at a moment of great vulnerability, revealing the depth and complexity of Derrida's feelings for Algeria." Asked by Chérif what his Algerian origins have meant, Derrida responds that "a Judeo-Franco-Maghrebin genealogy does not explain everything, far from it, but can I ever explain anything without it?" He goes on to discuss his experience of Arabs and the Arabic language in Algeria in wistful terms as "an other, who was the closest of the close."
The book's format is impressionistic. Chérif paraphrases his questions to Derrida from that day — "confidences" he calls them — and then transcribes in quotation Derrida's answers. That material is then embedded in Chérif's own running commentary.
On the book's titular theme, Chérif argues for an end to historical amnesia and for the need to understand Islam's contributions to modernity and its continued emancipatory potential "beyond the deviations of some of its own followers today" — violent usurpers of the faith. "Is it reasonable," he asks Derrida, "to view our worlds as opposites?" Derrida agrees to the need to "deconstruct the European intellectual construct of Islam" and rediscover the "reciprocal fertilization of the Greek, the Arab, and the Jew."
Where the two men struggle more is on what Chérif capitalizes as the Mystery and the Divine. At one point, Derrida casts faith in earthy terms of social interaction. "One's relationship to the other, addressing the other, presupposes faith," he tells Chérif. "The act of faith is not a miraculous thing; it is the air that we breathe."