The year is 1959. The place? The Seventh World Festival of Youth and Students in Vienna. Seventeen thousand left-leaning activists gathered to discuss “brotherhood and peace”, among them Rashid Husayn, a Palestinian poet, journalist and translator from Musmus, south-east of Haifa. Husayn “was especially eager to meet some of the thirteen hundred delegates from Arab countries since, as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, he had been cut off from the region for more than a decade.”
Such opportunities for face-to-face meetings between Palestinian citizens of Israel and their literary colleagues from the broader Middle East were rare. Caught inside the State of Israel upon its creation in 1948, with many internally displaced and prevented from returning to their original homes, these “Israeli Arabs” were physically separated not only from their Arab brothers but also from other Palestinians who were languishing as refugees in neighbouring countries or the West Bank, which was then under Jordanian control.
Yet far from accepting their fate passively, Palestinian Israeli citizens actively sought to build transnational relations with these outside forces. So how does one transcend closed borders and draconian martial law that seals off villages, forbids travel and quashes congregations? With ideas, words, literature and poetry, that’s how. It is these transnational literary currents that Maha Nassar sets out to explore in Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World. She seeks to demonstrate that, though such Palestinians have often been written out of the discourse, this population at the time of approximately 180,000 people (there are now 1.6 million of them) were active in garnering their own strategies of resistance to the hegemonic narrative that Israel has always sought to impose.
One such strategy was to use poetry. Nassar emphasises the long history of resistance poetry in Palestinian culture, one of the earliest proponents being Ibrahim Tuqan. In 1930, he recited the poem “Red Tuesday” following the hanging of three Palestinians by the British Mandate authorities for their alleged involvement in the 1929 Hebron uprisings. Nassar argues that Tuqan’s poem placed the incident “within a larger narrative of anticolonial resistance,” marking a precursor of what was to follow. Although the trauma of the 1948 Nakba is often seen as a time marker after which Palestinian society was forced to reset, by tracing this historical continuity Nassar demonstrates how Palestinian citizens of Israel carried the mantle of resistance that was long embedded in Palestinian culture.
These strategies of resistance were often made all the more creative by the difficult situation that Palestinians faced in Israel. One such example was the 1959 Ard movement, a group of Palestinian intellectuals organised around Pan-Arab principles. The founders of the movement felt that in order to be taken seriously, they needed a newspaper. When the group made an application to the Israeli authorities for a publishing permit, it “languished, unanswered, in Israeli ministry offices.” To circumvent this obstacle, the founders “turned to a little-known law, carried over from the Mandate period, which allowed any citizen to publish a one-time paper without a permit.” In just three months, twelve single-issue Ard newspapers were published and a circulation of 8,000 was achieved, much higher than any other Arabic publication in the country. In this way, the movement was able to engage with broader ideological debates taking place across the region at that time, from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Pan-Arabism to the anti-colonial resistance movement in Algeria.
Nassar’s book is filled with intriguing insights. One example is her focus on the integral role played by the influx of some 120,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel in facilitating access to literature among the Palestinian community. “In the aftermath of the 1948 war,” recounts Nasser, “Iraq was home to some of the most pioneering literary figures of the Arab world.” Yet due to Israeli restrictions on Arabic-language literary material, Palestinians couldn’t import these texts directly. However, when a swathe of leftist Iraqi Jewish intellectuals, many of whom were journalists and writers, arrived in Israel in 1951 and 1952, they brought with them some of the most highly-coveted books and periodicals that had been published in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The irony of Israel’s treatment of its new Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewish) arrivals — they were labelled as uneducated and in need of Zionist education, and were used to form the basis of the new state’s working class — is not lost on Nassar. She argues that this approach actually pushed Iraqi Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel closer together, encouraging them to foster their leftist views through association with the Communist Party of Israel (CPI). Thanks to their collaboration in the CPI, Nassar believes that Palestinian intellectuals and their Jewish comrades articulated new “geographies of liberation which discursively connected Nazareth, Cairo, Algiers, Baghdad, and beyond as all sharing in the larger struggle for freedom and dignity.” In doing so, they “produce[d] a counterhegemonic discourse closely linked to emergent global and regional trends that presented Arab culture as a dynamic and modern force.”
Nassar’s approach to studying this often-neglected period of Palestinian history through the framework of textual encounters adds an important dimension to our understanding of the Palestinian resistance movement. In doing so, she dispels the long-held myth that Palestinian citizens of Israel were entirely cut-off from broader cultural and intellectual developments, so many of which were forced to take place in the Palestinian diaspora.
Instead, she positions Palestinian citizens of Israel at the heart of some of the most crucial debates taking place across the Middle East, within the wider narrative of decolonisation and Pan-Arabism. Though the introduction of the book is dense with political theory, readers should not be put off; it is well worth getting through to the text to discover the nuanced, insightfully-written account of Palestinian citizens of Israel as active agents of resistance and change.