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BOOK REVIEW of "Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory" by Fatma Kassem, Ph.D. from BGU

BOOK REVIEW---- Fatma Kassem: Palestinian Women: Narrative Histories and Gendered Memory (London: Zed Books, 2011).

Dr. Kassem received her Ph.D. from Ben Gurion University and now teaches at Achva College and Sakhnin College.

Kassem’s book is an example of narrative history, a method of writing history in a story-based form.  Narrative history is part of the New Social History movement that was initiated in the 1960s that claimed that traditional history is inherently elitist and untrustworthy.  

In this particular case, the stories are told by ordinary urban elderly Israeli Arab women living in Lyd and Ramleh, who witnessed the events of 1948.   By choosing to tell the story from the perspective of these women, Kassem adds a gender angle.  In her words, “these women’s experiences serve as a window for examining the complex intersections of gender, history, memory, nationalism and citizenship in a situation of ongoing colonization and violent conflict between Palestinians and the Zionist State of Israel.”   Moreover, by using the “unique experience of these women from the margins” she promises to “shed more light on the multiple continuing effects of the Nakba” (p. 1).

To prove one facet of this complex intersection, Kassem asserts; “The unknown and invisible knowledge of Palestinian women’s experiences is silenced by the colonial state apparatus that negates their right to their home cities” (p.46).   Even though there is virtually no proof of this sweeping generalization, since the overwhelming majority of women whom she wanted to interview agreed to talk, Kassem proceeds to indict the Zionist state again by stating, “Therefore, out of fear of oppression, they consider it better to keep their knowledge in the domestic sphere at home and to remain silent in public” (47).  Yet in spite of this alleged silence, Kassem claims that they nevertheless managed to contribute to the national discourse and teach a lesson in resilience.  For example, “Palestinian women of the first generation after the Nakba told the forbidden story of Palestinian history in terms of bodily experience and through bodily images.” It “provides alternative knowledge that is opposed to the hegemonic Jewish Israeli knowledge, and by doing so becomes a subversive site of resistance and commemoration for Palestinians” (p. 130-131).

Another facet of this complex intersection pertains to the “rape of Palestine” by the Zionists.  Kassem cites the book Ma’naa Nakbat Falastin describing how “the lost land of Palestine” had been “raped by Zionist forces” (p. 92).   She notes that the Nakba phraseology symbolizes the penetration of the female body.   She compares Palestine in 1948 to a Palestinian woman on her wedding night that is “inadequately prepared for the sexual act” (p.96).  Kassem uses the rape analogy to argue  that this was not an isolated event, for it was the “beginning of a forceful abusive relationship that has continued with many subsequent acts of violence and dispossession.” (p. 98).  

Though none of the women claimed that they were raped, Kassem relates that some of the interviewees mentioned hearing about women getting raped. The closest to presenting a  rape testimonial was an instance where a women  claimed that Israeli soldiers  had pulled her hair, which Kassem was quick to label as “attempted rape” (p. 159). Based on such flimsy evidence, Kassem concludes that rape or the threat of rape was used in part “to be able to establish an exclusive Jewish state” and was part of “the strategic plan of Zionist ideology … to evacuate Palestinians from Palestine” (p. 167).  One of her examples based on hearsay evidence is Deir Yassin, where Kassem mentions that an interviewee claimed that “rape,” along with a series of other “bad incidents,” occurred (p. 163).  Fear of “rape,” according to Kassem, was a “major factor that forced many Palestinians to leave” other villages following the Deir Yassin attack (p. 164).  Kassem also quotes interviewees accusing Israelis of cutting open the bellies of pregnant women to take their babies out.  

Kassem’s preoccupation with rape as both a reality and a metaphor for Palestine is  matched by her effort  to prove that after 1948, the Israelis forced the Palestinians into a segregated and miserable ghetto existence:  “Immediately after the events of 1948, all of the Palestinian citizens remaining in Lyd and Ramleh, as well as incoming refugees from surrounding villages, were moved into the old city centers, which became segregated ghettos” (p. 217).  She compares these Arab ghettos to the Jewish ghettos in Europe, claiming that the women that she spoke with “described their lives in the ghettos of Lyd and Ramleh in ways that indicated that conditions were strikingly similar to those in the Jewish ghettos in Europe” (p. 222).  Kassem even goes as far as quoting one interviewee as stating that “the Jews they saw much oppression from the Germans and they don’t like to do injustice to anyone, but look who they put in the ghetto!   The lame, the blind, the old, those who couldn’t walk, the weak, people in the worst condition” (p. 221)!  She interpreted this interviewees’ comment as stating “Jews have been doing the same to Palestinians as Germans did to them” and “Jews oppress the weaker part of the Palestinian population----the lame, the blind, the old” (p. 221)!      

Even by the lax academic standards of narrative history, Kassem’s account is seriously amiss.  She violates the most elementary methodological rules in her field by, among others, giving hearsay evidence and rumors the status of historical facts.  The Deir Yassin massacre, where fighters from the right wing Irgun group killed some 120 residents, did occur and was strongly condemned by the Jewish leadership.  Her account of rape and children being ripped from the bellies of their  mothers, however, is fictional.   Even Palestinian historians, like Sharif Kan’ane and Nihad Zeitawi, according to Benny Morris’ The Historiography of Deir Yassin, refrain from mentioning rape as an atrocity that occurred at Deir Yassin.  Such accusations of rape though have been  part of an anti-Israeli propaganda campaign;  not concidently, similar descriptions have appeared on numerous Deir Yassin websites. 

Kassem is also cavalier with other historical accounts.  She quotes her mother as confessing of  being afraid to sleep in her home in Sabalan,  allegedly because the Israelis attacked Sa’asa at night “when the people were asleep and destroyed many homes, right on top of the heads of the inhabitants while they were asleep” (p. 35).  To prove this generalization as true, her mother cited merely one example, where she claimed that “Yasins’ daughter-in-law was newly married and newly pregnant; she died with her fetus in her womb and her husband while they were asleep” (p. 35).   Kassem  tried to prove that Sabalan was “related to the massacres that occurred on February 15, 1948 in Sa’asa village” (p. 36).     However, the only evidence that she could find to support this fact was that her mother claimed that Israeli soldiers beat up one man named Ahmad Al Zahwi and that her mother’s father claimed that the Jews had wanted to kill a group of men from Sabalan, but were unable to because “their bullets would not come out of their guns” and “they were threatened by a large cow” (p. 36).   Almost all of the inhabitants of Sabalan arrived unscathed  in Lebanon.     

Kassem’s efforts to force her interviewees’ recollections to fit her ideological framework are even more egregious.   For instance, she admits that out of the thirty-seven women that she interviewed, only three used the term Nakba and all three of them were affiliated with the Communist Party; yet the term Nakba is constant throughout the book (p. 92).  Kassem views these elderly women from Lyd and Ramleh to be refugees, but her interviewees never used this term to describe themselves (p. 61).   When the women refer to migration and infiltration, she protests: “unlike the interviewees, I do not use the word migration to describe the Palestinian expulsion from their cities, villages and land in 1948; nor do I use the word infiltrator to refer to those Palestinians who tried to return  homes” (p. 61).  Indeed, Kassem tries so hard to make the women “politically correct,” that the narrative sounds at times like a discussion in a critical studies graduate seminar.

When New Social History appeared, traditional historians worried that it would inundate the readers with historical minutiae.  They probably did not expect that half a century later the movement would produce accounts where memory, ruminations and rumors wrapped in neo-Marxist jargon masquerade as history. 

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