Philip Carl Salzman: Reflections on Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict

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The Volume “Postcolonial Theory and Arab-Israeli Conflict” can be preordered through SPME Mart

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Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, and author of the forthcoming book Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (Humanity Books). He is a member of the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

What most characterizes human beings? Cases have been made that the essential human capacity is reason, that the essential human capacity is play, and that the essential human capacity is self-reflection. While there is something to be said for all of these, I would argue that the most basic characteristic of human beings is their obsessive, unending, and enthusiastic moralizing. Nothing is so typical, and delicious for humans as pronouncing about good and bad, and judging their fellow men and women. It is in the social sharing of our judgements, that is, in gossiping, that we daily expose our true nature. And then again-doing the very same thing-when we condemn gossip and gossipers as an anti-social evil.

And why is moralizing the most basic human capacity? The answer is not difficult to find: A particular culture guiding a specific society is simply a set of commitments among the participants to do things one way, and not another. A different culture guiding a different society is constituted by commitments from the participants to do things one way, and not another, but a different way from the first society mentioned. Of course, the imperative to follow the commitment is not framed as an accidental or arbitrary convention, but rather as “good” and “bad”; “our way is good, other ways are bad; our society is good, others are bad.” Cultural commitments are often underwritten by alleged supernatural intentions: God wants us to do things this way; other ways are the work of the Devil. To take a trivial but suggestive example, once at dinner with a Sardinian peasant lady, I mentioned that the French eat their fruit and cheese together, unlike the Italian and Sardinian practice of eating them sequentially, to which she replied, without hesitation and without doubt, “That’s wrong.”

As well, while within any society individual men and women conform to the cultural commitments more or less, there are always those who conform only poorly, or deviate entirely. These “deviants” implicitly or explicitly challenge the norms, while disapprobation of their behavior by the watching public reinforces the norms. As Durkheim astutely noted, criticism or punishment of deviants reasserts the importance and validity of the norms, thus reinforcing and revitalizing the cultural commitments for the collectivity. Gossip and other forms of social judgement are thus forms of social control, maintaining the norms and social patterns. Nothing is more universal in human society than moralizing: Parents rely on moralizing as well as example and reward in childrearing. Each hunter and hunting family, and, as I have seen first hand, each nomad and nomad family, each peasant and peasant family is scrutinizing their fellows, assessing their actions, and judging them. And in so doing, they reassert and support the norms and rules of their society. This is not a mean feat, nor a trivial result, for human life and human society depend upon social consistency, reliability, and predictability, in short, established and maintained order, without which most human enterprises crash and human life becomes a misery.

While order and stability may be required for human comfort and cultural productivity, history is full of disorder, anarchy, and chaos. But even disorder is commonly generated by actors-reformers, rebels, revolutionaries, raiders, invaders, colonists, etc.-following a set of cultural commitments, a template, a theory of right and wrong, good and bad, in aid of social change, whether expansion or reformation. Imperial expansion, purification movements, political rebellions, nativist and nationalist efforts, all frame their enterprises and rationales in moralistic terms. All human activity requires moralistic definitions of rules.

Human knowledge of the universe, of society, of production and distribution, of governance, and of human nature, has for most of human history, as Ernest Gellner [1] has taught us, been confounded with cultural commitments and social arrangements and made to serve them. It was only quite late, quite recently, in the Enlightenment, that knowledge developed on its own terms without obligation to cultural commitments and social arrangements. The development of science, or referential knowledge, as Gellner calls it, so arduously extracted from the moralism of culture and society, for the first time relied not on what the gods (of society) ordained, on what was “good” and “bad,” but on what was supported by independent evidence. But this independent knowledge, so contrary to the normal human search for advancing one’s own interests and for wish-fulfillment, required elaborate methodologies and procedures, above all independent checks and counter-checks, to be instituted. Here too, the rules of science are defined in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, and the commitment to science is as much a subject of moralism as commitment to any other human institution.

With the great success of science, and its obvious power and sway, other human studies, the humanities and the social sciences, went through a period, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, of emulating the sciences, metaphorically if not literally. This effort led to a “value free” approach and attempts to advance systematic and quantitative “data” collection. But often research continued in terms of heuristic models with no predictive capability. This short-term and modestly funded effort did not lead to great scientific power, but, although now out of fashion, it continues in some academic circles. However, the siren call of moralism, of generating knowledge in aid of social order or social change, was not held off for long. The students of the anti-war and counter-cultural 1960s became professors who brought Marxism front and center into the academy, just as at the same moment both workers and intellectuals in communist countries had given up on Marxism as a credible outlook. “Truth” became whatever would advance the revolution, which soon included the feminist and people-of-colour revolutions. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Marxism was a movement that could no longer speak its name, but anti-capitalist, anti-West, Leninist revolutionism continued on, even without the citations of Marx and Engels, merging with postmodernist subjectivism and epistemological relativism to produce postcolonialism, in which objectivity or the existence of independent truth is frankly rejected and replaced by political advocacy for the “sub-altern,” the oppressed workers, women, people of colour, gays & lesbians, etc. Once again, in a regression of intellectual development, moralism comes to the fore: the West and capitalism and the white race are bad, while the geographical and cultural “others,” people and peoples of colour, socialism, and local cultures are invariably good. Postcolonialism is the new transgressive statement in the revolutionary crusade.

As an intellectual production, postcolonialism is a heuristic model, an abstract, general framework directing attention to certain factors, highlighting certain relationships, and suggesting certain explanations. Like all heuristic devices, it is too general and unspecific to be put to a test of evidence; while explaining all, it explains nothing in sufficient detail to allow contradiction by historical or sociological information. In this regard it is similar to other heuristic frames, such as evolutionism, diffusionism, functionalism, structuralism, transactionalism, interpretationalism, etc. Postcolonialism, like the other heuristic models, stands or falls on the satisfaction given by specific studies, and shall only be set aside once its specific studies are found wanting. However, unlike the other scholarly -isms mentioned, its object is not discovery, because, while it denies the possibility of objectivity and truth, it nonetheless provides its unquestioned and unquestionable moral conclusions. And so while no new knowledge is generated, the results being merely examples of pre-established postcolonial assertions, there is a strong moralistic satisfaction deriving from postcolonialism, a satisfaction from being on the “right” side, fighting for the “good,” for the sub-altern, the People of Colour, and for socialism, and against the evil, White, capitalist, imperialist West. So no matter how intellectually bankrupt postcolonialism may prove to be, it would still give satisfaction as the morally “right and good.”

As with most moral discourses, postcolonialism attempts to refute criticism by outlawing contrary evidence or alternative discourses, not on evidentiary grounds, but on moral grounds. Disagreement or alternative formulations are not considered in terms of how they may “fit the facts,” but are rejected on grounds of alleged partisan affiliation, and quickly labeled “orientalist,” “imperialist,” or “racist.” In this way, postcolonialism does not so much illuminate the peoples, places, and times of which it speaks, but rather imposes its discourse and attempts through ad hominem and partisan arguments to silence all others. For example, an argument that local culture and social organization contributes to certain limitations and difficulties of a particular population is regarded out of hand as orientalist and imperialist, and, irrespective of relevant evidence, rejected as “essentialism” and “blaming the victim.” All too often, postcolonial responses to critical or alternative discourses are such terms of abuse rather than analytic or evidentiary refutations.

Given the intellectual weakness, self-serving self-reference, and intellectual and moral double standard of Said’s Orientalism [2], its influence is remarkable. As an anthropologist, I was stunned that anyone would take seriously a work on history and social studies by a literary critic, even less that other anthropologists would follow its lead. What, after all, could a professor of English literature tell us about the study of cultures around the world? Said’s blanket dismissal of the study of world cultures, on rather weak epistemological grounds, would seem to disqualify Orientalism and its descendants from serious consideration by anthropologists and other researchers. But I underestimated the strength of Said’s moralizing, and the need at that historical moment, in some circles at least, for a replacement discourse for failed, disgraced, classical Marxism. Furthermore, Said’s reduction of knowledge to power-exempting his own discourse, of course-drew on postmodernism’s epistemological relativism and subjectivism, and so received support from those sympathetic to postmodernism.

Said’s object was ever the Middle East, especially the Palestinians, with whom he identified. He criticized the West for its treatment of the Middle East, advocating for the Arab world especially. Israel was for Said a villain, imperialist without an imperium, colonialist in its own land. Said’s many postcolonialist followers tend also to take the Palestinianist line, analysis often going by the wayside in favour of advocacy. Palestine was Said’s preferred test case for “orientalism” and postcolonialism. Thus it is the case addressed in a new collection of original essays, entitled Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict, edited by myself and Donna Robinson Divine. [3]

What have we learned from the contributions to this collection? First, serious doubts have been raised about the theoretical foundations of postcolonialism. Postcolonialism rejects “essentialism” and “reductionism” in the characterization of cultures and regions, on the grounds of empirical diversity of individuals, communities, and societies. In doing so, postcolonial theory neglects the basic epistemological point that all general knowledge requires abstraction, and that every abstraction sets aside unique individual characteristics and shared sub-group characteristics-whether of plants, animals, or people-in favor of general commonalities (see Khawaja’s essay in the collection). The scientific usefulness of such general formulations, and the relative usefulness of alternative general formulations, is tested in prediction and retrodiction, which act as independent tests of validity. The postcolonial position, that saying anything general about non-Western cultures and societies is illegitimate, is both bankrupt intellectually and hypocritical, given postcolonial theory’s notorious propensity for “occidentalist,” essentialist generalizations about the West. Furthermore, postcolonialism’s relentless and absolutist criticism of the West is not paralleled by any realistic assessment of other societies, cultures, and regions, but tends to posit-in the ideal absence of Western imperialism and colonialism-a utopian “Other” of peace, love, and prosperity, based on no historical or empirical foundation (see Niezen’s essay). Finally, notwithstanding the demise of almost countless previous moralisms and heuristic theories, postcolonialism’s absolutist stance, and its silencing of alternatives, offers no concession to the possibility of error, and thus no possibility of correction (Zoloth’s essay).

Prior expectation was that a new or transformed theory would aid disciplinary goals, would in fact advance disciplinary goals. Postcolonial theory has unfortunately done the opposite: it has disapprobated and rejected the very disciplinary processes intended to lead to discovery and the formulation of new knowledge. First, it has established a set of preordained understandings that serve as the answers to research, thus precluding discovery. Second, it has forbidden the disciplinary research processes established for discovery and the formulation of new knowledge, replacing them with partisan discourses and moralism. For example, under postcolonial guidelines, anthropologists can no longer collect, synthesize, and compare ethnographic information, but rather must serve only as channelers for the “others” to tell their stories in their own words, having been encouraged to offer critique of the West and its misdeeds (Lewis). “Peace Studies,” rather than searching to discover the conditions under which conflict develops, the techniques by which conflict can be successfully resolved, and the conditions under which conflict intensifies, thus making a serious practical contribution to advancing peace, instead becomes a font of partisan, anti-Western, anti-capitalist bias (Steinberg). In this way, postcolonialism has succeeded in achieving a profound disservice to academic disciplines.

Postcolonialism regards accounts of non-Western cultures as orientalist formulations to demean the “other” and thus to justify conquest, oppression, and exploitation. Each non-Western people is deemed too diverse to be thought of in reductionistic and essentialistic terms as having cultures that could be described accurately by Westerners. In any case, postcolonial explanation of the circumstances, institutions, and behaviors of non-Westerners is mandated by postcolonialism to be interpreted in terms of Western colonial and imperial impositions, rather than based in any indigenous social, cultural, economic, or political feature. Postcolonialism makes Western imperialists and colonialists the actors and influencers, while non-Western peoples are the clay shaped by Westerners. Non-Western peoples are thus infantilized by postcolonialism, which treats them as lacking in agency which is attributed only to Westerners.

The postcolonial denial of non-Western cultures and institutions, such as the Arab tribal segmentary lineage system (Salzman) and the honor-shame code of the Arabs (Landes), not only disregards the self-determination of peoples, but studiously ignores the world-shaping military, imperial, and colonial impositions, as well as literary, scientific, and cultural creations of non-Western peoples, such as the Muslim Arab Empire, the Mongol conquests, the Turkish conquests and the Ottoman Empire, together dominating the Middle East and beyond for well over a millennium (Karsh, Cook, Bostom). One would imagine from postcolonial accounts that world history began (slowly) in 1492 as the Spanish drove the Arabs from Andalusia and only gathered steam in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nothing of course could be farther from the truth than the stunning ellipses in the postcolonial master narrative where most of world history disappears.

The championing of the Palestinians and the condemnation of the Israelis are widely celebrated as an exemplary case of postcolonial analysis (Troen, Divine). Here the Palestinians are portrayed as the innocent, indigenous, people of colour victims of Israel’s racist, colonial occupation. There are several dubious bases for such a conception:

First, the conflict as framed between the Palestinians and the Israelis suppresses the wider historical and geographical context, in which all of the contiguous and some distant Arab states have repeatedly waged war against Israel, and have continuously maintained embargo policies of refusing recognition, diplomatic relations, and trade, while at the same time refusing to integrate Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Also ignored is the clear historical fact that there was never a Palestinian people distinct from the Arabs more generally and there was never a Palestinian political entity, but many historical sovereignties, most recently the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, Egypt, and Jordan. Finally, the vast extent of the Arab world is ignored, as the postcolonial microscope focuses in on Israel, minuscule in both territory and population.

The second dubious basis for postcolonial analysis of Israel is the denial of connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, or even the existence of an ancient Jewish land of Israel, and the assertion of Palestinian Arab presence prior to the Islamic conquests and prior to the presence of Jews in ancient Israel. This latter formulation is consistent with Islamic norms of historical revisionism, as Muslim doctrine argues that Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Ishmael of course, as well as Jesus and his apostles, and Mary were all Muslims. The Jewish historical claim to Israel is dismissed as conspiratorial invention and faked scholarship. As postcolonialism denies the existence of truth, and asserts that all arguments are projections of power, the disregard of empirical canons of evidence are regarded as legitimate and justified, in aid of the correct political goals, in this case advocacy for “Palestinians.”

The third dubious basis for condemnation of Israel is its characterization as a settler society, and Zionism as an imperial and colonial ideology. This view requires at the very least a highly selective approach to history. Zionism is better understood as an ideology of national liberation of a colonialized people (Shimoni). And Israel can hardly be imperialist with no imperium and no metropolitan parent. Jewish re-occupation of ancient Israel is characterized by postcolonialists as a settler and colonial society, but the historical circumstances and practices of the Jewish communities do not conform to the model of European colonies (Troen). These inconvenient historical details have no place in the simplistic postcolonial morality play.

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Fourth, postcolonial characterizations of Israel as a racist society see the Jewish national identity of Israel as a racist exclusion of Palestinians, and what Israelis think of as an anti-terrorist fence as an “apartheid wall.” Such characterizations are a stunning confounding of race, religion, and citizenship, not to mention security. Nothing could be more obvious to anyone who has visited Israel than its astonishing “racial” diversity, with citizens from all over the world. Furthermore, notwithstanding its Jewish identity, Israel’s citizens include substantial numbers of Muslims, Christians, and Druze. Arab countries self-identified constitutionally and legally as Muslim are not, however, deemed “racist,” or, more correctly, exclusionist, even though Jews are not allowed residence in many Arab countries, and may not even visit others. Once again, the postcolonial double standard is at work.

Fifth, the alleged Palestinian refugee “right of return” to Israel, asserted as gospel in the postcolonial narrative, is based on little more than wishful thinking and historical obfuscation (Mansdorf). Once more, the postcolonial double standard ignores the six to eight hundred thousand Jews ejected, expropriated and abused, from Arab countries during 1947-49, who were received and assimilated in Israel. No postcolonial advocacy of compensation for Jewish refugees has been heard. As well, the calls in 1947-48 by invading Arab armies for Arab Palestinians to quit Palestine so that there would be a clear field for combat defeat and annihilation of the Jews has been transformed, in postcolonial discourse, to Jews driving out the Arab Palestinians. Arab countries who received Palestinian refugees have refused the refugees citizenship and integration, unlike the many countries around the world, such as Greece and Turkey after WWI and India and Pakistan after independence, that received and integrated large refugee populations. But in postcolonial thought the guilt lies not with the Arab maintenance of Palestinian refugees as pawns in the Arab-Israel conflict, but with Israel.

Sixth, the Israeli “occupation” of “Palestinian territory,” or “Arab land,” is, in the postcolonial interpretation, a further illustration of Israeli imperialism and colonialism (Mansdorf). The Palestinian “resistance,” known to Israelis as terrorism against civilians, is alleged to be a response to the “occupation.” This would be more convincing if it were not for the inconvenient facts that Arab rejectionism and annihilationism and Palestinian terrorism had predated the war that led to the conquest and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and that multiple and repeated retreats by Israel from occupation, of Sinai, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, have brought Israel little credit and no peace. Increasingly postcolonialists and Arab protagonists, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, are being frank in their demand for the return of all land to Muslim Arab dominance, for the disappearance of Israel, and for the reduction of Jews to dhimma status, with some calls for the outright destruction of Jews. Even Iranian threats of a nuclear holocaust to destroy Israel has brought little rebuke from postcolonial opinion, as if this would be a kind of redemptive justice.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that the postcolonial rejection of Enlightenment cannons of knowledge should lead to such a regressive, benighted perspective. Is postcolonialism leading us toward a new intellectual Dark Age?


[1]. Plough, Sword, and Book: The Structure of Human History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[2]. Orientalism, NY: Random House, 1978.

[3]. Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict, Philip Carl Salzman and Donna Robinson Divine, eds. London: Routledge, 2007.

Philip Carl Salzman: Reflections on Postcolonial Theory and the Arab-Israel Conflict

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AUTHOR

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman served as professor of anthropology at McGill University from 1968 to 2018. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.


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