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The erasure of the Palestinian experience is central to white feminism. Interview with Nada Elia.

:Maja Vusilović

:Eliška Koldová

Ilustration: Nerian Keywan

White feminism has always served as a tool of the Western imperialist expansions. In our interview, Palestinian feminist academic Nada Elia shows how we can fight these colonialist forces together.

White feminism often conflates the concepts of liberation and occupation. Women from post-colonial, or in the case of Palestine still colonized, countries are therefore treated with paternalism and white saviorism by Western feminists. How many times have you heard that Palestine is a backward society where men abuse women, queer people are absolutely oppressed and therefore need us, Western feminists, to save them by supporting the mass bombardment of their homes? Although the feminist framing of the struggle for liberation is overlooked by the left-wing, predominantly masculinist discourse supporting Palestine, it is necessary to highlight its importance right now. That is why we decided to reach out to Nada Elia, a Palestinian feminist academic and scholar living in the United States and author of the book Greater than the Sum of Our Parts. Feminism, Inter/Nationalism, and Palestine, published by Pluto Press last year.

How did you become an academic and organiser focused on Palestine?

I am Palestinian. My parents are from Jerusalem, from which they got expelled in 1948. I was born in Iraq, and I grew up in Lebanon. People ask me all the time where I come from and I can never answer “I am from here,” because I’ve never lived in a place where I belong. As a daughter of refugees, I’m denied my right to return to Jerusalem by Israel. This is a part of why I’m so passionate about this injustice and wanting to do something about it.

In my work I focus on social and political issues that are not only limited to the topic of Palestine. However, this has become my focus, as somebody has to do this work considering all the censorship, repression and silencing that comes with it. I teach cultural, ethnic and gender studies, and Palestine is a topic within these studies. I’m also an activist and organiser because for me, change does not happen only in the university. While the university is a very important site for dispersion of knowledge and hopefully critical thinking, streets are where most of the organising takes place. That is why I describe myself as a scholar-activist.

Your book was originally supposed to be called Notes from the Global Intifada. Intifada, meaning the uprising, brings us to the activist group Palestinian Feminist Collective that you are part of. In which ways are you and your comrades organising yourself in the group?

I still think of my book as Notes from the Global Intifada, and I do think of the Palestinian Feminist Collective (later in text PFC, Ed.) as a part of that movement. The PFC is an intergenerational collective of far diaspora Palestinian feminists that was formed three years ago. Together, we’re committed to bringing about social and political liberation, both in our homeland Palestine as well as here in Turtle Island. Decolonial liberation is central to our work because we understand that there can be no free homeland without free women and queers. Our struggle is therefore very much a transformative one and focused on changing the society we live in.

The Palestinian Feminist Collective opposes gender violence and all sorts of oppressive systems. We are however looking at the broader context of violence and how this violence is rooted in colonialism and imperialism. This analysis is not necessarily only ours - we are inspired by our Palestinian sisters in the homeland, by black and Indigenous and third world feminists. As a group, we have been in a rapid response since October 7th. I’m very proud of what we have accomplished in terms of producing the analysis that is important and lacking, or in terms of providing the toolkits, support for the academics, fundraising for Gaza relief, etc.

The Palestinian Feminist Collective makes an important argument on why Palestine is an intersectional, feminist and abolitionist cause. In your book you call that a pledge. What does that mean personally to you?

For me there is no doubt that Palestine is a feminist issue. But unfortunately, this still happens to be something that needs to be emphasised. A lot of people understand that the question of Palestine is an anticolonial, national liberation and anti-racist struggle. But many of them still don’t get how and why Palestine is a feminist issue. For example, when our collective first introduced the pledge you mentioned, there were people from everywhere, including in Palestine, who were asking us what we mean by that.

Colonialism and militarism are gendered forces, and they always enact gender and sexual violence. If colonialism is gendered, then how could Palestine not be a feminist issue? For example, when you humiliate the men, some men may take it out on the women. It’s a trickling down effect of oppression, violence, humiliation, and degradation. We’re seeing that intentional humiliation and attempt to break the Palestinian spirit on full display today. For example, the images of Israeli forces rounding up the Palestinian men and stripping them naked in the most undignified ways is an example of gendered violence.

The killing of our brothers, fathers, uncles, and our loved ones is a feminist issue also because feminism does not only value the lives of women and children, it values all life. As feminists we want a better word not only for women and children, but for everyone.

The idea that Hamas’ attack was unprovoked completely erases the context of violence that Palestinians have been living under for decades. White feminism has always been Zionist, and it has always failed to recognize the humanity of the Palestinian people.

What is your general opinion of the feminist response to the happenings that have been taking place in Palestine for the last few months? Was the reaction coming from the western feminists sufficient in your opinion?

There isn’t one feminist response, just like there isn’t one feminism. There has been many already-politicised queer groups that have organised themselves to denounce the accelerated genocide taking place in Palestine. There has also been a response coming from colonial feminism. This one has been atrocious. Colonial feminism continues to blame Palestinians for “violence” against Israel, rather than understand that Zionism is in fact the force of oppression. The idea that Hamas’ attack was unprovoked completely erases the context of violence that Palestinians have been living under for decades. White feminism has always been Zionist, and it has always failed to recognise the humanity of the Palestinian people. I can give you any number of examples where white feminists only see Israel as a victim. The erasure of the Palestinian experience is indeed central to white feminism.

Talking about colonisation, you draw similarities between different kinds of settler colonialism cases and describe how pervasive and ongoing the colonisation is. Why is it important for you to constantly put these things in a historical context and talk about the continuation of the colonisation?

I live on a colonised land and therefore I’m a reluctant settler here on Turtle Island. It is my duty and my commitment to speak about the colonisation of this land. For many people, colonialism is something that has happened in the past, as they forget that this country is still colonised. When we celebrate this country’s independence on the fourth of July, we’re not celebrating Indigenous independence - we’re celebrating the coloniser’s independence. That’s why it’s important for me to remind the people that the process of colonisation is an ongoing one.

Palestine is an Indigenous land that is being colonised by the Europeans who have looked up how the other systems of colonialism have happened in the past. In my book I speak a lot about how the colonisation of Turtle Island and its transformation into the USA is a model that Israel has been following, in addition to other cases of settler colonialism. The Palestinian people are the Indigenous people, undergoing genocide, just like other indigenous people everywhere else in the world did.

At the time I was writing my book, many reports about Israel being an apartheid state came out. The reports have been issued by human rights organisations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others. There were so many of these denunciations of the apartheid, that I felt it was very important to stress it’s actually also settler colonialism that we’re dealing with when it comes to Israel. Ending apartheid is simply not enough. This is why I argue that the Palestinian struggle is an Indigenous struggle and not only a struggle against apartheid. We do not want to be equals in a colonised country, because there is no such thing as equality in a colonised system. In South Africa, for example, they ended apartheid, but they did not end the white colonisation of that country. Today we have ongoing problems there that include poverty, violence, oppression, addiction, homelessness. These problems continue because they addressed apartheid only and not colonialism. Ending apartheid alone is never enough because we will not be free if our land is not free.

Talking about the land, it was interesting (if interesting is a right word while talking about such unfortunate things) for me to read in your book about how nature responds to colonisation.

Nature is suffering under colonialism because colonialism does not respect the land. Colonisation wants to transform the land and that’s why it constantly violates it. Just like people respond to being violated in unnatural ways, the land rejects colonialism. What Israel is trying to do is to make this land more European-like in the Arab world, in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Asia. The wildfires that we are seeing in Israel are a clear rejection of colonialism and an attempt for nature to return to what it originally was. Israel has spent decades and millions of dollars trying to transform the land, but the land is saying “No, you cannot transform me, I am not a pine tree kind of land, I am an olive tree kind of land.” The fires are therefore a successful way of getting rid of these trees. Indeed, they are so successful that Israel has decided that planting pine trees is no longer possible. This is simply the land of the olive trees, which are also the symbol of Palestine, not Europe.

In the eighties, current president of the USA Joe Biden said “If there was no Israel, we would have to create one.” For the USA having an ally in that region is very strategically important. The USA is a hyper militarised empire, and it is not a force of good. Americans here are hungry, have no health insurance, no housing, no affordable education and yet, the USA has billions of dollars for Israel.

In our country, many people don’t know what Hasbara is, yet it has been incredibly successful here. Public service journalists and politicians constantly adopt statements of Israeli propaganda uncritically, and Palestinians are even more dehumanised in the Czech public discourse than in other countries. Could you describe your experience with the impact of Hasbara? And how does it manifest itself in the academic sphere?

The situation in the USA is very bad. Just about every person who has been involved with any kind of Palestine-related activism has been attacked by the forces of Hasbara. If it was not for their very successful propaganda, Israel would never get away with its crimes against the humanity, war crimes, illegal occupation and genocide of the Palestinian people. This propaganda presents the Israeli idea of democracy and morality.

The Israeli war machine operates on two fronts: the first is in Palestine itself, and the second is outside of Palestine. This is where Israeli propaganda operates and it’s just as active there as the military is active on the ground in Palestine. Then there’s also the censorship that comes with weaponizing antisemitism by saying that anything critical towards Israel is antisemitic. That is proof of how well Hasbara works. We’ve been seeing the official erasure of the Palestinian discourse. Instead, there is only an Israeli discourse that is not questioned. For that, I blame the laziness and the dishonesty of thinkers, intellectuals and the media that simply accept the Hasbara when it is so very obvious what is really going on.

When my university organised a panel about Gaza, they did so without including me, even though I am a Palestinian scholar, an expert, a writer, and a speaker. It didn’t have to be me, of course, but they actually put together a panel on Gaza without a Palestinian perspective at all, even after that oversight was pointed out to them. How is that acceptable? That is the amount of censorship and repression that happens at the university and elsewhere. It is a constant form of violence that can cost you your livelihood. If I speak out, then I become a problem.
Moments like these are also opportunities to tell our stories. For example, you have reached out halfway around the world to hear a Palestinian perspective. I think that there is enough of an understanding that we’ve got to hear the Palestinian story, and that the Israeli propaganda is failing. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind about the fact that Israeli propaganda is failing.

it’s horrible you had to experience that in your own university.

This is just one example. The student group „Students for Justice in Palestine” is being banned in many universities. Rutgers University, Columbia, Brandeis and many other universities have shut down pro-Palestinian student groups. The US government is thinking of banning the SJP student group totally. That is the amount of censorship going on in academia, which is supposed to be a place for critical thinking, freedom of speech, intellectual engagement. Yet it is where we are witnessing unprecedented repression.

It is increasingly obvious that genocide is going on not only because Israel is a racist state, but also because Israel and the United States want the gas that is in Gaza. This strategic partnership between the two is nothing new. In your book, you explain how these fascist countries have been exchanging the tools with which they have been silencing, torturing and punishing the oppressed for years. Could you explain why Israel is so important for the US?

In the eighties, current president of the USA Joe Biden said “If there was no Israel, we would have to create one.” For the USA having an ally in that region is very strategically important. The USA is a hyper militarised empire, and it is not a force of good. Americans here are hungry, have no health insurance, no housing, no affordable education and yet, the USA has billions of dollars for Israel. That is proof of where this country’s priorities are. They are aboard. The empire needs allies elsewhere. This is how empires function. There was a talk about the government shutting down because of the lack of money. American citizens may lose their social security benefits. And yet, when Joe Biden asked for an extra 14 billion dollars for Israel, there was no questioning of the fact that this money was available.

As an academic I have students who must take a job or two to be able to afford their education. When they come out of the university, they are in debt that they must pay off for the rest of their lives because the priorities of this country are not domestic. The USA wants weapons that Israel is developing and is testing on Palestinians. So, when the USA says they buy tested weapons, they talk about the weapons tested on the Palestinians. It is a hyper militarised loop and an empire of death.

Israel has been violating international law since the establishment of the state, which was based on eradicating and forced displacement of Palestinians. In your recent article for Institute for Palestine studies, you refer to the current international legal framework as „master’s tools” that will never dismantle the master’s house (citing Audre Lorde’s famous quote). What is the alternative?

The alternative is what we are doing right now - having this conversation half a world away to look at how to overcome the Hasbara, create connections and create a different discourse. You, for example, are creating a venue in the Czech Republic for the Palestinian story to be heard and that is the part of the alternative. We as feminists are creating an alternative while we fight against the current oppressive system. Our struggle is therefore a transformative one. We are trying to create a different future, different society, free not only from Zionism but from all oppressive systems. All of us who are now in this struggle together are intersectional feminists, aware of other struggles. Approaching this problem with a single issue lens cannot solve a problem that is as connected as the one we are dealing with.

The master’s tool is international law, and the master is also the creator of the problem. We, on the other hand, are using something that the master cannot silence, cannot oppress, cannot censor. That is an intersectional analysis that understands that we are connected and – as the title of my books says - greater than the sum of our parts. That is something that the master can’t handle and it’s the alternative that is going to liberate not just me and you, but all of us. Because the masters’ tools were never designed to deal with what is going on when we come together.

Our struggle does not end with this article. Join us on Transmission 4 Palestine, an event we co-organised with Amphibian, nūr prague, Prague Youth & Student Collective for Palestine and Ankali & Planeta Za. This Saturday, 13th of January!