By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
In late November 2016 I began receiving threatening emails from an Israeli academic about a blog post I had written on the bedouin in the Negev. “I suggest taking down the post and revising it to take out all the baseless incitement.” Then the academic wrote: “I expect you to correct the post or delete it all together.” The threats claimed that if I did not take down my post then a “wider audience” would be alerted. “So we don’t have to take this to a wider audience.”
What was offensive about my article on ‘why I stopped writing about the bedouin,’? I wrote about my personal experience as an academic in Israel attending conferences full of non-bedouin who all debated what was “best” for the bedouin. I outlined a new policy that included such apparently offensive concepts as:
– Bedouin should be permitted to attend school where they want if the schools are located near their place of residence, including in wealthy Jewish communities
-Racist and segregated acceptance committees should be abolished, so that people in the Negev can live where they want.
– Affirmative action should be enforced at universities.
– Professions such as law and medicine should integrate and empower minorities with 10% targets for inclusion
The academic who emailed me was white. The writer claimed to support bedouin rights. So why the rage? Why the need to demand that concepts of justice and equality be hidden? Because in every system there exists a group who speaks on “behalf” of the minorities, and they demand a monopoly on minority representation. Wherever there are minorities, especially in the West, there are “experts” who work “on their behalf.” Wherever the Third World is discussed there are “experts” who are almost all white who speak on “behalf” of the global south.
Recently a man posted a video on facebook of a man asking UK activist George Galloway a question about Syria and Bashar al-Assad. “The Assad regime has killed 500,000 people including my friends,” the man asserted. Galloway replied “I’ve got news for you sunshine, I also stand with Assad…[against those] who seek to destroy the multi-cultural, multi-faith character [of Syria].” What was interesting was not merely Galloway’s position on Syria, but the enthusiastic applause in the audience of mostly white faces.
Why were the white faces cheering on the Assad regime? Why weren’t they standing with the refugees? These are mostly self-described “leftists.” But here was the face of white rage. The face of white people who cheer on a Middle East dictator and who do not support the right of every person to have the same rights as one has in the UK or US.
The war in Syria has brought out the most interesting faces when it comes to the reality of support for suppression of rights of non-Europeans by dictatorial regimes that those on the self-described “left” support. Robert Fisk, who spent a career selling himself as an expert on the Middle East recently wondered whether the battle for Aleppo proves that “westerners should keep the world’s antiquities.” He went on, “So do we not have a right to these treasures, if only to spare them the destruction at the hands of their own descendants in faraway wars?” He noted “Would we really want to send this masterpiece back to a rebuilt Aleppo? Would we risk it?…An unhappy ending to such thoughts; right now, I fear we’d better keep what we have and leave their future ownership open. In one sense, they all “belong” to us, Europeans and Arabs alike.” This is a startling admission from an “expert” on the Middle East, the kind that of course used to write about Israel‘s “massive Jewish colonies.”
Fisk tipping his hat to the West’s colonialism and taking antiquities is similar to the antics of Max Blumenthal, who made a name for himself opposing Israel’s policies but has also claimed that the Assad regime is fighting “extremists” in Syria. “E. Aleppo is being retaken from armed extremists. Many key opposition claims/figures could fall apart too,” he tweeted on November 27. One write noted that Blumenthal’s views would lead to “slaughter and displacement,” but that “He would never run out of material for crocodile tear-filled articles bemoaning the plight of Syrian refugees.”
The problem is that most discussions of the way in which primarily white “experts” in the West, many with a long track record of activism ostensibly on behalf of the third world and minorities, focuses merely on the fact that white westerners are wrong. “Why are they wrong on Syria?” Why are they with the regime? They are “scum” and “fascists” their opponents say.
The deeper issue needs to focus on their whiteness and neo-colonial nature. For decades when the Middle East was presented as a monolith to western audiences a group of activists, politicians, academics, journalists and experts were able to present themselves as the insiders with knowledge on the region. Their knowledge was gained through working with local elites on a small variety of issues. Most of it focused on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They presented themselves as modern day “anti-imperialists,” standing with the Palestinians against Israel. Other local actors who supported the Palestinians were on the same side. In those days before the Syrian war it appeared that there was consensus on this issue.
So experts on Israeli “ethnocracy,” and Israel’s “colonialism” posed as the speakers for the weak in the Middle East, the Arabs who suffered under Israel or its policies.
No one asked to many questions about this. Why was the Palestinian experience packaged into neatly told narratives by white champions? Why, after decades in which Palestinians had their own universities, did white foreigners always need to tell their “story” of the “noble natives” to a western audience?
The Syrian conflict helped bring this to light. Suddenly there were numerous Arab voices speaking on behalf of the Syrian rebels, the Syrian majority, the Syrian people. They were dismissed by the white elites who saw understanding the Arab and Muslim world as their discipline, their monopoly. They were dismissed as “agents of imperialism,” by white people who were practicing neo-colonialism.
This was second-wave colonialism. The first colonialism was physical, involving the conquest of countries. But after de-colonization in the 1960s, second-wave colonialism involved colonizing the ideologies of the former colonies. Here a new generation of Europeans could make a living off the “natives,” not through exploiting their economic and political rights, but through exploiting their narrative.
So along came a group of “experts,” the anthropologists, the academics, cultural theorists, the journalists, NGO workers, and others. They interpreted the face of the “global south” to a western audience. The reality is that for a western audience having a comfortable western name “explain” the Middle East is easier than having a local person. It’s less threatening. It is “one of us.” Of course a Blumenthal or a Galloway or Fisk is more palatable to a room full of people named Smith, Cohen, McBride.
In essence what second-wave colonialism did was re-use “subaltern” peoples as a package and resource to exploit so as to be an interpreter of their authentic views. Karl Marx wrote about “alienation of labor,” but this was more exploitative “alienation of intellect” and “alienation of ideas”, the alienation of the right of local people to articulate their own views and describe themselves and decide their destiny. Just as Henri Gouraud, the French General who took Damascus and defeated a short-lived Syrian revolution in 1920 once came upon the tomb of Saladin and said “Awake, Saladin. We have returned. My presence here consecrates victory of the Cross over the Crescent,” the neo-colonialism says “our presence explains how you think to our western colleagues.”
For decades this was permissible because local people were often deceived to think that the rise of the white intellectual “experts”, the new Orientalists (who of course oppose Orientalism), were actually helping their cause back in the West. To keep locals ignorant they pretended “only I can represent you.”
Recent years have led to a change in perception and a willingness by many to confront these “experts.” Their left-wing credentials are being challenged, their resort to claiming they support “third world resistance,” is being challenged. Their ability to create a monolithic view of the Middle East is challenged just as the Arabists who supported Sunni monarchy were challenged.
While the white experts cling to the “anti-imperialist” narrative they also adopt the George W. Bush-era “war on terror” language of “fighting extremism” in Syria. They claim they are fighting “al qaeda” and “terrorism.” Suddenly Arabs protesting for democracy are “extremists” and “al qaeda.”
The way in which second-wave colonialism has become a kind of white rage against the future is shown in the devotion to regimes such as Assad. How did people who used to claim to stand with the poor and weak become allies of the strong and dictatorial. How did “third world resistance” end up meaning allying with a one-family-one-party nepotistic dictator? The same way old Stalinist “revolutionaries” were still in love with the geriatric superannuated class of leaders of the USSR in the 1980s. The old, fat, white, “revolutionaries.” And these white people in the West who were used to articulating the “real” views of people in the east continue to infect their no longer subtle racism. They provide blanket generalized stereotypes of hundreds of millions.
Their rage is reserved for those who cast doubt on their authentic “left” credentials and expose support for regimes like Assad that are not “left” but right wing. Their rage is reserved for those with such radical views that local people should decide their own future, that bedouin of the Negev, for instance, should have the same rights to decide their future as anyone else, just like the residents and former residents of Aleppo.
“No, we decide what is best for them,” is the reply. We write books and columns about them.
Because what scares the white articulators the most is that local people might demand space in newspapers in the West. That when an article appears on Palestinians it isn’t “An American saw Shuafat,” but rather that “a resident of Shuafat wrote this.” Have you noticed that in much of the “expert” coverage of the Middle East that local people often lack last names. There is “Ahmed” and “Mohammed,” but they are one dimensional? It is because the white-explainer needs to make sure they receive no credit, so that only the “white expert” can tell their story. Their views always need a white filter.
Unfiltered voices from the Middle East or Africa or anywhere are a challenge to the monopoly, the hegemony. When they whites say “I oppose American hegemony,” but then they outsource all of the views to American journalists, isn’t that a new hegemony? They don’t oppose western hegemony, they just want to control it.
If newspaper said they would never run another column by a western “explainer” but only local voices, it would shut this group down. If academics and journalists had to be more diverse, if local voices had to have last names. All of this would challenge the hegemony.
It will be met with white rage. But when there is rage, it means you are doing something right.