Previous Next Up Comments
SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated 8 February 1996


book review

political tourism in palestine


Sherna Berger Gluck,An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifada Years (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994).

Rebecca Luna Stein


In the East Jerusalem office of Near East Travel, Hani Abu Dayyeh[1] recounts a myth: at the height of the Intifada, a group of Christian tourists encountered a confrontation between the Israeli army and the local shabab [young boys of the Palestinian resistance] on a walk through Bethlehem. It was a typical exchange of stones and rubber bullets with the chartered tourist bus parked in the middle. Noticing the foreigners, the shabab shouted for a cease fire. The army obliged, allowing them to pass. As the bus pulled away the confrontation began again.

This narrative, told in the summer of 1994, situates tourism in a political field. The politics of this tourist presence are departicularized, void of national bias, to which both soldier and shabab are prepared to yield. Nonetheless, the tourist is staged as a political actor whose body intervenes in an arena of regional conflict. The story should be situated in the history of the Intifada and protection mandated for foreign visitors by the Unified Leadership of the Uprising. It is also marked by the time of its telling -- a post-Oslo Middle East anticipating an unprecedented flow of capital across states in the emerging regional economy and a dramatic rise in tourist traffic to a Holy Land without borders. To tell a story of tourist politics in 1994 is to talk about the reconfiguration of the Middle East of which regional tourism is both product and progenitor.

After the Lebanon War in 1982, and increasingly after the outbreak of the Intifada, the Occupied Territories became the site of a new kind of foreign travel. Following the tradition of North American solidarity travel to Vietnam, Cuba, and Latin America, U.S. citizens began visiting the West Bank and Gaza, in delegations and as individuals, as a means of education and protest. Such visits catalyzed North American support for the Palestinian national movement and spawned a literature of Palestine political tourism.[2]

Sherna Berger Gluck's An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifada Years joins this tradition. Her text recounts four month-long visits to the Occupied Territories between 1988 and 1991, first as a delegation member and later on her own. Through narrative accounts of home-stays, interviews, and informal conversations with (predominantly) Palestinian residents of the Occupied Territories, the text charts the heterogeneous changes wrought by the Gulf War, the Oslo Accords, and the waning of the Intifada. Gluck is an adept storyteller, providing vivid portraits of local lives and communities framed by the history of the Palestinian-Israeli occupation and the socio-economic effects of occupation. Gluck situates herself as a feminist traveler, as the title suggests, and much of the text is dedicated to the stories of Palestinian women and the PLO-sponsored women's committees that rose in popularity and prominence during the uprising. The text is imagined less as a scholarly history of the Intifada years, as the absence of an index attests, than an eye-witness account of situated changes in Intifada lives.

In an 1993 epilogue to the text, Gluck offers a measured critique of the peace process. Can a just and lasting peace, she asks, be delivered amidst the play of international interests? Can the "democratic spirit" of the Intifada's popular committees be sustained in the transition to a nation-state? While I question the telos of peace-process to nation-state, I read Gluck's critique of the peace-process as a counter-hegemonic political statement that radically departs from the "euphoria" that characterized popular U.S. responses to the Oslo Accords. Although the virtually monolithic support for the State of Israel among North American Jews has been steadily eroding since 1982, Gluck's commitment to the Palestinian national movement is, as a Jew, all the more courageous.[3]

Yet despite her critical interventions, Gluck's "feminism" is radically delimited. She borrows from a white, North American tradition which has historically ignored the multiple axes of oppression that pluralize and differentiate "feminist" projects. Her text shuttles between scenes of Palestinian women's activism and images of 1960s North American activism and second-wave feminism in undifferentiated nostalgia. ("The mood was reminiscent of the 1967 anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in San Francisco"[116]; "…it felt all too familiar, like a women's gathering in Los Angeles"[114]; or "It was reminiscent of the Freedom schools that civil-rights activists had founded in Mississippi…"[81].) That this analogic strategy arises out of solidarity with the Palestinian women's movement is indisputable. Analogy does the work of translation, rewriting a potentially incomprehensible Palestinian political landscape for her North American readers. Yet Gluck offers little critical assessment of this analogic practice, blurring the radical discrepancies between (internally heterogeneous) U.S. politics and Palestinian nationalisms and feminisms. Her reminiscences construct a telos of progressivism which culminates in a white, Western politics whose epistemological blind spots are untroubled. Missing from Gluck's text is an account of the history of differences that these translations displace.

How might feminist travel be written otherwise? I would like to trace the answer to this question through the work of Judith Butler, who rejects the legacy of feminism's foundationalist claims, its "fictive universality"[4] of women's oppression, its blindness to the multiple modalities of gender as discursive production. Butler refuses not only a singular category of women, but seeks to destabilize the stable, sovereign subject as politics' condition of possibility. Even as she concedes the importance of foundational fictions in contesting a history of political invisibility, Butler argues that a feminist retreat from the ontological subject would broaden the political field to include the multiple (sometimes internally heterogeneous) constituencies that such ontologies have excluded as their very condition of possibility.

In December of 1989, as the Intifada entered its third year, Sherna Gluck returned to the Occupied Territories. In the third section of her text, she recounts the excitement of this period: women's committees were on the rise, and the network of grass-roots health-clinics, educational programs, and agricultural cooperatives established during the Intifada were expanding and gaining in economic viability. Observing the Occupied Territories from abroad in 1993, Gluck's tone is more somber as she reflects on the Oslo Accords, the dissolution of the Intifada, and the decline of its social infrastructure. I join Gluck, as I have suggested, in a critical assessment of this historic moment. Yet the model of feminist politics she employs is radically circumscribed. "[W]hen the Palestinians finally achieve their goal of statehood, a strong, autonomous women's movement will remain necessary. Otherwise…the women's groups are likely to become handmaidens of the state, reluctant to challenge patriarchal authority"(223). Gluck's critique emerges out of the history of anti-colonial struggles in which, following independence, feminist programs have been neglected in the name of national liberation. While I share an insistence that nationalism "cannot be understood without a theory of gender power,"[5] as Anne McClintock has argued, I want to ask, what kinds of political interventions are curtailed in Gluck's model of autonomous feminist challenge? Here, as elsewhere in the text, her politics is one of absolutes, in which the state's regulatory hegemony is open only to contestation from a presumed outside. Butler's notion of the performative as political strategy multiplies the sites of possible intervention. "Performativity describes this relation of being implicated in that which one opposes, this turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a ‘pure' opposition…but a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure."[6] By opening the epistemological space for contestation from within the regime(s) of power, Butler makes possible feminist challenges to patriarchal authority in the terms, and on the grounds, of the authority itself.

How can Butler's deconstructive feminism serve the subversive traveler? To take tourism seriously as a political project requires reconceptualizing the tourist. Kamala Visweswaran's Fictions of Feminist Ethnography offers a point of departure for such a project.[7] By introducing Visweswaran's intervention here, I want to name "anthropologist" as "tourist," rejecting and parodying the presumed intellectual authority of the anthropologist by marking her with the inauthenticity and limited knowledge with which the figure of the tourist is popularly bridled.[8] This is the spirit of Visweswaran's project, which insists on the cognitive limits of the anthropological endeavor. She argues for a feminist ethnography that is committed to tracking failure(s), "at once ethnographic and epistemic…as a means of pointing up the difficulties in [its] own epistemological assumptions and representational strategies."[9] The practice of failure, drawing on Gayatri Spivak, refuses recourse to the humanist subject that can be contained, spoken for and spoken with. By taking the possibilities of failure seriously, Visweswaran hopes to confront the play of power in the ethnographic encounter, fashioning new modes of "accountable seeing"[10] that call authority into question and authorize new spaces of agency.

Gluck permits failures to inhabit her account. She recounts the reticence of her interviewees, her confusion with an unfamiliar topography, and draws attention to performances staged for her camera. Yet a practice of failure must be differentiated.[11] Gluck's local "failures" are contained by the book's feminist teleology which rests on a largely undifferentiated matrix of women's oppression and vision of cross-cultural sisterhood. In one such instance, Gluck interrogates the limits of this teleology as manifest in her discomfort with a feminist Islam. On a visit to a West Bank women's committee, she is surprised to meet an activist wearing hijab: "Emerging from the monochromatic shell, she shed the appearance [sic] of submissiveness. Only then was I able to shed my Westernized outsider's view of a ‘veiled' Muslim woman"(137). Gluck's willingness to rethink traditional feminist paradigms is important. Yet these situated critiques, particularly prominent in the text's conclusion, are subsumed in the repeated analogic practice through which activism is rendered intelligible.[12] These analogies, which stage Palestinian politics as North America's uncanny double, return to an untroubled model of secular progressivism in which the veil can only be read singularly as a trope of incarceration. A practice of failure demands a more serious engagement with the limitations of cross-cultural translation and the exclusions which mark the Western feminist model. To push this practice to its limits is to engage a broader critique of the politics of representation and its constitutive failures.

Recent work in anthropology and cultural studies has celebrated images of the tourist, the migrant, and the nomad as paradigms of late-capitalist displacement. This new vocabulary of the post-modern subject attempts to theorize culture at its points of flux, to interrogate nation, community, and identity through displacement, transience, and movement. In an age of increasing transmigration and transnationalism, such theorizations challenge scholarship that "spatially incarcerates" its subjects within the boundaries of the nation-state and the unproblematic place of "home," offering a critical departure from modernist epistemologies of fixity and finality. Yet the celebration of rupture, like the rereading of tourism as a potentially democratizing political practice, risks a saming of radical differences. James Clifford's caveat, that "there is no ground of equivalence between two travelers,"[13] is insufficiently heeded. Edward Said's depiction of a "general condition of homelessness,"[14] Arjun Appardurai's celebration of the possibilities of deterritorialization,[15] Stuart Hall's "general feeling which more and more people seem to have about themselves -- that they are all, in some way, recently migrated,"[16] slip too easily into allegorized universalisms. At risk in the celebrations of the trope of travel is a homogenization that belies cultural and historical differences, that obscures power inequities and the violence that attends them. The itineraries of the female ethnographer and the Palestinian refugee offer no simple equivalences.

Previous Next Up Comments


Notes

1. Hani Abu Dayyeh is the Vice-President of Near East Travel and the President of the Higher Council for the Arab Tourist Industry.

2. Such literature includes Saul Slapikoff, Consider and Hear Me: Voices from Israel and the Occupied Territories (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993); Helen Winternitz, A Season of Stones: Living in a Palestinian Village (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1991); Gloria Emerson, Gaza: A Personal Account of an Occupied Land (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1991). Like Gluck's narrative, these texts present themselves as personal testimonies rather than scholarly histories of the Intifada period.

3. Gluck frequently thematizes her identity as a Jew, and scenes of Palestinian oppression are often followed by memories of childhood anti-Semitism. While these parallels offer Gluck's North American Jewish readers an opening for solidarity with the Palestinian people, they risk erasure of the critical differences between histories of oppression. Moreover, this coupling of anti-semitism and Palestinian oppression does nothing to displace the traditional Zionist apologetics for the horrors of occupation, in which Israeli violence is answered by reference to a history of Jewish suffering.

4. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990) 4. My discussion of performativity draws broadly on Butler's work in both Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York: Routledge, 1993).

5. Anne McClintock, "'No Longer in a Future Heaven': Women and Nationalism in South Africa," Transition 51 (1991): 104-123.

6. Butler, Bodies 241.

7. Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1994).

8. For a discussion of the tourist as trope, see Jonathan Culler, "Semiotics of Tourism," American Journal of Semiotics 1.1-2 (1981): 127-140. While an important and frequently cited theorization of tourism, the text insufficiently historicizes the discourses under discussion.

9. Visweswaran 98.

10. Visweswaran 82.

11. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1978) 27.

12. Visweswaran offers a similar critique of Gluck's edited (with Daphne Patai) collection of "feminist oral history," Women's Words (New York: Routledge, 1991), reading it as another instance of a "failure" that falls short: "The collection…begins to read like a manual on feminist malpractice. What happens, repeatedly, however, is that a problem, initially described as a failure, is finally recuperated as a success" (Visweswaran 97).

13. James Clifford, "Notes on Theory and Travel," Inscriptions 5 (1989): 179.

14. Edward Said, "Zionism From the Standpoint of its Victims," Social Text 1 (1979): 7-58. The sweeping scope of this claim might be excused as a 1979 pronouncement. More troubling, then, are the more recent citations of this passage in the works of contemporary scholars who deem it an apt depiction of the postmodern condition, requiring little, if any, corrective. This passage is referenced, largely uncritically, in both of the following more recent texts: Liisa Malkki, "National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and Territorialization of National Identity Among Scholars and Refugees," Cultural Anthropology 7.1 (1992): 37; Akhil Gupta and James Fergeson, "Beyond ‘Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference," Cultural Anthropology 7.1 (1992): 9.

15. Arjun Appadurai, "Global Ethnoscapes: Notes and Queries for a Transnational Anthropology," ed. Richard Fox, Recapturing Anthropology: Working in the Present (Sante Fe: Sch. of American Research, 1991) 196.

16. Stuart Hall, "Minimal Selves," ICA Documents 6: 439.