ISRAEL'S RECENT MILITARY ASSAULT on Gaza serves as a reminder of the continuing urgency of the Palestinian question, which has been a topic of worldwide debate since the June 1967 war and returns to the center stage of global politics whenever Palestinian or Israeli blood is spilt. Something has changed in recent years, however, particularly after conflicts so disproportionate (the 2006 Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon, the 2008-2009 Gaza war) that it becomes difficult to speak of two “sides” in a conflict involving a military force, on the one hand, and a majority of unarmed civilians on the other.
But the increasingly uneven balance of forces is not the only thing that has tipped the scales in favor of the Palestinian people (if not their leadership) at dinner tables across the world. Palestinian civil society has also made itself heard more forcefully, particularly through non-violent protest actions (represented in films such Bil’in My Love and 5 Broken Cameras) and the 2005 West Bank-based call for an international campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. Modeled after the South African boycott campaigns, the BDS movement has received wide support from luminaries including Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Angela Davis, and Alice Walker. It has also garnered the support (sometimes partial or qualified) of an increasing number of Jewish activists against Israeli state violence, including groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace or intellectuals such as Judith Butler and Naomi Klein. The growing legitimacy of the BDS movement is a symptom of the changing fortunes of the Palestinian question. It also reveals the extent to which it has become a Jewish question.
More than 60 years ago, a similar evolution in public opinion occurred at another historical juncture. In 1960, toward the end of the bloody Algerian war of independence, 121 French writers, artists, and intellectuals, including Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Guy Debord, and André Breton, signed a manifesto in favor of support for the Algerian cause and the right to military insubordination. The manifesto’s objective was to make public the growing resistance to the “nameless war” in France, lending legitimacy to actions that were deemed illegal — army desertion, material assistance to the Algerian nationalist movement — but that were, according to the manifesto’s signatories, just. The most visible in a long series of public denunciations of the war — including the publication of Henri Alleg’s first-hand account of torture, The Question, in 1958, and the trial of supporters of the Algerian National Liberation Front in 1960 — was the “Declaration on the Right to Insubordination in the Algerian War.” Informally know as the “Manifesto of the 121,” this document gave voice to those French citizens who actively refused to comply with a colonial war waged in their name. To borrow the philosopher Jacques Rancière’s expression, these were French citizens who “disidentified” with the French state.
In an article titled “The Cause of the Other,” Rancière develops the concept of “disidentification” in relation to an event that occurred a year after the publication of the Manifesto, on October 17, 1961: the massacre, in the center of Paris, of an estimated 200 Algerian civilians protesting a...read more