A Shadow over Palestine

The Imperial Life of Race in America

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Keith P. Feldman
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    University of Minnesota Press
    , July
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a 1962 meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir, US President John F. Kennedy famously described the bond between the United States and Israel as a “special relationship.” While Kennedy’s phrase has “achieved nearly unassailable common sense” in the last half-century, Keith Feldman’s A Shadow Over Palestine demonstrates that the “meanings and functions of that relationship” were “fiercely contested” in the decade and a half following the 1967 Six Day War (1). American diplomats, Black Power activists, Jewish neoconservatives, Arab-American scholars, and women of color feminists all wrestled with their own understandings of the special relationship, each finding it in varying ways inextricable from questions of race and power in the post-Civil Rights United States.

A Shadow Over Palestine opens with an examination of the controversial 1975 UN Resolution 3379, which condemned Zionism as a form of racism and racial discrimination. Feldman shows that the substance of that resolution derived from the work of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Palestine Research Center (PRC), led by political scientist Fayez Sayegh, which analyzed Zionism as a form of settler colonialism dependent on a racialized differential distribution of resources, power, and rights. Both the PRC’s work and the resolution itself offered a structural analysis of race that contested the “color-blind racial liberalism” dominant in the United States. It was thus more than coincidence that opposition to the resolution was led by US Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was among the leading liberal theorists of racial relations in the United States. Feldman argues that Moynihan’s famous General Assembly speech condemning the resolution ignored its structural interpretation of racism, defending Israel on color-blind liberal terms as a pluralist democracy like the United States while bracketing out consideration of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Moynihan’s speech was both an articulation of the dominant American understanding of the special relationship, as well as a diplomatic manifestation of it.

Black Power activists had their own understanding of the relationship that pointed to the colonial structures of race. As Feldman demonstrates, the movement’s turn to an anticolonial critique of American racial structures and foreign policy was actually influenced by connections with Palestinian scholars and activists. In one of the study’s most evocative finds, Feldman shows that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) reproduced PRC materials on Palestine, drawing deliberate connections between the US’s material support for Israel, the Israeli military’s treatment of Palestinians, and the militarized enforcement of racial structures in the United States. Black Power’s embrace of the Palestinian cause was in part derived from a sense that Palestinians and black Americans were confronting the same processes. Jewish neoconservatives identified similar links while drawing inverse conclusions. For commentators like Norman Podhoretz, the connecting thread in the special relationship was Jewish security, if not survival. Neoconservatives warned that anticolonial critiques of American liberal pluralism (such as those offered by Black Power) threatened the structures that had secured Jewish integration into American life, while anticolonial critiques of Israeli defense policy threatened the state that had secured Jewish survival in the wake of the Holocaust. Both required muscular defenses—“law and order” in the United States and material support for Israel abroad.

For Arab-American scholars and activists like Edward Said, the special relationship relied on the objectification of Arabs, especially Palestinians, in popular culture and academic scholarship. After 1967, Arab-American scholars and activists criticized these objectifying tendencies while calling for the treatment of Arab-Americans and Palestinians as fully-realized subjects with priorities that differed from those of the Cold War state. These concerns animated both Arab-American involvement in the development of ethnic studies programs and Said’s field-making text, Orientalism (Pantheon, 1978). Arab-American women likewise struggled to make themselves visible as “subjects endowed with a complex personhood” within the feminist movement, as Jewish and women of color feminists clashed over the place of Israel/Palestine in their own critiques of liberalism, global capitalism, and state-sanctioned violence amidst the rise of Ronald Reagan and Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon (195).

Previous scholars have explored how these same activist groups interpreted the question of Israel/Palestine. However, A Shadow Over Palestine goes further in demonstrating just how integral that question was to sometimes divergent understandings of race and power in the United States. While many readers will bristle at Feldman’s unqualified acceptance of critiques of Zionism as settler colonialism or the US as a militarized racist imperialist state, the work is nonetheless valuable to scholars who do not share those premises. Much of that value comes from Feldman’s diligence in simply identifying and navigating the connections that shaped its subjects’ engagement with American racial structures and Israel/Palestine—that SNCC cribbed its analysis of Zionism from the PRC, that Edward Said’s involvement in Arab-American scholarly organizations led him to Orientalism, that Norman Podhoretz helped Daniel Patrick Moynihan pen his condemnation of UN 3379, are just a few of the evocative examples that Feldman analyzes.

At the same time, much of Feldman’s analysis relies on sometimes dense theoretical concepts that lead him to a frustrating reliance on jargon. In a relatively tame example from the introduction, Feldman argues, “U.S. culture work about Israel and Palestine after 1967 mediated the racialized social formations in the United States that achieved cultural hegemony in the 1970s, even as it informed the antiracist imaginative geographies that persistently exceeded hegemony’s norms of reference” (3). This is not to discount these concepts—only to question their style of deployment. After all, much of A Shadow Over Palestine concerns the ways in which language can obscure humanity. So why does the work itself sound so unhuman?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Walker Robins is the 2017-2018 Israel Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in Israel Studies at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Keith P. Feldman is assistant professor of comparative ethnic studies and a core faculty member in the Program in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley.


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