Globalizing Palestine

The historian James L. Gelvin, in The Modern Middle East, claims that “in spite of the fact that the size of Palestine and the number of people directly affected by its political problems are minuscule in comparative terms, the dispute between Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians and various Arab states, on the other, has been at the forefront of international attention for over sixty years.”[1]  John Collins, an interdisciplinary scholar who has spent most of his academic career writing about Palestine, agrees with this observation in his fascinating book Global Palestine.  Unlike Gelvin, however, Collins does not stop at simply describing the internationality of the Israeli/Palestinian quagmire: he attempts to show the global significance of Palestine.  Specifically, Collins seeks to reveal how Palestine’s past and present can shed light on the globe’s present and future.  This essay looks at why Collins asks us to look at Palestine from a global perspective and how he articulates such an abstract idea as global Palestine.[2]

In the preface to Global Palestine, Collins gives us a pretty good idea about his project.  Explaining why he wrote the book, Collins writes, “I began this book with a desire to step outside the circle of often tired political frameworks within which Palestine has generally been imprisoned.”[3] The circle of frameworks he is referring to are “the seductive narratives of nationalism, with the binary logic that splits the world into hierarchically ordered halves (us/them, East/West, Orient/Occident, developed/developing, terrorism/legitimate state violence, etc.) and with the stale language of realpolitik and ‘national interests.’”[4]  According to Collins, they need to be avoided because, “if recent decades have shown us anything, it is that there are significant interpretive and political limitations associated with” them.[5] In short, the study of Palestine has been hindered by the rhetoric of the nation as well as by that of the state.  Thus, in Collins’ view, to emancipate the study of Palestine and take it in new directions, scholars will need to step outside the conceptual box.[6]

As the title of his book suggests, Collins’ solution to pulling Palestine out of its scholarly and political rut is to think of it in global terms.  In fact, this is the thesis of Global Palestine: “the book’s core idea is that the same forces operating to produce Palestine’s troubling realities are also operating globally in ways that have implications for all of us, and that examining Palestine’s recent past and present in this light can yield new insights about Palestine itself while also revealing important clues about global processes that too often remain hidden, camouflaged, and poorly understood.”[7]  On the one hand, Collins is claiming that Palestine is not exceptional: events in Palestine are a product of “the same forces” that are working across the globe.  Therefore, studying Palestine from a global perspective can “yield new insights about Palestine itself.” On the other hand, Collins is arguing that Palestine is exceptional: studying Palestine can enlighten our understanding of global processes.  In other words, Collins’ central thesis asks us not only to view Palestine from a global perspective, but also to view the globe from a Palestinian perspective; only this will allow us to understand the importance of Palestine.

Beyond political and interpretive boundaries, Collins informs us that the book is also designed to transcend (and even reject) disciplinary boundaries.  As he claims, “the book’s orientation also reflects the fact that I have always been, at heart, an interdisciplinary (I sometimes prefer the term anti-disciplinary) researcher who seeks to probe the boundaries of conventional wisdom.”[8]  This, he explains, is one reason the book draws on the work of Walter Benjamin, John Trudell, and Paul Virilio—three intellectuals whose work Collins describes as “unconventional” and “subversive.”[9]  Furthermore, “these influences . . . signal the use of an approach that embraces the practice of theoretical, methodological and thematic diversity for the simple reason that the deep structures of global politics have as little respect for disciplinary borders as they do for national ones.”[10]  Taking into account his claims about other types of boundaries, Collins ultimately holds that we can only truly understand Palestine and its politics by denying boundaries any significance.

In the chapter “Approaching Global Palestine”—the most important chapter for understanding the author’s program—Collins elaborates further on the need to study Palestine globally.  “In short,” he explains, “the remarkable global profile [of Palestine] tells us a great deal about the politics of globalization in general, from the impact of ‘time-space compression’ to the complex dynamics of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, from the troubling realities of permanent war to the changing face of international solidarity activism.”[11]  The key word in this sentence is globalization, for it comprises the global processes Collins describes and constantly refers to throughout the book.  In addition, globalization can be read as an attempt to emphasize Palestine’s importance in understanding the future—that is, where Collins sees the world heading.  Restating his thesis from the Preface, but adding to it in important ways, Collins writes, “the central argument here is that far from being shaped by global and globalizing processes, Palestine has been and continues to be an often prophetic index of and shaper of these processes, a kind of monadic unit that contains important clues to a series of much broader realities.”[12]  Mirroring what he says in the Preface, Collins believes Palestine “contains important clues” about global processes and “broader realities.”  The difference here is the use of the terms “globalizing” and “prophetic,” which signal Collins’ belief that understanding Palestine is important to understanding the future.  To restate, Collins holds that understanding Palestine’s present is integral to understanding the global present as well as the global future.

At the juncture, you might be tempted to ask, in what specific ways does Collins believe Palestine is prophetic? “First,” argues Collins, “as the primary targets of an ongoing settler colonial project (Zionism), Palestinians have been test subjects for, and in some cases active agents helping to catalyze, an emerging world of pervasive securitization and violent acceleration, a world order symbolized by the ‘Global War on Terrorism’—(GWOT)—a war in which anyone can be a target.”[13]  Therefore, in Collins’ eyes, Palestine is first prophetic in its experience of settler colonialism.  As Palestine becomes marked by increasing securitization and acceleration, so too does the world.  “At the same time,” continues Collins, “[Palestinians] also continue to be important actors in and symbols of the ongoing struggle for global justice, a struggle in which the defense of life and locality plays an increasingly prominent role.”[14]  The second manner in which Palestine is thus prophetic is in “the ongoing struggle for global justice.”  As the struggle progresses for Palestinian justice, so too does the struggle for global justice.  According to Collins, then, Palestine’s prophetic qualities demonstrate that, rather than being on the receiving end of globalization, Palestine is actively shaping it in crucial ways.

We might ask, however, if Collins is the first person to articulate the idea of a global Palestine.  In short, the answer is no; but a more nuanced picture is required for a better understanding of where Collins fits into the historiography of “global” Palestine.  As Collins notes, “for decades [the scholarly] literature was dominated by an implicit exceptionalism rooted” in Zionist claims and “corresponding claims of exceptional victimization on the part of Palestinians.”[15] This, according to Collins, prevented comparative studies between Palestine and other parts of the world and prevented global political theory from being applied to Palestine.  Along with binaries and zero-sum logic, claims Collins, this was the state of scholarship on Palestine until about the late 1980s.  Since then, “an increasing number of scholars have been pushing back against inherited frameworks of all sorts.  As a result, work on Palestine is increasing characterized by references to transnational processes, such as militarization, racialization, capital accumulation, ‘states of exception,’ biopolitics and a range of power/knowledge structures.”[16]  Thus, what Collins refers to as “Palestine’s Global Turn” was, on the one hand, made possible by a general global turn across the social sciences.[17]  On the other hand, “the opening up of the literature to these broader debates is, in its own way, part of the globalization/Palestinization phenomenon referred to above.”[18]  That is, events in Palestine contributed to the global turn just as the global turn may have contributed to events in Palestine.

This does not mean, however, that Palestine became global only in the 1990s.  Using Arjun Appadurai’s idea of “process geography,” Collins asserts “that the Palestinian struggle has always been a global one.”[19]  Process geographies, summarizes Collins, “are best understood as ‘precipitates of various kinds of action, interaction, and motion’ rather than as ‘relatively immobile aggregates of traits.’”[20]  One can see Palestine as process geography in the experience of Palestinian refugees, who never quite leave there homeland behind.  As Collins explains, “like all members of any globalized community, Palestinians who live in exile carry with them memories and markers of the homeland,” and “these are components of the global Palestinian experience.”[21]  So, even though they may not be physically in Palestine, Palestinian exiles bring their homeland with them wherever they go.  Palestine and Palestinian identity then become involved in a process of constant negotiation and (re)interpretation.  Some other ways we can see Palestine as process geography are in the involvement of other states in the geopolitics of Israel/Palestine and in what Collins refers to as “the global flow of the technologies of violence” (e.g. bulldozers) into Israel/Palestine.[22]  According to Collins, it is because of this “action, interaction, and motion” between Palestine and the rest of the world that we can speak of a global Palestine before the nineties.

Finally, let us turn to Collins’ use of the term “globalization.”  For, after looking at Collins’ central points, one could argue that Global Palestine is, more than anything else, a book about globalization.[23]  In Collins’ mind, globalization is not a new phenomenon: “the age of globalization is, after all, the age of linkages,”[24] and global linkages are far from novel.  Even so, globalization in the twenty-first century is unique.  It is not merely a question of acceleration, though Collins does see speed as an important aspect of twenty-first-century globalization.  Nor is it a simple matter of colonization, securitization, or occupation.  What is unique about globalization in the twenty-fist century is how acceleration, colonization, securitization, and occupation work together.  In the twenty-first century, claims Collins, these processes have, on the one hand, “produced a world marked by both radical integration and radical hierarchy,” and on the other hand, extended “the logic of permanent war across the globe in a way that complicates those narratives that focus almost exclusively on capital accumulation as the motor driving global history.”[25] Collins’ idea of twenty-first-century globalization can therefore be summed up as the compression of time and space (maybe even to the point that neither concept has very much meaning), the radicalization of global hierarchy, and the perpetuation of global conflict.

To recapitulate, Global Palestine is John Collins’ attempt to get us to see “Palestine’s prophetic global significance.”[26]  This essay offered some insight into Collins’ rationale for claiming that Palestine has global significance as well as how he articulates such an idea.  Perhaps most important in the idea of global Palestine is that what is happening to the Palestinians is also happening—or will eventually happen—to the rest of us.  In this reading, we are indeed all Palestinians.


[1] James L. Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 217.

[2] I say abstract because, in my opinion, adjectives like “global” lend themselves more to theoretical concepts than they do to concrete concepts.  The success of Collins’ argument depends on this abstraction.

[3] John Collins, Global Palestine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), ix.

[4] Ibid., x.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Whatever the merits of this cliché, telling people to step outside the box (the exact phrase is “step outside the circle”) can hardly be considered new and creative.

[7] Collins, Global Palestine, x.

[8] Ibid.

[9] These descriptions can be found in ibid., xi.

[10] Ibid., xi.

[11] Ibid., 1.

[12] Ibid., 2

[13] Ibid., 2-3.

[14] Ibid., 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 4.

[17] The phrase “Palestine’s Global Turn” can be found in ibid., 3.  It is the title of a section in Chapter 1, “Approaching Global Palestine.”

[18] Ibid., 4.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 5.

[22] Ibid., 6.

[23] I was introduced to this idea in a discussion with Reem Bailony on 6 March 2014.

[24] Collins, Global Palestine, 7.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] Ibid., 16.

 Works Cited

Collins, John. Global Palestine. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[Thanks to Michael O’Sullivan for looking over this post before it was published.]


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