The Revolutionary as Critic: Ghassan Kanafani’s On Zionist Literature

The following text is the introduction to the forthcoming English translation of On Zionist Literature to be published by Ebb Books in collaboration with Liberated Texts on July 8th 2022 – the fiftieth anniversary of Kanafani’s killing by Israel.

Ghassan Kanafani doesn’t lend himself to easy categorization. He is well-known to Palestinians, and to those interested in Palestine, but not as a singular figure. He was a Marxist revolutionary, a party spokesperson, a novelist, a political theorist, a schoolteacher, an artist, a newspaper editor, and a committed internationalist. These disparities of perception befit Kanafani’s heterogeneous life, and he was accomplished in each of these roles. Kanafani is less known for another vocation at which he also excelled: literary criticism.

Throughout his short life Kanafani reviewed and analyzed creative writing in multiple genres, having been a student of literature at the University of Damascus where he met his mentor George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist organization that was of significant size and influence in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to On Zionist Literature, Kanafani authored two books critiquing Palestinian literature. Unlike his novels and short stories, these works have not been translated into English.

As On Zionist Literature illustrates, Kanafani was a searing and incisive critic, at once generous in his understanding of emotion and form and unsparing in his assessment of politics and myth. We cannot adequately comprehend his literary criticism without also delving into the political sensibility he brought to the enterprise; it helps, as well, to examine the strictures of the enterprise itself. Literary criticism is not supposed to be “political.” This may sound absurd on its face – the sort of thing no serious reader of literature has ever considered possible – but the stricture isn’t an axiom so much as a kind of ideological coding. In particular, it functions to reinforce intellectual and economic orthodoxy. By consigning “political” criticism to a lesser category of cultural labor, standard-bearers of academe and the arts inhibit revolutionary thought within institutional settings. Anything that threatens centers of power earns the label of “political,” perforce a negative evaluation, and the disrepute that comes along with it. Power therefore comes to embody the apolitical. This sort of environment is unwelcoming of critics such as Kanafani.

Running afoul of bourgeois customs was no issue to Kanafani however, who wanted his critical approach to inform Palestine’s struggle for national liberation. His approach is less an arbitrary choice than a result of his thesis that Zionist literature is itself deeply political (in the crude sense of the term). Kanafani identifies a “colossal scheme” among Zionist leaders to conscript a wide range of artistic work into service of their colonial project. He marshals a long list of examples to make his case: Yael Dayan’s Envy the Frightened, Ahad Ha’am’s essays on Zionism and Judaism, Leon Uris’s Exodus, and a variety of other creative and historical material.

Nor is his critique limited to the texts themselves. Kanafani examines the publishing industry and associated cultural institutions as sites of imperial politics. The Nobel Prize committee comes in for an especially harsh evaluation: “Why did the Nobel Prize committee reward a reactionary and chauvinistic author [Shmuel Yosef Agnon] in 1966, whose writings lack all of the requisite literary standards for such an award?” For Kanafani, the Western literary scene is not an open forum based on meritocracy, but a tightly controlled marketplace meant to satisfy the predilections of a voracious ruling class. Many would-be authors with revolutionary devotions have tried to navigate the industry and reached a similar conclusion.

Kanafani makes it clear that Zionism isn’t coterminous with either Judaism or Jewish people. He identifies ruptures in the movement’s self-definition and its popular definition owing to its provenance in Western imperialism. He unambiguously implicates Jews in Palestinian suffering and considers it an abrogation of intellectual honesty to exculpate Jews qua Jews of Palestinian dispossession, but shows that mainstream notions of Jewish peoplehood are refracted through systematic normalization of Zionism, which brands itself as a natural occurrence. While Zionism does not in fact emerge from scriptural tradition or cultural practice, it insists on its own supremacy as the primary model and final arbiter of Jewish peoplehood. This effort was not the sole domain of Jewish people. The imperial powers and philosemitic luminaries played an important role. Kanafani does not treat Zionism as a natural response to European antisemitism, instead exploring intracommunal dynamics around class and religious devotion. His summary of Jewish integration into modern Europe is perhaps the most controvertible part of the book, but his key point warrants serious consideration as it inverts the common narrative of Zionism as an existential necessity. For Kanafani, Zionism was ultimately a choice borne of internalized racism and a supremacist inclination to seek power in the service of imperial domination and accumulation at the expense of rank-and-file Jews. He argues,

While opportunities for social integration and assimilation were increasing, we can nevertheless note a rising chauvinistic current among socio-economically privileged Jewish circles. The constant stream of Zionist literature that began to appear by the middle of the century finally broke into the mainstream by the century’s end, leading up to the consolidation of political Zionism at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897.

Well-read in Jewish literature beyond what he conceptualizes as the Zionist variety (a category that in any case includes Christian authors), Kanafani evinces an impressive understanding of liturgical traditions, secular narratives, and linguistic developments. Scholars of Judaism will no doubt find great provocation in Kanafani’s sweeping historical summaries, but his sharp acumen, from the perspective of the colonized party, is the book’s most compelling quality. We would do well to focus on his argument that Zionism is neither a cultural inclination or a political necessity. It is a material phenomenon rooted in chauvinistic ideas of culture and politics that tried to squash revolutionary and communist Jewish politics in Europe. Kanafani’s historical overview illustrates the movement’s deep-seated contradictions.

To understand Zionist literature, then, the critic must analyze the painstaking and often contradictory process of forging a notion of singular nationhood from disparate (and in some cases ill-fitting) communities. This is so because Zionism’s crude political goals could not achieve dominion of the Western imagination without the dexterity of literature and other creative media.

Rewriting and revision were crucial features of the strategy for the Zionist-imperialist domination of Palestine. Movement leaders mined the past in order to create a viable pretext for settling the Levant. By and large they turned to the bible for source material, a practice that has inspired a large body of scholarship, but Kanafani shows that much of the decisive labor of invention occurred through cultural artifacts. Those artifacts—creative writing, primarily—either directly informed the Zionist project or were conscripted into the service of Zionism by ideologues and various bourgeois tastemakers. Authors mobilized for the cause included well-known Victorian figures such as Benjamin Disraeli and George Eliot. One of many astounding extracts that Kanafani highlights as he analyses the early development of Zionist tropes is the moment a character in Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda calls explicitly for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine more than seventy years before such a thing became a reality:

… the world will gain as Israel gains. For there will be a community in the van of the East which carries the culture and the sympathies of every great nation in its bosom: there will be a land set for a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East as Belgium is for the West.

In some ways, Kanafani’s approach prefigures the emergence of cultural studies in the following decade, particularly its British variant. Influenced by Marxist scholars such as Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, critics felt less constrained by pretensions of objectivity and began exploring literature as an ideological commodity, particularly in terms of its uses in propaganda campaigns against communism. Anyone who believes in a neutral cultural marketplace will likely find trouble with On Zionist Literature, which treats that kind of attitude as silly and unserious. The cultural marketplace is a site of accumulation like any other capitalist industry, only its products enter the economy in states of abstraction. That marketplace is the aesthetic foundation of hegemony, the raw material of political common sense.

On this basis, Kanafani suggests that adherence to Zionism precludes apprehension of Zionist literature. Indeed, to even recognize the category is a sort of intellectual reconditioning. The great irony of Zionist literature is that it becomes legible only through rejection of Zionism. Otherwise that literature presents as a natural occurrence in the modern world. Zionist literature has to appear purposeless in order to accomplish its purpose. Such is the ideological coding Kanafani spends so much time uncovering. The literature is both precursor and postscript to the colonial project. The two phenomena are mutually constitutive. You have to understand both in order to understand either.

Where might this approach lead us in terms of intellectual and political labor? This question will probably remain in the reader’s mind throughout the book. Kanafani leaves us no choice but to contemplate questions of liberation. The urgency and occasional hyperbole of his tone don’t allow for apathy or disinterest. And his methodology isn’t conducive to any kind of detachment, an attitude Kanafani would have found alien considering the revolutionary mood among Palestinians and Arabs more generally in the recent aftermath of the 1967 War. Palestinians were sorting the pain of defeat into new and more urgent forms of resistance – the PFLP was only months away from its formal establishment – and, aged only 31, Kanafani was filled with a vigor that practically jumps off the page. His is an analysis of political material but also a material analysis of politics. On Zionist Literature resonates with the contemporary reader, within and beyond Palestine, but it’s also a document of its time, intent on subverting the popular mythology of a plucky, besieged Israel surrounded by aggressive Arab hordes. Yet because many of the conditions Kanafani addressed continue to exist, and in many cases have gotten worse, it does no good to view this book as a mere artifact.  While it is of its time, specific to the political and economic circumstances of Kanafani’s era, it speaks to ongoing forms of colonial violence and dispossession central to the Palestinian experience in the present moment. Then as now, that experience has a universal dimension. Kanafani’s fierce counterpoint to Zionist literature aims to show that Palestinian revolutionary sentiment and national liberation are indispensable to the creation of a better world. He pursues this aim in a moment of Zionist triumphalism, when even the left in the Global North had largely swallowed Israel’s self-victimizing narrative. Kanafani and the Palestinian cause were not without allies in the Global South, however, on the contrary. In the same year that On Zionist Literature was written and released, Beirut – the city where Kanafani had lived since 1960 – hosted the Third Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference. Kanafani almost certainly attended this event[1] that upon its conclusion declared a resolution on Palestine that appealed directly to all Afro-Asian and progressive writers around the world to “stand in the face of the wide cultural conspiracy launched by the Zionist movement”. A separate resolution that stressed the need to counter imperialist and neo-colonialist infiltration in the cultural field more broadly listed the Zionist movement – “an imperialist tool used to serve the imperialists aggressive interests” – as a prominent example of this trend.[2]

Therefore, it’s crucial to figure out how to make sense of Kanafani in English—and in the Western milieu summoned by this translation. One of the challenges of consuming translated material is constant awareness that the text was composed in a different language and then trying to imagine its particular resonance in the original. Even the most faithful translation will have difficulty conveying the precise context of certain words and phrases. This issue is doubly complicated in the case of Palestinian writing in Arabic, which rendered into English enters a linguistic and geopolitical framework constitutionally hostile to Palestine.

This isn’t to say that On Zionist Literature should not have been translated. To the contrary, translation is a tremendous benefit to people unable to read the book in its original language. Broadening Kanafani’s audience also broadens access to the sensibilities of Palestine’s national struggle, which can get watered down among diasporic communities. Readers, then, should bear in mind that Kanafani spoke a revolutionary language completely legible to Palestinian society—unapologetic in its dignity; assuming a certain level of comprehension and knowledge; and resonant in the Indigenous tongue. He wasn’t concerned with assuaging liberal sensitivities in the United States (or in Palestine, for that matter). His audience consisted of Palestinians and comrades to the Palestinian cause. This translation allows a new generation to struggle for that cause, as well.

This point about Kanafani’s audience is not minor. He spends a lot of time on Zionism, but a discerning reader will understand that the book is actually about Palestine and Palestinians. Kanafani knew that it is impossible to write about Israel without also writing about its native population, even when that population goes unmentioned. In such times that the Zionist author does acknowledge the native population, “they chose to take a position of almost declaring that the Arabs are a people that do not deserve to live in the first place.” In both instances, the Palestinian ends up dehumanized.

Before ushering you to the main event, it seems useful to say a few words about the author. Since his murder by Israel in 1972, at age 36, Kanafani has endured as an icon but in this role his legacy can become rather complicated. Photographs and video clips of Kanafani circulate frequently on social media.  Evidently, he is very much alive in Palestine’s cultural and political imagination, yet at times Kanafani exists in the abstract, displaced from the material circumstances that defined his work and the revolutionary principles that characterized his ideology. The PFLP meanwhile is less prominent than during its heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, but it persists, on the ground and in analysis of Palestine’s national question. While plane hijackings and guerilla warfare are the PFLP’s most visible legacy, the group’s ideas have also been hugely influential. Many of those ideas are evident in the book that follows: the imperialist character of Zionism, the importance of narrative in authorizing state violence, the primacy of class in both Zionist colonization and Palestinian resistance.

Kanafani is known differently by Israelis (and, to the degree that they’re familiar with him, by Europeans and North Americans). Among the Zionist professional and political classes, he wasn’t merely an enemy, but each of the many pejoratives they apply to victims of Zionism: extremist, antisemite, barbarian, terrorist. Although a devoted Marxist, Kanafani was no hero to the Israeli working class, who despised him with equal passion. For his part, Kanafani viewed the Israeli working class as an antagonistic formation given the enormity of the Nakba and the structural inequality of Israel’s legal system. Working class solidarity was viable only in conjunction with decolonization and the end of imperial domination.

To this day, Israelis don’t really know Kanafani. They know his name. They know his actions. They know his reputation. But they cannot properly comprehend him as an intellectual and activist, and especially not as a human being with the gravitas to inspire his people. Israelis have reduced him to a boogeyman haunting their fantasies of peace. Kanafani knew Israelis extremely well, however. In situations of disparate power, formal knowledge belongs to the oppressor, with its highbrow bureaucrats and bourgeois institutions, but the oppressed possess something more powerful and intuitive: a profound need to free themselves of injustice and subjection. The oppressed, by necessity, have intimate knowledge of the oppressor. This book serves as an excellent example of that maxim.

From its inception, the PFLP was devoted to ideas and has a vibrant archive of revolutionary theory, but it also maintains an active military presence among the resistance to this day, very much in the tradition of Frantz Fanon and Amílcar Cabral:[3] deploying violence not only as a means of territorial and political sovereignty, but as a psychological prelude to liberation. In this way, Kanafani’s political and literary work are inseparable. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that his assessment of Zionist literature is at base an affirmation of Palestine’s future. In seeking to understand Kanafani, we do well to abandon discrete ontological and intellectual categories altogether, or at least to think of them as dynamic and interactive. On Zionist Literature is “political” literary criticism, indeed, especially in the sense that it refuses to separate culture from imperialism.

Kanafani’s political writings, like the broader Palestinian intellectual tradition, are underknown in the Anglophone world despite being so influential in Arabic. The translation of On Zionist Literature that follows is an effort to rectify this deficiency. As readers, we can learn a great deal about Zionism and Palestinian resistance from Kanafani’s incredible knowledge and experience. We can also follow the book’s example and move our comprehension of political material in the internet age from the realm of myth into the more satisfying terrain of material politics.

Steven Salaita’s latest book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine. His personal website can be found here.

On Zionist Literature can be purchased here in English and here in its original Arabic.

[1] As per the recollections of Anni Kanafani, Ghassan’s widow, in email correspondence with Louis Allday, the editor of this translated edition, May 2022. Anni also believed it was likely that Ghassan had contributed to drafting the conference’s resolution on Palestine.

[2] Resolutions of the Third Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference (March 25-30, 1967, Beirut, Lebanon) as quoted in Lotus, the organization’s official publication.

[3] In January 1973, less than a year after Kanafani’s killing, Cabral was also assassinated.

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Ghassan Kanafani