The Closer You Get

Yousef Mounayyer wonders why, in the recent media debate over whether Israel is an apartheid state, Palestinian voices have been so conspicuously absent. In his history of the slave market in the antebellum South, Harvard historian Walter Johnson provides an answer. “One of the most durable paradoxes of white supremacy,” writes Johnson, is “the idea that those who are closest to an experience of oppression (in this case, former slaves) are its least credible witnesses.”

Update (11:50 pm)

Or perhaps it’s that Palestinians are only useful insofar as they provide “personal testimony.” The larger questions—Is this apartheid?—have to be left to the (non-Arab) experts. “Give us the facts,” as Frederick Douglass’s white patrons told him, “we will take care of the philosophy.”


  1. Aaron Gross April 30, 2014 at 11:47 pm | #

    The apartheid debate is (ostensibly) a legalistic debate over whether a certain word applies to a certain situation. The relevant facts of the situation aren’t all that much in dispute here: that Israel identifies as a Jewish state, that it’s been in control of additional territories since 1967, etc. If, in a trial, the defendant doesn’t dispute the basic testimony of the prosecution’s key witness, then the witness’s testimony isn’t going to be the focus of the trial.

    That’s for the ostensible debate. In reality the so-called debate is a political fight to see which side can impose its own language on the discourse. It’s not about finding the truth, it’s about power. Maybe Palestinians are ignored simply because they don’t have power in the West, so they’re not that useful to the anti-Israel side in the fight.

    • Corey Robin April 30, 2014 at 11:51 pm | #

      Or, as Frederick Douglass was told by his white patrons, “Give us the facts, we will take are of the philosophy.”

      On Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 11:47 PM, Corey Rob

      • Aaron Gross May 1, 2014 at 1:21 am | #

        That was a nice trick you just pulled, here and in your update. I was replying to the explanation that you yourself quoted! That is, the idea that “those who are closest to an experience of oppression…are its least credible witnesses[my emphasis].” You were the one who focused this on witnessing as opposed to analysis, not me. I replied only within the framework that you yourself set – witnessing – and then you blame me for staying within that framework.

        Obviously, Palestinians are as qualified to analyze those undisputed facts as anyone else. Your description of my view in your update as “Palestinians are only useful insofar as they provide `personal testimony’” is absolutely not what I said or what I believe. I believe that in this specific question, Palestinians are no more or less “useful” for getting at the truth than anyone else. In other Israel/Palestine questions Palestinians are more “useful” at getting to the truth than others, but not this specific question.

  2. Cade DeBois (@cadedebois) May 1, 2014 at 12:09 am | #

    One of the cornerstones of white supremacy is that our (white people’s) perspective is the only truly “objective” one. Everyone else’s is colored (no pun intended) by their experiences of not being the dominant group. Consequently “objectivity” becomes a highly subjective tool to promote white supremacy’s, or any other dominant group’s, narrative. As Frantz Fanon observed, objectivity in the dominant society is always directed *against* those it oppresses. It is a means to silence anyone whose own narrative would disrupt the dominant narrative, by seeking to cast doubt on the objectivity, rigor, legitmacy and neutrality of any differing perspective. If you dig deeper, you find in essence we are branding all non-dominant perspectives as hopelessly defective and damaged by the experience of what the dominant society has done to those it oppresses to point of supposedly being worthless and therefore, we don’t need to listen to them. Convenient! So we’re where it all begins, again, with the notion the dominant group is superior in nature and deserving of their dominance while those other folks, well, they just can’t be trusted and they probably have a chip on their shoulder (can’t they just get over it???), so you just know they can’t be “objective” like us.

    • Aaron Gross May 1, 2014 at 10:59 am | #

      So what is missing, then, by not considering Palestinian perspectives in answering that question – whether Israel is an apartheid state? What specific, concrete knowledge or interpretation is being missed? The legal definition of apartheid? The text of Israeli laws?

      Those elements seem objective to me, in the sense that they look pretty much the same from all perspectives. Obviously, the Palestinians and the Israelis are the interested parties – which seems to be the only point that Mounayyer is making – but the Palestinian and Israeli perspectives seem no more enlightening than the Venezuelan perspectives or the American perspectives in answering that question.

      The answer would be different if the question were, What is the effect of Israeli apartheid/occupation/whatever you call it. There the answer would depend on experiences that are known first-hand only to Palestinians and to Israelis. The Palestinian and Israeli perspectives would be indispensable. But I don’t see that with the question actually being asked here.

  3. s. wallerstein May 1, 2014 at 1:06 am | #

    That’s one of the chief facets of oppression: that your voice doesn’t count, that your opinion doesn’t matter, that you’re not a peer, that they don’t listen to you, that they (the oppressors) have the power to define the situation and even the benevolent solution, if there is a benevolent solution.

  4. Corey Robin May 1, 2014 at 1:26 am | #

    Aaron Gross: I wasn’t accusing you of holding that view; it just made me think of that argument. That’s all. Sorry for the misunderstanding!

    • Aaron Gross May 1, 2014 at 1:51 am | #

      No problem. It was the “Or, …” that made me think it was a rephrasing of what I’d written. Sorry for over-reacting in my reply.

  5. Jim Brash May 1, 2014 at 1:28 am | #

    My questions to all that have posted on this subject are : How do we relate what happened via the BDS movement to end aparthied in South Africa to what’s happening today? What are the parallels and lessons we draw? It seems to me that Black South Africans had a singular powerful voice leading the way – the ANC. They ANC sent emissaries all over the world to gain attention to its cause. Neither Hamas nor Fatah have been able to unite the majority of Palestinians. Neither have been able articulate the demands of the Palestinian people they way leaders like Mandela and Oliver Rambo were able to for black south Africans.

    • Jason R Weidner May 1, 2014 at 2:04 am | #

      I think the difference has less to do with the qualities of the oppressed than the power relations and structures of which the respective oppressors are part. The South African apartheid regime received stalwart support from the US and its Cold War allies, but it had few if any bases of support outside the sphere of Cold War statecraft. Israel, on the other hand, for obvious historical reasons, and not to minimize the level of international opposition it faces, is in a much different position than was the white South African regime.

  6. BillR May 1, 2014 at 1:30 am | #

    It’s no great bother findind articulate Palestinians if anyone is interested in listening to them:

    Walid Khalidi:

    Joseph Massad:

    Haneen Zoabi:

    Edward Said:

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