This was the December pick for the Rad Roopa Book Club, where we read books aligned with social justice and antiracist thought and praxis. Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics is an overview of the history and politics of the twentieth century and first two decades of the twenty-first century as they pertain to attitudes towards Palestine.
As a child of the 1990s, as a non-Jewish person growing up in Canada, this has always been a part of modern history that I only vaguely understood. I knew the modern nation-state of Israel as we now know it was created by European powers in 1948, and I had a vague notion about what Palestine was, who Palestinians were, and how they contested Israel’s claim to and presence on that land. But for most of my childhood and adolescence, that vague notion was all I understood. As I lay awake in the middle of the night at 14 years old, I would listen to the BBC World Service talk about Bush bombing Iraq, and these kinds of snippets of news informed my view on the Middle East. Truly, it was “somewhere over there.”
Thankfully, I have since broadened my perspective. More newcomers coming to Canada from countries in that region—some by choice, others unfortunately refugees displaced by war or other disasters—has afforded me the opportunity to meet more people and hear their stories, learn about their culture. And I’ve learned more about Israel and Palestine, though I have a lot more learning left to do. Indeed, parts of this book left me slightly confused, for I think Hill and Plitnick assume slightly more familiarity with certain names and events from twentieth-century United States politics than I have!
But the one thing that I didn’t really get was why it has been (and remains, in many ways) so taboo to talk about Palestine, even among so-called liberal or progressive groups. This is what Hill and Plitnick are getting at in this book. They do a fair job of representing different perspectives, referencing both Palestinian and Israeli sources, discussing the role of the United States and other world powers, and generally trying to inform. That being said, this is not a book that tries to “both sides” the issue—it is clearly, firmly pro-Palestinian, and its attempts to present other perspectives are there only to help us understand how we got to here, not to equivocate. The conclusion makes this clear if it wasn’t already: the authors view what is happening in Palestine right now as a human rights crisis, and this book is one way they are trying to get more people to pay attention to it as such.
My thoughts, of course, turned to Canada’s own domestic crisis of colonialism and genocide with the Indigenous peoples from whom Europeans stole this land several centuries ago. The trend right now when talking reconciliation here is to locate that harm as history. In reality, you just have to look at the actions of current governments and institutions to see that colonialism is still happening here. This helps to explain partly why Canada and other states support Israel and, by and large, don’t want to acknowledge what is happening in Palestine or to Palestinians: we are doing it here too.
Except for Palestine highlights that, until now, few world leaders have been willing to appear “anti-Israel” because of how easily this is conflated with being antisemitic. They caution us not to view President Trump’s friendship and concessions towards Israel as an incredible outlier, showing that even past Democratic presidents were generally pro-Israel, albeit in a way that walked the line more finely. So much of politics in horse trading: you give me something, and I’ll give you this back, even if it’s not really something I want to do because at least I get something I want.
Although often verging on the academic and cerebral side, this book also makes itself accessible to us through oral history. Interviews or excerpts from news reports provide context for the Palestinian experience in Gaza, the West Bank, or abroad. This book is far from comprehensive and doesn’t go too deep; however, you’ll come away with at least a general understanding of the conditions Palestinians experience today, the human rights violations, and the violence.
I would have liked the authors to cover more about how Palestine is erased from leftist discourse in general. The book mostly focuses on formal, political speech. How is Palestine ignored or erased in our pop culture? In our memes? Online? How does this connect to intersectional marginalizations—queer Palestinian experiences, disabled Palestinian experiences, etc. That’s probably a wider scope than this book could cover, but these are the questions that are coming to mind now that I’ve read it.
I would recommend this for people with an interest in politics and history. As I said at the start of this review, the book assumes a certain amount of prior knowledge that maybe I fell short of; nevertheless, I muddled through (thanks, Google!). Clearly I have more learning to do on this subject. Still, Except for Palestine is informative and deep, helping me fill in gaps in my knowledge and helping me ask that all-important question: why? The world isn’t the way it is just because; there are so many whys, and now I know some more of them.