Walter Benjamin in Palestine

Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions is pleased to offer this reflection on a Walter Benjamin conference in Palestine by David Lloyd, ally of anthropology and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California at Riverside. Lloyd finds that such a conference is “a model…for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine.”

Walter Benjamin in Palestine

The law which is studied but no longer practiced is the gate to justice. The gate to justice is study.            

Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka.”1

Walter Benjamin never did go to Palestine. Despite frequent invitations from his friend Gershom Scholem, who emigrated there in 1925, and despite the rapidly deteriorating situation for European Jews in the 1930s, he never abandoned whatever ambivalence prevented him from making a decision he often contemplated. The reasons for that ambivalence are unclear, though his critique of Zionism for its racism was early and prescient. Scholem reported that Benjamin had named, among the three things that Zionism would have to abandon, its “racist ideology” and its “”blood and experience’ arguments”.2 Whatever he foresaw before its foundation about the predictably racist evolution of the so-called “Jewish State”, and however the ugly ethnic exclusivity of such a state would have stuck in his craw, there can be little doubt that Benjamin would have recognized in the current state of Israel and its occupation that “state of emergency” that his last writing recognized to be the permanent state of the oppressed.3

Benjamin’s name for this emergency was fascism. We need a new name, but there is no doubt that the consummate laboratory for the current global state of exception is Israel, with its ever-increasing militarization of society and its draconian and racist occupation of Palestinian lands. Even as their dispossession bites deeper, the very existence of Palestinians has become a “demographic time-bomb”, perhaps the most succinct and hyperbolic expression of settler colonial paranoia yet produced. Benjamin knew well what it was to be targeted as a demographic threat and to be hated in one’s flesh: as he put it in a letter to Scholem, “a principal component of vulgar anti-Semitic as well as Zionist ideology is that the gentile’s hatred of the Jew is physiologically substantiated on the basis of instinct and race, since it turns against the physis.”4 What is it, then, to read Benjamin under the conditions of a state of emergency for which he provides, if only by analogy, the most trenchant analysis?

The organizers of the workshop and conference, “Walter Benjamin in Palestine: On the Place and Non-Place of Radical Thought”, which took place in December 2015, recognized that Benjamin’s writings, displaced from their initial and urgent context, could enter into a new constellation with circumstances he could hardly have envisaged.5 They themselves could scarcely have anticipated what kind of constellation it would turn out to be, nor how far the act of reading Benjamin in Palestine could exceed the usual exchanges of scholarly meetings. But they did know that they were asking participants to enter into what was by then a self-evident state of emergency for Palestinians. What some were already calling a third intifada had been underway since the vicious arson attack by extremist settlers on a Palestinian family that summer, which had left a father, a mother and their infant dead. To the sporadic and clearly unorganized stabbings by individual Palestinians Israel was, as usual, responding with the disproportionate violence that sees in any kitchen knife an existential threat and which had already left nearly 80 Palestinians dead. By day and night, military incursions were targeting Palestinian youth and students in particular.   This was scarcely a promising moment to summon people to attend an academic conference in Ramallah, let alone one that explicitly called on its participants to honor the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. And yet “Walter Benjamin in Palestine” gambled on the possibility of offering scholars an alternative to a Benjamin conference being held in the same month, in flagrant violation of that call, at Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Their gamble proved to be justified. The organizers had expected maybe thirty participants. But on the first night of the workshop, over 100 people, from some 15 different countries, squeezed into the tiny meeting room of the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in Ramallah, one floor above the room in which the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish established his study after his return to Palestine in 1996. Anyone familiar with the usual attrition rates at academic conferences might be astonished that those numbers scarcely dwindled throughout the first three days that were mostly devoted to the close study of a handful of Benjamin’s earliest and densest writings, from “The Task of the Translator” to “Critique of Violence.”

Study of this kind might easily have appeared self-indulgent under the conditions of occupation and military violence that prevailed on the West Bank in December. Some mornings the smell of tear gas still hung in the air as people gathered for the workshops, the only trace of the night’s violent invasions of Palestinian space that the IDF conducted in its hunt for student or political leaders. But at most, it highlighted the apparent safety of the art college where we gathered and the discrepancy between what we would witness and what we knew to be unfolding only streets away. Under such conditions, what could it mean to devote hours to reading a few pages of Benjamin’s most esoteric writings? Was that not to inhabit a bubble within the bubble that neoliberal Ramallah already represents to those who are cordoned off in refugee camps or inhabit the more violent interfaces between settlers and the indigenous Palestinian population that tessellate cities like Nablus or Hebron? There can hardly have been a participant who did not pose herself that question, accustomed as we are in the Western academy to consider study a preserve of the ivory tower, a luxury to be disdained in the face of the exigencies of practical life or activist preoccupations.

But that, surprisingly, is not how it felt to engage in these workshops. To emphasize the contradiction between intellectual study and a commitment to practice, or between the privilege of the foreign scholar and the burdens of the Palestinian living under occupation, seemed almost too easy, a form of hasty thinking, even. Those of us who had committed to engage in these workshops, unsure even whether we would be allowed by Israeli authorities to enter Palestine, despite the workshop’s focus on a major and self-consciously Jewish intellectual, had chosen to participate in study under a state of occupation. We came there from diverse and incommensurate histories and motivations. We were philosophers by training, artists, film-makers, historians and theorists, activists and translators, and sometimes several of those at once. Some sought to immerse in the textual complexities of Benjamin’s knotty work, some to develop an analysis of state violence or alternative modes of resistance. We all rejected the lazy reduction of Benjamin’s words to sound-bites that—as the organizers’ opening night statement observed—decorate every museum catalogue and gallery brochure. Above all, we had committed not to a mere intellectual exercise but to the furtherance of a principle, which is that the intellectual life of the occupied and oppressed is not a luxury, but a fundamental expression of the possibility of living in common.

The very common space that study under such conditions created, conditions extraordinary not least for the numbers that gathered consistently each morning to read two or three pages of difficult philosophical prose, was testimony to the belief that intellectual and cultural life matters, not in the way that “culture” enhances the vacuous conversation of the financiers and professionals, but with the urgency and excitement of survival itself. That is precisely what Israel has targeted, with steady consistency and unrelenting callousness, from the theft of Palestinian libraries and archives in 1948 to the ongoing invasions or bombings of university campuses and facilities that seem like a constant of its assaults on Palestinian life, whether in Gaza or Tulkarm. The attempt to destroy Palestinian intellectual life is as unstinting as the uprooting and burning of the ancient olive trees of the Holy Land, some 800,000 of which have been destroyed in the course of Israel’s occupation.

The strangulation of Palestinian culture and intellectual life, from the blockade on pencils entering Gaza to the restrictions on freedom of movement imposed on Palestinian scholars and students, is no less a form of “slow violence’ than the ongoing environmental destruction that the settlements, their infrastructure, and the apartheid wall that hems in what remains of the Palestinian West Bank, all inflict upon the land.6 It was hard not to think that Benjamin’s beautiful and elegiac tribute to the phenomenon of aura in the essay ““The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”,” had nowhere been more summarily dismissed than in the vista of the settlements, occupying every hilltop like crusaders’ forts and burying old woods and olive groves in a flow of concrete. “To follow with the eye—while resting on a summer afternoon—a mountain range on the horizon or a branch that casts its shadow on the beholder is to breathe the aura of those mountains, of that branch”, wrote Benjamin.7 Nothing can have stripped the auratic veil from the peculiarly haunting, fragile landscapes of Palestine more thoroughly than the triumphalist placement of the settlements along the lines of the hills, sites of surveillance and proclamations of domination alike, or the uprooting of the olive trees that had clung so closely to them.

The conditions for intellectual and cultural persistence and the survival of an ecology that had sustained a life in common are equally threatened by Israel’s unstinting encroachments. Under such conditions, the leisurely act of study gains a peculiar urgency. Study, the slow practice of thought in the state of attentiveness that Benjamin calls “the natural prayer of the soul”, when undertaken in circumstances that make of it a common project, an experiment in what it might be to think in common, becomes something other than an intellectual chore or a professional necessity.8 It accommodates the dynamic pull of different approaches and commitments against one another into a kind of dialectical ensemble. Exchange across differences, differences abrasive and deep enough to demand listening and not mere negotiation or “agreeing to differ”, becomes the condition for the momentary formation of community among those who commit to study together. When study undertaken with respect, both for the text that is its common object and for the different paths along which each one enters it, is also study that apprehends its very practice as resistance, the bonds it forges exceed the protocols of the academic seminar and offer, if briefly, an intuition of the affective ties that any living in common might entail. Under such conditions, the notion of solidarity, etymologically and historically thought of as a unified block, gives way to something like a constellation, to use a favorite figure of Benjamin’s: a differential alignment of quite disparate positions.

That is not to say that the disjunction between our study, with its deeply pleasurable solidarities, and the far more courageous acts of resistance that were going on nightly around us fell from sight. On the contrary. It was impossible, for one thing, to forget how far the suffocation of Palestinian intellectual life that Israeli policy has aimed at does have effects, as surely as the neo-liberal economic and political regime of the Palestinian Authority has so visibly collaborated with the destruction of the environment, or as steadily as the influx of NGOs has sapped the grassroots organizations that sustained Palestinian resistance in previous moments of resistance. Those effects are at once the infliction of damage and the constitution of new and different conditions for knowledge, a vantage unavailable to the privileged. Very few Palestinian teachers or students attended the workshop, which were conducted almost exclusively in English. The paucity of Arabic translations of Benjamin—one of whose translators was denied entry by Israeli authorities—meant that only those with the language skills in English or German that are so hard to attain could participate fully. The very exigencies of political struggle mean that Palestinians are, as Bir Zeit’s Professor Mudar Kassis remarked, too often confined to speaking about Palestine and quietly denied the right to speak as theorists or philosophers in their own right. We occupied the violent interface that divides the world between those who enjoy the privileges of the “imperial university” and those categorically denied them.9 Collectively, even as we committed by being there to honoring the Palestinian struggle for rights and justice, we could not be free from the age-old colonial distribution of the world and its goods, intellectual as well as material, between those who have appropriated the name of humanity and those who have yet to be recognized as fully human. The act of resistance that “Walter Benjamin in Palestine” represented occupied and threw into relief the very divisions it sought to overcome. The work we performed together risked withholding from us the insights of a culture and an intellectual life forged not in a wealth of material resources but against the grain of dispossession.

And yet it felt more like a disjunction than a negation of our engagement, something closer to what the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said might have called a counterpoint than to an ethically disabling antagonism. Such a counterpoint did not diminish the value of reading Benjamin under occupation. It enhanced and sharpened one’s interpretation of what he may have meant by the worldly political value of what he calls “transient worldly existence” in the two brief pages of the “Theological-Political Fragment”: our very being together was conditioned by the transient contingencies of opportunity, desire, commitment.10 Whatever horizontal comradeship we shared, across the disjunctions that no personal act of will or desire could abolish, was a manifestation of the political valence that Benjamin descried in transience and in the commitment to the rhythms of a perpetual passing away. The experience of the provisionality of our meeting, its counter-institutional adventitiousness, found its sense in one of the most intractable essays Benjamin ever wrote. The very transience of such insights and of the community they forge, momentarily, perhaps, but unforgettably, is the crucial counterpoint to what Benjamin calls the Messianic, in which the profane and violent world might eventually find redemption: their opposition is the productive antagonism of the fleeting glimpse of happiness and the absolute perspective from which its insufficiency is measured.

It has been the experience of many of us working in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for justice that a commitment to practice is not, as is so often suggested, the antagonist of thought, but is, rather, a stimulus to the new and inventive thinking that the exigencies and aporia of movement demand. People in movement constantly break old moulds for thinking because they must in order to work through the obstacles their practice always faces. And new thinking produces equally new modes of relating and organizing, because it must. Theoretical acuteness and practical engagement prove to be reciprocal. Activism is in fact the antagonist of complacency and of the satisfaction with familiar protocols that dulls thinking and makes the institutionalized academic a little stupid. But activism is not always expressed in headlong mobilization or fervent debates, nor is thought only the forethought that shapes or the afterthought that reflects on practice. As “Benjamin in Palestine” exemplified, it can also take the form of deliberate thinking in common whose very exercise is a form of resistance, however limited. As the BDS movement continues to advance, perhaps workshops like these, which step beyond mere “severance of relations” (as Benjamin described the act of striking) to shape conditions for new modes of relation, may offer a way to think the future of our resistance to Israeli apartheid. Perhaps too it offers a model also for an alternative to the insidious corporatization of our intellectual and creative lives under the neoliberal dispensation we all confront, wherever we reside, and not only in occupied Palestine. That, indeed, may be the insight we have been gifted by those who daily struggle for the right to education in the face of dispossession.

  1. Walter Benjamin, “Franz Kafka: On the Tenth Anniversary of his Death”, trans. Harry Zohn in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds, Selected Writings: Volume 2: 1927-1934 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1999), p. 815. 
  2. Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship, Faber and Faber, 1982, pp. 28-9, cited in Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Boston: MIT Press, 1989), p. 379, n. 22. His biographer, Momme Broderson, thinks that the evidence of his correspondence suggests “that Benjamin cannot have been particularly serious when he talked to his friend Scholem about emigrating (voluntarily) to Palestine.”   See Broderson, Walter Benjamin; A Biography, trans. Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers (London and New York: Verso, 1996), p. 142. 
  3. Walter Benjamin, ”On the Concept of History”, trans. Harry Zohn in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds, Selected Writings: Volume 4, 1938-1940 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003), p. 392: “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule”. 
  4. Benjamin to Scholem, October 22, 1917, The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, ed. Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 99. Benjamin goes on to critique the notion that this “unconsciously drawn conclusion”, ie, that the hatred is substantiated, is false, but continues to acknowledge how hatred, “whatever basis and grounds it may have, in its most primitive and intense forms … becomes hatred for the physical nature of the one who is hated.” It is interesting that Benjamin so early notes Zionism’s convergence with “vulgar anti-Semitism” , given how much energy has gone into proclaiming anti-Zionists to be anti-Semitic. 
  5. The initial statement of the conference can be found here: 
  6. On this notion of “slow violence”, see Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011). 
  7. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility”, trans. Howard Jephcott and Harry Zohn in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds, Selected Writings: Volume 3: 1935-1938 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2002), p. 105. 
  8. Benjamin, “Franz Kafka”, p. 812. 
  9. See Sunaina Maira and Piya Chatterjee, eds. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). 
  10. Benjamin, “Theological-Political Fragment”, trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Selected Writings: Volume 3, p.p. 305-6.