Thinking Palestine

Lentin, Ronit
Zed Books, London
2008
9781842779064 (hb), 9781842779071 (pb)

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Cover of book This book grapples with the varied facets of the Palestinian predicament in Israel, Lebanon, and other sites of exile. The book includes contributions from thirteen authors, and is the culmination of a conference on the topic of 'Palestine as a State of Exception A Global Paradigm'. It is centered, indeed, around Agamben's concept of a 'state of exception' (Agamben 2004). This legal concept refers to situations where a parliamentary democracy senses its physical or constitutional well-being is being threatened, hence it issues exceptional decrees that transfer power to the governing body, namely the government or the president of state. Agamben shows that most Western countries have such stipulations in their constitution, and that many of them have actually operated under this constitutional exemption starting in the French revolution in the 18th century and continuing until the War on Terror in the early 21st century. Thinking Palestine is premised upon Agamben's critical analysis of the state of exception, suggesting that like France, Germany, Switzerland and the USA Israel is in a constant state of exception. Whilst it presents itself as an exemplar for a modern western democracy, Israel is legally in a constant state of exception, allowing it to act unconstitutionally and with disregard for human rights.

The authors argue that the legal state of exception began in 1948 and that it never receded. This theoretical context serves the book well, as Agamben's critique fits the case of Israel, and helps one understand the plight of Palestinians in Israel and of those living in exile as refugees. It thus provides a unified core for the book, and the chapters contribute to a deep and nuanced understanding of the Palestinians' predicament. The story that the book tells, in some respects, is a political one. It shows sympathy for the Palestinians but also alludes to the extent to which Israel and Palestine define each other, and how much their respective histories also constitute that of the other. This story, one could also argue, is about exception.

The authors analyze the Israeli-Palestinian state of exception on different realms. Some discuss the racial basis of the state of exception; others exhibit how problematic practices are adopted by the Israeli army or the Israeli security forces; and yet others deal more directly with the representation of Palestine in different discourses: political or academic. This broad scope provides the lay reader with an interesting introduction to the Palestinian perspective, and it provides the well-versed reader with some interesting case studies which broaden the scope of present analyses of the Palestinians (e.g. management of the moment of death in a chapter on 'Thanatopolitics').

Notwithstanding the conceptual contribution of the book, however, its merits are counterbalanced by a dearth of original empirical evidence. The reader will learn very few original facts, as similar cases to those presented are very often reported in daily publications throughout the world, including in Israel. In fact, most of the chapters rely on official reports or use information reported in the newspapers. Though these sources could serve as paraphernalia, the lack of original data is unsatisfying. In balance, the book should be seen as a theoretical discussion rather than as a collection of original empirical studies of this understudied area.

Overall, it is an important book for students of Palestine, but ipso facto of those interested in Israel too. The two political entities are exceptionally entwined, and the book provides an original conceptual discussion for framing this state of exception.

Reference:
Agamben, Giorgio, 2004. State of Exception. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gad Yair
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem