Review: On Zionist Literature, by Ghassan Kanafani

Dylan Saba

On Zionist Literature, by Ghassan Kanafani (trans. Mahmoud Najib) is now available from Ebb Publishing.

On September 6th, 1970, guerrillas affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) hijacked four commercial airplanes headed from different European cities to New York nearly simultaneously. On his program that night, Walter Kronkite announced the group’s “bold coordinated action,” which “thrust back to the world’s attention a problem diplomats have tended to shove aside.” The militants successfully diverted two planes from their planned routes and flew them to Dawson Field in Jordan, which they renamed “Revolution Airport.” Hundreds of hostages were held there for a week as the PFLP invited journalists to the scene and held public press conferences.

Behind the microphones sat Ghassan Kanafani, a founding member of the group who had established himself in the Arab world as a protean guerrilla intellectual of the Palestinian revolution, though he remained relatively unknown on the world stage.The images from these conferences are striking: sitting at a desk beneath posters of Lenin, Mao, and other revolutionaries, Kanafani and his comrades explained the Palestinian struggle for liberation and demanded the release of fellow militants from European jails in exchange for the release of the hostages. A gaggle of Western reporters sat on the ground at their feet, some holding microphones pointed up toward the guerrillas as others jotted down their every word. 

Incredibly, the operation worked. The militants were released, no hostages were killed, and the nascent national liberation movement spoke to the world for the first time. But this success would be short-lived. The increased militancy of the fedayeen (Palestinian nationalist guerrilla fighters) provoked extreme repression from Israel and the U.S.-backed monarchy of King Hussein in Jordan, both of which waged counterinsurgency campaigns against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in the early 1970s. The Jordanian military, unhappy with the revolutionary activity drawing Israeli ire within its borders, began to attack the guerrillas, precipitating the event that came to be known as “Black September” in which they violently expelled the PLO from Jordan.

The PFLP, along with the rest of the armed resistance, regrouped in southern Lebanon. Internal divisions began to plague the organization. Although its Central Committee, led by longtime Kanfani associate and group founder George Habash, decided to halt all airplane hijackings and other indiscriminate attacks in November of 1971, such operations continued under the rogue direction of Wadie Haddad, a commando who would go on to defect from the organization the following year. In May of 1972, Haddad planned and executed an assault on the Lod airport in Tel Aviv, in which several members of the Japanese Red Army killed more than two dozen Israeli and foreign civilians.

Though Kanafani was not directly involved, he was the PFLP’s spokesperson at the time, and despite internal division, the group claimed public responsibility for the attack. In response, the Mossad launched a spate of extrajudicial killings targeting prominent Palestinians in the resistance. Kanafani was assassinated in Beirut on July 8th, 1972, along with his 17-year-old niece Lamees Najim—killed by a car bomb that detonated upon ignition. He was 36 years old.

Kanafani’s founding membership in the PFLP has made him a symbol of Palestinian terror within Israel. In December of 2018, Aryeh Deri, the Israeli minister of internal affairs, ordered the demolition of a small statue of Kanafani that had been erected outside the Nabi Saleh Cemetery in Acre, a coastal city on the northern tip of Haifa Bay. Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev, who had pressured Deri to remove it, declared at the time: “It is impossible for the statue of someone like this man to remain.”

But while Kanafani supported armed struggle against the State of Israel, he himself never picked up arms. His weapon was the pen, and with it he fought on many fronts: in addition to the novels, plays, and short stories exploring Palestinian exile and resistance for which he is most celebrated, he also produced journalism, scholarship, and criticism. Across these various modes, Kanafani developed a cohesive body of work aiming to counter the Zionist narratives that underpin Israeli domination.

He began this lifelong project as a student at the University of Damascus, where he worked on a thesis on race and religion in Zionist literature before being expelled for his political activity with Habash and the Arab Nationalist Movement (ANM) in 1955. More than a decade later, when the guerrilla scholarship arm of the PLO commissioned him to write a study of Zionist literary production, he returned to this material and expanded it into On Zionist Literature, which was published in 1967 and finally appeared in English, in a translation by Mahmoud Najib, last year.

On Zionist Literature, which aims to demythologize the origins of Jewish nationalism, is an analysis of Zionism from the vantage of the people upon whom it was inflicted. With a verve verging on swagger, Kanafani challenges the very foundations of Jewish historiography on the origins of Zionism through a close reading of the literary precursors to the colonization of Palestine. Along the way, he makes historical claims that radically contradict the conventional wisdom of both his day and ours about Jewish ethnic identity and assimilation in Europe.

While some of these claims are myth-breaking, others are ahistorical. But as Palestinian American scholar Steven Salaita notes in his introduction to the new edition, his controversial analyses are usefully provocative, as Kanafani “inverts the common narrative of Zionism as an existential necessity.” Indeed, the strength of Kanafani’s contribution lies less in its ability to intervene in Jewish historiography than in its power as a method of reasoning from his own existential condition as a colonized Palestinian.

Ever the revolutionary, Kanafani’s intellectual pursuits were in direct service of a positive political project. After immersing himself in these texts—and in the wake of the total collapse of the Arab front following its military defeat in the June 1967 war (colloquially known as the “Six Day War” in Israel)—Kanafani began to believe that unlike Zionism, which turned the racializing logic of antisemitism on its head to produce its own racial chauvinism, Palestinian liberation must chart a path that destroys, rather than inverts, the essentialisms that undergird their oppression.

For Kanafani and his comrades, this meant waging a struggle for national liberation rooted less in the particulars of Palestinian ethnicity than in a universal anti-colonial struggle for indigenous sovereignty. Doing so required building common cause not only with those who share the same language or race, but with all the oppressed peoples of the world; in other words, they realized that as a colonized people fighting imperialism, Palestinian revolutionaries had more in common with Black Americans or the Vietnamese than they did with the Saudis. And to wage this struggle, they had to assert before the world what Zionism fought so hard to deny: a radical, anti-colonial subjectivity.

Kanafani was a writer before he was a revolutionary. “My political position springs from my being a novelist,” he once said in an interview. He was born in 1936 to a Kurdish Palestinian family in Acre, Palestine, then under the control of the British Mandate. During the Nakba—the mass killing, dispossession, and expulsion of Palestinians at the hands of Zionist forces in 1948—he and his family were exiled to Southern Lebanon before eventually making their way to Damascus in Syria. There, he finished his secondary schooling and began working as an art teacher for Palestinian children in the refugee camps.

Though he witnessed the brutality of colonization firsthand, it was in the experiences of his young students that Kanafani was able to apprehend the scope of the Palestinian condition. He began to write, depicting the world he saw through their eyes. He earned a teaching certificate from UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees, and in 1952 began pursuing a degree in Arabic literature at the University of Damascus, where he met his lifelong friend and comrade George Habash, who helped him realize the political character of his drive to tell the Palestinian story. But a revolutionary consciousness could not be built on the page alone; Habash recruited Kanafani to the Arab Nationalist Movement bringing him into the fold of pan-Arab organizing to achieve the recovery of Palestine. 

In 1956, Kanafani moved to Kuwait to take up a position as a schoolteacher, and continued to write stories about life in the camps. These early works focused on the pain of exile and the pessimism endemic to the Palestinian people: “The Land of Sad Oranges,” for example, follows the expulsion of a middle-class Palestinian family so devastated by the loss of their home that, as the narrator laments, “the only solution was a bullet in the head of each one of us.”

As the Palestinian drama continued to unfold, the subjectivity Kanafani crafted on the page through his fiction began to take a more defined shape. By the turn of the ’60s, the prospect of Arab national unity across disparate political-economic conditions was proving elusive: King Hussein of Jordan consolidated neocolonial ties with the United States and Britain, and the short-lived United Arab Republic, a political union between Egypt and Syria, dissolved after only three years.

Kanafani’s first novella, Men in the Sun (1962), was hailed throughout the Arab world as a quintessential parable of both Palestinian exile and the collective failure of the Arab response to Zionism. The story follows three Palestinian men in search of work who are smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait, hiding in a water tank in the back of a truck. While the truck is held up at a checkpoint, the men are trapped in the heat of the midday sun, only a short distance away from their destination.

Terrified of being discovered, the men die in silence, to the profound confusion and dismay of the Palestinian driver. The novella interrogates the possibility of Arab unity—price-gouging by their Iraqi smuggler and unnecessary delays by Kuwaiti border guards contribute to the stowaways’ demise—and suggests the need for revolutionary agency among Palestinians in its concluding line, in which the voice of the desert demands: “Why didn’t you bang on the side of the tank? Why? Why? Why?” 

During this period, Kanafani began reading Soviet writers and incorporating Marxism into his political analysis, and his political thought became increasingly influenced by contemporary anti-imperialist movements from beyond the region. In 1964, the Arab League, the coalition of Arab states formed in 1945, established the Palestine Liberation Organization with the dual objective of Arab unity and Palestinian statehood. At the time, Kanafani and the ANM were already moving toward a more internationalist struggle.

In the next few years, Kanafani would travel to China twice: first to meet with political leaders, including Foreign Minister Chen Yi, and then to attend the Afro-Asian Writers meeting, where he and other Arab delegates were deeply moved by the accounts of Vietnamese resistance to U.S. imperialism. Back in Palestine, the broader mood would soon shift away from pan-Arabism, as Israel’s victory over the Arab states in 1967 marked the end of both Nasserism and of Palestinian reliance on neighboring allies for defense. How, Kanafani and his comrades were left wondering, had a shared language and civilizational memory failed to galvanize an adequate national defense against colonialism?


Against this backdrop, Kanafani undertook his survey of literary Zionism and the construction of Hebrew national identity. Like all modern nationalisms, he contends in On Zionist Literature, Zionism had to create an ethnic basis for self-determination that appeared to emerge naturally from history. This meant reifying the Jewish history and mythos of exile into a real sense of attachment to contemporary Palestine.

By the 19th century, Kanafani writes, it had been two millennia since there was “a common sense of geography, civilization, economy, culture, or politics among the world’s Jews, and there certainly was not an ethnic kinship either.” While he acknowledges the basis for Jewish ethnic identification in a transnational language like Yiddish, he argues that these heterogeneous currents did not necessarily amount to a universal Jewish peoplehood. He draws a sharp distinction between religious practice and ethnicity, arguing that insofar as Jews were treated as a unified ethnic group, it was by antisemites.

Because religious belief alone was an insufficient basis for new territorial ventures, the task for early Zionists was to produce a people with a national subjectivity. Zionism, Kanafani argues, leveraged language and the racial ascriptions of antisemitism to create an “ethnicity”—reviving Hebrew as a spoken rather than mainly liturgical language and effecting the transformation of Judaism from religion to race, and then from race to nation. To bolster his theory of this process, Kanafani looks to 19th-century England, where social and political contestation over the status of the Jews set the stage for some of the key literary precursors to Zionism. He argues that, contrary to its self-conception as a movement born from persecution, the earliest Zionist literature was a reaction to improving conditions for England’s Jews—Enlightenment-inspired religious tolerance was spreading, the Jewish population was increasing, and full social integration was a real possibility.

The novel, an emerging form of self-expression for the English bourgeois, reflected these sensibilities. In works such as Maria Edgworth’s Harrington (1817) and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Jewish characters were represented in popular culture as romantic and virtuous protagonists for the first time, while antisemitism was treated as a social ill. If Zionism was European Jewry’s response to antisemitism, Kanafani asks, why would it emerge during a time and place of social reprieve for Jews?

Instead, he suggests (though with insufficient evidence), these were unacceptable developments for certain segments of the country’s Jewish elite that opposed integration and sought to profit from colonial plunder. This final move—in which Kanafani, who had just begun to engage with Marxist methodologies, arrives at a crudely class-based motivation for Zionism without historical evidence—is the weakest point in his analysis. 

Though Kanafani overstates the promise of the Enlightenment for European Jewry and reduces the complex set of causal factors behind the emergence of political Zionism to a class conspiracy, his question of why and how, after centuries of persecution, Zionism took form in 19th century Europe remains a good one. His answer, which identifies the emergence of Jewish ethnonationalism as a historical contingency inspired more by 19th-century ideas of racial difference than in the shared experience of peoplehood, sets the stage for the decoupling of ethnicity and nationalism that would characterize his subsequent political development. 

The first literary embrace of Jewish ethnonationalism came at the pen of Benjamin Disraeli—the British novelist and politician who would go on to become prime minister—whose novel The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833) featured what Kanafani considers the first Hebrew, rather than Jewish, protagonist. In Alroy, Disraeli, who was born Jewish but converted to Christianity, countered the integrationism of Harrington and Ivanhoe by advancing a Judaism of racial difference, reifying membership in God’s chosen people into a marker of biological essence.

Here, Kanafani finds a rendering of the world where race is supreme and, in the words of Disraeli, “there is no other truth.” No longer a faith or set of practices, Judaism in this proto-Zionist worldview is instead a genetic category of person. The novel, which follows a heroic Jewish leader’s rise and fall in 12th-century Persia, identifies the Hebrew as a pure, unmixed race. Disraeli’s Jewish protagonist—whose race is described as a “psychological fact” that is “a simple law of nature” with more causal force than individual will—is imbued with a sense of racial superiority that serves as his prime motivation for imperial conquest.

Though Alroy only briefly alludes to Palestine as a spiritual center for Jews, Kanafani argues that by debuting the Hebrew as a literary protagonist occupying a new racial category, it prepared the way for more sophisticated—and more familiar—justifications for Zionist colonialism in fiction. The first properly Zionist protagonist arrived in 1876, when British novelist George Eliot published her final book, Daniel Deronda, over eight installments. In this novel, Eliot—who was not Jewish, and whose interest in Jewish nationalism, Kanafani contends, relates to her relationships with anti-assimilationist members of the Jewish elite—combines the racial logic of Alroy with allusions to a progressive, civilizing justification for colonization.

Kanafani quotes liberally from long orations in the novel’s “Zionist section,” in which the character Mordecai, a dying visionary, expresses his wish for the Jewish colonization of Palestine. After praising “the Hebrew blood which has maintained its vigor in all climates, and the pliancy of the Hebrew genius for which difficulty means now device,” Mordecai declares that only “a republic where there is equality of protection,” established in an arena of “beasts . . . amid the despotisms of the East,” will ensure that the Jewish race “shall have an organic center” and “take on again the character of a nationality.”

For Kanafani, the text, which “mixed religion and race under the banner of the national homeland,” is a straightforward polemic whose “value lay in its political services for a chauvinistic current at a turning point in history.” The work quickly spread across Europe, and within four years of its publication, proto-Zionist thinkers in Russia had translated it into Hebrew, accelerating its popularity in Jewish homes. 

Kanafani finds in these works a literary process of national identity formation that was in a feedback relationship with the development of political Zionism. The object of texts like Deronda was to “mobilize Jews by creating a global environment sympathetic to the Zionist cause” by employing an “opportunistic exploitation of history to justify entirely new events that were far removed from the location, thought and personalities of that history.” Rather than discovering and seizing upon a pre-formed nationalism, proto-Zionists had to fabricate a fictive ethnicity from a religion through the vehicles of race and language.

In other words, Zionism is not a solution to the Jewish desire for self-determination; it is that desire, embodied. This was clear to the more sophisticated of the novelists: Eliot, through the voice of Mordecai, insists that the transition from a religious to a racial to a national conception of peoplehood must be concurrent with, and dependent upon, the realization of a state-building project in Palestine. The notion that nationalism and the state had to be actively built together, shared by Eliot and Kanafani, replaces the backward-facing mythology—wherein the former precedes the latter in causal sequence—with a process of mutual constitution. 

In tracing the evolution of the Jewish literary character, Kanafani identifies a transformation from a “(Davidian) religious figure” to “the political David,” the racial Hebrew who is “a figure of absolute power, virtue and infallibility, before whom the entire world appears like the ghost of Goliath.” Against the power and virtue of the Jewish settlers, Palestinians appear only as representatives of the backwards Arab masses, the spectral foe against which Hebrew subjectivity is constituted.

Kanafani finds this propagandistic racecraft on full display in Leon Uris’s Exodus (1958). The quasi-historical novel, which quickly became an international phenomenon and topped bestseller charts in the United States, consists of fictionalized accounts of Jewish migration to Palestine and the violent founding of the Israeli state. Uris depicts the Arab residents of Palestine as brutish cowards with no real connection to their homeland. Kanafani quotes these lines from the text’s conclusion: “If the Arabs of Palestine loved their land, they could not have been forced from it—much less run from it without real cause. The Arabs had little to live for, much less to fight for, this is not the reaction of a man who loves his land.” 

Kanafani shows how the racialization of Arabs as hapless objects of Hebrew colonization depends on a total denial of an independent Palestinian subjectivity capable of asserting national claims. In Exodus—and other works like it, such as Arthur Koestler’s Thieves in the Night (1946) and Yael Dayan’s Envy the Frightened (1961)—Arabs do not speak as Palestinians, but as backward desert-dwellers who resist the civilizing efforts of the Jews but have no countervailing political project of their own: “When an Arab expresses his ‘patriotism,’” Kanafani observes, “it comes in the form of pleading with the Jewish character to make him feel like he belongs in Israeli society.”

What Kanafani identifies as the racial justification for Zionism, and the concomitant campaign to negate Palestinian subjectivity, is part and parcel of the logic of elimination common to settler colonial endeavors: indigeneity is removed through ethnic cleansing, and those individuals who remain are subsumed as minoritarian subjects of the colony. Palestinians are erased, and a minority of Arab Israelis permitted to remain.

But in On Zionist Literature, Kanafani is not quite ready to shape his nascent project of a political Palestinian subjectivity into an anti-colonial nationalism in its own right. He and his comrades began 1967 as Arab nationalists, convinced that the newly independent Arab states together constituted a nation capable of asserting itself against colonial aggression from the West. Notably, this contrast appears only once, stated as a “self-evident formula”: “Judaism is a religion and Jews do not form a nationality; Islam is a religion and Muslims do not form a nationality; and Arabs are a nation, a part of which embraces Islam.”

Here it seems that Kanafani is working out an analytic scheme that he was not yet able to apply to his own ideological position. His deconstruction of Hebrew nationalism should have inspired skepticism toward the racialization of a common tongue shared across the bounds of geography and culture. Both ethnicities, Hebrew and Arab, are fictive insofar as they reflect not biological essence or cultural continuity, but a desire to avenge a common injury through an assertion of national rights. 

If his study of Zionist ideological development brought him to the edge of this insight, it would be history that pushed him across the threshold. Kanafani realized with the defeat of the Arab states in 1967 that there was little political utility in trying to hold together an anti-imperial coalition across disparate political-economic state formations with their own relationships to colonial power. He would soon shift away from Arab nationalism toward a new political construct aimed squarely at the heart of the Zionist project: revolutionary Palestinian nationalism. 

Kanafani’s post-1967 literary output reflects his political evolution. His 1969 novella Umm Saad directly calls for guerrilla armed struggle, telling the story of a mother (a recurring symbol of Palestine in his work) who, following the 1967 defeat, encourages her son to take up the revolutionary cause, even as it demands the ultimate sacrifice—his life. And in the masterful Returning to Haifa (1970), Kanafani weaves together personal narratives riddled with diasporic gaps and atemporal returns in order to disentangle biological essence from national consciousness: at the onset of the occupation in 1967, a Palestinian couple exiled from Haifa to Ramallah return to find the five-month-old child they left behind has been raised by the Zionist Holocaust survivors who took their home, and now dons an Israeli military uniform. These texts represented a new form of revolutionary independence, featuring protagonists who fight for their land neither as agents of civilizational struggle nor as a backward peasantry, but as properly constituted national subjects formed against the forces of colonization. 

His political work likewise evolved to reflect this ideological shift. Only months after writing On Zionist Literature, Kanafani—along with Habash—reformulated ANM into a new organization, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which would join the PLO as its second largest faction (behind Yasser Arafat’s Fatah) and push the organization to adopt a strategy of armed struggle against Israel. Inspired by guerrilla insurgencies in Vietnam, Cuba, and elsewhere, the PFLP and its affiliates advanced a dual program of national liberation from colonial expropriation and internationalist class struggle for world revolution. 

Although the revolutionary moment of the 70s faded, Kanafani’s insights into the ideological structure of Zionism and his call for a radical form of Palestinian storytelling remain an acute threat to the state, even 50 years after his assassination. Kanafani, like the many martyrs of Palestine that would follow him, died in the creation of a national subjectivity based in anti-colonial liberation that continues to challenge Zionism’s ideology of racial difference. By contesting this logic from the vantage of the colonized, tracing it backward to the point of historical contingency, Kanafani holds open the possibility of its defeat.♦

Dylan Saba is a civil rights attorney and writer based in New York City.

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