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Book Preview – Mapping Exile and Return, by Alain Epp Weaver

What political theologies are embedded in and shape Zionist and Palestinian refugee mappings of space and place? This is the animating question of my new book, Mapping Exile and Return, which stems from my doctoral studies in theology at the University of Chicago and 11 years of work in the Middle East.

[Alain Epp Weaver, director of strategic planning for Mennonite Central Committee, previews his book, Mapping Exile and Return: Palestinian Dispossession and a Political Theology for a Shared Future (Fortress Press, 2014).]

What political theologies are embedded in and shape Zionist and Palestinian refugee mappings of space and place? This is the animating question of my new book, Mapping Exile and Return, which stems from  my doctoral studies in theology at the University of Chicago and 11 years of work in the Middle East.

Palestinians have encountered the Zionist return to the land as nakba (catastrophe), as a cartographic regime of erasure that works to remove Palestinian traces from the landscape. As Israeli political theorist Ammon Raz-Krakotskin notes, the tenets of Zionism as a political theology (the return to land, the return to history, and the negation of exile) have as their practical corollary the conceptual and physical erasure of the indigenous Palestinian population. As Palestinian cartographer Salman Abu-Sitta says, Palestinians have been “abolished from the map.” Zionist political theology is thus, in the words of Edward Said, a colonizing form of “imaginative geography,” a cartographic conceptualization of Palestine as a land without a people for a people without a land. This is to say that Zionist mappings of return have gone hand-in-hand with Palestinian exile.

Living as exiles outside or inside of historical Palestine, Palestinian refugees have undertaken their own imaginative acts of geography, putting forward cartographic visions of al-‘awdah, or return. In particular, the past two decades have seen an explosion of grassroots and non-governmental efforts to map Palestinian refugee return. Israeli Jews portray Palestinian mappings of return as acts of aggression and projected erasure, operating under the assumption that Zionist and Palestinian refugee maps of return are locked in a zero-sum cartographic battle. In this study I contest this assumption through an exploration of specific Palestinian Christian mappings of return. These mappings, I contend, point to the possibility of a cartography of palimpsests, a mapping of land not bound to the form of the nation-state but rather embracing of overlapping difference. In the case of Israel-Palestine, such mappings anticipate a bi-national future that pushes beyond partition schemes that remain wedded to the form of the nation-state.

The first chapter of Mapping Exile and Return provides a detailed overview and description of different forms of Palestinian refugee cartography whilst paying careful attention to the wall maps, tour guides, and atlases created by Salman Abu-Sitta and republished in a wide variety of media including memory books and on websites dedicated to specific destroyed villages. After situating Palestinian refugee cartography within the context of Israeli Jewish fears over the rights of Palestinian refugees to return and compensation, I evaluate these mappings of exile and return in light of Said’s appropriation of exile as a critical stance and his warnings about Palestinian refugee return mirroring Zionist forms of return. For Said, “exile” designated both a material condition and a critical mode of reflection, while “return” referred not only to a political project of refugee return but also what he called a metaphysics of endlessly deferred return, a permanent condition of being unsettled and “out of place.” I connect the polyvalent, and at times ambiguous, character of exile and return in Said’s writings to the ongoing debates among Palestinians about the “right of return,” a debate between “realists” like Sari Nusseibeh and Rashid Khalidi who call for Palestinians to accept “virtual” return in exchange for an Israeli affirmation of the right of return in theory and those, like Salman Abu-Sitta, who insist that the physical return of refugees to their homes and properties from 1948 is “sacred, legal, possible.”

In the second chapter, I examine how Zionism can be understood as a political theology of exile. As Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin and Gabriel Piterberg have shown, mainstream Zionisms of the left and the right advanced a three-fold political theology of Zionism as a return to the Land of Israel (ha-shiva le-eretz yisrael), as a return to history (ha-shiva la-historia), and as the negation of the exile (shelilat ha-galut). Raz-Krakotzkin contends that Zionism embraced modern Christendom’s equation of history with the history of nation-states and so rejected Jewish life in exile as being outside of history. Zionists argued that return to the Land of Israel – understood as sovereign control over that land – would reenergize Jewish life by returning the Jewish people to history. In this Zionist political theology, exile has nothing to teach about landed existence. In order to contest this claim, I turn to the writings of the late John Howard Yoder, whose own Christian political theology of exile drew upon and sought to mirror the Jewish experience of exile. Just as Jewish life in exile stands as a potential critique of Zionism, so does Yoder’s missiology of the church as exilic community counter the church’s Constantinian accommodations. But, his critics object, Yoder’s valorization of exile left him unable to articulate a positive account of landed existence. To answer Yoder’s critics, I turn again to Raz-Krakotzkin’s account of exilic existence within the land: if the exilic community’s life is shaped by, in Yoder’s words, “not being in charge,” then an exilic theology of life in the land will reject exclusivist claims to sovereignty and will, as Raz-Krakotzkin contends, embrace the binational character of life in the land rather than pursuing strategies of partition.

The third chapter features a form of Palestinian Christian mapping of exile and return that displays the possibilities of a cartography of palimpsests and of reconciled existence between Palestinians and Israeli Jews. I examine forms of narrative, visual, and physical return to the ruins of Kfar Bir‘im, a destroyed Palestinian Christian village in the northern Galilee, many of whose former inhabitants still live in the Galilee, actively engaged in legal and political struggles to return to the village site. I pay particular attention to the place of trees in memories of the village, in return visits, and in the theological reflections of one prominent displaced Bir‘imite, the Greek Catholic Archbishop for the Galilee, Elias Chacour. The pivotal role played by trees in Chacour’s autobiographical narrative and in his theological analysis stands as one instance of how the arboreal imagination animates Israeli and Palestinian mappings of space and landscapes of return. The planting of trees asserts connection to the land and covers over traces of prior habitation, while oak, fig, olive, and pomegranate trees become sites of memory for the imagined Palestinian refugee landscape. After recounting Bir‘im’s destruction, I examine Bir‘imite practices and discourses around trees, with particular attention to Chacour’s autobiographical-theological narrative. What cartographies can the arboreal imagination produce? Is the arboreal imagination necessarily bound up with exclusivist mappings of erasure only, mappings that encode given spaces as either Palestinian or Israeli Jewish? Or might the arboreal imagination animating the imagined landscapes of Palestinian refugees also produce cartographies of mutuality that accept, even embrace, the complex character of shared space?

The book concludes with an interpretation of return visits to destroyed Palestinian villages as liturgical actions. I develop my account of return visits as liturgical actions through a descriptive analysis of the diverse cartographic practices of the Israeli organization Zochrot, an organization dedicated to “remembering the Nakba in Hebrew.” Zochrot’s counter-mapping practices can be interpreted as liturgical in that they point to and embody in the present a vision of a bi-national future through imaginative narrations and reconstructions of the past. Through engagement with the work of Jean-Yves Lacoste on the topology of liturgy, I argue that such return visits can enact a liturgical subversion of the Israeli ethnocratic order through the embodiment of a cartography of palimpsests in which genuine return to the land means a welcoming of difference instead of its erasure. Building on Paul Virilio’s analysis of contemporary war, I argue that the transformation of time and place through the exilic vigils of return visits contests the dromocractic domination of space characteristic of the Israeli ethnocratic regime. Specifically, the palimpsest maps created by Zochrot’s political actions open up new ways of conceptualizing and of living in the places of Israel-Palestine – modes of landed existence shaped by the exilic vigil.

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