This Teach section offers a course that introduces some themes of the Palestinian revolution during the period from 1948 to 1982. Created for advanced undergraduate level of study and graduates in taught courses, this curriculum has also been designed explicitly for those not enrolled in a university course, and who wish to teach themselves something about this period of history – a period so close in time, and yet extremely distant from our contemporary collective memory. The course is divided over twelve weeks, which can be easily shortened, depending on the length of university semesters. Also, particular sets of themes, as well as certain individual weeks, can be selected in order to address more specific teaching needs, and to supplement and enrich already existing courses.
This syllabus follows the pedagogical approach of a typical ‘document-based’ Oxford special subject paper. This gives students the opportunity to develop their own understanding of an area of study, through a close engagement with original material. Given the paucity of teaching resources on this topic, the editors have written introductory essays for each of the weeks. These essays place the sources in their context, and give students a sense of the relevant thematic and conceptual categories of the period. Rather than offering a definitive account of the Palestinian revolution, these essays instead provide an encouragement to further study and reflection, as well as some guidance on readings.
The syllabus was conceived as a bilingual online anthology, or reader, and it includes a substantial primary research component. In addition to the traditional challenges associated with creating a course, after designating a new subject of study, and which is typically based on the foundations of more general studies on the topic, the creation of this syllabus has required a more comprehensive approach. Because of the complete absence of any teaching or academic research agendas on the subject of the Palestinian revolution, the course has been been primarily, and of necessity, research driven. Most of this material has been gathered directly. It relies on a substantial oral history component that was collected specially for this website, and that has documented hundreds of hours of filmed footage. Out of this footage, we have assigned a range of transcripts as readings, but these can also be viewed on the separate Cadres page, with selections (including subtitled selections) in the Learn section of the site.
For other types of source, some material is more available than others: for instance, most of the memoirs included here are already published in Arabic. They were chosen after a bibliographic survey, seminars and workshops on the hundreds of revolutionary memoirs available in Arabic, English, and French. Likewise, UN and foreign state documents are easier to access, being housed in official archives and collections. In contrast, many revolutionary writings, pamphlets, documents, and images required research in specialised libraries, PLO institutions, party offices, and personal collections. The vast majority of sources were gathered by the editors, but the programme was also fortunate to receive some supplementary contributions and suggestions from Palestinian institutions, scholars, and researchers, who are gratefully acknowledged in the ‘About Us’ section of the site.
As the syllabus is bilingual, it has required a sustained translation effort. Most sources were originally produced in Arabic, with a few written in English or French. To have them available to students and researchers alike has required translation and editing of hundreds of pages. The editors undertook much of this effort, with the help of teams of volunteers, largely comprised of university students and faculty, and some was completed by professional translators.
The course was developed in order to answer a simple question: how to bring the experiences and voices of the Palestinian liberation movement in particular, and anti-colonial revolutions in general, into the curriculum? The question itself emerged from an awareness of the complete void we had noticed as educators interested in teaching this field. The phenomenon that is generally referred to in Arabic as the Palestinian revolution, al-Thawra al-Filastinya, was momentous by any standards. Unfolding over the course of several decades, it had profound implications for the history of Palestine, the Middle East, and global anti-colonialism. Yet, we could not find any academic courses specifically dedicated to this subject.
Today, Palestinian history is predominantly taught at most Arab institutions under the heading of ‘the Palestinian Cause’, al-Qadiya al-Filastinya, while in Europe and the United States it generally features under ‘Arab-Israeli Conflict’ courses. Around these syllabi, dozens of textbooks, readers, and documentary source collections have been developed. As much as they provide valuable teaching material, they also restrict what can be taught and learnt, and especially what can be understood; their emphasis is on top-down state, diplomatic and military themes in history and politics, as well as overarching economic and social superstructures. In these perspectives, the Palestinian people are generally seen as objects of politics and history.
Teaching the Palestinian revolution opens up different possibilities. By necessity, it is centered on the Palestinian people themselves, rather than on the great powers, regional states, and the impersonal international and structural forces that had intervened so pervasively in their lives. While taking account of the role of external historical forces, the focus here is entirely on the Palestinians themselves: their popular structures, movements, cadres, philosophies, songs, poetry, art, tactics, and strategies, rather than policies and designs drawn up by others. What the course explores is the development of collective agency, political production, and active engagement with history, rather than passive subjecthood. Another notable gap in this subject are the transnational connections and ties that bound the Palestinian revolution tightly with other anti-colonial struggles and solidarity movements.
This has slightly different contextual relevance in North America and Europe and in tricontinental countries. In the former, it has become widely acceptable to teach the histories of victimhood, suffering, and injustices in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It is far more difficult to teach the history of anti-colonial resistance, especially when it has an element of revolutionary armed struggle (as was the case in most tricontinental countries), including Algeria, Vietnam, South Africa and of course (and above all) Palestine. This becomes clear when comparing how ‘western’ and anti-colonial revolutions are taught today in the academy.
For one example, it is unthinkable at a university today to reduce the American or French revolutions to the question of violence. These complex phenomena are approached from multiple angles and approaches, and for at least the past five decades they are being increasingly viewed from the bottom-up. In other words, these events are taught as revolutions: multidimensional, dynamic, transformative, and carried out by a diverse range of actors who have names, faces, and stories to tell. In contrast – and to cite two major African and Asian examples – on the rare occasions when they are taught, the events universally known in Africa and Asia as the Algerian and Vietnamese revolutions are discussed as the ‘Algerian Civil War’ and the ‘Vietnam War’, rather than as the substantial revolutions they were. Popular and progressive history of these grand struggles is overshadowed by discourses of violence, war, terrorism, or counterinsurgency. In the case of teaching frameworks on the Palestinian people, this is even more evident, not least because the cause is ongoing, and the political debates around it, in the United States and Europe, continue unabated.
Universities in North America and Europe, conscious of political and social contexts, have become increasingly sensitive to the failure to come to terms with the anti-colonial tradition, and by default, the ongoing legacy of colonialism. A new understanding has developed, largely as a result of student demand, for a serious and rigorous engagement with their politics, history, and traditions of resistance, self-organisation, thought, and action, rather than a token inclusion of racialised and colonised peoples as victims.
Teachers of anti-colonial revolutions confront varying sets of challenges in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Whereas the value of these events is widely recognised, they are often absorbed into state narratives concerned with legitimating their contemporary political order. These narratives often privilege the roles of leaders as opposed to ordinary cadres. The nationalist content, rather than the internationalist and progressive dimensions are also emphasised, and areas such as gender and labor dynamics glossed over. Moreover, these events are subjected to partisan narratives that aggrandise certain parties and movements, while belittling the participation of others, especially the role of grass-roots and popular civic organising. The Palestinian case suffers from additional challenges. A refugee people, the politics of Palestinian revolutionary action often intersected – and clashed – with the internal dynamics of Arab states, such as Lebanon and Jordan. The official narratives of these states, supported by a large governmental machinery, typically overshadow those of Palestinians, along with the popular movements who supported them in the Arab host countries.
The great challenge here has been to free up this period of history from the hagiographic concerns of the present, restore an appreciation of the central role of popular voices and practices, and offer an internally balanced, diverse and non-partisan content on the subject Palestinian revolution. It seeks to do this in a way that does not privilege some participants while erasing others, and to combine dominant state narratives with less-known marginalised voices and accounts.
In creating this curriculum, the editors were conscious of these numerous challenges, and drew upon a wide group of distinguished international scholars and institutions (see ‘About Us’) to address them. One does find references to some current leaders here, but these are restricted to past events where they played a role. Most of the names here were only known within the revolution, or inside one of its constituent structures. The Palestinian revolution is not treated as an exceptional or special case: instead, it is related to the broader global anti-colonial currents of which it was such an integral part. Attention was taken to select sources from all major movement and institutions, while taking into account the size of each movement and the scale of its contribution in the different historical periods. The larger movements, such as Fateh, the PFLP, and the DFLP, receive more space here, but we sought to include sources from a wide range of other parties and political groups active during this period, such as the Communists, al-Saiqa, the Palestine Liberation Front, the Arab Liberation Front, and others. We also sought to ensure that dissident non-governmental voices of Arab solidarity movements, women, workers, and students were represented.
These twelve weeks offer a broad introduction to the immensely rich world of thought, sensibility, and action of the Palestinian revolution, much of which remains unknown. Through the diverse body of sources in this teaching material, we hope both educators and learners are afforded an opportunity to pursue more reading and discussion of this subject.