From Self-Denial to Politics of Visibility: Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland from the 1960s to 2015
By Sarah El-Bulbeisi
Does violence (symbolic and physical) produced through forced displacement end upon resettlement or citizenship? In what follows, I aim to address this question through the case of Palestinian refugees who have resided in Germany and Switzerland for more than two generations. I show how violence has continued, albeit taking different shapes, from the Israeli state violence – the destruction of Palestinian society and identity – to forced migration in Central Europe. I also show how Palestinians have been dealing with this violence, how this violence shapes conceptions of the self and the world over the course of two generations – mainly those of the first generation, primarily men, who migrated to Germany and Switzerland in the 1960s and their children – and how this violence was inscribed into the relationships between this first and second generation. The argument I present here is based on a book I recently published in German, “Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960–2015” (El Bulbeisi 2020).
My study draws on forty life stories and conversations as well as on participant-observation, which I conducted with first and second generation Palestinians between 2010 and 2015, in Germany and Switzerland. Because I am also a second-generation Palestinian living in Switzerland, I incorporated an autoethnographic, self-reflexive approach. Theoretically, I started from the premise that analysis of my interlocutor's speech must take into account: a. discourse, which provides the symbolic structures underlying meaning and expression; and b. the unconscious, which arises in the ruptures of the speech, in slips of the tongue, etc. For data collection and analysis, I combined ethnographic methods (especially participant-observation) with discourse and psychoanalytical conceptualization, particularly (counter-)transference and free association. This back-and-forth movement of taking perspective trough ethnography and self-reflection through psychoanalytical approaches, crisscrossed one another in the of course of five years, allowed me to learn in depth about the experiences of others and about my own.
I argue that a crucial part of the violence Palestinians experienced in Germany and Switzerland was (and still is) exerted by discourses, representations and narratives that established moral norms, which in turn legitimized the violence they suffered from the outset of their exile. Not only the public spheres of Central European societies generally did not recognize the original Israeli state violence enacted upon them, but also Palestinians were themselves largely blamed for it. The figure of the Palestinian Anti-Semite and terrorist embodies the threatening and evil counterpart to the North-Atlantic–European moral order. As a result, violence exerted against Palestinians becomes legitimized and is perceived as deserved. Furthermore, this regime of representation resulted in practices such as surveillance, censorship, expulsions (particularly in 1972), bans on meetings, dissolution of student unions and workers’ groups.
I claim that this discursive violence – as I call it – together with the corresponding practices of criminalization de-subjectified my Palestinian interlocutors. To sum up the psychic wound inflicted upon them, I refer to Frantz Fanon’s concept of “trauma of race” (1952). That is, Palestinian de-subjectivation manifested in fear of visibility and political activism, but also of expressing rage and mourning. It also resulted in shame, guilt, melancholia and isolation from society, families, and fellow Palestinians. This violence led many to identity denial, as a mechanism to avoid the pain of being socially stigmatized.
Many members of the first generation had desperately wanted to be a revolutionary subject. They had often migrated for educational purposes and to acquire knowledge for the liberation movement, bringing with them their revolutionary subjectivity to Europe, where they were stranded, since after the 1967 Israeli occupation many became refugees sur place, not being allowed to return. In the very act of preparing oneself for liberation, they repeated their parents’ experience of displacement in 1948, for which they had despised them, and whose situation they deeply wanted to reverse. As described above, the revolutionary subject position was the foundation for the widespread subversive identity of the first generation, which they were unable to embody due to displacement and/or self-denial. While rejecting their Palestinianness outwardly, they cultivated it instead as a devotion that transcended the body and – in an act of self-ethnicization – also encompasses the soul above all else; a collective body incarnated within the individual. Pursuing an enduring inner attachment to the collective trauma became an attempt to assert their place in time and space.
The creation of Palestinianness as a resulting moral identity can be interpreted as a “technology of the self” (Michel Foucault 1986), i.e. as an attempt to produce agency and control in a situation of powerlessness by submitting to a specific feeling and consciousness of commitment. As such, it constitutes a densification of different layers of guilt: it also is an attempt to transform the shame and guilt associated with the vilification of Palestinianness and of the Palestinian experience of Israeli state violence in Western (and Arab) societies into a positive affect such as pride; or, more important, into feelings of guilt towards “one’s own kind”.
However, as a consequence of discursive violence, Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland could no longer fall back on the collective systems of meaning and interpretation (Summerfield 1999) I presented above – the revolutionary subject – provided by the community of experience to overcome the colonial trauma of being ripped out of time and space. Palestinians could not assimilate these symbolic systems into their daily lives, as it can be seen from the widening gap between how individuals imagine themselves to be and how they act in their everyday lives. Not only could they no longer draw on the ideals of the liberation movement and the resistance struggle as a resource for coping with their experience of violence, but also they felt guilty because they were incapable of living up to their ego ideal (Freud 1914).
The way Central European societies deal with their National Socialist past and imagine themselves in the present largely drives them to situate the Palestinian experience of Israeli state violence outside of truth (Foucault 1999) where it remains repressed and denied. Thus, my Palestinian interlocutors feel that their experience of violence was denied and perceived as shameful in the societies in which they live, a feeling that they subsequently largely embodied themselves. The dispossession of their experience of Israeli state violence left a much greater mark on them than the dispossession of their right to return to their country. Palestinianness as a moral identity thus crystallizes the melancholia (Freud 1918) of unprocessed, non-discharged loss and pain. It contains remnants and traces of a lived, but socially rejected violence, and thus hope of rehabilitation and recognition. By “dedicating” one’s life to it, a loss is preserved which could be neither dismissed nor mourned. By forming a subversive subjectivation as a response to colonial obliteration and replacement, Palestinianness as a moral identity functions as a resource for dealing with what I described through Fanon’s concept of trauma of race.
The interwoven nature of the Israeli state violence Palestinians experienced, and the established moral norms in Central Europe legitimizing them, produced a socially accepted form of violence that not only marginalized the members of the first generation but was also a factor in their relations with their children. The second generation of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland was marked by their parents’ derealization (Butler 2004), melancholia and emotional absence, and these played a considerable role in how the experience of trauma of race was passed down to them. In order to establish a relationship, they had to overturn their de-subjectivation and establish them as subjects. This resulted in the inversion of social roles between parents and children (parentification).
The second generation is influenced by the reverberations of their parents’ past and of the lack of social acknowledgment about their predicament in Germany and Switzerland. In addition, their parents’ experiences match their own everyday experiences of discursive violence. The 2014 Israeli offensive in Gaza represented a turning point for many members of the second generation. Not only had the first generation denied and hid its Palestinianness in public sphere, it often also had imposed this concealment on their children. The parents’ repression of Palestinian identity on the surface and their cultivation of Palestinianness as a moral identity in its place was now being replaced by a visible, outward Palestinianness among the second generation. Reasons for this include the increasing violence in historical Palestine and the accompanying intensification of discursive violence in Germany and Switzerland. The intense experience that Palestinianness was taboo, reaching its highpoint in the Israeli offensive in Gaza 2014, drove members of the second generation to the conclusion that visibility alone was a necessary act of emancipation and resistance, despite their often fundamentally critical attitude towards any form of nationalism. I suggest that this, in turn, can be understood as strategic essentialism (Spivak 1988): the self is conceived of through essentialist identity categories at the expense of other identity-specific ascriptions in order to pursue a political goal. Even though self-ethnicization became a resource for dealing with the experience of racialization for the second generation as well, they came to interpret Palestinianness as an identity of anti-colonial and anti-racist resistance in the struggle for equality and self-determination, and identify with movements of other subordinated social groups like Black Lives Matter in the United States.
Through the process described above, the second generation has jettisoned the desire for recognition and, to a certain extent, no longer identifies with dominant European discourses on Palestinianness. Members of this generation break with the self-denial that was passed on to them by their parents and imposed on them by society. The second generation is overcoming the fear of visibility and political activism as well as of isolation. They are developing a national and transnational socio-cultural network, countering fragmentation and discovering the anger that was denied to their parents. They are beginning to understand their parents as an affected group and tell their story in film and through literature and science, appropriating the previous generation’s story as part of their own. Telling their parents’ stories involves writing a comprehensive story of the Nakba and adding the marginalized history of indirect expulsion (perceived as self-inflicted) to the dominant narrative of the mass expulsions of 1947-48 within the Palestinian canon. Through the addition of the history of the continuous indirect displacement ever since, the Nakba is no longer interpreted as a traumatic rift but as a traumatic process. Telling their parents’ stories also involves translating the fragmented telling – and, more often, the non-telling – of traumatic experiences into the narrative forms of film and literature. In this process, discourse-defying pain becomes storytelling. And, in doing so, family members not only reconfigure their parents’ stories, they live them. The effects of parentification is patent in the second generation’s desire to merge with their parents and to keep their parents’ unrecognised trauma alive hoping for social acknowledgement. Through their campaign and primarily the recognition they are obtaining for the fathers they are succeeding in part in repositioning fathers as subjects, retrieving them from their emotional absence and making them visible again. Parents who have hitherto attempted to keep their children away from political activism, passing on their own fear of visibility, are beginning to make their Palestinianness visible.
Even though the second generation`s capacity to convert guilt and shame into agency offers real grounds for optimism, one cannot but see that the boundaries they come up against in their increasing desire for visibility and resistance – for instance, in their restricted scope for action and the limits of what can be said – intensify their sense of living in exile in the country where they grew up. They increasingly see themselves as being exposed to a similar level of violence as Palestinians in historical Palestine, with the recurring metaphor of imprisonment (a feeling of suffocating and being under surveillance) representing a mental form of preoccupation. The violence the second generation experiences itself allows them to connect their situation in Germany and Switzerland with the colonial context of the Palestinians in historical Palestine, to incorporate their experience within Palestinians’ experience in historical Palestine, and to establish not only a transnational identity but also a normative counternarrative of transnational repression. Since self-ethnicization remains even for the second generation a resource for dealing with the experience of racialization – despite their interpretation of Palestinianness as an identity of anti-racist resistance, the resulting question is therefore: How can one resist without re-enacting violence?
Butler, J. (2004). Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence. London:
El Bulbeisi, Sarah. Tabu, Trauma and Identität: Subjektkonstruktionen von PalästinenserInnen in Deutschland und der Schweiz, 1960–2015. Bielefeld: Transcript.
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Freud, S. (1918). Trauer und Melancholie. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt.
Miller, A. (1983) Das Drama des begabten Kindes und die Suche nach dem wahren Selbst. Suhrkampf: Frankfurt am Main.
Spivak, G. C. (1988). Can the subaltern speak? In: C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (Hg.),
Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (271-313). Basingstoke: Macmillan.
 Alice Miller (1979).
 Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic. This designation is predominantly used to refer to the extent of the violence to which Palestinian society has been subjected in 1947-48: the displacement of at least 700,000 Palestinians – around half of the overall population in historic Palestine – and the destruction of their community at that time, a violence that continues to this day.
Sarah El Bulbeisi joined the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) as research associate in November 2019 after completing her PhD Thesis “Taboo, Trauma and Identity: Subject Constructions of Palestinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960 to 2015” at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich, Germany. Before joining the OIB, she coordinated the DAAD project “Violence, Forced Migration and Exile: Trauma in the Arab World and in Germany”, a Higher Education Dialogue between Palestinian and Lebanese universities as well as with the LMU Munich. Prior to that, she worked as a lecturer and research associate at the Institute for Near and Middle East Studies at the LMU Munich. She had graduated with an MA from the University of Zurich.
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