The smart, experienced Arab-American community leader and activist Abdeen Jabara and I are engaged in, I guess, a spirited discussion over at Mondoweiss of the value of Michael Fishbach’s latest book, The Movement and the Middle East: How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left. I spent a long time working on the review of the book that is published there, concluding my review thusly:
“The Movement and the Middle East”… contains a wealth of engaging anecdotes and some very valuable documentation. But at the level of the broad historical narrative or the possible lessons for today? That work has yet to be done.
In the course of a review that was probably longer than it should have been, I had provided numerous examples of the kinds of interview material and documentation that Fishbach included in the book. But I expressed frustration over what he, as a historian, did with that source material, or more accurately what he failed to do. As someone who has authored six books of substantial historical intent (even though the histories told in some of them covered events that at the time were still only very recent), I maintain that the job of a historian is above all to tell a coherent story.
That means doing a number of things, including (obviously) doing the kinds of research you feel the story needs; gathering, compiling, considering, augmenting, and reorganizing as necessary the materials you have gathered in your research; figuring out the chronology of events and starting to conjecture possible causal or other relationships between the events/developments described; and then telling the story, weaving in the research materials as they help you to do so. Ideally, you should lay out your intention in an introductory chapter or Preface; and then in a final chapter or Epilogue sum up the impact of the story and any analytical conclusions you may have reached.
As an optional extra, you can (as I did in my first book, The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, 1984) add in some more analytical chapters before you get to your concluding chapter. These might dive in greater depth into aspects of the story that need greater attention, but their relationship to the main narrative arc of the book should always be made clear.
My experience as a writer of non-fiction is that writing itself definitely always helps me to think more clearly. Thus, when I write a book (or even a blog post like this) I may start off with one intention. But in the course of engaging closely with a developing text, my thinking always develops further. So though I may start out with one intention, that gets changed and refined along the way. Sometimes, it’s not for quite a while into the writing that I say, “Aha! So that’s what this story/article/book is about!” Hence, when writing a book, I never go final on writing the introductory chapter until I’ve finished all the other chapters except the final one.
Well, that is a short description of how I write a book. I’m sure that other writers have other ways of working. But what I look for in any work of history– as a reader and also as someone who’s run a publishing business for a decade– is this sense of a strong narrative arc that supports the author’s considered reflections on and analysis of the material they present. And a narrative arc, in just about any kind of non-fiction book that I can think of, requires a sure-footed presentation of and reference to the chronology of the events being described.
All this should help to explain why I found the Fishbach book so frustrating. He had gathered all that great material but the book contained no overarching metanarrative and not even any cogent chronological anchoring. It was kind of all over the place. Great nuggets here and there all tossed willy-nilly at the reader. That was a big part of my frustration. The other was that by not having any strong metanarrative or chronological anchoring, Fishback really had no way to support the (very few) analytical judgments that he presented. Actually, only really one of them, presented right there in the subtitle: “How the Arab-Israeli Conflict Divided the American Left.” That was it. He stated in the subtitle that this conflict did divide the left; provided numerous examples throughout the text of instances in which that happened; and then concluded in his Epilogue that those divisions also weakened the left– and that the leftists of today should be wary of letting that happen again. But nowhere in the book did he really attempt to put those divisions into any broader perspective of all the other things that were happening in “the Movement” at the time or to weigh, for example, the contribution that the divisions over Palestine made to the weakening of the left against the contributions that other developments (including divisions over numerous other issues) made to it. Instead, as I noted in my review, he seemed to heap all the blame for the weakening of the Movement on the divisions over Palestine.
In his comment at Mondoweiss, my good friend Abdeen Jabara provides three critiques of my review. In the first, he draws on his own considerable experience to state that Arab-American organizations really did not have much interaction with the U.S. left at that time, rebutting the criticism I’d made in my review that Fishbach should have paid their contribution more heed. I bow to Abdeen on that, I think.
Abdeen’s second critique is that I “should have surmised” that the “Black Power and Palestine” material, whose absence from “The Middle East and the Movement” I had mourned in my review, had been excised/separated from it by fiat of the publisher, not through the author’s own decision. Well, I had surmised that. But Fishbach is the author. If he didn’t want to go along with Stanford UP’s request that he split (segregate?) the material between two separate volumes, he could have taken his one unified volume elsewhere. (Though I realize that might well have seemed like a risky option.) But since he did go along with what was apparently Stanford’s insistence on segregation, he still had a responsibility to fashion the remaining volume into a cogent, self-supporting work of history with a metanarrative, a strong and clear chronology, etc. He cannot just plead, “Stanford make me take out nearly all the material related to the Black Power movement so these fragments are what I was left with… ” And I feel that this kind of a responsible refashioning could have been done, if he had laid more stress on what was happening in the antiwar movement and its attitudes towards Palestine at the time. The antiwar movement was, after all, the other major driver of the broad protest movement of that era, along with the Black Power movement.
Abdeen’s third critique is that I left out “any mention of the in depth gold plated research that Fischbach generated and wove together.” Well, I certainly made extensive mention of (and provided lengthy examples of) the kinds of in depth gold plated research findings that Fishbach presented in the book. What I didn’t see him doing with these was, as noted above, weaving them together in a way that supported or added up to a compelling (or even, easily discernible) metanarrative.
Presenting such a broad array of research findings is a great contribution, yes. Now, having them out there provides a wealth of material that Fishbach or others can use to build the metanarrative of an era that we undoubtedly do need to better understand… especially if we are to resist all the efforts the Zionists and their armies of paid lackeys will make to use the Palestine Question to divide the left yet again, in 2020 and beyond.