How colonialist depictions of Palestinians feed western ideas of eastern ‘barbarism’

How colonialist depictions of Palestinians feed western ideas of eastern ‘barbarism’

Elizabeth Vibert, University of Victoria

Like so many other Palestinians, my friend Abeer Salah (not her real name) lives in exile. For Salah, home is Baqa’a refugee camp 20 kilometres north of Jordan’s capital of Amman. But she has family and friends trapped in Gaza. Since the horrific Hamas attacks of Oct. 7 and Israel’s catastrophic military action in Gaza, she has been watching the news and social media closely.

Recently, Salah shared a video clip of Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, holding up a brick to show how “terrorist” Palestinians throw them at soldiers and settlers. The clip, recorded last year, has been circulating again.

To my friend, this clip illustrates how western governments and media have long tended to depict Palestinians as backward and prone to violence.

“This man is trying to show that Palestinians are a barbaric people,” Salah said. “They defend their land and their people with stones. They’re backward. Meanwhile, Israelis have tanks.”

As a historian who studies colonial pasts I understand what Salah is saying. The dismissal of Palestinians as “barbaric” or somehow less human is rooted in a long history of colonizing narratives, including views of Indigenous lands and peoples as “uncivilized.”

For the past five years, I have been working on an oral history research project and documentary film with Palestinian refugees in Baqa’a Camp. The film, made by a team including consulting producer Salam Barakat Guenette, explores how families and communities keep their food culture alive in exile. It offers a striking counter narrative to the stereotypes often levelled at Palestinians.

A teaser of the film Elizabeth Vibert is working on with Salam Barakat Guenette, Chen Wang, and a mainly Palestinian crew.

Colonial claims: ‘savage’ and ‘barbaric’

In his classic 1978 book Orientalism, Palestinian-American literary scholar Edward Said explained how British colonizers wielded the “power to narrate” as they cast their eyes, administrators and armies across the lands of “the East.”

Said, whose study focused on depictions of West Asia and North Africa (Europe’s “Middle East”), showed how the “absolute demarcation between East and West” was centuries in the making. By the 18th century, the binary of East versus West or “us” versus “them” had grown into a vast archive of western-produced “knowledge.” The relationship was cemented in the West as “superior” versus “inferior,” “civilized” versus “uncivilized,” “rational” versus “depraved” in all arenas of life: politics, culture, religion.

Psychologists and biologists have shown that “us” versus “them” binaries may be a nearly universal human impulse. Such binaries become consequential when they harden into pernicious and violent racism, and are used to justify the taking of land, homes, food systems, water and lives.

Classifying societies by ‘stages’ of civilization

By the mid-1700s, the great thinkers of the Enlightenment in Scotland, England and France were fine-tuning “four stages” theories to classify human societies according to imagined “stages of civilization.”

In most such schemes, hunting-gathering was placed at the bottom (“savage”) stage, followed by pastoralism (shepherding etc., often labeled “barbarism”), agriculture (emerging “civilization”), and at the apex, European commercial society. Unsurprisingly, Enlightenment writers placed themselves at the “apex.”

People inhabiting lands sought for colonization were often described as “wasting” land, having “backward” food production practices and being in need of “civilization” — all according to western definitions.

Beginning in the late 19th century, Zionists who initiated the nationalist project for Israel, in a land both peoples considered their ancestral home, gave little thought to the Palestinians. Zionists were deeply informed by scornful views of small-scale farming and sheep-herding societies. And British administrators during the Mandate period (1920-1948) took a similarly dim view of much Arab agriculture.

‘A land without a people’

Palestinians were resisting colonial designs on their lands even before the British issued the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917 — a document that in a short paragraph promised Jewish people a “national home” in Palestine, so long as they did nothing to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

This was breathtakingly dehumanizing language for the “existing non-Jewish communities” — the Palestinian Muslims and Christians who were then more than 90 per cent of the population. Historian Rashid Khalidi argues that Palestinians viewed the Balfour Declaration as “a proclamation of war on them.” It marked the start of “a century-long colonial conflict in Palestine,” a conflict in which Britain, the United States and other outside powers have played key roles.

Zionist leaders’ claims about “a land without a people for a people without a land”, then, fit within a larger narrative that erased Palestinians and dismissed traditional Palestinian stewardship of the land.

The Zionist project to “make the desert bloom” was based, in part, on damaging misunderstandings of Arab dryland wheat and baʿlī farming systems. Baʿlī planting, tillage and plant protection methods, as demonstrated by Palestinian geographer Omar Tesdell, facilitate growing crops without irrigation. These agro-ecological practices are at once resilient and dynamic, and have much to teach farmers in increasingly drought-prone regions.

Intense threats to land

For years, farmers in the Palestinian territories have faced intense threats to their land and livelihoods. For instance, farms and gardens in Gaza, adapted across generations to challenging local conditions, were often targeted in military operations. In the midst of Israel’s catastrophic air and ground war on Gaza’s people, it is hard to conceive of a future for their local food systems.

In the West Bank, Israel’s eight-metre-high separation wall and encroaching Jewish settlements have systematically cut off many Palestinian farmers from their olive groves and other lands. With all eyes now on Gaza, settler violence on Palestinian lands has intensified.

As we have seen throughout history, dehumanization can have tragic and devastating impacts on people and land. Nearly half a century ago Edward Said asked a poignant question: Can we continue to divide humans into stark categories of “us” versus “them” and survive the consequences humanely? The Conversation

Elizabeth Vibert, Professor of Colonial History, University of Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Palestine was never a ‘land without a people’

Palestine was never a ‘land without a people’

Ateqah Khaki, The Conversation and Vinita Srivastava, The Conversation

Modern settlers to Palestine viewed the desert as something they needed to “make bloom.” But it already was, thanks to the long history of Palestinian agricultural systems.

As violence continues to erupt in Gaza, and more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7 remain missing, many of us are seeking to better understand the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging for decades.

Some of us assume that the violence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians — a majority of whom are Muslim — is a religious conflict, but a closer look at the history of the last century reveals that the root of the tension between the two communities is more complicated than that.

At its root, it’s a conflict between two communities that claim the right to the same land. For millions of Palestinians, it’s about displacement from that land.

Land has so much meaning. It’s more than territory; it represents home, your ancestral connection and culture — but also the means to feed yourself and your country.

One of the things that colonizers are famous for is the idea of terra nullius – that the land is empty of people before they come to occupy it.

In the case of Palestine, the Jewish settlers in 1948, and the British before that, viewed the desert as empty — something they needed to “make bloom.”

But the land was already blooming. There is a long history of Palestinian connection to the land, including through agricultural systems and a rich food culture that is often overlooked by colonial powers.

Our guests on this week’s episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient have been working on a film about the importance of preserving Palestinian agriculture and food in exile.

Elizabeth Vibert is a professor of colonial history at University of Victoria. She has been doing oral history research to examine historical and contemporary causes of food crises in various settings, including Palestinian refugees in Jordan.

Salam Guenette is the consulting producer and cultural and language translator for their documentary project. She holds a master’s degree in history.

The relationship with agriculture and the land is the original colonizing relationship. The colonizers came in, viewed Indigenous peoples worldwide as not moving and living appropriately and productively enough on the land.
- Elizabeth Vibert, professor of colonial history

Read more in The Conversation


Dear Palestine by Shay Hazkani

A Guide to Palestinian Wild Food Plants
by Omar Tesdell (and collective)

A Day in the Life of Abed Salama: Anatomy of a Jerusalem Tragedy by Nathan Thrall

Orientalism by Edward Said

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We’d love to hear from you, including any ideas for future episodes. Join The Conversation on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok and use #DontCallMeResilient.

The Conversation

Ateqah Khaki, Associate Producer, Don't Call Me Resilient, The Conversation and Vinita Srivastava, Host + Producer, Don't Call Me Resilient, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Media Coverage: Elizabeth Vibert talks food sovereignty with CBC Radio’s Kathryn Marlow

Many people try to think about where their food is coming from, but advocates for Food Sovereignty say you should also think about the working conditions of the people who grew or produced it, and what the carbon emissions were to get it to you. Four Stories project director Elizabeth Vibert joined All Points West host Kathryn Marlow to explain, and to give practical tips on how to try and work towards Food Sovereignty.

"Globalization is a major root cause of many of the challenges facing our food systems today. Food Sovereignty seeks to take back a meaningful measure of control or self determination of food systems locally, regionally, and even nationally so that it is not the big global internationals determining the value of food."

Listen to the full segment at

Media Coverage: “UVic-based research project aims to support global food sovereignty”

One of our research assistants, Kelsey Lessard, recently published an article about the Four Stories project in The Marlet, Uvic's student newspaper.


"Now more than ever is the time to help support small-scale food producers around the world to ensure the long-term sustainability of a secure and equitable food system. By working together, a new map that ensures food systems are culturally, ecologically, and economically sustainable can be drawn. While the movement is global, local actions can be taken, just as T’Sou-ke Nation has done, to ensure Food Security and a measure of Food Sovereignty for all future generations."


Read the full article at

Local isn’t Enough

Unfiltered Sahara

It takes hours to fly across the Sahara Desert. I strained my neck taking photos, trying to capture the unearthly colour on my phone. I didn’t manage but I did get some images that glow a strange golden pink. I fell asleep, tired from the effort of staring awkwardly over my shoulder. When I woke we had left the desert and entered the zone of mottled browns and greens. The flight-tracking map showed the place name ‘Maiduguri’ off the tip of the right wing. Maiduguri. Site of seemingly endless brutal attacks, massive human displacement, and thousands of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram terrorists in the past few years. There have been many times more casualties of terrorism in this corner of Nigeria in three years than in the entire West since 9/11. Yet most people in the West have never heard of Maiduguri. Why should we? There’s quite enough hardship closer to home – enough poverty and homelessness and senseless violence (at the hands of intimate partners if not armed terrorists) to keep our heads spinning. Why spare a thought for Maiduguri?

Because it’s dangerous not to. I don’t mean dangerous in practical terms, as in ‘if we don’t combat the causes of terrorism (among them desperate poverty and hopelessness), instability will fuel more terror and the terrorists will pitch up at our place.’ This seems so obvious as to not need stating. And besides, that ship has sailed. I’m talking about the moral danger of turning inward. If we focus all our attention on our little patch – our body as our temple, our family or our city as our world – we diminish our connection to something bigger. When we lose sight of our connection to humanity it becomes all too easy to think of people out there as beyond our concern. Them, not us; certainly not equal. How do we decide where is ‘out there’? Is it on another continent? On an Indigenous reserve? Next thing we're building walls around our homes, if we haven’t already.

I’m not proposing we all get on a plane to Africa. Heading off to faraway places doesn’t inoculate against ‘othering’ habits of thought. In fact going to places where people do things differently can confirm prejudices in minds that are narrowed by intolerance (or worse, by blind certainty of their own rightness). But if it isn’t necessary to go to Maiduguri, it is necessary to think beyond the local. We need to inform ourselves, question what’s going on so that we’re reminded, at least occasionally, that there is a world of human struggle, conflict, love, and beauty out there. That struggle is connected to our own in all sorts of ways – through histories of colonialism, self-serving trade policies, destabilizing global politics – but most intimately through our common humanity.

Watch this space for blog posts in May

I'll be in Jopi village through much of May, continuing my oral history research with the women of Hleketani Garden. Watch this space for updates on the farm and the wonderful women who make it happen.

Mijaji and colleagues plant tomato seedlings