Statelessness as the Crux of the Palestinian Issue

JUAN COLE — Department of History & Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, University of Michigan


I want to make an argument about the character of the Palestine issue. I’m not going to argue that it is a unique problem but I am going to argue that it is almost unique in contemporary affairs,  and that there are some aspects of it that explain why it is so seemingly intractable. I’m going to start with an increasingly important field of study, citizenship studies. There are journals now devoted to it; it is become a big thing in academia. My colleague at the University of Michigan, Margaret Somers, wrote an important book on citizenship not so long ago. And as she points out, Chief Justice Warren Burger of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 wrote: “Citizenship is man’s basic right, for it is nothing less than the right to have rights. Remove this priceless possession and there remains a stateless person disgraced and degraded in the eyes of his countrymen.”  Burger is drawing here implicitly on the work of Hannah Arendt but this is the key point that I want to make today. Citizenship is the right to have rights. People who lack citizenship in a state ipso facto have no right to have rights.

What is the end game here? What is the solution? I’m arguing that it is unacceptable in international law, in international diplomacy to have four and a half million people permanently kept in a status of statelessness, which is to say kept in a status where they have no right to have rights and are taken off the human rights table, altogether.  It is unacceptable for that to continue. I don’t really care how this problem is solved, from my point of view, it is all the same to me.  The important thing, as you can tell is that I insist, the Palestinians must end up with the right to have rights.


Juan R. I. Cole is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. For three and a half decades, he has sought to put the relationship of the West and the Muslim world in historical context. His most recent book is The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East (Simon & Schuster, July 2014). He also authored Engaging the Muslim World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and many other books. He has translated works of Lebanese-American author Kahlil Gibran. He has appeared on PBS’s Lehrer News Hour, ABC World News Tonight, Nightline, the Today Show, Charlie Rose, Anderson Cooper 360, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes’ All In, the Colbert Report, Democracy Now! and many others. He has given many radio and press interviews. He has written widely about Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and South Asia. He has written about the upheavals in the Arab World since 2011, including about Sunni extremist groups and Shiite politics. He has regular columns at The Nation and Truthdig. Cole commands Arabic, Persian and Urdu and reads Turkish, knows both Middle Eastern and South Asian Islam. He lived in various parts of the Muslim world for more than a decade, and continues to travel widely there.


Full paper — Cole 2017 (DOCX)

Slides — Cole 2017 (PPT)