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  • The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine by Lori Allen
  • Deena R. Hurwitz (bio)
The Rise and Fall of Human Rights: Cynicism and Politics in Occupied Palestine, by Lori Allen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013. 258 pages. $85 cloth; $24.95 paper.

In her exceptional book, The Rise and Fall of Human Rights, anthropologist Lori Allen explores a complex set of interlocking themes about the role of human rights in the Palestinian nationalist agenda, viewed through the prism of cynicism. Against all odds, the human rights system continues to grow, functioning as if it could fulfill its ideals and promises (p. 20). Allen is intrigued by the tenacity and breadth of the human rights system in Palestine, despite the fact that “the emancipatory potential of human rights [appears to be] unrelentingly foreclosed” (p. 22).

Allen’s ethnography of the professionalization of human rights activism is astute and applies to many other sites of international “democratization” and “development.” The overwhelming dependency of human rights organizations on international funding has created a “hegemony of a particular form of marketable human rights work that does not always support political activism or engagement” (p. 109). Such a flow of money and resources feeds an NGO globalized elite who find it riskier to take on more politicized projects (p. 82). In the case of Palestine, Allen observes human rights “deployed to create the perception of professional people and organizations that ‘deserve’ a state [because they ‘do’ human rights].”

The Palestinian Authority (PA) performs its part as well. “Officers are being taught to contribute to producing a fantasy of the state, an illusion of a professional, modern, human-rights-respecting state in which they play a role that is understood to be a performance for specific audiences” (p. 110). But the bravado of human rights and the garish show and use of physical force by the PA undermine its own act. This is compounded by corruption, ineptitude, and the knowledge that state accountability — the core principle of human rights law — is difficult to apply to occupied Palestine.

Cynicism inevitably grows from the myriad forms of hypocrisy and paradox Palestinians experience. Cynicism, Allen compellingly argues, is “a defining — but understudied force in human rights dynamics today” (p. 23). Normally perceived on a continuum from disappointment to inertia and apathy to anger, cynicism can be corrosive to political movements. But Allen asserts that this overlooks the constructive functions of cynicism. She views it as an analytical concept, “a mode of understanding, … a form of awareness and a motor of action by which subjection and subjectification are self-consciously resisted, or at least [End Page 173] creatively engaged” (p. 16). “Cynicism is a critical stance by which those who are displeased with choices available in the present hold on to the belief that such limited options are not all that there should be” (p. 189). That critical consciousness, together with a set of ethical values specific to Palestinians, sustain their nationalist vision. Although Palestinians may feel they have reaped little benefit from the human rights system, it would be a mistake to conclude that it is being foisted on them, or that it is entirely destructive to their objectives.

Palestinian civil society has been far more astute as to the constructive potential of cynicism than the political leadership. The book’s first chapter chronicles the “revolutionary” vision and methodology of Al-Haq (founded in 1979), the first Palestinian NGO to recognize the potential of human rights to “motivate a novel form of collective action and become a constitutive element of Palestinian nationalist politics” (p. 35). Utilizing law and documentation, Al-Haq’s founders understood the magnitude of allowing the human rights discourse “to stand on its own in what was a supremely politicized situation” (p. 40). They saw human rights and the rule of law not only as a tool to fight the Israeli occupation but as a universal value in themselves (p. 60). Jonathan Kuttab, one of Al-Haq’s founders, told Allen it was “a sign of great maturity that as soon as the PA was installed … in 1995, everyone expected them to abide by human rights standards...


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pp. 173-175
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