Re-thinking Israel-Palestine: Racial state, state of exception

Introduction: The dialectics of Israel-Palestine

2010 has been another eventful year in Israel-Palestine. First there was the debacle of the Gaza flotilla. Later on, Israeli police forces demolished the ‘unrecognised’ village of El Araqib three times. In Sheikh Jarrach, Silwan and Bil’in riot police keeps arresting unarmed demonstrators. In October, Israel legislated to obligate all non Jewish candidates for citizenship to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. The law officially entrenched  nationalist and fascist principles, endorsed by large parts of the Israeli Jewish population (Misgav, 2010). This occasioned debates as to whether this, and several other proposed laws – such as ‘the Bishara law’, revoking wages and pensions of Knesset members suspected of terror-related offenses and aiding the enemy, approved earlier this month by the House Committee following heated exchanges between Arab and rightist MKs (Sofer, 2010) – signal new manifestations of fascism and racist nationalism. These debates build on academic debates on Israel as settler colonial society or ethnocracy.
Following Edward Said’s argument (1980: xv) that thinking Palestine involves dialectically setting the Palestinian experience against Zionism, and following my book Thinking Palestine (Lentin, 2008),   this paper dialectically theorises Palestine, after Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005) as a ‘state of exception’,   and Israel, after David Theo Goldberg (2002, 2008, 2009), as a ‘racial state’.   According to Fabio Vighi (2010), theorists such as Agamben (and, he stresses, Žižek and Badiou, and, I would add, also Foucault), reject postmodern theories as essentially a-political and instead insist on the urgent need to re-politicise theory. I refer to their theorisations, therefore, not in order to present abstractions of the Palestinian question, but rather as an attempt to re-politicise universal questions of sovereignty and abject subjecthood in the context of Palestine and Israel.
I am acutely aware of my problematic position as an exiled Jewish-Ashkenazi member of the perpetrator group. However, it is worth noting that beyond empathy or solidarity,   the preoccupation of many Israeli scholars with Palestine has to do with orientalising the Palestinian other (Said 1978), or worse, with many Israeli researchers being security services veterans (Rabinowicz 1998: 134), contributing to the colonial power/knowledge regime.   In much Israeli research on Palestine, the Palestinians are erased, their voices subsumed by the powerful coloniser. Does this emanate, as I argue in Co-Memory and Melancholia: Israelis Memorialising the Palestinian Nakba (2010), from unresolved melancholic longing for the land we destroyed?
This paper is also a Fanonian project. For Nadia Abu El-Haj the Israeli state is Janus-faced, simultaneously colonial and neoliberal (2009: 41). However, in her afterword to the Hebrew edition of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (2006), Ella Shohat proposes another dialectic paradox in theorising Zionism. On the one hand, Jews can identify with Fanon’s antiracist and emancipatory project, because antisemitism is racism and Zionism sees itself as a Jewish national liberation project. On the other, Israel’s rule over Palestine, and Zionist racism against Palestinians and Mizrahi Jews locate it on the European side of the Fanonian equation (Shohat, 2006: 331). These dualistic interpretations echo Yehouda Shenhav’s (2006) postcolonial re-reading of The Wretched of the Earth (1963) and of Agamben’s interpretation of Benjamin’s ‘Critique of violence’ (1921), even though, surprisingly, Shenhav stops short of theorising Israel as a ‘racial state’.
The paper is thus structured around several inter-linked theoretical concepts. I begin with an outline of the state of exception, state racism and the racial state. I then posit Israel as a racial state, where the state of exception, and zones of abandonment (Abu El-Haj, 2009) were instituted from its very establishment. Abu El-Haj argues that what Goldberg calls ‘racial Palestinianisation’ is far from what he dubs ‘born again racism’ and argues that  Zionism has been deeply embedded in racial tropes from the very start, constructing ‘the Jew’ and differentiating between Palestinian and Jew and between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jew. To counteract this racialisation, my discussion of Fanon, Benjamin and Shenhav enables me to read the Palestinian active agent rather than passive victim, leading me to conclude by arguing that in envisioning the future – for me a one state solution –thinking Israel as a racial state, rather than ethnocracy or Zionism as a settler colonial project, although it is these also, makes better sense.

State of exception

‘The state of exception’, according to the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt, is determined by the sovereign as a response to perceived danger to the continuing existence of the state. At the same time, the sovereign is constructed by the very state of exception he created. The sovereign, in other words, both creates the state of exception and puts himself outside the law (Schmitt 2005: 25-7).
Modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of a state of exception, of a legal civil war that allows the physical elimination not only of political adversaries, but of entire categories of citizens not integrated into the political system. Thus, though it is tempting to link the state of exception to totalitarian regimes, such as the Nazi Reich, Agamben insists that the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic states (Agamben 2005: 2), and, I would argue, is a significant trait of the state of Israel. The state of exception involves, on the one hand, the extension of the military authority’s wartime powers into the civil sphere, and on the other, the suspension of constitutional norms that protect individual liberties, as argued by Raef Zreik (2008) in relation to Israeli constitutionalism.
According to Agamben, the state of exception means not only the sovereign declaring a state of emergency in which the sovereign both enacts the law and stays outside it, but also the idea that it is the nation (volk rather than citizenry or residency) which needs defending from its others. Crucially, the state of exception is a security state, using the paradigm of security as ‘the normal techniques of government’ (Agamben 2005, 14).
In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Agamben further argues that the constant state of exception enables the state to render the lives of those under state rule into what he calls homo sacer or ‘bare life’, who may be killed with impunity (but not sacrificed). Agamben extends the ‘bare life’ of Nazi concentration camp inmates to the lives of administrative detainees,   arguing for the general applicability of the state of exception: ‘At once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested’ (Agamben 1995, 9). Extending Hannah Arendt’s theorisation of the refugee as the incarnation of a new historical paradigm, Agamben further suggests that the refugee, his homo sacer, destabilises the holy trinity of state-nation-territory, and must thus be regarded as a central actor in our contemporary political history (Agamben, 2000: 22).
Judging by Israel’s intricate regime of emergency regulations and the play between the judiciary, the legislature and the executive with regards to Palestinians living under occupation but also to Israel’s Palestinian citizens, it does not take a major leap of the imagination to extend the analysis of the state of exception to Palestine and the paradigmatic position of homo sacer to the luminal political position of the Palestinian refugee.
Moreover, Agamben’s Foucauldian project centres on the right of the sovereign to kill with impunity. Foucault (1990) proposed that when life becomes included in mechanisms of state power, politics turns into biopolitics, the territorial state becomes a ‘state of population’, and the nation’s biological life becomes a problem of sovereign power, which he terms ‘biopower’. Through various governmental technologies, biopower creates ‘docile bodies’ and the population – its life, welfare, longevity, health – becomes the ultimate object of ‘acts of government’. In his 1975-6 lecture series at the Collège de France (2003), Foucault posits the transition from the sovereign power of the old territorial state, ‘to make die and let live’, to modern biopower, ‘to make live and let die’. The duty to defend society against itself (and defend the nation from indigenous and immigrant others) means that the state can scarcely function without racism, which Foucault sees as ‘the break between what must live and what must die’ (Foucault 2003: 254).
Thus racism has two functions, the first is separating out groups within a population, the second is making it possible to establish ‘a relationship between my life and the death of the other … the more inferior species die out… the more I – as species rather than individual – can live, the stronger I will be’ (Foucault 2003: 255). Race – understood in classificatory rather than biological terms – becomes a tool of social conservatism and of state racism, which society practices against itself. In the case of Israel, this explains ‘ethnic cleansing’, from Plan Dalet to today’s ongoing land confiscation, house demolitions, and plans to ‘transfer’ Palestinians outside the state’s borders (e.g., Pappe 2006).
Foucault’s biopolitical acts of government manage the population’s life, but for some groups within the population, governmentality becomes one of death, what Mbembe (2003) calls ‘necropolitics’ and Honaida Ghanim documents as ‘thanatopolitics’: ‘from the moment that power is directed to destroying, eliminating and dismantling their group, the decision about their life becomes a decision about their death’ (Ghanim, 2008: 69)
Despite this, as Abu El-Haj points out, the ‘racist character of the Israeli state – the organisation of the state around the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, military and civilian legal systems, enclosure and movement, and, since the 1967 war, the additional distinction between citizen and subject – becomes … unspeakable for much of the Euro-American world’ (2009: 30), who are blind to the racial nature of the Israeli state as I now argue.

Racial state

Before outlining Goldberg’s (2002) theorisation of all modern nation-states as racial states, I remind myself of Bourdieu’s caution that ‘to endeavour to think the state is to take the risk of being taken over by the thought of the state’ (Bourdieu, 1994: 1) and aim to analyse Israel outside of state logic which speaks to Jewish victimhood at best and to expansionist, racist intentions at worst.
Goldberg’s racial state is a state of power which excludes and includes in order to construct homogeneity, achieved through governmental technologies such as constitutions, border controls, the law, policy making, bureaucracy, population census, but also invented histories and traditions, ceremonies and cultural imaginings, including ancient (in Israel’s case, Biblical) origins. Modern states, each in its own way, are defined by their power to exclude and include in racially ordered terms, aiming to produce a coherent picture of the population by keeping racialised others out and by legislating against the ‘degeneracy’ of indigenous minorities.
If we agree with Goldberg’s theorisation of all modern nation-states as racial states, and with Foucault’s view of racism as intrinsic to all modern, normalising states (through the use of bio- and thanato-political technologies ranging from social exclusion to mass murder), there is little doubt that Israel must be theorised as a racial state par excellence, where, according to Shenhav, ‘there is a constant state of emergency. The state inherited the British Mandate’s “Emergency Regulations” under which it continued the anomalous suspension of the law, within the law… this system enables: one rule (life) for the majority of the state’s citizens, and another (death, threat of death, threat of expulsion) for the state’s subjects, whose lives have been rendered “bare”’ (2006: 206-7). Israel keeps creating zones of exception, or, as Abu El-Haj (2009) puts it in relation to Gaza whose inhabitants have been abandoned to their besieged fate, ‘zones of abandonment’. This is illustrated by Alina Korn’s description of the post Oslo Accords ghettoisation and restriction of the Palestinians to their villages and towns, understood as another means of protecting Israeli Jews through decreasing use of Israeli prisons and mass incarceration to assure efficient control (Korn, 2008) – the ultimate aim of governmentality.  Governmentality, however, cannot be fully understood without recourse to understanding Jewish self- and other racialisation, as integral part of the Zionist ideology as I now demonstrate.

Zionism’s Jewish racial subjects

In line with Said’s logic that thinking Palestine is indelibly linked to thinking Zionism, Goldberg argues that ‘Israel cannot live with the Palestinians, purging them persistently from green-line Israel, but cannot live without them, conceptually as much as materially, existentially as much as emotionally’ (2009: 113).
However, Zionism is not only about the modernising imperative according to which Jews (though ancient Biblical people) are modern, while Palestinians (Philistines) are pre-modern and thus in need of European Zionism’s civilising – though always also colonising – mission, or what Goldberg calls ‘historicist racism’. Zionism also articulates ‘the Jewish race’, creating homogeneity for ‘the Jewish people’ despite obvious Jewish heterogeneity (and in the face of internal racisms directed towards Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews). Foucault’s idea of the need to defend society and Burleigh and Wipperman’s (1999) theorisation of the Nazi state as the ideal type racial state, where the object was the protection of the body of the volk, bring to mind the Zionist imperative to protect the nebulous body dubbed ‘the Jewish nation’ from antisemitic persecutions, which led to its state building aspirations.
Indeed, the Israeli geneticist Rafael Falk reads the entire history of Zionism as a eugenicist race project, aiming to save the Jewish genetic pool from the degeneration forced upon the Jews by diaspora existence (Falk 2006, 25). Understanding Judaism as a racial essence became an integral part of Zionist thought towards the end of the nineteenth century. While many European Jews struggled against the idea of Judaism as a race, just as the antisemites justified the persecution of Jews by biological reasoning, seeing Jews as a separate ‘race’, prominent Zionist thinkers such as Theodor Herzl, Moshe Hess, Haim Nahman Bialik, Max Nordau and even the liberal philosopher Martin Buber adopted the terminology of volk – a racial nation shaped by ‘blood and soil’ (Falk 2006, 18-9).
Thus, in 1862 Moshe Hess ‘implored “the Jewish race” to be the bearers of civilization to peoples who are still inexperienced… in the European sciences’ (Goldberg, 2009: 108). Thus too Arthur Ruppin, director of the ‘Erez Israel Office’, and Zionism’s main ‘colonisator’, preached the eugenicist selection of Jewish ‘human material’ in the Zionist settlement of Palestine. Like other race hygienists, Ruppin argued that the state has a role in improving the race, or the volk, and was instrumental in producing a Zionist repertoire of racial categorisation and volkish imagery (Bloom, 2007).
Paradoxically, this race thinking, albeit without ‘race’ – the prevalent thinking about racist discrimination in Israel rejects the notion of ‘race’, preferring, as does the Oren Yiftachel, to theorise Israeli schisms in ethnic terms and the state of Israel as an ‘ethnocracy’ (Yiftachel 2006) – supports the theorisation of Israel as a racial state (Goldberg, 2008, 2009).
Some examples. Israel, constructed as the state of the ‘Jewish nation’, grants automatic citizenship to anyone who can prove she has a Jewish mother, while depriving citizenship to Palestinians born on the land, who happened to be absent on census day – this applies to both 1948 and 1967. The 160,000 Palestinians not expelled during the 1948 Nakba were re-dubbed ‘Israeli Arabs’ and put under military rule, based on 1945 British Mandate Emergency Regulations. These regulations abolished basic rights of expression, movement, organisation and equality before the law, though they left Palestinian citizens the right to vote and be elected. A series of laws, including the Law for Absentee Property (1950), the JNF Law (1953) and the Law of Agricultural Settlement (1967), barred – by legal means, demonstrating the state of exception – the selling, leasing, sub-letting and owning of land by ‘non-Jews’, read Palestinians. Though officially abolished in 1966, to all intents and purposes the emergency regulations are still in place – controlling 20 per cent of Israel’s citizens (Pappe 2006: 220-2).
Another example of this ongoing anomaly is the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the agency in charge of forestation, hebraicisation of Palestinian place names and land ownership. This deliberate appropriation of lands by the state has led to 93 per cent of lands in Israel, established on 78 per cent of historic Palestine, previously owned by dispossessed Palestinians, being public, read Jewish lands, while Israel’s Palestinian citizens are prohibited from establishing new settlements to this day. The JNF took active part in the Nakba by preparing the ‘village files’ – a complete mapping of each Palestinian village, which served the actual plans, culminating in Plan Dalet, devised by the Zionist leadership, to kill the Palestinian elite, damage their sources of livelihood and water supply, and bring about their systematic and total expulsion from their homeland. Documenting this process in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), Ilan Pappe puts paid to the argument, by so-called Israeli ‘new historians’, that the expulsion of the Palestinians was an ‘unfortunate’ consequence of war. However, and now famously, the Israeli ‘new historian’ Benny Morris writes, in an article on Zionist historiography: ‘In 1948 most of the Arabs were transferred from the new Israeli state… The transfer was not premeditated or the result of a master plan, as argued by Arab spokespersons later… but there is no doubt that the idea of transfer  existed in the  minds of the Yishuv leaders (headed by Ben Gurion) and the army commanders’ (Morris 2000, 43, emphasis added).
Agamben stresses the centrality of the security imperative to the state of exception. Security is indeed central to the Israeli state. Kimmerling (1993) posits Israeli ‘cognitive militarism’ and argues that during times of war the system puts routine activities ‘on hold’, mobilising all its resources to deal with what it sees as the ongoing ‘existential threat’. As Israel sees itself as a haven for the ‘Jewish nation’, the control of the Palestinians is viewed as an imperative born of an ongoing state of emergency, which, to paraphrase Agamben, creates and guarantees the situation that the law needs for its validity, enacted to defend (Israeli Jewish) society.
Israeli preoccupation with state security determines the state of exception in governing the territory occupied in 1967, but also the lives of Palestinian citizens in the Israeli state proper.   Summarising this state of exception, Shenhav cites Agamben: ‘A state whose main preoccupation is security, and for whom security is the main legitimisation, is a brittle organism; such a state will remain vulnerable to terrorism and will ultimately become terrorist itself’. The state of exception does not pertain only to the ‘enemy’ but refers to all social strata and institutions, making it ultimately undemocratic (Shenhav 2006 217).
While Israeli obsession with state security is fed by a deep sense of Jewish victimhood and vulnerability, Said reminds us in The Politics of Dispossession (1994) that ‘The question to be asked is… how long are we going to deny that the cries of the people of Gaza… are directly connected to the policies of the Israeli government and not to the cries of the victims of Nazism’.

‘Insurrection of subjugated knowledges’

In order to avoid Bourdieu’s cautioning in relation to ‘being taken over by the thought of the state’ in re-thinking Israel and Palestine, I want to move beyond the objectification of ‘the Palestinian’ as either victim or terrorist, and consider Foucault’s ([1976] 1980, 81-82)   notion of the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. Foucault insists that ‘subjugated, local, regional knowledge’ that stands in opposition to professionalising, medicalising, and state knowledge, is the only way of enabling criticism to perform its work. Likewise Goldberg insists that the racial state encompasses the potentialities of resistance, and Agamben argues that the state of exception includes the potentiality of the right of resistance.
To think resistance to the racial state of Israel and dismantle Palestine as a ‘state of exception’ (taking on board Pappe’s rejection of the term and insistence on Israel as another Middle Eastern ‘Mukhabarat state of oppression’ [2008]), I follow Shenhav in discussing Walter Benjamin’s and Frantz Fanon’s writings about violence, which help us think the Palestinian subject not merely as homo sacer, but rather as active resistant staging an ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’. I concentrate on the component of violence in the process of de-colonisation even though I am well aware that many Palestinians, particularly those espousing the Palestinian Authority political path (as articulated by Mustafa Bhargouti in the VIDC conference, Vienna, 2010), strongly – and rightly – insist on non-violent resistance, including, inter alia, BDS.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952) Fanon introduces the internalisation of blackness by the black subject in a racist society, through dehumanisation, invisibility and lived experience. Not content with constructing a history or an identity of the black subject, Fanon insists on ‘lived experience’ as the central focus of a politics of resistance (A. Lentin 2006). It is not surprising, however, that in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), written while he was deeply involved in the Algerian struggle, he posits violence as a crucial phase of de-colonisation.
Unlike Audre Lorde’s well-rehearsed feminist dictum that ‘the master’s tools will not destroy the master’s house’ (2001), Fanon instructs his insurgent readers to use the master’s tools to destroy the master’s empire, reminding us that ‘decolonisation is always a violent phenomenon’. Fanon recognised that large forces of occupation cannot last and that for the colonised natives the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land (2001, 34). The coloniser’s argument that the colonised understand only force   – often repeated by Israel in justifying its aggression – means that colonial violence aims not only to keep the enslaved at arm’s length, but also to dehumanise them. The settler nation’s preoccupation with security makes it remind the natives out loud that it alone is masters: remember the extreme rightist demonstrators in Umm El Fahem against the Islamist Movement shouting ‘we are Israel’s landlords’ as the police attacked Palestinian protestors (Ha’aretz, 2010).
As a result, ‘the settler keeps alive in the native an anger which he deprives of outlet; the native is trapped in the tight links of the chains of colonialism… thus collective auto-destruction … is one of the ways in which the native’s muscular tension is set free’ (2001, 42). Violence, according to Fanon, leads not only to trauma and hence submission, but also to the colonised making violence their own. As the colonist army becomes ferocious, as the country is marked out and there are mopping up operations, transfers of population, reprisal expeditions, and massacres of women and children, the colonised draws from violence his humanity (Sartre 2001, 20; see also Abdo, 2008). As Europe and the West benefit from colonialism, the humanitarian chatter of the liberal intellectuals obscures the fact that the European has only been able to become through rendering the colonised slaves and monsters.
Fanon produces the colonised viewpoint: the colonial sovereign declares a state of emergency, positioning himself outside the law, while remaining the very incarnation of the law, evidence for which we can see every day in Sheikh Jarrach, Silwan, Bil’in, El Araqib and elsewhere. But the colonial sovereign makes the state of exception a paradigm of the normal – blurring exception and the law. Thus there is little point in obeying that law, as argued by Walter Benjamin (2004), who influenced Schmitt’s work on the state or exception, and who says that it is precisely ‘pure violence’, that is violence which stands outside the law, which is appropriated for the benefit of the sovereign by the declaration of a state of emergency.
Shenhav’s useful postcolonial reading suggests that Fanon may provide the missing piece in the current European debate about the state of exception. Taking this reading further, Ella Shohat (2006) points out that as Zionism, a reaction to ongoing oppression, had no metropolis from which to colonise Palestine (if we disregard Zionism’s European orientation), it cannot be thought of as classical colonialism. Rather, she argues, post-Zionism is the child of Zionism, not anti-Zionism. This reading supports Bourdieu’s caution about not analysing the Israeli racial state using state logic, urging us to theorise Israel using non-statist analytical tools.

Conclusion: Racial state, not ethnocracy

Though many anxious Israeli Jews wonder whether the loyalty law is a new manifestation of fascism, the law is far from new. According to Hanan Hever in Ha’aretz, the new law reiterates Israel’s foundation as an exclusively Jewish state. ‘Jewishness’, that is religion-based ethno-racism, is the necessary condition for equal rights in the state of Israel. The aim of the law is to re- clarify to non-Jewish applicants that they can only be subordinate second class citizens. Membership in the Israeli Jewish community is based on religious principles and on the purity of blood. Thus, despite being in denial about its racist predication, the state of Israel colonises another people and discriminates against its Arab citizens (Hever, 2010). And such discrimination, I want to suggest, is racially based. Goldberg calls this ‘racial Palestinianisation’: ‘Palestinians are treated not as if a racial group, not simply in the manner of a racial group, but as a despised and demonic racial group’ (2009: 139).
However, if we read the state of Israel as a racial state, established in order to re-affirm the racial superiority of ‘the Jew’ over ‘the (Palestinian) native’, reading Palestine as a state of exception allows us to re-invest the Palestinian subject with the potentiality of the ‘insurrection of subjugated knowledges’, which includes resistance to colonial oppression as a means of re-assuming subjecthood. This clears the way for interpretative control by Palestinian subjects who, even in empathetic Israeli Jewish readings, have hitherto largely been theorised as victims, or ‘bare life’. That such a reading is no longer acceptable is evidenced, inter alia, by the ‘future vision’ documents published in 2007 by leading Israeli Palestinian organisations, calling for the abolition of the Jewish character of the state which, their authors argue, stands in the way of their equality (see e.g., Ghanem 2007; Pappe, 2008).
I want to end with a reminder of Said’s argument already in 1980, in The Question of Palestine, that the Palestinian position is ‘not well known … even now, where there is so much talk of the Palestinians and of the Palestinian problem’ (Said 1980: xi), which, I suggest, is still relevant today, as the ‘solution’ to the ‘Palestinian question’ is often limited to ending the 1967 occupation while ignoring the 1948 Nakba,   and to the no longer acceptable two state solution, and as the west opts to empower the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority while ignoring the elected Hamas government.


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