A paper I presented at a workshop entitled ‘Decolonizing knowledge production: The case of Israel-Palestine’, London School of Economics, 6 June 2017, 50 years since Israel’s 1967 war against its Arab neighbours and since the occupation of the West Bank, Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the Golan.
Introduction: Some thoughts about decolonizing Israel Studies
Following Eman Ghanayem (2017) who asks that pro Palestine activists stop using the term ‘Israel/Palestine’ which equates Palestine and Israel and in which Israel dominates the discourse, I propose that the decolonization of Israel Studies is an oxymoron. As argued by Tuck and Yang’s ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, the very language of decolonizing education and research used by the colonizers remains a metaphor that re-centres whiteness, resettles theory, extends innocence to the settler, and entertains a settler future (2012: 3). According to Steven Salaita Fanon’s description of decolonization as ‘total disorder’ is not the absence of law, but rather
an act of removing order from the structures of foreign authority. This removal of order is total because… the colonial entity must be rejected completely, subverted, dismantled, decentralized – that is, dis-ordered (2016: xii).
Tuck and Yang argue that teaching settlers to become indigenous occludes the settler colonial project itself. Likewise Israel Studies programmes collude with Israeli settler colonialism, even when attempting to be critical. Thus in 2014 the European Association of Israel Studies demanded that a lecturer from the West Bank Ariel University omit his institutional affiliation in order to participate in the EAIS annual conference – a clear case of having your colonial cake and eating it.
As is well known, Israeli universities are deeply implicated in the settler colonial project through developing weapons and security equipment for the IDF and for Israel’s international arms trade, designing phantom cities for the IDF to practice urban warfare, and training the IDF in poststructuralist theories to be used in new modes of warfare. Israeli universities provide courses for IDF and security personnel, publicly support Israel’s colonial wars, most recently the 2014 assault on Gaza, and give grants and extra exam dates for serving students-soldiers, while systematically discriminating against Palestinian faculty and students.
Until the 1980s most Israeli academics conducted uncritical research that upheld the institutions of ruling. Only in the late 1980s did ‘new historians’ and critical sociologists begin questioning state narratives in relation to the Nakba and to Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians. Many Israeli scholars researching Palestine are graduates of ‘Oriental’ high-school streams, the IDF Intelligence corps, and university Middle East Studies departments, making them agents of settler colonialism. Even when Israeli scholars employ Palestinian informants and research assistants, the research remains the property of the colonizer scholars who purport to conduct liberatory research (which, as Mohanty  argued in another context, ‘discursively colonizes’ Palestinian reality), while retaining privileged access to knowledge, research grants, publications and academic reputation.
Settler colonialism and scholarship
Decolonization is not a metaphor. Tuck and Yang (2012) argue write that ‘because settler colonialism is built on an entangled triad structure of settler-native-slave, the decolonial desires… can similarly be entangled in resettlement, reoccupation, and reinhabitation that actually further settler colonialism’. The metaphorization of decolonization, they argue, enables a problematic set of evasions that reconcile settler guilt and complicity.
The trendy call to ‘decolonize’ education and research occludes settler colonialism, Indigenous peoples’ struggles for the recognition of their sovereignty, and the contribution of Indigenous intellectuals to theories of decolonization. Tuck and Yang argue that the too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourses is part of what they describe as ‘moves to innocence’, that ‘represent settler fantasies of easier paths to reconciliation’ of what is essentially irreconcilable (Malwhinney 1988).
Israeli settler colonials work to indigenize themselves by claiming originary Biblical privilege which, they assert repeatedly, supersedes claims by the Indigenous, who, the settlers claim, are recent immigrants to the invented ‘land of Israel’. These indigenizing claims render Israeli settler law – mostly based on Ottoman and British colonial law – superior to Indigenous laws, customs and epistemologies.
North American settlers’ fascination by indigeneity meant ‘playing Indian’: ‘Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants’ (Deloria 1998: 5). Likewise, Zionist settlers were fascinated by and emulated Palestinian indigeneity. As Yuval Evry (2016: 56) argues, the Zionists saw the settlement of Palestine as a territorial and textual return to the Jews’ Biblical origins, enabling the settlers to negate both the Jewish diaspora and Palestine’s Arab history. The so-called ‘first wave’ immigrants expressed their indigenizing desire through a mixture of proximity to and rejection of the Indigenous Palestinians whose life and folklore shaped the narrative of Jewish return to the land and the Biblical text, considered foundational to the Jewish ownership of Palestine. At the same time Israeli academic research occludes the lived experiences of Palestinian citizens, occupied, besieged and diasporic subjects who Israeli academics help their state to eliminate through collusion with Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians.
According to Tuck and Yang, the decolonization metaphor is an expression of settler anxiety as the settler attempts to escape her complicity. However, they caution, the settlers’ reconciliation desire is as relentless as their desire to disappear the Native, signifying a wish to no longer face the Indigenous or deal with the ‘Indigenous problem’. In the race to innocence, depicted in countless Israeli fictional narratives, settlers attempt to relieve their guilt without actually giving up land, power and privilege. Settler writers are rarely reflexive (Yizhar is an exception – his story Khirbet Khizeh is the emblematic first-person account of the rage and regret of a 1948 soldier against his company expelling the inhabitants of the Palestinian village they demolish). In contrast, reflexive accounts by settler scholars is a move to innocence that serves only the settlers, as they invent ancient Biblical nativist roots that Goldberg theorizes as ‘racial Palestinianization’ (2008).
Decolonization is not a metaphor
Tuck and Yang outline various moves to innocence used in settler scholarship, including the bracketing of minoritized Indigenous peoples as ‘asterisks’, the discursive move to ‘decolonize your mind’ following the Brazilian education philosopher Paolo Freire, and colonial equivocation whereby different groups are called ‘colonized’ though their relationship to settler colonialism goes unmentioned.
However, decolonization, as Fanon (1963: 36) insists, must involve the actual, rather than symbolic, repatriation of all the colonized land, which is why decolonization unsettles settler moves to innocence although it does not mean Indigenous peoples dominating white people but rather breaking the very structure of settler colonialism by returning land to sovereign Native nations and dismantling the imperial metropole.
Treating decolonization as material rather than metaphorical must also consider the workings of race in the Israeli settler colony. Only in recent years has the Israeli theoretical landscape begun to admit the reality of racism, though very few theorists focus on settler colonial state practices of racial categorization and segregation. Shenhav and Yona’s edited collection on racism in Israel evades state racism and race per se, due, they write, to regarding Israel as exceptional and to Israeli Jews’ own racialized past (2008: 17). This, and theorizing racism in Israel as signifying ‘racism without race’, leads them to disavow race, a theoretical dead end (2008: 43). The race lacuna in theorizing Israel must be addressed because, as Wolfe (2016: 5) insists, ‘race is colonialism speaking, in idioms whose diversity reflects the variety of unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted conquered populations’.
Conclusion: Decolonizing Israel Studies as an oxymoron
Decolonization stands in contrast to reconciliation which underpins settler moves to innocence. Instead of reconciliation Tuck and Yang propose incommensurability that insists that the question ‘what will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler?’ need not be answered for decolonization to take place. Decolonization is not accountable to settler futurity, but rather to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity.
Writing about silencing Palestinian voices at a recent conference in a British university marking 50 years to the occupation, Hawari and Sleiman insist that decolonizing knowledge must begin from Palestinian knowledge production, as Western as well as Israel Studies knowledge production remains structurally colonial. This, they write, means not only including more Palestinian voices, but also rejecting false discourse of ‘balance’ of which the present conference, organized by Israeli scholars, is a culprit. Hawari and Sleiman argue that the ‘continuing process of indigenous erasure takes place both on the material and on the epistemic levels… and should no longer be considered as such in the academy. Re-centring our views around the experience of the Palestinians is the only way we can decolonize knowledge production on Palestine/Israel’.
To conclude, let me reiterate that the call by settler scholars to decolonize Israel Studies is an oxymoron because Israel Studies is itself a colonizing practice. Instead – as a member of the perpetrator collectivity, I suggest that we need ‘dangerous understandings of uncommonality that un-coalesce coalition politics’, even though this rejects false balance, dialogue, coexistence, normalization and even co-resistance projects that do not demand the total dismantling of the settler state, returning all the land to its Indigenous Palestinian owners and facilitating the return of all Palestinians refugees to their homes and lands.
As settler scholars we must relinquish settler futurity. Decolonization means removing all asterisks, quotes, and conditional clauses that underwrite settler innocence. The ethic of incommensurability will become possible only when the Israeli settler colony is dismantled. ‘Decolonization’, Tuck and Yang conclude, ‘is not an “and”. It is an elsewhere’ (2012: 35-6).
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