Book launch talk “Traces for Racial Exception”

Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism

By Ronit Lentin (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018).

Book launch speech, 19 October 2018, Trinity College Dublin

Sponsored by the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict, and Academics for Palestine, and launched by Professor Neve Gordon, School of Law, Queen Mary College London.

Much has changed since I finished the book, including the IDF wanton massacre of unarmed protesters in the Gaza Great March of Return as of March 2018, leading, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to murdering 209 unarmed protesters (including 41 children, 2 journalists and 3 paramedics) and injuring more than 22,500 (of whom over 5,500 with live ammunition); the threatened demolition of the unrecognised Bedouin village Khan al Akhmar; the arrest and subsequent release of the Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi; the imprisonment and subsequent release of the Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour; the lynching of three Palestinian citizens on a beach in Israel; and above all, the passage of the racist 2018 Nation State Bill. However, you can never put a final full stop when writing about the Palestine present, as things are getting worse daily, just when you think that they cannot get any worse…

In this talk I outline briefly my choice to use the lens of race to analyse Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians. I prefer not to use the hackneyed terms ‘Israel/Palestine’ or ‘Palestine/Israel’ – because such coupling masks unequal power. Nor do I call this war ’the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. This is not a conflict but rather colonization, and to analyse colonization you need to use the lens of race, as argued by the late theorist of settler colonialism Patrick Wolfe in his posthumous 2016 book Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race: “race is colonialism speaking, in idioms whose diversity reflects the variety of unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted conquered populations.”


In March 2016 IDF medic Elor Azaria shot to death Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif, an unarmed Palestinian, minutes after soldiers shot, wounded and ‘neutralized’ him for attempting to stab an Israeli soldier, while he was lying on the ground unable to move. Azaria was charged with murder, later transmuted to manslaughter.

Al Sharif was one of 181 Palestinian ‘terror suspects’ extra-judicially executed between October 2015 and March 2016. The killing was supported by 65 per cent of Israeli Jews; 67 per cent supported pardoning Azaria, who was backed by Netanyahu, Lieberman, and other public figures, and by thousands of Israeli demonstrators shouting ‘death to the Arabs’. Azaria is far from unique: of 186 IDF criminal investigations in 2015, only four led to indictments. Azaria was tried only because he was filmed by the Palestinian cameraman ‘Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, who received many death threats after the video went viral.

Azaria was given a lenient jail sentence of 18 months, leading Palestinian Knesset member Jamal Zahalka to call Israel a ‘democracy of guns.’ Having served half of his sentence, Azaria is feted as a national hero … But as Neve Gordon writes, Azaria ‘is in no way an aberration of Israel’s colonial project, but rather a clear symptom of its very structure’.

The Azaria case illustrates the centrality of race to Israel’s permanent war against Palestine. First, the ease with which a Jewish Israeli soldier can extra-judicially execute an unarmed helpless Palestinian illustrates the racialization and dehumanization of Palestinians by Israeli Jews, whose white Jewish supremacy parallels their sense of victimhood. Second, Azaria being an Arab (Mizrahi) Jew demonstrates the racialization of Arab Jews in Israel’s complex racial reality. According to Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, Azaria’s trial would have gone differently had he been Ashkenazi: ‘The Mizrahi is not one of us – we are more moral, better. The trial expresses superiority disguised as morality’. Third, Azaria’s conviction heightened Israelis’ sense of victimhood, the other side of the settler colonial race coin – colonizers on the one hand, eternal victims on the other, a lethal cocktail.

My book presents a three-pronged engagement with Israel’s rule in Palestine as a state of exception, a racial state, and a settler colony.  Only few writers about Israel privilege race, so my main objective was to close this gap by positioning race front and centre. Like race theorist Alexander Weheliye I understand race not as biological or cultural but rather as socio-political processes of differentiation which are projected onto the biological body and as presenting ‘visual modalities in which dehumanization and classification are lived.’ Humans, he argues, create race for the benefit of some and the detriment of others; ultimately race has been created to sustain white hegemony and differentiate between humans, not-quite-humans and non-humans.

My previous work focused on Israel as a classic case of what the Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben calls state of exception. Israel rules Palestine through practices of exception, permanent emergency (and a whole panoply of emergency legislation), necessity and security, and its self-styled exceptionalism positions it above and outside domestic and international law regarding Palestinian citizen, occupied, besieged and refugee subjects. Categorized into citizens (‘48 Palestinians’), occupied and besieged subjects (‘67 Palestinians’), and refugees, Palestinians are controlled through technologies of segregation, exclusion and surveillance employed since the 1948 ‘Plan D’ for the elimination of the Palestinians, to present-day policies of occupation, siege and preventing the return of refugees.

However, Agamben’s Eurocentric state of exception theory has been critiqued as not taking on board colonialism and decolonization, and as occluding race, as potently argued by Weheliye.

One reason to focus on race is countering theorizations of Israel in terms of ethnicity rather than race by scholars such as Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel theorizing Israel as an ‘ethnocracy’, and Ilan Pappe’s enthusiastically endorsed description of the Nakba as the ‘ethnic cleansing of Palestine’, a term based on Serbian state discourse during the 1990s Bosnian war. Both Yiftachel’s ‘ethnocracy’ and Pappe’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ occlude race and assume Jewish ethnic homogeneity, which race theorist David Theo Goldberg calls ‘heterogeneity in denial.’

In view of the erroneous claim that ‘we are all post racial now’, race scholar Barnor Hesse argues that racism, conceived without the implications of race, is in fact a Eurocentric ideology. He questions how the racialized experiences and violations of the Jews in Europe, rather than those associated with US Blacks and colonized ‘non-whites’ generally, came to dominate the twentieth-century concept of racism in international relations.

It is hardly surprising that in Israel, avowedly established as a ‘safe haven’ for the descendants of Jewish victims of historical racialization culminating in the Nazi genocide, using the term race is frowned upon. The reluctance to name race means that, while decrying Nazi (and other ‘non-Jewish’) racism against Jews, Israel is blithely racist against its colonized subjects in the name of white Eurocentrism that does not speak its name. This is despite Zionism’s racialization of Palestinians, of Mizrahi (Arab) and black (Ethiopian) Jews, and of non-Jewish non-white migrants and refugees, making Israel a classic ‘racial state’.

Racial states, as Goldberg argues, exclude and include in racial terms in order to construct homogeneity through governmental technologies of border controls, immigration policies, military and police forces, citizenship regimes, surveillance strategies, and census categorizations, but also invented histories and traditions that construct state narratives, state history and state memory and the evocation of ancient origins.

Goldberg argues that the law works in the service of the racial state, rather than providing checks and balances. Examples of Israel’s racial laws, of which there are more than fifty, include the 1950 Law of Return that grants anyone with a Jewish mother automatic citizenship while depriving citizenship from Palestinians born on the land; the 1950 Law for Absentees’ Property that grants the state ownership of the property of Palestinians expropriated in 1948, dubbed ‘Present absentees’; and of course the 2018 Nation State Bill, that enshrines Israel’s racial regime in law. As Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy writes:

Jerusalem District Court Judge Moshe Drori ruled that a Jew who was injured in a terrorist attack is entitled to additional compensation, because he is a Jew, without proof of any damage, based on the nation-state law, which states that the government will strive to protect the well-being of Jews. The circle has been closed… Now it is a real race law, according to the interpretation of the court of the nation-state law. From now on, two types of blood exist in Israel: Jewish blood and non-‎Jewish blood, in the law books as well. The price of these two types of blood ‎is also different. Jewish blood is priceless; it must be protected in every ‎possible way. Non-Jewish blood is terrifyingly cheap; it can be shed like ‎water. A situation that existed until now only de facto… is from today a court ‎decree.

Despite Pappe’s claim that Israel is ‘the last active settler colonialist project in existence’, the Israeli settler colony is neither unique nor the last existing settler colony, as demonstrated by Wolfe’s comparative analysis of settler colonialism in Australia, the United States, Brazil and Palestine.

Theorizing it as a ‘structure, not an event’, and as characterized by the ‘logic of elimination’, Wolfe argues that rather than exploiting the natives, settler-colonialism destroys and replaces what it destroys. This is evident in Zionist practices of replacing depopulated Palestinian villages with Jewish settlements, roads and national parks; substituting Arab place names with Hebrew place names; replacing Palestinian orchards with imported European conifers; and the current practice of population transfers and demolishing Bedouin villages, deemed ‘unrecognized’ – that is, not provided with running water, electricity, roads, schools, refuse collection and other basic services.

Though Ilan Pappe says it is a ‘new paradigm’, settler colonialism had been explicitly used to describe the Zionist project by Palestinian theorists Fayez Sayegh, Constantine Zurayk, Elia Zureik, and the French Marxist writer Maxime Rodinson, and Israeli sociologists Baruch Kimmerling and Gershon Shafir.

While colonialism focuses on exploiting resources and colonized populations, settler colonials come to stay and regard the colonized territory their own, as Israeli Jews do to this day. Wolfe understands settler-colonialism in terms of ‘structured genocide’, illustrating the concrete relations between spatial removal, mass killings and biocultural assimilation. The Zionist logic of elimination is evident in the expulsion of the Palestinians during and after the 1948 Nakba and the replacement of their villages and urban neighbourhoods by Jewish settlements; the 1948-1966 military government regime; the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, the Golan, Sinai and Gaza; and the ongoing Israeli control of the Palestinian territory. Wolfe’s book traces the ways in which regimes of race reflect and reproduce colonialism. As he writes: ‘Race is a trace of history: colonial populations continue to be racialized in specific ways that mark out and reproduce the unequal relationships into which Europeans have co-opted these populations.’

Like theories of exception, settler colonial theory has also been critiqued by indigenous scholars for its Eurocentrism, and as ‘a decontextualized white supremacist euphemism for White supremacy/White terrorism/White invasion and seizure’ (according to the Aboriginal scholar Sandy O’Sullivan).

I therefore follow Alexander Weheliye who critiques Agamben’s (as well as Michel Foucault’s) Eurocentrism and lack of attention to ‘racialized assemblages,’ and who positions race front and centre in considerations of political violence as socio-political processes of differentiation projected onto the biological human body. These processes are regularly and consciously employed by Israel in racializing Palestinian citizens, occupied, besieged, refugee and diasporic subjects, as well as non-white Jewish citizens, and non-white non-Jewish immigrants, although neither Israel nor most Israeli scholars see these processes as racial or even racist, but rather as a consequence of Israel’s self-perception of victimhood and the need to defend itself.

In recent years the Israeli theoretical landscape has at last admitted the reality of racism, though only few theorists focus on the centrality of race and state racism. One exception is Neve Gordon and Yinon Cohen’s article on Israel’s biospatial strategies of racialization. Howeveer, theorizing racism without placing race at the heart of the analysis derives from a minimally defined concept of racism as individual prejudice, exclusion or discrimination, where racism ceases to be a concept with a specific history and a particular logic of indicting race.

Goldberg’s theorizing Israel as a racial state, Wolfe’s contention that ‘race is colonialism speaking’, and Weheliye’s racializing assemblages all make race the indispensable, albeit hitherto missing piece in theorizing the Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine.

I also argue in the book that paradoxically, for a people whose history is replete with racial persecution, Zionist ideology itself articulates ‘the Jewish race,’ constructing a homogeneous ‘Jewish people,’ with Jewish self- and other racialisation an integral part of the Zionist ideology. Israeli geneticist Rafael Falk reads the history of Zionism as a eugenic race project, aiming to save the Jewish genetic pool from the degeneration of diaspora existence. While some European Jews struggled against the idea of Judaism as a race, many prominent Zionist leaders including Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau and Arthur Ruppin insisted, just like the Nazis, on constructing ‘the Jews’ as a race. Nordau coined the phrase ‘muscular Judaism’ to denote the ‘new Jews’ as masculine warriors, opposing not only the Palestinians but also their own despised diaspora past. Thus, just as antisemitism racialized Jews as a separate ‘race’ justifying their persecution by biological reasoning, Zionist ideologues adopted the terminology of volk – a racial nation shaped by ‘blood and soil,’ and were instrumental in producing a Zionist repertoire of racial categorizations and Jewish supremacy. Thus prime minister Begin could say in a Knesset speech in 1982 that:

“Our race is the Master Race. We are divine gods on this planet. We are as different from the inferior races as they are from insects. In fact, compared to our race, other races are beasts and animals… Other races are human excrement. Our destiny is to rule over the inferior races… The masses will lick our feet and serve us as our slaves” (quoted by Amnon Kapeliouk, “Begin and the Beasts,” New Statesman, June 25, 1982).

In her book The Right to Maim, feminist queer theorist Jasbir Puar links race and disability and argues that although disability is connected to anti-occupation movements (in relation to budgetary priorities etc.), the emergence of a liberal disability rights movement in Israel is possible only if it is delinked from the occupation. So if the muscular Jew drove the rehabilitation project in the past, the present neoliberal Israeli regime reduces support for disabled people as the Israeli welfare state is declining while the costs of the occupation and the settlements continue to soar. Meanwhile, in the West Bank debilitated Palestinian bodies stand in contrast to rehabilitated Jewish bodies protected by the Israeli state. The occupation creates intense forms of disability through war, shootings, drones, missile attacks and extrajudicial killings. It also produces debility through maiming and injuring Gazans, and through severe medicine, electricity and water shortages in Gaza. In other words, Puar asserts that “‘not killing’ Palestinians while rendering them systematically and utterly debilitated is not a humanitarian sparing of death, but rather a biopolitical usage and articulation of the right to maim.”

And of course race in Israel is constructed not only in relation to the Palestinians, but, as I already mentioned, also in relation to Arab Jews and non-Jewish, non-white refugees and asylum seekers. It is thus not surprising that a 2018 Pew Research Institute poll found that 57 per cent of Israeli Jews were against accepting refugees – more than any other country included in the survey.


To conclude: writing about victims of oppression is seen as more morally edifying than focusing on perpetrators. However, I am a (Palestine-born) Jewish Israeli scholar and activist, and have devoted my life and academic career to researching the perpetrators of Israel’s war against the Palestinians. This book is the result of a lifelong commitment to Palestinian freedom and a lifelong (agonizing) reflection on my privileged position as a white Ashkenazi Jewish member of Israel’s settler colonial perpetrator collectivity. My parents were immigrants from Romania and several members of their families died in the ghettos of Transnistria. They thought of us, their children, as ‘the first generation to redemption’ – from antisemitism, in what they fantasized was their ‘promised land.’

I studied in one of Israel’s elite private schools where education was Prussian in spirit and military in style, and we were indoctrinated with a lethal mixture of victimhood and white Jewish supremacy, and told that Jewish people, though superior, were, are, and will always be victims of antisemitism; that the ‘whole world is against us’, and that no one helped Jews during the Holocaust that was ‘the worst crime in the history of humanity’ and the only genocide that matters, regardless of colonialism, slavery and the extermination of Indigenous peoples. We were also told that Israel is a haven for the ‘entire Jewish nation’, and is justified in ‘defending itself’ by whatever means. I am inspired by what Robin DiAngelo writes about whiteness, and I exchange whiteness with Jewishness, so you can see what I mean:

I can speak as an “insider” to my socialization into Jewishness: the messages of superiority I have received, patterns I have developed, advantages I enjoy and the personal and institutional challenges I face when seeking to counter racism. I am not, in fact, innocent of race.

Only in my early twenties, immediately after the 1967 war, did I realize that we were lied to, and that Israel was in fact an imperialist settler-colonial project in a land already settled by another people who the Zionists expelled and whose lands and property we stole.

As a lifelong pro-Palestine activist, I have written, obsessively, about Israel’s war against the Palestinians in the face of family rifts and community opprobrium. However, it has taken me until now to combine my academic work on race and racism in other contexts and my work on Palestine and Israel to reach this junction and this book – such is the nature of passion.