Ronit Lentin, Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism

Mahmoud Ababneh

Journal of Holyland and Palestine Studies 19(2)…/10.3366/hlps.2020.0251

In Traces of Racial Exception, Ronit Lentin prefaces her book with a list of crimes that the Israeli settler-state committed against the indigenous peoples of Palestine. After each crime, Lentin concludes with but that’s not who we are, we are better than this (vii–viii). This stylistic and sarcastic approach not only introduces the readers into the overarching argument of the book but also functions as the author’s firm declaration of positionality as a member of the colonising collectivity (7). Therefore, this book is not about Palestine — since Lentin cannot speak for or on behalf of the Palestinians — but, rather, it is about Israel or the perpetrators and the permanent war against the Palestinians. Lentin’s book particularly focuses on the centrality of race to the Israeli rule of Palestine (3). To illustrate and support this overarching claim, the book initiates each chapter with an example of the daily crimes of the Israel state, that are racially motivated, against the Palestinians and Arab-Jews. Then, Lentin moves to theoretical debates and conversations that connect the lived experiences of the Palestinians with the academic efforts to theorise this case of colonisation. Her book becomes an attempt to understand the puzzle of the Zionists’ rule over Palestine that is only comprehensible, she concludes, through the lens of race.

Lentin opens the first chapter ‘Introduction: Tracing Race in the Settler Colony’ with a disturbing, yet not unusual, extrajudicial execution of Abdel al-Fattah al-Sharif, a 21-year-old Palestinian, by Elor Azaria — a soldier in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Lentin deftly moves from this anecdote to a theorisation of the general attitude of the Israeli state in governing the indigenous Palestinians. She draws attention to how Azaria’s testimony, during his counterfeit trial, exposes the state’s military and judicial systems’ hypocrisy and brutality. Azaria defends his murder of an unarmed man as an integral part of the practices of the settler-state’s defence forces where he has trained and flourished. Then, it becomes hypocritical, from his perspective, to be tried for this act of extreme violence and loyalty as well. Lentin further illustrates the centrality of race to this case by not only highlighting the ‘race’ of the victim. Rather, she argues that the killer is a Mizrahi (Arab) Jew and his trial would have gone differently had the soldier been Ashkenazi (4). The depth of theorising such violence and systematic hatred against Palestinians effectively supports her conclusion of using the lens of race to understand the puzzling situation of Israeli/Zionist rule over Palestine. Therefore, she considers Ilan Pappe’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ and Oren Yiftachel’s ‘ethnocracy’ as inadequate and erroneous theorisations. The book goes further to suggests that such theorisations imply that Israeli Jews are a homogeneous ‘ethnic’ group, an idea which naturalises the Zionist worldview (12). In particular, the book intentionally rejects theorising Palestine within the terms ‘ethnocracy’ in favour of the use of ‘race’ theorisations.

In Chapter two, Lentin critically engages with Eurocentric theories that explain the concept of ‘state of exception’. She particularly critiques Giorgio Agamben’s theorisations because of his exclusion of race and coloniality. She rightly argues that following Agamben’s focus on a Eurocentric vision of the ‘nation’ risks ignoring Israeli ‘governmentality’ (a term used by Michel Foucault) and management technologies of segregation and exclusion (25). This risk arises from the very notion of ‘nation’ within the Israeli government mythology of homogeneity where the nation is conceived in racial terms rather than citizenry or residence. Arabs within Israel’s imaginaries are not considered an integral component of this nation or race. Therefore, the real nation needs to defend itself against ‘the others’ through the-politics-of-death governmentality and technologies. One example of such practices, as Lentin convincingly argues, is the ‘permanent state of emergency’ where the security of the ‘nation’ justifies and requires the use of unnecessary force against the others — the Palestinians. The story at the beginning of the chapter, the Israeli forces’ raid on the Palestinian National Theatre, brilliantly connects the abstract theories of the racial state with the daily struggle of the population under the ‘state of exception’ or emergency. Preventing the theatre from holding an event exposes the settlers’ need for the normalisation of the extra-judicial practices where the suspension of the law actually works in the service of the racial state (30). Thinking of Israel as a racial state, Lentin argues, leads to the understanding of its state of permanent emergency.

Like the other chapters, ‘Unexceptional Exceptionalism’ starts with an example that Lentin carefully chooses to expose state violence against the indigenous peoples. The raid on a Bedouin village to demolish it to enable the government to establish a new settlement represents not only the profoundly racialised nature of the Israeli colonisation of Palestine (76). It is also, as Lentin correctly points out, a never-ending war waged by the State of Israel to fulfill the settler-colonial project (51). In order to theorise such a point, Lentin engages with Patrick Wolfe’s essay that demonstrates the importance of the expulsion of the indigenous populations to secure territory for the new settlers. Since settler-colonialism is, as Wolfe famously suggests, a structure not an event, Lentin follows this line of thought to point out vividly that Israel settler-colonialism is not merely historical. But, rather, it is an ongoing act. Through employing a relational approach, she applies this assertion to other settler-colonies such as Turtle Island, Aotearoa and Australia.

Lentin introduces chapter four with less known historical events that took place in the late 1940s and early 1950s. During this period, the Israeli government performed experimental treatments on the children of Yemeni Jewish immigrants — known as the ‘Yemeni Children’s Affair’. Lentin effectively cites journal reports, heads of hospitals, nurses, minutes of testimonies, and government commissions to expose the way Ashkenazi-ruled Israel viewed Arab-Jewish immigrants. To explicate further, Lentin presents an extended literature review on theorising race since she positions it, rather than racism, front and center in analysing Israel’s rule over Palestine. The nuanced distinction between race and racism, in this chapter, contextualises the chapter within the main argument of the book which is the centrality of race to the story of the Israeli settler-colonial state (81). Race and settler-coloniality have been adequately connected through highlighting the eugenic technologies as practices of the Israeli regime that aimed at purifying Ashkenazi-ruled Israel of the racial inferiority imported by Arab-Jewish immigrants (80). Lentin makes the connection clearer through her extensive exploration of how settlers, despite their obvious heterogeneities, view themselves as a superior race over Palestinians and Arab-Jews.

Chapter five focuses on the intersection of race and gender within Israel’s never-ending and racialised war against the Palestinian and Arab-Jews. To highlight such intersectionality, Lentin refers to a disturbing story about a gang-rape of a 12-year old Bedouin girl by Israeli soldiers. This story leads to the discussion of the systematic rape culture within Israeli settler-colonial institutions. Lentin deftly emphasises on language that army generals, academic scholars and racist rabbis use, in one way or another, to sanction that in times of war Israeli-Jewish soldiers are allowed to rape Palestinian ‘enemy’ women (124). Likewise, rape, or threat of rape, of a family member has been utilised as an effective governmentality to deter terrorists. The chapter also digs deep into the origins of the performative gender imaginaries that feminise Palestinians and simultaneously hyper-masculinise Israelis. This gendered discourse, Lentin suggests, continues to dominate the state’s justification of its aggression, militarism, and terrorism.

The concluding chapter focuses on strategies of decolonising Palestine. Lentin suggests that the hunger strike of the Palestinian political prisoners’ is one of these strategies. She strongly rejects theorising, as Agamben erroneously does, those prisoners and other occupied subjects as bare life or passive agents. Rather, she views these nonviolent forms of protest as necessary actions that point to significant potentialities of decolonisation (151). In order to ground these readings within a theoretical framework, Lentin outlines the arguments of major decolonisation theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Raef Zreik, Steven Salaita, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang. They provide different strategies of decolonisation that range from Zreik’s mutual recognition to Fanon’s total disorder. Lentin meticulously examines the possibility of each of these strategies within the Palestinian context and the ability of their convergence. At the end of the chapter, she strongly insists that one of the most important strategies for the decolonisation of Palestine should above all be listening to our Palestinian sisters and brothers (169).

Traces of Racial Exception weaves the lived experience of the Palestinians under the rule of Zionist Israel with theoretical paradigms that attempt to understand the colonisation of Palestine. So it manifests its strengths at many levels. Academically, it provides an extensive list of theorists and titles on concepts such as settler-colonialism, decolonisation and state of exception that are accompanied with the author’s critique of and comments on them. This form of bibliography represents general guidelines and starting points for graduate and advanced undergraduate researchers who seek an in-depth understanding of and an insightful opinion on the Israel occupation of the Palestinians’ land. Existentially, this book gives a chance for the general reader to go beyond the biased mainstream news outlets that represent Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and that has world’s most moral army (29). Moreover, they represent the Palestinian resistance as acts of terrorism against a civilised nation. The book challenges these misrepresentations through describing the realities of the lived experience under a racial regime. Finally, theorising Palestine within a settler-colonial paradigm is a burgeoning field and Lentin’s effort joins this movement in both supporting Palestinian rights to the land and simultaneously exposing the violent practices of Israel as a settler-colonial state.