Notes on Racial Capitalism and Palestine: Land, Labour and Jewishness as Property

Haider Eid and Andy Clarno’s (2017) analyze Zionist apartheid as both a racialized and an economic regime; racial capitalism is central to understanding race and the question of Palestine relating to questions of land, labour and resources. Charisse Burden-Stelly (2020) theorizes US racial capitalism as “a racially hierarchical political economy constituting war and militarism, imperialist accumulation, expropriation by domination and labour superexloitation…and permanent war” (cited in Alana Lentin 2021), all key components of the Zionist colonization of Palestine.
While Clarno (2017) focuses his analysis of post-apartheid South Africa and post-Oslo Palestine/Israel on the neoliberalization of apartheid, racial capitalism was integral to Zionism since its inception, even though many founding Zionists saw themselves as socialists. The colonization of Palestine involved several aspects of racial capitalism including the judaization of Palestinian lands by the Zionist movement since the early twentieth century, and the segmentation of labour from the Zionist Conquest of (Hebrew) Labour policy (Shafir 1989) to the current reliance on cheap and dispensable Palestinian labour. I would also like to posit Israel’s racialized justice system and prison industrial complex and white European Jewishness as property as further aspects of racial capitalism. As David Lloyd and Patrick Wolfe (2016, 116) write, “to the extent that Israel’s regime in Palestine recapitulates and extends earlier models of settler colonial dispossession and domination, its function as a program for contemporary state forms not only supplies new technologies and practices of regulation and segregation but also highlights the continuities between the logics of settler colonialism and those of the neoliberal state globally” (cited in Turner, forthcoming).

The racialization of land
According to Cedric Robinson (1983), racial capitalism is a suitable framework for highlighting central concerns of Indigenous peoples under settler colonialism, as the centrality of land fits with the emphasis in racial capitalism on dispossession, exploitation and extraction. Although the Zionist project was not primarily driven by economic considerations of profit and resource exploitation, Patrick Wolfe (2016) speaks of “purchase by another means” as the modus of Zionist colonization.
According to Wolfe (2016, 22), Eurocolonial powers arrived in Native country ex nihilo condensing power and expanding violence, and this pre-formedness, relatively resistant to local determinations, is colonalism’s preaccumulation, which is different from the European experience of primitive accumulation that figures in Eurocentric Marxist historiography. In arriving in Native country, capitalism already contained its own global preaccumulations, such as enslaving Africans in the Americas and purchasing, seizing and depopulating value-added Native land in Palestine. Insisting that “imperialism is not the latest stage of capitalism but its foundational warrant,” Zionism, Wolfe writes, consciously avoided confinement to a single metropolis in favour of a “collective mother country” (Rodinson 1973, 76), purchasing Native land in conformity with the law of the current imperial power. Brenna Bhandar (2018, 2) argues that property law, a crucial mechanism for the colonial accumulation of capital, and racial subjectivity developed in relation to one another, along racial regimes of ownership. Importantly, Wolfe (2016, 211) argues, Zionism’s diffuse metropolis and Jewish land purchases in Palestine were linked in that the former financed the latter.
In 1901 the Zionist movement’s main institutional structure, the World Zionist Organization (WZO), founded the Jewish National Fund so as to extend Jewish land ownership in Palestine (Wolfe 2016, 224). Zionist land purchasing strategies attached usufruct – the right to enjoy the use of another’s property – to title, so that (Palestinian) vendors might sell a right that might not have been theirs to sell (Wolfe 2016, 231). The dual aim of the Zionist purchasing methods was “to acquire the greatest amount of land with the smallest number of Palestinians and to concentrate the greatest number of Palestinians onto the smallest amount of land” (Erakat 2015, 85). By 2007 the JNF, a donation-based organization that green-washes its racialized land purchases by having planted millions of trees, built dams and reservoirs, developed many acres of land and established parks and nature reserves, owned 13 per cent of the total land in Israel (About JNF, n.d.), 80 per cent of which is owned by the state and managed by the Israel Land Authority. Half of these lands are controlled by the IDF and the security services (Shiefer and Oren 2008), facilitating the ongoing demolition of Palestinian houses and villages, and the expulsion of Palestinian citizens from their lands (see e.g., Boxerman 2022). Many JNF forests, where European conifers displaced native trees, were used to cover the ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages, making the JNF a key technology of Zionist colonization and racialization (Cohen and Gordon 2018).
Key to Israel controlling Palestinian lands is the 1950 Absentee Property Law that enabled the state of Israel via the Custodian of Absentees’ property to take charge of lands, houses, bank accounts and movable properties belonging to Palestinians expelled after 29 November 1947 (Adalah 2017). As most land in Israel is either state- or JNF-owned, a major effect of racial capitalism on Jewish property and Palestinian deprivation is the prohibition of purchasing or leasing land by Palestinian citizens and occupied subjects (Safian 1997).

The segmentation of the labour market
As well as founding the Jewish National Fund, the WZO also established the principle of the Conquest of (Hebrew) Labour, in line with the creation of a racialized European “new Jew,” who would differ from both their diasporic antecedent and the Palestinian Native, but also from non-European, non-white Arab and North African Jews (Shafir 1989; Lentin 2000; Lentin 2018). Gershon Shafir (1989, 81) writes that as a response to the self-loathing involving Jews being excluded from European productive industry and agriculture, Zionism and its racial Conquest of Labour policy mirrored European antisemitism.
The Conquest of Labour campaign underpinned core Zionist institutions such as the kibbutz and the labour trade union Histadrut, striving for a totally insulated Jewish-only entity that would conduct its affairs as if no Palestinians were around (Wolfe 2016, p. 225). Like the dispossession of Native lands, the Conquest of Labour was central to the colonization of Palestine, and sought to actively dispossess Palestinians of their economic relevance, and to prevent a situation of Zionist dependency on Palestinian labour. Shafir sees the Zionist project as based on a “split labour market” that hurled together, through settlement and incorporation, distinct labour forces, enabling white European Jewish workers to block the labour market to cheaper Palestinian workers. Later on, this strategy was supplemented by the importation of cheap Arab (Mizrahi) Jewish labor (see Ben Dor Benite, forthcoming). When that failed, the Conquest of Labour turned into the conquest of territory, financed by world Jewish capital (Abdo and Yuval Davis 1995, p. 294).
The 1967 occupation of Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip required a much larger labour force and resulted in an influx of tens of thousands of Palestinians into the Israeli labour market, increasing the Israeli economic reliance on cheap and dispensable Palestinian labour. However, the Palestinian Intifadas led to the bureaucracy of the occupation’s complex permit regime (Berda 2017) and brought about the importation of a large migrant work force, creating a host of legal and semi-legal, always racialized, complexities (see Kemp and Raijman 2008).

White Jewishness as property
The racialization of land purchases and the labour market and the insistence on white European Jewish supremacy links to Noura Erakat’s (2015) analysis of white Jewishness as property. Erakat follows Cheryl Harris’s (1993) work on whiteness as tangible property through three elements, the violence of liberal democracies, the codification of race, and the necessity of a racialized putative “other” that can be easily identified, defined, and captured in legal categories. Erakat reads the value of Jewish nationality and its differentiation through white supremacy that informs Israel’s legal system. Israel’s relation to Palestinians (and to non-European Jews from Arab and African countries) not only led – through instituting a strict racial regime and enacting a series of property laws – to the deprivation of the Palestinians, but has also imbued Jewish nationality with actual value. Legislated by the Law of Return (1950), the Citizenship Law (1952) and the Nation State Law (2018), whiteness, or European Jewishness as property meant, Erakat (2015, 83-4) argues, that the Palestinian native was beyond the legal category of Jewish national and had to be removed, dispossessed and/or contained. In the establishment of the Israeli state, its European founders both reified European supremacy and ascribed new value onto Jewish nationality relative to the Arab other. Israel consecrated the value of Jewish nationality in a series of laws that serve as a gateway to basic services, land, housing, education, and employment. In particular, whiteness as property bifurcated Israeli citizenship from Jewish nationality in order to privilege the Jewish person within and beyond the State.
Codified by race, the effects of white Jewishness as property are apparent in the occupied West Bank where Israeli settlements are fortified, Jewish-only housing complexes built on Palestinian land in violation of international law. Between 600,000 and 750,000 Israeli settlers live in at least 250 illegal settlements in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem (Al Jazeera 2022)in contravention of international law that considers the transfer of an occupied population by the occupying state into the occupied territory a war crime (Sfard 2023). Jewish settlers often attack Palestinian residents with impunity and under the watch of the Israeli military, preventing them from herding their flock, working their farms and going about their business. The effects of white Jewish supremacy are also evident in the continual demolition of Palestinian homes and schools in the occupied West Bank, and of Bedouin villages, deemed “unrecognized” even though the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, whose Indigenous rights are often not honoured by the courts (Zonshein 2015; see Assi forthcoming), as well as in the paucity of building permits granted to Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents (see e.g., Hasson 2015; UNRWA n.d.).
Securitization and the Zionist prison industrial complex
Eid and Clarno (2017) argue that neoliberal apartheid regimes like Israel depend on advanced strategies of securitization to maintain power. Israel exercises sovereignty over the Occupied Palestinian Territory through military deployments, electronic surveillance, imprisonment, interrogations, and torture. The state has also produced a fragmented geography of isolated Palestinian enclosures surrounded by walls and checkpoints and managed through closures, permits and segregated roads. And Israeli companies take the lead in globally marketing battle tested weapons and advanced security equipment by developing and testing high-tech devices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the besieged Gaza Strip (for detailed discussions see Halper 2015; Loewenstein 2023; Turner forthcoming). The most important addition to Israel’s security regime, Eid and Clarno argue, is a network of security forces facilitated by the US and the EU, supported by Jordan and Egypt, and operated through coordinated deployments of Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces. Like other settler colonial regimes, Israel operates walled enclosures, and racialized policing strategies.
Racial capitalism is also relevant to theorizing the Zionist justice and carceral systems according to which Palestinians and Israelis are judged and incarcerated in separate legal and prison regimes. Ruth Wilson Gilmore links the “prison industrial complex” and racial capitalism, defining racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Gilmore 2002, 261). Racism, Gilmore argues, is “organized abandonment” by both the state and capitalism, working together to raise racial barriers that create group-differentiated vulnerability. The term “prison industrial complex”, according to Angela Davis (2003), explains relationships of profit involved in imprisoning large numbers of people by providing buildings, goods and services that benefit large sectors of society involved in the security and prison industries.
Since its establishment Israel has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and since 1967 more than 800,000 Palestinians from the occupied territory were imprisoned inside Israel, illegal under international law (Adameer 2016). In 2023 a total of 4,900 Palestinians were imprisoned, including 155 children, 32 women, and 1014 administrative detainees held without charge or trial (Adameer 2023). Since 1967, Israel has operated two separate legal systems; in the occupied West Bank, Israeli settlers are subject to Israel’s civilian legal system whereas Palestinians live under military law. The dual legal system offers no semblance of justice and the military court’s conviction rate is higher than 99 per cent, with between 500 and 700 children tried in these courts each year (Quzmar n.d.). According to Adameer, economic exploitation is a key facet to entrenching Israel’s military occupation and administering its colonial regime to control, exploit and quell rebellion. Thus Palestinian families whose homes are given demolition orders are required to pay for the demolition; the family of an extrajudicial executed Palestinian is required to pay bail in order to have their body returned for burial; the military courts regularly impose severe fines on Palestinian prisoners for the sake of unfairly punishing and pressuring their families economically, another way of deriving financial profit from their incarceration: in 2016 alone, fines amounted to an average of half a million shekels ($145,000) per prisoner. Oftentimes, fines are imposed if a prisoner refuses to be strip searched or if they protest against poor living conditions inside prison (Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor 2017). In this regard, the colonial judicial system is another central building block in the systematic racialization and economic exploitation of the Palestinians.

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Sandwith Street: ‘Whiteness riots’ and ‘local’ white communities

The violent events in Dublin’s city centre on Friday 12 May 2023 when groups of Dublin based people set upon five hundred plus asylum seekers, forced to live in tents outside the International Protection Office in Sandwith Street, setting their belongings on fire and shouting racist abuse at them were very troubling indeed. Lawyer and activist Gary Daly, who came to stand in solidarity with the asylum seekers, wrote on his Facebook page that what was particularly disturbing was that “the people threatening extreme violence or calling all refugees ‘rapists’ sounded just like me. They were Dublin voices… I recognised the accents, but I was a stranger to the language used. Claiming that we (those standing between them and the homeless migrant camp on Sandwith Street) were all ‘anteefa’ or ‘government shills’ or ‘paid NGOs’. This language is imported only very recently from far-right America.”

Following the Ukraine refugee crisis, the number of people seeking international protection in Europe has grown exponentially. Ireland is currently housing 19,874 asylum seekers, including 4,139 children, in 172 locations around the country. This is a 90 per cent increase in a year and a 266 per cent increase since 2018. Although still high when compared with pre-2022 figures, the number of applications has gone down considerably in recent weeks according to data provided by the Department of Justice

The much-criticised Direct Provision system, inadequate as it was, and epitomising Ireland’s ‘asylum industrial complex’ whereby private landlords and hotel owners had been paid millions of euros to house thousands of asylum seekers by the government, that is, by Irish tax-payers, as Vukašin Nedeljković and I reported in Disavowing Asylum: Documenting Ireland’s Asylum Industrial Complex, is no longer able to cope. Hotel owners have reverted to the more profitable tourism business which the government prefers to nurture at the expense of accommodating applicants for international protection, and hotels are no longer available. Due to Ireland’s disastrous housing and homelessness crisis, the result is a huge shortage of accommodation to newly arriving asylum seekers, 580 of whom are currently camping on the streets of Dublin, some in tents outside the ironically named International Protection Office, where they have been subjected to appalling racism by what has been described by some activists as ‘fearful local working class communities’ rather than by white Irish racists.

Continue reading “Sandwith Street: ‘Whiteness riots’ and ‘local’ white communities”

Spaces of Racialization: Ireland’s Direct Provision Asylum Centres as Sites of Racialized State Violence

Presented at the Launch Event: State Crime Special Issue on Migration and Racist State Violence (eds. Monish Bhatia and Ronit Lentin)

Oct 18, 2022, London

The Republic of Ireland has a poor record in its response to refugee crises ever since the Nazi era, when only 60 Jewish refugees were admitted by neutral Ireland between 1933 and 1946. Although several groups of ‘programme refugees’ were admitted over the years, when asylum seekers began arriving in the mid-1990s, the government regarded them as a problem, and,  following Britain, since November 1999, dispersed asylum seekers, granting them bed and board and a small comfort allowance, in Direct Provision centres. Though initially meant for a six months stay, in June 2022 a record 11,689 people, including nearly 2,800 children, were living in direct provision and emergency accommodation centres, an increase of more than 40 per cent on last year. Most centres – including hotels and guest houses – are operated by for-profit companies paid 1.6 billion euro by the government between 2000 and 2021, constituting what I term Ireland’s “asylum industrial complex.” The centres are over-crowded, lack proper facilities, and are mostly in remote locations, cutting people off from Irish society. Until 2018 asylum seekers were not allowed to work or open bank accounts, and only the campaigning work of MASI – the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland – brought their plight to the attention of Irish society.

I begin by addressing the link between the disavowal of the asylum seekers by state and society with the disavowal of the coercive confinement of unwed mothers and poor children in church-run institutions, where they were confined and enslaved until late in the twentieth century. Second, in view of the rise in the numbers of applications and of Ireland’s severe housing crisis, I theorize the Direct Provision regime as a recialized space of nonbeing, constituting what Berlant calls “slow death”. Third, because the movement of refugees is fluid and ever changing, I expand on the article as published by juxtaposing the Irish state response to accommodating refugees from Ukraine with its lack of action in relation to people seeking international protection, whose number has increased exponentially since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Discriminating against people seeking international protection is a clear demonstration of racist state violence.

  1. Confinement and disavowal

In our 2021 book Disavowing Asylum: Documenting Ireland’s Asylum Industrial Complex, Vukasin Nedeljković and I argue that hiding from public view of Ireland’s past coercive confinement of thousands of unwed mothers and deprived children in church-run Mother and Baby Homes, Magdalene laundries and industrial schools (where 93,000 children of unwed mothers were kept and often physically, sexually and emotionally abused) until late in the 20th century represented a disavowal of something that Irish people were aware of but “managed not to know.” Far from accidental, this disavowal was engineered by the Irish state that continues to hide asylum seekers in Direct Provision centres from public view. Linking Ireland’s violent past coercive confinement regime with the confinement of asylum seekers in the 21st century, Clair Wills (2021) argues that like refugees, unwed Irish mothers and their children were violently forced from their own communities and were in effect rendered stateless by the Irish state and its agents – a clear case of racialized state violence.  Surprisingly, however, with very few exceptions, the Direct Provision regime has not been theorized in terms of race and racialized state violence.

  • Direct Provision as racialized spaces of nonbeing and deportability

In Direct Provision centres the “punitive ramifications” of deportability insinuate, as Peutz and De Genova argue, “the inequalities and excesses of state power and sovereignty into the everyday production of social space” (Peutz and De Genova 2010, 2). Frequent pre-dawn raids by Gardaí (Irish police officers) and the spectacle of deportation enforcement are technologies of violent state control that enable asylum seekers’ continual vulnerability to deportation.

I theorize Direct Provision centres as racialized spaces of nonbeing operating policies of mistrust and dispersal, making them functions of state governmentality at work to spread societal “xeno-racism” wherever asylum seekers are dispersed to, as argued by Frances Webber (2012, 94). Though they are not forced to reside in Direct Provision centres, as repeatedly stressed by government ministers, asylum seekers not taking up the offer of DP accommodation are deprived of the right to bed and board, and do not receive any state benefits, including medical cards and weekly allowances, which is why most accept the offer. Theorizing the racialization of space in Direct Provision centres is apt as for many asylum seekers living in Direct Provision is akin to what Lauren Berlant (2007, 754-764) terms “slow death.”

In recent months the conditions of asylum seekers in Direct Provision have seriously deteriorated, with some reduced to living in tents and others remaining homeless. As Vukasin Nedeljković writes, “In the history of Direct Provision it has never been so bad for people applying for protection… at the moment there are a number of asylum seekers sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin and Ireland before even making an official claim for international protection.”

  • Asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees – racist state violence

There has been an eight fold increase in the number of asylum applications, from 1,148 in 2021 to 8,892 in 2022 – an increase of 700%. That is separate from over 50,000 people who have come from Ukraine fleeing the Russian invasion. According to the Department of Justice, the increase is partly down to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is clearly also due to the war in Ukraine. While commending the Irish government’s positive handling of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, MASI coordinator Lucky Khambule said that processing Ukrainian refugees, giving them cards, accommodating them and enabling their children to go to school proved that this can be done quickly, and rightly so:

“We can see clearly what the government is doing and it demonstrates what we were saying all along. It was always possible to allow people to access the workforce, but we had to wait for nine months…Following the current crisis, we would like to see this kind of service available to all people who seek protection… we say that the welfare given to Ukrainian people must be available for everyone seeking protection… we need to address this urgently so that chidren in Direct Provision who can’t go to school will be able to go to school the same way as the children from Ukraine.”

Although clearly not all black or brown, people seeking asylum and residing in Direct Provision are racialized by the government as non-European others. Their discrimination, I propose, is nothing short of racial state violence.