I delivered the following comments at Israeli Apartheid Week events at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Oxford University during the week of February 22, 2016.
This evening I’m going to talk about the challenges of talking about Zionism. I begin with a question I often hear in some variation when people discuss Jews and Palestinians: how do we communicate with folks who have deeply emotional responses to criticism of Israel?
The question is difficult because to even attempt an answer is to validate lethargic impulses. (Note: neither the questioner nor the question is necessarily lethargic; rather, lethargy necessarily exists in any impulse for simple answers to ambiguous questions.)
Here’s how it works: in conversations about Palestine, somebody weaned on the mythologies of Israel as a site of cultural redemption struggles to accept or assimilate the rendition of Israel as a mere nation-state engaged in the violations of international law that attend any colonial or imperial power. This reluctance assumes multiple forms:
“What about the…?”
“My entire life I was taught…”
“How can we…?”
These preambles lead to the same predicates: the struggle with an existential crisis of both form and content. The questioner is yet unable to match the idea of Jewish salvation with the reality of Israel. The reality of Israel disrupts the succor of modernity, putting the vileness of colonization into deep conflict with the comfort of redemption.
The discomfort thus produced is valuable. Myth and matter need to conflict if perplexed inheritors of Zionism are to be redeemed of its violence.
The questioner intervenes not to make sense of the world but to be assured that the world can still make sense. Israel’s inherent goodness and indispensability are critical to his political cosmology. To question these narratives is to unsettle a range of commonplaces. The questioner’s intensity pivots on a vital subtext: can I exist in this world?
This kind of conversation occurs in personal and public settings. I’ve spent lots of time assuring mortified interlocutors that I have no interest in expunging them from the earth, that in fact I’m rather partial to the idea of sharing a nation with them. They don’t generally find it convincing. The reticence is perfectly sensible. They can take a political enemy at his word or fall back on years of indoctrination assuring them that, given half the chance, Arabs will toss Jews into the sea and ululate while they drown.
Sometimes the inquiries are tenderly rendered, at other times hostile. They exhibit different gradations of empathy and comprehension, but they ultimately demand the same outcome: an assurance that the Jewish people will survive. Survival in this instance is indivisible from Israel’s billion-dollar war machinery.
But it’s not the native’s duty to assure the settler’s comfort. It’s a rather ambitious demand, anyway. I vigorously support Jewish survival and success, but I don’t have the power to implement my political desires. Like anybody else, I can only attempt to enact conditions that might make the world more hospitable for all its inhabitants. It requires huge groups of people working together to effect that desire across or within societies. Shocking Zionists out of their ethnonationalist stupor is one way to help.
Doing so isn’t simply a matter of readjusting the colonizer’s attitude. There’s also the pressing need to assure the survival of the Palestinians, who, as we’re so often compelled to forget, suffer the pain of colonization, sustain genocidal threats by mainstream Israeli politicians, remain starved and entrapped in the Gaza Strip, and exist as hobgoblins in Israel’s peculiar insecurities. To make Palestinians human, composed of brain, epidermis, muscle, and bone, and given to silliness, compassion, beauty, contradiction, brilliance, ambivalence, strength, and insecurity, is to simultaneously undermine the most basic aspiration of the Zionist project, the creation of a state defined by its monopoly of an ethno-religious identity accessible through accidents of biology.
It is critical to remember amid the hand-wringing about Arabs destroying Israel and displacing its inhabitants that Israel has already destroyed Palestine and displaced the Arabs. Israel’s existential fears project its actual history. The antidote is not yet another displacement, but neither can we move past the sorrow of the dispossessed. Such propositions are always more pragmatic from the point of view of the settler.
The settler’s pragmatism has a nagging ability to make the native disappear. And though I can be patient with sincere inquests about the preservation of Jewish peoplehood, even if the point is actually to preserve Zionism, I am less sanguine about many of the tactics that focalize Jews and Israelis to the detriment of others invested in Palestine—especially those who have right to call themselves Indigenous. Various discourses in defense of Israel—almost uniformly defending the idea of Israel—purport to complicate convention but produce a severely conventional outcome: the reduction of Israel-Palestine to a fundamental question of Jewishness.
Consider the primary forms of remonstration anybody speaking in support of Palestine encounters: accusations of anti-Semitism; demands to aver Israel’s right to exist or to disavow Israel’s destruction; the association of Palestinians with Hitler; prognostications of a second Holocaust; fear of binationalism (that is, actual democracy); disgust at an atavistic Arab and Muslim desire to harm Jews.
While these approaches seem concerned with Israel’s survival, they actually serve to expedite Palestine’s disappearance. The very notion of an Israel that survives the pressure of decolonization reinforces the disintegration of Palestine, both as a geography and a site of emotional or intellectual engagement. While Zionists fret about Israel’s right to exist, Palestinians endure the violence of nonexistence.
It isn’t just a lack of land that circumscribes the Palestinian’s existence. Identifying with Palestine can produce a constant state of concealment, a clandestine passage into the deterritorialized presence of a dangerous identity.
Where, then, do Palestinians exist? In worldly geographies. In disreputable alliance with other wretched denizens of premodernity. In visions of return and restitution. In the sustenance of olives and legumes. In village ruins dotting the Holy Land. In spaces the colonizer can never enter.
In the end, though, and against great odds, we merely exist. As a result, we haunt the imagination of our oppressor. We have made good use of our existence, for we can be found wherever racism, colonization, and plutocracy are challenged. We must, anyway, always attempt to find these places.
In turn, we win no major awards unless we facilitate our own dispossession. We are absent from the ranks of regular commenters for corporate publications. Our politics must die for our livelihoods to survive. We constantly regroup after experiences of persnickety exclusion. Returning home is a painful adventure. Many of us aren’t allowed to try, disapproved of even having the opportunity to be harassed by teenage occupation soldiers.
Yet a simple fact remains. Israel occupies a limited geography, but Palestine exists everywhere. Palestine’s existence as a universal aspiration to freedom inspires a great deal of Zionist disquiet.
Colonial projects simultaneously generate overconfidence and insecurity. The perturbed Zionist needs reassurance that he will survive because the Palestinian has retained claim to Palestine, the Zionist’s salvation. The greatest mistake of Zionism was its belief that it could produce a society unaffected by the one it endeavored to replace.
Israel has the advantage of international recognition, a military, trade agreements, nuclear weapons, diplomatic relations, and UN membership, which provide geopolitical legitimacy. But it will always be burdened by its failure to expunge Palestinians from history. That burden will ultimately overwhelm it. I suspect that Zionists afflicted by existential anxiety know this and in turn project onto Palestinians the failure of Zionism to fulfill its grandiose promises.
A hard truth exists, however, and we needn’t be shy to speak it: the existential frailty of those weaned on Zionism isn’t a valid reason to stop condemning Israel. It’s a nation-state, not an abstraction.
Consider: since the start of the second intifada in 2000, Israel has killed 1,977 children. Nearly 500 of those children were eight or younger. Over 200 children currently suffer Israeli military detention. At certain points in the past ten years, the number has exceeded 300. From April 2004 to February 2013, twenty Palestinian children were forced into service as human shields. Various human rights groups documented the practice during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 51-day assault on the Gaza Strip. Since the end of Protective Edge, though the assault can’t in any meaningful way be said to have ended, Israel has killed over 600 Palestinians, 110 of them children.
I don’t share these numbers for shock value. They illustrate that while we’re often forced to consider Zionism in the abstract, its victims experience it as a physical reality. That Israel directs so much of its violence at children illuminates the longstanding impulse to halt Palestinian life at its inception.
Israel recently announced the seizure of 370 acres in the Jordan Valley. When the Israeli government seizes land, it justifies the theft on ideological grounds, but treats the land as a commodity. New land means more water, more construction contracts, more weapons purchases, and more electoral posturing. It enhances the colonizer’s agriculture and industry. Palestinian land is the basis of Israel’s occupation economy.
Their land pilfered by rapacious settlers, their farms sealed by steel and concrete, their villages constricted by colonial jurisprudence, their humanity reduced to color-coded identities, I again ask: where do Palestinians exist?
Perhaps it’s better to ask, “Where can Palestinians exist?” We have survived all climates and topographies, but no people is whole deprived of its ancestral land. The Zionist’s existential anxieties linger precisely because he occupies a land whose history has been retrofitted to inform a self-validating impulse that can never actually validate his tenuous colonial existence, and that certainly can never convince the native to offer such validation, on which the colonizer’s self-esteem relies. The Palestinian has no such problem. The Palestinians’ problem is simple: their land has been stolen. Resolving this problem doesn’t require the colonizer’s validation.
All of this can be understood through quick analysis of stones. Yes, stones—chunks of demolished hillside, construction detritus, pieces of granite smoothed over by millennia of wind and water. That analysis can be metaphorical, but even their geological qualities tell us all we need to know about the colonizer’s psychology.
In September 2015, at the behest of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel increased the severity of penalties for Palestinian stone-throwers. (Israeli settlers, on the other hand, can throw firebombs into children’s bedrooms without much hassle.) As is common in Israeli jurisprudence, stone-throwing is a crime that inspires collective punishment. This zealousness leads to all kinds of human rights violations, many committed against children—and many affecting people who weren’t tossing stones in the first place.
Israel’s supporters say that stone-throwing can lead to death and is therefore worthy of serious punishment. But are stones dangerous? In the most technical and unimaginative sense, probably. However, if we’re going to reduce a project of ethnic cleansing, illegal settlement, and military occupation to the minuscule chance that a soldier or a settler will be harmed by an act of resistance by the native, then we forfeit all right to be taken seriously.
I don’t want to bog down in the stupidity of comparing the actions of the colonizer and the colonized. That a category of colonizer even exists should end that discussion the moment it begins. Israel’s mere presence is a continuous act of violence.
It’s better to look at the symbolic conditions informing the Zionist’s anxiety about stones. Do Palestinians throw stones as a weapon of warfare? Maybe. Sometimes. They’re more often a weapon of imagination, emblems of a dogged refusal to submit or disappear. No matter the intent when a Palestinian throws a stone, the Israeli perceives it as an act of rejection. It is an accurate perception. This act of rejection, not any perceived danger, provokes the Zionist’s disdain.
Think about the moment in 2000 when Edward Said tossed a stone from southern Lebanon into northern Israel. The stone didn’t come close to hitting anything—the nearest object was an Israeli military watchtower—and the episode would have passed without interest had a photographer not furtively captured it. The photographer was smart. His picture became a sensation, launching a hysterical news cycle about Said’s genocidal tendencies and renewing demands for his termination as a professor at Columbia University.
But what about the military watchtower? It’s the normative object in the scene. It wasn’t threatened by Said’s stone, but it threatens thousands of people. It’s the apotheosis of colonization and militarism. It houses soldiers whose bullets travel at a much greater speed than Said’s manual projectile. Said was well aware of the ridiculousness of the outrage, its sanctimony and disingenuousness. He noted that he had joined in “the spirit of the place that infected everyone with the same impulse, to make a symbolic gesture of joy that the occupation [of southern Lebanon] had ended.”
The only inalienable possession of the native is the moral burden of violence. The colonizer owns everything else. Thus the military watchtower is an afterthought—or not even a thought at all beyond its existence as a backdrop to Said’s unconscionable action.
Or consider the mural hanging in the student center at York University in Toronto. It depicts a bulldozer about to plow an olive tree, while a Palestinian watches with stones cupped behind his back. Paul Bronfman, of the famous Canadian bootlegging family, threatened to withdraw his support of the university unless the mural was taken down. York refused to remove it. Bronfman made good on his threat. It’s worth noting that Bronfman’s support went beyond monetary donations; he runs a film production company—there’s a large movie industry in Toronto—and declared that he would no longer allow York students use of his studios or equipment, nor would he continue an internship program with the university.
Bronfman is aware that nobody suffers from this controversy more than students. He was unmoved, though, blaming his choice to pull funding on York’s faculty and president. They all, he declared, share guilt for the promotion of anti-Semitism.
Zionist reaction to the painting is notable not because of politics—of course Zionists dislike the message of the piece—but because it shows that ethnonationalism negatively affects acumen. The colonial gaze is incapable of identifying power anywhere but in the stone, the object that threatens Israel’s covetousness, as represented by the bulldozer. The entire painting is reducible to a miniscule earthly extraction that supersedes all other scenery.
It’s the stone. It has to be the stone. There’s no other way to understand the image if the viewer is beholden to a colonial fetish. The bulldozer is a mere accoutrement to a serene landscape interrupted by the Palestinian’s irrational violence. The Zionist must ignore it. His ignorance is active and vigorous.
It is always this way in geographies of settler colonization. The monuments of settlement, even those erected for the purpose of inflicting harm, disappear into a backdrop of structural normativity. The native’s movements, in contrast, assume a super-political immediacy.
Thus the overemphasis on stones in the Zionist’s paranoid cosmology. The stones assume a primordial importance, but never the bombs and bulldozers that transform structures into rubble. The stones symbolize conflict, but never the land from which stones are excavated. The act of stone-throwing, no matter its intent, always signifies an unearthing of history that the colonizer is deeply invested in suppressing.
In fact, there is little by way of Zionist activism, a corporate affair more accurately described as astroturfing, that isn’t fundamentally an articulation of existential anxiety. Zionists have spent decades shutting down anything to do with Palestine. It’s not just overtly political events, speeches and activism and rallies and the like. It’s anything that endeavors to show Palestinians as a discrete people with history, culture, emotions, and aspirations, anything, in other words, that merely renders the Palestinians human—art exhibitions, children’s debke, film and literary festivals, music performances.
The preferred vocabulary of suppression has long been “balance.” The idea is that a so-called “pro-Palestinian” speaker or exhibit must be countered—or, more accurately, moderated—by a so-called “pro-Israel” speaker or exhibit. (These categories, by the way, are misleading. “Pro-justice” and “pro-ethnocracy” would be more accurate even though they make little sense without an understanding of their context.) But there’s nothing balanced about this structure. The Zionist supposedly devoted to fairness doesn’t seek balance; he seeks oversight.
Balance is a silly overture that precludes intellectual honesty. No serious thinker ever proposes balance, and no thinking person seriously entertains the proposition. Let’s therefore explore what it means in relation to Zionism’s tenuous disposition. Palestinian celebration of life inspires the dissolution of Israel’s ethnocratic aspirations. Balance is vital because suppression provides Israel its sustenance. Balance, in other words, forestalls the realization of an afterlife to Zionism.
Suppressing anything Palestine can be seen as an attempt to preserve a political identity. If we understand BDS, for instance, as an articulation of Palestinian aspirations to dignity and freedom, then its delimitation through the force of state power—courts, coercion, criminalization, and so forth—makes sense as an impulse to ensure Zionism’s continued survival. The survival of the ideology, in turn, enables the perpetuation of its proponents.
Yes, Zionists try to shut down BDS because it threatens change and exposes Israel’s dismal human rights record. But they also detest BDS because it endangers their predominance as cultural and political consumers in a marketplace they have long dominated. Palestinians have so long been limited to peripheries of hostility or exoticism in Zionist symbology that their emergence as agents in the public forum has enacted a type of self-reflection incompatible with the demands of ethnonationalism.
So let us return to the original question: what to do when somebody expresses a visceral attachment to the idea of Israel. There is no universal response, but we can deploy a basic strategy: allow the Zionist’s internal conflict to exist. In fact, exacerbate it. That internal conflict isn’t an imperfection to be ameliorated, but a failure of imagination to be overcome. It’s not a matter of assigning blame to a person raised on an ethnonational narrative. Anybody committed to justice has to unlearn reactionary narratives, whether instilled by parents, teachers, peers, clergy, executives, politicians, directors, writers, or broadcasters, or all of them in tandem.
When somebody expresses anxiety about Zionism’s probity, especially in a public setting, it is an indication that the person is thinking about something, considering new ways of approaching an issue, willing to risk acrimony in order to come to an answer. We ought to facilitate that process by rendering the attendant discomfort even more acute.
In the end, there is a truth of which anybody interested in the travails of the Holy Land ought to be aware: Palestine will continue to push inward from the colonial peripheries whose architecture weakens with each new war crime, act of repression, genocidal proclamation, uprooted olive tree, land grab, settlement bloc, home demolition, and mass imprisonment. It is better to restructure the destruction of Palestine together, but its liberation ultimately doesn’t require anybody’s consent but that of the people seeking freedom.