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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.
‘WRITING IS THE CLOSING OF CIRCLES’: NAVA SEMEL
From R. Lentin, Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Re-occupying the Territories of Silence, (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2000)
I met Nava Semel on November 25, 1992 in the apartment she shares with her husband Noam Semel, director of the Tel Aviv Cameri Theatre, and their three children, Iyar and twins Eal-Eal and Nimdor. Semel was born in 1954 in Tel Aviv. Her father, Itzhak Artzi, a former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, was born in Bukovina and is not a concentration camp survivor. Her mother, Margalit (Mimi) Artzi (nee Liquornik), also born in Bukovina, is a survivor of several concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Kleineshenau. The twins, born in the US while Noam Semel served with the Israeli consulate in New York, have American passports. ‘This too is part of my being a daughter of survivors,’ Semel explained, ‘at least when the helicopters come to rescue the survivors here, they would be saved.’ Semel’s brother, Shlomo Artzi, is a leading Israeli popular singer. Semel is small, short haired, and very intense. Her use of the Hebrew language is very precise. She had obviously done a lot of thinking about being a daughter of Shoah survivors and has written both fiction and journalism about it.
Nava Semel describes her childhood as an ‘ordinary Israeli childhood.’ She served in the army as a news producer with Galei Tsahal, the army radio channel. She began writing when she had her first child. Her collection of short stories, the first ‘second generation’ fiction collection published in Israel, Kova Zekhukhit (A Hat of Glass) (1985), met with a wall of silence when it first appeared, but has been written about extensively since then. The collection was re-issued in 1998 with an introduction by the literary critic Nurit Govrin. Several stories have been translated into English, German, Spanish, Turkish and French and appeared translations in Germany and Italy in 2000.
In all the stories there is a ‘child of’ persona and they are all based on the various stages of learning about and coming to terms with her parents’ survival as Semel explains in the following narrative. Indeed, in all her books, the reality is often viewed from a child’s point of view.
Her one-woman play Hayeled meAchorei Haeinayim (The Child Behind the Eyes) (1987), a monologue of a mother of a Down Syndrome child, had many showings in Israel and abroad and several radio broadcasts internationally. In 1996 it won the Austrian radio play of the year award. Her two novels for young people, Gershona Shona (Becoming Gershona) (1988/1990), and Maurice Havivel Melamed Lauf (Flying Lessons) (1991/1995) deal with young people living among Shoah survivors in search of an Israeli identity. Both were translated into English. In 1996 Flying Lessons was selected in Germany as one of the 30 best books of the year. The novel Rali Masa Matara (Night Games) (1993) is the story of a group of Israeli forty-something friends playing a treasure hunt on the 1987 Day of Independence, half a year before the Intifada broke out. The novel Isha al Neyar (Bride on Paper) (1996) tells of life in a pre-state Israeli moshava (collective settlement) in the 1930s. Semel also translates plays, mostly on Shoah-related themes.