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.

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Writing is the Closing of Circles: Nava Semel

‘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)

Introduction

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.

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Time to close the Direct Provision system

To be published in Metro Eireann

arn-stop-dpOn Saturday 18 November a rally organised by United against Racism heard moving speeches by several asylum seekers living the Direct Provision for-profit incarceration system where men, women and children are held often for up to ten years. The Irish Times reported Mavis who has lived in Direct Provision with her three children for fifteen months, as saying: “For me every day is a struggle, to watch my children suffering and getting sick. I wish one day somebody, an Irish citizen would go into my life for one week and they would know what a hell it is. I don’t even have words. Waiting and waiting for a decision is one of the hardest things a mother can do. What can we do? We have to pray and hope.”

The rally was part of the campaign to close the Direct Provision system, end deportations and grant asylum seekers the right to work, as per the Supreme Court recent ruling. According to Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI), the restrictions imposed by the government on asylum seekers’ right to work, including not working while appealing their applications for refugee status, amount to a total denial of asylum seekers’ right to work.

Beside bed and board – including inappropriate, out of date and insufficient food – asylum seekers are forced to exist on a weekly “comfort allowance” of €21.60, and their lives are decided by for-profit managements that dictate who shares their rooms, what and when they eat, who can visit them, when they can do their washing and what facilities their children enjoy.

As I have written many times before, Ireland must close the Direct Provision system that racializes, dehumanizes and segregates asylum seekers, whose plight Irish society “manages not to know.” This continues decades of disavowal, as Una Mullally has recently written in The Irish Times, “The Mother and Baby Homes and Magdalene Laundries were hiding in plain sight for years. We knew they existed, we knew – in broad brushstrokes – what went on there. Direct Provision centres hide more successfully in our communities, towns and cities. Many of us are not aware of their locations. That makes their presence even more insidious. But we know that they’re there. We know this system exists. We can’t keep repeating the process of unjustly hiding people away. They are not less than. They are people just like us, with families and aspirations.”

Together with the current rise of racism and Islamophobia, asylum seekers are being targeted by many racial states. In Australia’s inhuman off shore concentration camps asylum seekers are deprived of water and food and are beginning to be infected by cholera, as the camps are being closed. Israel too is beginning to close its concentration camps in the south of the country, forcing asylum seekers to either be willingly deported to Rwanda (which is being paid $5,000 dollars for each person it admits) or face indefinite jail. Ireland’s Direct Provision system, while not quite so deadly, condemns asylum seekers to a frozen existence in DP centres where private for-profit operators such as the international catering company Aramark are paid millions of euro to maintain Ireland’s version of what the African American activist Angela Davis terms ‘the prison industrial complex.’

Besides the obvious benefits to the Irish economy of allowing asylum seekers to work, pay taxes and spend money, and beside the obvious human benefits to Irish society of their talents and enterprise, there is also the moral imperative of Ireland’s choice to close the dehumanizing Direct Provision system, end all deportations, and use Ireland’s new wealth to include asylum seekers in solving our appalling housing crisis. The time to act is now.