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.