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Response to Elia Zureik’s Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine
Why examine Israeli governance as colonial governance rather than that of a
flawed, liberal democracy? Zureik’s path-breaking work, Israel’s Colonial Project
in Palestine, provides us with some critical answers. His overarching assertion is
that colonialism must be read back into the histories of Israel/Palestine and, most
importantly, into the present, as well. This central concern seems as vital today as
ever as Israeli settler-colonialism continues to appropriate Palestinian land and
resources, while spatially marginalizing the Palestinians and confining them to
only a small part of their original homeland.
Following Talal Asad (1991) and other theorists of colonialism, Zureik reminds
us that this form of governance is not simply about a temporary subjugation of the
colonized, established through an initial moment of violent conquest. Rather,
colonialism in its various guises necessarily produces a set of radical and abiding
transformations to the territory it conquers and those it dominates. Those vast
alterations are physical, legal, historical, and discursive and manifest themselves
in broader policies and designs and in the everyday, lived realities of Palestinians
and Israeli Jews.
Many scholars of Palestine/Israel have concentrated on land and resources as
the crucial concerns of colonial authority and both of these issues have been of
paramount importance. However, Zureik reminds us that there have been other
vital dimensions of Israeli colonizing power, ones found at the nexus of power and
knowledge. Any serious observer of Palestine and Israel’s overlapping histories
must, it seems to me, examine epistemic realms and their material implications.
Ideology and what Cohn (1996) referred to as imperialism’s “forms of knowl-
edge” are routinely—and necessarily—on the march as colonizers impose them-
selves on the colonized. The Israeli state has mobilized discursive expressions of
authority as an aid to conquest, to justify the vast transformations that the Jewish
state (and the British regime before it) has wrought in Palestine. I want to address
two primary realms of Israeli colonial knowledge production, both of which inter-
act dialectically with the theft and settlement of Palestinian land. The first relates
to racism, racialization, and the formation of racist ideologies. The second con-
cerns the manufacture of histories and what I refer to as the “weaponization” of
myth. Both draw on essentialist notions of peoples and places in an attempt to
naturalize and normalize the ironclad order of apartness that the Jewish state has
crafted over the last seven decades.
Thomas Abowd, American Studies, Anthropology and Arabic Culture, Tufts University, Medford,
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Racism, Racist Violence, and the Racialization of Space Under
Israeli Colonial Rule
Crucial to Israeli settler-colonialism have been essentialist assertions of racial and
cultural differences between Israeli Jews and the Palestinians. Zionism has gener-
ated new meanings about Jews and Arabs and imputed notions of superiority and
inferiority onto colonizer and colonized alike. As well, there have been assump-
tions about where and how Palestinians and Israelis should live in relation to one
another—who belongs where and who is “out of place.” If colonialism has too
often been ignored as a frame of analysis for studying Palestine/Israel, so too have
questions of race, racism, and racist violence.
Given that Israeli settler-colonialism (like other similar regimes) has been
marked by an “inherently eliminatory” logic intent on expelling unwanted
Palestinians, it is odd how few studies of Palestine/Israel have sufficiently focused
on the role that racism and racialization have played in the assembly of Israeli
authority. Throughout his text, Zureik calls our attention to the abiding importance
of race and the racialization of space in the production and reproduction of a state
built on severe exclusionary principles.
It might be said that the Jewish state’s ideological architecture of essential dif-
ferences between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs enables nearly every one of
its principle aims. Once racist notions are inculcated into (and imbibed by) a domi-
nant population, an array of distancing policies, technologies of surveillance,
methods of exclusion, and “racialised forms of monitoring ... ” can be created and
sustained more easily (3).
Israeli settler-colonialism has relied on sustaining apartness or distance through
notions of racial, cultural, and religious difference, a point Crapanzano (1986)
made long ago about Apartheid South Africa. And it is this colonial imperative
that has enabled and been enabled by the notion that Palestinians are what Douglas
(1966) refers to as “matter out of place” (44): that is, non-Jewish populations who
can be tolerated “over there,” provided they do not pollute the Israeli body
As one carefully explores the formation of the Jewish state and the pre-1948
Zionist organizations that laid the foundation for the type of state it would be, it is
difficult to conclude that this has not been a racial project, grounded in an ethos of
exclusion. Following Douglas, one might say that the central dilemma of the
Zionist state-making project has been how to deal with the “dirt” of Arab alterity?
I shall touch on this a bit more later in my response.
I appreciated the fairly comprehensive way in which Zureik examined the sig-
nificance of monitoring and surveillance in the crafting of a regime of intense
separation. Crafting an apartheid-like reality, as Israel has since 1948, has relied
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on systems of control consistent with what Foucault refers to as bio-power: “a
form of politics that entails the administration of the processes of life at the aggre-
gate level of life processes” (Introduction: 4). But it should be emphasized that for
bio-power to “go to work” on Palestinian populations, there must be assumptions
about these communities’ dangerous, deviant, and inferior character. The tech-
nologies of control and regulation are principally important precisely because
Arab Muslims and Christians are unwanted and seen by successive Israeli regimes
as a demographic threat.
The Israeli state and its benefactors abroad justify and maintain these broader
policies, this prodigious web of spatial control. However, a range of often unseen
and unacknowledged quotidian processes also aid in perpetuating this project of
elimination. These include Israeli efforts to discipline individual Palestinian bod-
ies through torture and other forms of cruelty. They also involve an array of atten-
dant traumas, fears, degradations, and forms of insecurity very difficult to
document and illuminate in human rights reports.
Making Oneself a Subject, Not an Object
Given that most settler-colonial regimes aim to disappear or eliminate the indige-
nous, it is rarely the case that they seek to justify their rule through civilizing mis-
sions. Zionism in the main was not intent on “uplifting” the indigenous, non-Jewish
populations. Pre-state Zionist organizations did not propose exploiting Palestinian
labor but rather sought to create and foster avoda ivrit (Jewish labor). The princi-
ple aim was to expel the Arab Muslim and Christian communities and to replace
them with Jews from around the world.
Crucial to Israeli settler-colonialism has been a set of discursive strategies that
have sought to dehumanize Palestinians and other Arabs of the region. Making
someone or some group a thing is the first step in destroying them, eliminating
them, negating them. The process of reification, therefore, is one not easily ignored
in analyzing Palestine/Israel, and it was gratifying to see Zureik’s attention to this
expression of colonial racism. Reification is that practice in which something that
is not a thing is turned into a thing. As Taussig puts it, reification might be under-
stood as the “thingification” of human beings. So integral to colonial authority has
racist dehumanization been, that Aime Cesaire (1972), the towering Martiniquan
theorist of colonialism, succinctly put it this way “colonialism=reification” (22).
The logic—and practice—of elimination seems untenable without racial
notions and efforts at racialization. In their absence, colonialism does not make
sense and cannot function. Without the belief that certain bodies are violable, the
aims of elimination become more difficult to achieve. Zureik’s text provides
insights into these crucial issues.
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The Weaponization of Myth
Efforts to appropriate Palestinian land and resources for exclusive Jewish use con-
tinue. But consistent with other colonial states, these practices have interacted
dialectically with concurrent attempts to appropriate, regulate, and silence history.
A range of mythical assertions, often deploying essentialist notions of peoples and
places, have been projected to justify acts of dispossession. In the case of Israel,
the Bible and the supposed celestial designs for lands and peoples it supposedly
prescribes have been integral to Israeli conquest. These ideological ploys resemble
what I refer to as the “weaponization of myth” and, as Barthes (1957) writes, it is
myth that “evaporates history” (51). For Israel, the task of evaporating Palestinian
pasts in Palestine has been a hefty one but a necessary one.
One can barely walk a few blocks in places like Jerusalem without confronting
mythical narratives—religious and national. Monuments and memorials created
and imposed on the city by Israel are found in dozens of locations. These often
aggressively ideological attempts that simultaneously attempt to make absent and
make present are assertions about the past but no less claims about the present.
They relate noble narratives about Israeli nationalist victory, valor, and self-
defense. They ground such moments of supposed “liberation” in a grand teleology
in which the end is the redemption of the Jewish people in their land, the land of
Israel. One routinely encounters narratives about King David and Biblical lore
about prophets and saints. Quite violent Jewish settlers today carve violent inroads
into the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan commandeering Arab homes in their
quest to resurrect the City of King David.
Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: Myth and the
Evaporation of History
These concrete expressions of colonial conquest have increasingly been mapped,
documented, and exposed for what they are in scholarly realms. However, an
often-overlooked dimension of Israeli settler-colonialism has been a related set of
myths that aid in naturalizing and normalizing landscapes of conquest. Examining
Palestine/Israel through a framework of colonialism, as Zureik’s work does, ena-
bles us to tell a more complete story.
Israeli military rule in the Palestinian territories it conquered in 1967 has entered
its fiftieth year. A very broad international consensus regards this occupation, the
separation wall, the siege on Gaza, and the more than 200 Israeli settlements, as
illegal and in violation of international law. Yet, in so many cases, ideology func-
tions in what is not said. To that end, observers of this colonial conflict might
remind themselves that from Israel’s founding nearly seven decades ago until
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today, there has been but one year—1966—in which the Jewish state did not sus-
tain military rule over Palestinians. That the greatest part of historic Palestine (those
areas conquered and confiscated by Israel in 1948), is not spoken about as colo-
nized land, that the period from 1948 to 1966 is not regarded as the first phase of
Israeli colonial rule, but rather simply and unproblematically as Israel.
Pre-1948 Discourses, Histories, and Myths
Any study of Israeli colonialism, any analysis of the particular transformative dimen-
sions that the establishment of the Jewish state unleashed, must return not simply to
the advent of the state but before the fateful year of 1948. Doing so reveals several of
the crucial roots of Zionism’s settler-colonial project. For one, the mainstream of the
movement, it must be recalled, did not simply forge ties and alliances with British
imperialism. Rather, they actually fashioned themselves as involved in colonialism.
These were settlers, in other words, who all too often called themselves settlers.
Examples can be found in the discourses, bylaws, and even the very names of organi-
zations integral to this vast international effort (e.g., the Jewish National Fund, the
Palestine Colonization Association, the Jewish Colonial Trust, and others).
Israel’s ruling elite since the creation of Jewish state (and the Zionist leadership
that organized proto-governmental institutions before 1948) established consensus
around the need to disappear unwanted Palestinian populations. This was true from
Ben-Gurion to Rabin to Peres to Sharon to Netanyahu who have all projected these
attitudes in various ways. But perhaps evidence of Zionism’s distinct colonial char-
acter is made even more convincingly by looking not simply at these mainstream
political voices, but also at the bi-nationalism of Martin Buber and others of his ilk.
Buber and Brit Shalom preached coexistence and partnership with the Arabs of
Palestine. Although the author of I and Thou never called for the removal of the
native Palestinians, he nonetheless betrayed essentialist notions about territory
(“the land of Israel”) and community (the “Jewish People”) consistent with other
In 1939, Buber wrote a fairly strident response to Gandhi after the Indian revo-
lutionary critiqued the Zionists settlement project on the land of another people.
Buber, the famed theorist of “Arab-Jewish cooperation,” betrays classically colo-
nialist assumptions. Two examples make my point.
Despite Buber’s stated commitment to “coexistence,” in this letter (and in other
writings) he nonetheless resorts to a defense of mass Jewish settlement in Palestine.
A few months after his response to Gandhi, he also called for this settlement to
move forward with the aim of what he referred to as “concentrative colonialism.”
Secondly, while Buber did not call for displacing or eliminating the Palestinians,
he referred to them in ways consistent with much of the rest of the
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Zionist movement and colonialist discourses elsewhere. In defense of mass Jewish
settlement in Palestine in the age of British rule, Buber announces the “progress”
that these Jewish communities would usher in for the native population. Buber,
like other bi-nationalists, justified “concentrative colonialism” by asserting the
“productive,” virtuous, and modern ways of life the Jewish settlers would bring.
The enduring trope of making “unproductive” land “virtuous,” as Takaki (1979)
discusses, is one that has been quite integral to settler-colonial expansion into
lands that became the US and those that became Israel.
The arrival of Jewish settlers would, he claimed, help liberate the backward
Palestinians from their “helplessly primitive state of fellah agriculture.” In the
same letter, he challenges Gandhi to
Ask the [Palestinian] soil what the Arabs have done for her in thirteen hundred
years and what we [Zionist settlers] have done for her in fifty! Would her answer
not be a weighty testimony in a just discussion as to whom this land “belongs”?
The native Palestinians might be forgiven for failing to fully appreciate the
great civilizational “gift” that Buber and others offered. They might also be
excused for generally refusing notions of “Arab-Jewish cooperation” that were
unsolicited and that arrived in the context of a broader settlement effort that prom-
ised things less egalitarian.
Zureik’s analysis is perceptive and wide-ranging. This study sets us on the path to
broadening what colonialism has meant in the context of Palestine/Israel. It pur-
sues a range of fascinating paths and generally gets us started thinking about a
range of things. Perhaps its attempt to cover such wide-ranging and diverse ground
might be its principle shortcoming.
Asad, Talal (1991). Afterword. In Colonial Situations, ed. George Stocking. Madison: University of
Wisconsin Press, 314-324.
Barthes, Roland (1957). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.
Cesaire, Aime (1972). Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Cohn, Bernard (1996). Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Crapanzano, Vincent (1985). Waiting: The Whites of South Africa. New York: Random House.
Douglas, Mary (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London:
Takaki, Ronald (1979). Iron Cages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.