By Jonathan Ofir
According to the internationally applied (yet irredeemably clumsy) definition of Anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor”, could amount to anti-Semitism.
By this standard, Ronit Lentin, associate professor emeritus of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin, could be accused of Anti-Semitism for publishing her recent book “Traces of Racial Exception – Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism.” (Bloomsbury, 2018).
Lentin’s book is rather dense in its citing of various theorists of race and settler-colonialism (with nearly 750 footnotes), making a clear case for race being a central element in the Zionist settler-colonialist project, manifesting as the State of Israel.
Lentin is Israeli-Irish. Born in Mandate Palestine in 1944, she emigrated to Ireland in 1969, and is Jewish and white-Ashkenazi. She is very conscious of all these elements and regards herself as belonging to the upper stratum of the Israeli society (even when she doesn’t live there – remember, the “Jewish Nation”) – a recognition of the privilege provided to her at the top of the multi-layered fabric of the racialized Israeli society. The layers descend from white-Jewish at the top, ‘Mizrahi’ (non-European) Jewish, Black Jewish, then non-Jewish in various shades, including Palestinian citizens, African refugees, Palestinian non-citizens including occupied, besieged and expelled refugees, etc.
The suggestion that Israel is an essentially racial state, is one that Israel apologists obviously seek to bury. The UN commissioned report of 2017 concerning Israeli Apartheid by US professors Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley, concluded in no uncertain terms that Israel, from its very inception, “has both effected and veiled a comprehensive policy of apartheid directed at the whole Palestinian people”. That report was taken down from the UN website after the former US Ambassador Nikki Haley pressed the UN General secretary to do so. She boasted about it to AIPAC. Having described how she blocked the appointment of a Palestinian to a UN political mission in Libya, whom she had “booted out” with her racist “high heels”, she then said:
So then they [UN] tested us again. And a ridiculous report came out, the [Richard] Falk [and Virginia Tilley] report. I don’t know who the guy is or what he’s about, but he’s got serious problems [massive laughter in audience, including host]…goes and compares Israel to an Apartheid state. So the first thing we do is we call the Secretary General and say ‘this is absolutely ridiculous, you have to pull it’. The Secretary General immediately pulled the report and then, the director has now resigned!” [cheers from the crowd and a thumbs up from the host].
So this is clearly an important discussion, one that Israel apologists want to avoid – so as to maintain that “veil” that Falk and Tilley refer to. The success of the racialized system is dependent upon its veiling through PR means, generally known as Hasbara.
Veiling racism as mere policy can also be seen in US President Trump’s recent overtly racist suggestions that Congresswomen of color who were critical of his policies could just “go back” to their “broken” and “crime infested countries.” The statements were defended by Trump’s senior adviser Stephen Miller as “not racist” on Fox News. Chris Wallace stated that Trump was “playing the race card” and brought up the Obama ‘birther’ theory, but Miller responded: “That’s not a race question!” Miller continued in his attempt to veil the racism:
I fundamentally disagree with the view that if you criticize someone and they happen to be a different skin color, that that makes it a racial criticism. If you want to have a colorblind society, it means you can criticize immigration policy, you can criticize people’s views, you can ask questions about where they’re born and not have it be seen as racial.
Miller’s response, resembling Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s “What’s your ethnicity?” response to a reporter asking about Trump’s racist rants, shows how important it is to accentuate and emphasize the issue of race as central to policy. The racist policy makers will usually try to trivialize the issue when they are challenged. Their trivializing will naturally ignore or underplay the racial discrimination already inherent in the society, and thus claim a disingenuous “colorblindness”.
In the Israeli context, the supposed colorblindness entails the claim of “security”, that is, we have to do this because it’s about security. It’s not about them being not Jewish, it’s not because we’re racist.
In Lentin’s book, race is theorized not primarily as being, but rather as doing. Here she leans particularly upon scholars such as Patrick Wolfe and Alana Lentin (incidentally her daughter), seeing race as a performative matter. In other words, it’s not so much a question of one’s being racist, as in saying typically racist things. One can be heading a patently racial, racist policy or even venture, and not say a racist word throughout.
This notion dismantles the idea that racists necessarily need to act as such overtly. This idea is often the veil which racial ventures apply – as in the “enlightened colonialist” idea.
Lentin connects her theory to settler-colonialism in general. Colonialism of the past 500 years is a paradigm in which the perpetrators are overwhelmingly white-European, and the affected are overwhelmingly non-white people from the global south. By theorizing the Zionist venture as essentially settler-colonialist, Lentin connects it to the inherent racism of the overall colonialist paradigm. In order to enhance this perspective, she also focuses upon black scholarship and global south perspectives of colonialism in general.
Inside the general paradigm of colonialism, there exist variations. Settler-colonialism, that is colonialism that does not involve a ‘mother-country’, is generally known to be the more deadly variant, in that it is inherently eliminationist regarding the native population, whereas in other variants there is that ‘mother-country’ option to go back to. Lentin defines the Israeli example as special in its multi-faceted racialization of both white supremacy and Jewish supremacy, yet under the overall paradigm of colonialism, and particularly settler-colonialism, she does not view the Israeli example as particularly special, nor surprising. And its eliminationist aspect is inherently genocidal, she says, though the project was not necessarily about making all the natives disappear at once.
In the chapter titled Settler Colonialism, Race, Genocide, Lentin writes:
This was obvious in the post frontier period of the Zionist settler colonization, when it became clear that the Palestinians had to be expelled or otherwise excluded (from access to land ownership and other resources) not only because the Zionist settlers wanted their territory, but also because their presence sullied what European Ashkenazi settlers imagined as racial homogeneity, already challenged by intra-Jewish heterogeneities with the arrival of Arab and Mizrahi Jews. (P. 82).
Lentin cites Raphaël Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish jurist who coined the term “genocide” and defined it as a subject of international law:
Speaking of the “destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed” as the first stage of genocide, the second being “the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor,” Lemkin might as well be describing the genocidal nature of settler-colonialism: “this imposition, in turn, may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals”. (P. 104)
She further notes:
Precisely due to the derivation of genocide from the racial concept of genos (in the case of Israel the racialization of the Palestinians as a racially inferior genos), the discourse of genocide is increasingly being applied to the elimination and continued targeting of the Palestinian natives by the state of Israel.
Lentin does not shy away from citing social media. In this context she applies a summary by activist Tali Shapira on the Israel Genocide? Facebook page, which cites the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and lists various relevant and current examples: hundreds of Israeli executions, thousands of political prisoners, house demolitions, hundreds of thousands of settlers, Gaza and its unlivable conditions, massive displacement of whole communities, etc. These things, when looked at in combination, arguably fulfill at least three of the items of the Genocide definition: (a) Killing members of the group; (b Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Lentin’s book could be a dry intellectual exercise, if it were not filled with current examples from beginning to end. Her occasional citing of social media activists adds a certain popular, down to earth sense, and cuts across what could otherwise be perceived as academic distance. Thus her first chapter begins with the Elor Azarya case, the Israeli soldier-medic who in 2016 was caught on video murdering an incapacitated Palestinian suspect. Azarya was sentenced to 18 months in prison for “Manslaughter”, and eventually got out after 9 months.
Lentin’s third chapter opens with the Israeli police-murder of the Bedouin citizen Yaqub Moussa Abu Al-Qia’an in Umm al Hiran, 2017. Abu Al-Qia’an’s house was being demolished as part of an ethnic-cleansing operation to make space for a Jewish-only settlement called Hiran. The police had framed his execution as a prevention of a “terror attack”, which Israeli leaders had even framed as ISIS-affiliated.
Lentin also includes stories from the first years of the state, like the gang-rape and murder case in Nirim in 1949. This case opens her 5th chapter, titled “Beyond Femina Sacra: Gendering Palestine”, where she theorizes the colonization of Palestine in terms of a gendered assault – a notion that is often disregarded and downplayed, yet again by those who would veil it in terms that are “gender-blind” in addition to “colorblind”.
Lentin observes these events as well as the societal and institutional response to them (cover up, symbolic sentences etc.) as one story, of race and racism. Once again – the assaulting group seeks a righteous veil, or a veil of complete darkness, to hide its inherently racial act, and the racism is both in the initial assault as well as in its veiling.
Even her concluding chapter opens with a current event on social media:
As I am writing this conclusion, a B’Tselem video from March 19, 2017 appears on my Facebook feed showing a force of some fifteen IDF soldiers seizing the 8-year-old Sufian Abu Hitah as he was wandering about barefoot, looking for a lost toy outside his grandparents’ Hebron house. Two soldiers grabbed Sufian and dragged him to the al-Harika neighborhood and demanded that he point out children who had allegedly thrown stones and a Molotov cocktail at the Kirat Arba Jewish settlement earlier. [P. 166 – Lentin is referring to this case].
Lentin has come to see race as a critical lens through which to view the Palestinian-Israeli issue:
For many years I have attempted to understand the puzzle of the Israeli-Zionist rule over Palestine that persists unabated and uncensored by the so-called international community despite the growing global civil society solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinians. I have come to the conclusion that the only way of theorizing it is by using the lens of race. [P. 7]
Reading Ronit Lentin’s “Traces of Racial Exception” has for me opened up new perspectives of how to think about Zionism. How you define something is not an intellectual exercise. It is your statement about what something essentially is, beyond the veils. That has been a central issue concerning Trump, as even some Republicans saw the racism of his comments. Of course, his supporters claimed that it was not racist, and that stance is aimed at protecting Trump from impeachment. The same applies with Israel. Israel’s apologists know that defining it as a racist endeavor could be dangerous to its existence, which is why they seek to avert the discussion, applying the famous ‘anti-Semitism’ charge. Ronit Lentin breaks through that glass ceiling, and her book is essential reading.