Writing about the Israeli occupation for an Israeli newspaper is an ongoing
lesson in the lowering of expectations. And this is just one of many inner
contradictions and ethical dilemmas that have come my way in the twenty-four years
since I began covering, for Haaretz, Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories occupied fifty years
Exactly ten years after leaving Israel, the siege on Gaza of August 2014 marked a watershed divide in my relationship to the State of Israel
. . . .
The events of summer 2014 and the painful realizations that they invoked have led me to consider renouncing my Israeli citizenship. Contemplating what may seem like a straightforward stance of resistance, I have come to realize how complex it actually is. This short essay considers renunciation as an act of protest from the standpoint of a Jewish Israeli legal ethnographer and geographer.
How can a critique be formulated when its material conditions are the object of critique? One can criticize one’s state, to be sure; its violence, its wars. But how can one question the legitimacy of their own home; how can one point to the wrongs that are embedded into the very nature of their political existence? What would it mean for a Jewish Israeli not simply to write against “the occupation,” but to recognize that her home is historically conditioned upon the destruction of Palestinians’ homes; that her attachment to this place is founded upon a history—not such a distant history—of violence and is conditioned, at least to some extent, on the perpetuation of this violence? (And since Israel has become a paradigm of a certain kind of leftist critique, it is worth noting that the only difference between Israel and other settler colonies such as the United States or Australia is temporal density). Once we move to engage in such a critique there is no more separation between the “I” who writes and her object of critique, that is, the state and its doings (military and police violence, planning policy, legal discrimination). The I itself becomes the object of critique and her voice—the place from which she speaks, her language, the dialogues available for her—can no longer pretend to assume a position which is simply and clearly oppositional to injustice.
The departure point was the problematization of the colonial/settler-colonial/post-colonial situation in which critical research is made in a society that purports to be relatively open, but whose very openness to critical research is founded on ethnocratic power relations towards entire populations. The questions raised for discussion were: What is the responsibility of Israeli academics in researching the occupation? Is it even possible to study the occupation as Israelis? Perhaps political responsibility requires opposing the regime and emigrating from the country? What about methodological and linguistic issues? How should the gaps and obstacles created by the occupation itself be treated when conducting such research? Is it mere happenstance that most of the Israeli studies deal with top-down power structures and population management, while most of those conducted by the Palestinians emphasize the human dimension and the active agency of life under occupation? In this period, should one strive for cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian researchers in order to better understand the occupation and oppose it, or rather, is it better to respect the boycott, even at the cost of dismantling radical political partnerships?
The number of studies seeking to explain the technologies of Israeli rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) from 1967 has been on the rise in the last two decades, due in part to the persistent Israeli occupation and dwindling chances for a possible withdrawal from these territories. This possibility directly contradicts the Israeli government’s agreement with the PLO, which opened up the possibility for a Palestinian state in these areas; in other words, the two-state formula, which aimed to separate Israel from millions of Palestinians and stabilize the status quo. However, the intensified settlement process vis-à-vis the future Palestinian state has led many Israeli scholars to admit that the Israeli presence in these areas is not temporary. Critical Israeli thinkers began highlighting the contradictions between Israeli official discourse in peace negotiations and the practical policies on the ground which express opposed intentions. Others explored various dimensions of the technologies of control utilized by Israel’s army and other state institutions. These studies greatly contributed to our understanding of the expanding Israeli colonization in the West Bank, thereby exposing the expansive tendencies of Zionism, something that was not seriously considered in the past.
Mariam Abu Ghalous, one of my closest old-time friends in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp (immediately to the south of the West Bank town of Bethlehem) died in February 2015, succumbing to a series of fatal strokes she had suffered several months earlier. Even though I was well aware of her serious condition, the news of Mariam’s death hit me like a sudden, unexpected blow, straight in the middle of the chest. Mariam, the rebel, the fighter, the utterly generous and utterly impoverished homemaker, the totally dedicated and impossibly overburdened mother of nine, the nonorthodox, nonconformist believer, the progressive, knowledgeable conversation partner, the stubborn, resilient woman who kept a mischievous spark in her eye throughout, is gone.
Can a settler society play any role in an anticolonial struggle? What is the role of knowledge produced in academia, and what is its relevance to the place where it is articulated? These questions were raised separately, yet both had to do with the Israeli left and more concretely the left in academia. In the company of different audiences and on two very different occasions doubts were cast as to its very existence and viability. The first question was raised at a conference organized by the Palestine Society at the London School of Oriental Studies in October 2015, which brought Israeli and Palestinian scholars to reflect on Israeli society from within the settler-colonial studies framework. The second question was grappled with at a seminar titled "knowledge in this place," organized by the Minerva center at Tel Aviv University, in January 2015. Remarkable in its deep sense of pessimism, the address at SOAS by the renowned scholar Ilan Pappe tapped into the audience’s common sense, underlining the harsh reality of the lack of significant opposition within settler society. . . . At the more intimate seminar at TAU, which was a unique and important event squarely addressing issues not commonly thought of in Israeli academia, the tone was equally somber. Many lamented the marginality, irrelevance, and futility of critical knowledge in the absence of any meaningful hope for change. Of particular concern was the drift of academia further in the direction of subservience to the state in its ultra-Zionist, technocratic, neoliberal vision for society. At London and Tel Aviv respectively the very source of despair seemed to be not so much the strength of the colonial state, the weakness of the Israeli left, or the irrelevance of critical knowledge, but Israeli society itself—a hard-edged object, immovable and frozen in time.
The historiography that exists on Walpole, while both limited and controversial, is embroiled in a philosophical conflict over what it means in a democracy for a group to become an object of care or custody. For some, the events at Walpole are exemplars of Hobbesian anarchy and bureaucratic failure. This account usually takes one of two forms, either a call to increase law and order within prisons or a push to reallocate goods and services to the task of treatment. In other words, inmate participation is understood as a symptom of a failed treatment or control regimen. Call this the conventional liberal narrative. However, an alternative account emerges from a close reading of the Walpole episode. In this narrative Walpole is an experiment in participatory democracy and community control. Call this less familiar view the radical narrative.
Consider Francisco Goya’s Yard with Lunatics (1794), now in the Meadows Museum in Dallas. In an austere prison space, lit only by a searing triangle of blue sky, prisoners cower and caper. Goya said he saw such scenes in the asylum of Zaragoza, and it is customary to read this confession as revealing an Enlightenment anxiety concerning the mentally ill and their treatment. But that is a claim about the artist, not yet about the painting. One might try to engage the latter more directly by noting the opposition between the murky space of the inmates and the bright corner of sky, standing perhaps for the health and reason of which they are deprived. Or, more disconcertingly, like the heroes of a certain Edgar Allan Poe story, we may wonder where we stand: among the orderlies or the patients? Depending how that question is answered, our interest in the lives of the prisoners might thus itself turn out to be the object of scrutiny, the target of a critique of Enlightenment do-goodism, perhaps. Or, taking the self-critical attitude even further, we may notice that the man set apart by his black suit—whose dissolute, hair-swept features resemble Goya’s—wields a switch to separate two nude wrestlers. The light along the edge of the handle makes his weapon look sharp, like a dagger. Perhaps the artist saw himself as more than an innocent bystander.
To address the issue of realism in Mimesis I will use the same method that Erich Auerbach used when he addressed the issue of “the representation of reality in Western literature.” Auerbach gave no preliminary definition of either reality or representation. He started from the “thing itself”: two narratives borrowed from two books that had long been given a founding role in the western literary tradition: the Odyssey and the Bible. In the same way, I will give no preliminary account of what realism means to me. I will start focussing on a narrative: the interpretive narrative of the first chapter of Mimesis wherein Auerbach tells us what the two narratives that he has selected reveal. I hope that, in my case as in Aeurbach’s case, the very development of the analysis will show that the starting from “the thing itself,” and constructing the interpretive categories from this “thing,” is itself a method with some philosophical and political implications.
“APARTHEID: by itself the word occupies the terrain like a concentration camp,” wrote Jacques Derrida in an issue of this journal thirty-three years ago. “This last-born of many racisms is also the only one surviving in the world, at least the only one still parading itself in a political constitution. It remains the only one on the scene to dare to say its name and to present itself for what it is: a legal defiance taken by homo politicus, a juridical racism and a state racism." In reply to a critique by Anne McClintock and Rob Nixon, Derrida restated one of his central claims: “Apartheid designates today in the eyes of the whole world, beyond all possible equivocation or pseudonymy, the last state racism on the entire planet.”
When entering a recent exhibition called Reset Modernity! at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM), visitors were requested to follow a series of specific procedures to reset the instruments that allow them to find their way in this highly complex question: Where is modernity heading, and how can we orient ourselves through its metamorphosis? Visitors were handed a precious little booklet that was called a field book because they were invited, really, to play an active role in surveying the quickly transforming political landscape. At the end of each procedure, a cryptic message was provided about a somewhat mysterious triangle. The curators seem to be arguing that once this triangle had been understood things will become really much clearer. It is this claim that I would like to comment on by detailing what this triangle could mean and how it has been drawn.