Yad Vashem, Power, and the (Ab)Uses of History

I was like other men,

I fed on bread, and on dreams, and on

despair. I too

loved, I cried, I hated, I suffered…

But when you dry this bouquet of nettles,

that once was me, in a future time

when my story seems dated to you

remember that I was innocent

that like you, the bodied of your own day,

I too had a face

defined in anger, in pity, in joy

I had a man’s face.

–          Benjamin Fondane, who perished in the Nazi gas chambers (displayed inside Yad Vashem)

In the hymns that we sing, there’s a
In the flute that shelters us
In the fire that we feed
a green phoenix
In its elegy I couldn’t tell
my ashes from your dust

–          Mahmoud Darwish, who was exiled from his homeland by Zionist settler-colonialism

As Jeff and I made our way to Yad Vashem, the world-renowned Holocaust memorial museum in West Jerusalem, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. How would the museum frame this historic tragedy? Would it be a worthy tribute to those millions whose lives were extinguished, or would it disgrace their memory by cynically exploiting it for political ends? Would its representation of history help us to deepen our understanding of the forces which generated the Nazi genocide – forces which can hardly be regarded as safely relegated to some fossilized past, but rather which are alive and well in the relations which constitute our present world – or would it instead turn history against us, constructing a portrait of the past which blinds us to the cruelties and perils of the present?



The answer, as it turned out, was ambiguous, but perhaps not as ambiguous as I might have wished. In fairness, the museum certainly had its redeeming aspects. It managed to capture the humanity – the sensuousness and affective texture of human experience which often comes into view only in the most simple and idiosyncratic of stories – of those millions of Jews who were slaughtered with the kind of dispassionate calculation that only modernity could have produced, while still giving one some sense of the larger historical forces that were at work. I will grant it that. But, sadly, in many other respects, the museum lived up to my worst expectations.




First, while its exhibits were not entirely devoid of historicity, the museum largely conformed to an understanding of anti-Semitism and the Nazi genocide which sees them not merely as unique but as exceptional. From this perspective, anti-Semitism is regarded as a transhistorical and essentially inexplicable product of Gentile hatred; it may have had its various iterations, but has been and will remain the irrational axis upon which the relations between Jews and non-Jews turn. Similarly, the Nazi genocide is treated as the face of evil itself, an event so (quantitatively) massive and so (qualitatively) terrible that no other episode in history can reasonably be compared to it. Second, the museum gave one the impression that the victims of the Nazi genocide were almost exclusively Jewish, in spite of the fact that millions of others perished in the Nazi death machinery. Third, and in some regards the gravitational center around which all the other problematic dimensions revolve, the museum employed a teleological representation of the relationships between the long history of anti-Semitism, the Nazi genocide, and the formation of the Israeli nation-state, whereby the Nazi genocide appears the inevitable culmination of Gentile hatred towards an allegedly “stateless” Jewry, just as the creation of Israel appears the definitive and sole source of Jewish redemption. The museum goes so far as to literally walk you through the history step by step, each exhibition of a particular place and time winding in a snake-like pattern towards the next, culminating in the creation of Israel and putative restoration of Jewish dignity, and reaching its climax in an unquestionably powerful display – the photos of victims peer down from the center of a circular room, hanging above what looks like a dark conical abyss, while along the walls of the room one can see folder after folder full of the names of those who have been killed, names which are being collected still. Finally, one exits the museum to find oneself looking out over a scenic viewpoint, showcasing a picturesque Jerusalem in all its grandeur, a not-so-subtle symbol of Jewish salvation on Earth.


In these ways, Yad Vashem proved a quintessential example of what the Jewish social critic Norman Finkelstein has called “the Holocaust Industry,” a characterization of the agents and institutions which have produced a hegemonic ideological representation of the Nazi genocide in the service of their narrow interests. For Finkelstein, the development of this industry is essentially a post-1967 phenomenon, and closely tied to the US geopolitical alliance with Israel which developed in force after Israel quickly emerged victorious in the 1967 war (and in which Israel plays the role of a crucial, yet nevertheless, subordinate US partner). The coincident interests were essentially three fold: US state and capitalist agencies recognized Israel as a vital outpost for the projection and reproduction of US political-economic power in Southwest Asia and North Africa (particularly as a bulwark against secular Arab nationalism), with the Nazi genocide as a symbol of the ever-present dangers of anti-Semitism which virtually rendered unwavering support for the Israeli state a moral obligation; in the US, Jewish elites (every ethnic group has its elites, and we Jews are no exception to the rule) saw an opportunity to advance their aspirations of assimilation and upward mobility by embracing Israel and Zionism with renewed vigor, now rationalized by depicting Israel as the only means of escaping an unparalleled and eternal victimhood (even if few had plans to actually emigrate); and Israel, of course, was able to repeatedly invoke the Nazi genocide as the justification for the violent constitution of its settler-colonial state, for its original and ongoing ethnic cleansing and subordination of the Palestinian people.

Truly doing justice to all those who lost their lives in the Nazi genocide would mean remembering all of the victims (not only Jews), and constructing a historical analysis which serves to illuminate the pitfalls and opportunities for advancing the struggle for collective liberation in the present. In order to be ethically viable, then, a Holocaust memorial museum would have to, at a minimum, differ from Yad Vashem in the following respects:

(1)    Rather than representing the Nazi genocide as entirely exceptional, a historical aberration which defies comparison, it would search out its commonalities and differences with other historical events and processes. Incensed at just such exeptionalization in the wake of the Nazi holocaust, and the ways in which it ignored comparable European crimes in the colonial world, Aimé Césaire exclaimed:

“People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: ‘How strange! But never mind-it’s Nazism, it will. pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.”

And, as Finkelstein points out, the US is hardly exempt from such historical parallels:

“In fact, Hitler modeled his conquest of the East on the American conquest of the West…During the first half of this century, a majority of American states enacted sterilization laws and tens of thousands of Americans were involuntarily sterilized. The Nazis explicitly invoked this US precedent when they enacted their own sterilization laws…The notorious 1935 Nuremburg Laws stripped Jews of the franchise and forbade miscegenation between Jews and non-Jews. Blacks in the American South suffered the same legal disabilities and were the object of much greater spontaneous and sanctioned popular violence than the Jews in prewar Germany.”

Furthermore, the Nazi legacy of racially delineated forced labor and systematic elimination ought to immediately recall the US history of slavery and the genocide of the Native American population. And while Israel’s sympathizers are quick to dismiss any comparison of the Israeli state with Nazi Germany as anti-Semitic ranting, it takes considerable intellectual acrobatics to avoid any parallels whatsoever: as Nazi Germany directly and indirectly forced Jews to emigrate from or flee their countries, so too has the Israeli state been founded on the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians from their homeland; as Nazi Germany herded Jews into ghettos, so too has the Israeli state constructed militarized spatial enclaves in which Palestinians are confined (relatively or absolutely), exploited, and controlled; and just as Nazi Germany constructed a racist state which formally subordinated Jews, so too has Israel relegated its Palestinian citizens to third class status, deeming these populations a “demographic threat” and even enacting legislation banning thousands of Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens from living in Israel proper, which in some ways resembles Nazi miscegenation laws (Israel has also recently been accused by Ethiopian women of coercing them to use long-acting birth control as a condition of immigration). It is not by any means my intention to equate the Nazi and Israeli states, which would merely be an exercise in intellectual dishonesty, but rather to say that they have some disturbing resemblances – such as the militarized geographical segregation of populations, the massive dispossession of communities from their homes, and the racist subordination of certain groups not only by way of the military and police but through the politico-juridical apparatus – which are in turn specific outgrowths of processes inherent in the modern world. We ought to take stock of such comparisons and ensure that our indignation over the Nazi genocide does not pass over present-day crimes just as worthy of condemnation. Such a comparative approach would also work to de-exceptionalize the history of anti-Semitism, and thereby ground the particular struggle against anti-Jewish racism in the more general struggle against racism in all its forms.

(2)    Rather than emphasizing the victimization of Jews during the Nazi holocaust to the exclusion of all other communities, it would identify the Nazi violence towards myriad groups, and refrain from situating their suffering in some arbitrary hierarchy of worthiness. Nazism had countless victims besides Jews, from communists to queers. As Finkelstein notes, both Romanis (“Gypsies”) and those who were differently-abled (I use this term instead of “disabled” to highlight the degree to which disability is the product of social relations rather than biology in and of itself) were targeted for systematic elimination. Romani communities suffered causalities which were proportionately comparable to those suffered by European Jews, and there is evidence that the Nazi’s machinery of genocide was designed first with the differently-abled, rather than the Jews, in mind. In addition to honoring the memory of these communities which similarly suffered a  profound tragedy, this more holistic approach serves, like the de-exceptionalization of anti-Semitism, to open up greater possibilities for using the history of the Nazi holocaust to advance the cause of collective liberation.

(3)    Finally, rather than situating the Nazi holocaust within a teleology which leads from diasporic Jewish victimization under (European) anti-Semitism to national Jewish redemption within the Land of Israel, it would be attuned to the role of contingency in both the development of Nazism and Israeli settler-colonialism, and recognize that Zionism was but one of many Jewish responses to anti-Semitism. The Nazi genocide was no more a historical inevitability than the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and if we treat it as such, we are left unable to determine its actual roots and dynamics. Meanwhile, Zionism has by no means had the fealty of Jews since its inception. Zionism was and remains contested. In fact, at the time when Zionism first emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century, few Jews identified with its obsession with national consciousness building and its aspirations for building a territorial nation-state as a “Jewish homeland.” Alternative Jewish responses to anti-Semitism during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries included that of the Bund, a Jewish socialist organization which recognized the particularity of the Jewish struggle against racism and the need for some degree of Jewish autonomy and self-determination, but which simultaneously grounded this struggle in more universal aspirations for collective liberation. Even today, though Zionism is admittedly hegemonic within most Jewish communities, there are also those, such as myself, who regard Zionism as a deplorable and irredeemable enterprise, which shares more in common with Nazism (from its anti-Semitic precepts to its wider embrace of racism, militarism, authoritarianism, and colonialist expansionism) than it does with any genuine liberation struggle. By bringing contingency and contestation back into the analysis of the relations between anti-Semitism, Nazism, and the founding of Israel, it becomes possible to fundamentally question the Israeli project of state-building – to ask whether Israel has in fact provided an ethically viable answer to the so-called “Jewish question,” or whether it has merely displaced this question, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The moral weight of the Nazi genocide cannot be overstated, but let us work to ensure that our engagement with its memory advances the cause of collective liberation, rather than an illusory liberation for some gained only through the imposition of violence, indignities, and suffering upon others.

The unspoken terror permeating our collective memory of the Holocaust (and more than contingently related to the overwhelming desire not to look the memory in its face) is the gnawing suspicion that the Holocaust could be more than an aberration, more than a deviation from an otherwise straight path of progress, more than a cancerous growth on the otherwise healthy body of the civilized society; that, in short, the Holocaust was not an antithesis of modern civilization and everything (or so we like to think) it stands for. We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it). that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar, face we so admire. And that the two faces are perfectly comfortably attached to the same body. What we perhaps fear most, is that each of the two faces can no more exist without the other than can the two sides of a coin.

–          Zygmunt Bauman

Although it is so often taught that Israel became a historical and ethical necessity for the Jews during and after the Nazi genocide, [Hannah] Arendt and others thought that the lesson we must learn from that genocide is that nation-states should never be able to found themselves through the dispossession of whole populations who fail to fit the purified idea of the nation. And for refugees who never again wished to see the dispossession of populations in the name of national or religious purity, Zionism and its forms of state violence were not the legitimate answer to the pressing needs of Jewish refugees. For those who extrapolated principles of justice from the historical experience of internment and dispossession, the political aim is to extend equality regardless of cultural background or formation, across languages and religions, to those none of us ever chose (or did not recognize that we chose) and with whom we have an enduring obligation to find a way to live. For whoever “we” are, we are also those who were never chosen, who emerge on this earth without everyone’s consent, and who belong, from the start, to a wider population and a sustainable earth. And this condition, paradoxically, yields the radical potential for new modes of sociality and politics beyond the avid and wretched bonds of a pernicious colonialism that calls itself democracy. We are all, in this sense, the unchosen, but we are nevertheless unchosen together. On this basis one might begin to think the social bond anew.

–          Judith Butler

References and Further Reading

Bauman, Zygmunt, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991)

Butler, Judith, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

Césaire, Aimé, Discourse on Colonialism (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1972).

Finkelstein, Norman, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering (London: Verso, 2003).

Kovel, Joel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

Rose, Jacqueline, The Question of Zion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Fragments (2)

Time constraints and the cumulative effects of physical and emotional exhaustion are my excuses for my failure to post with any frequency lately. Here I review just a few fragments from recent experiences.


The Friday before last I joined several other International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activists to participate in a non-violent direct action in Qaryut, a village of perhaps 2,500 southeast of Nablus. The aim of the action was to remove a barrier set up by a nearby settlement which had blocked off the main road to Ramallah, forcing residents of the village to travel more than twice the distance to reach the same destination. As with most spatial barriers of this kind, its purpose was not simply to make life difficult for local Palestinians (though this no doubt played a role), but rather to facilitate the ongoing enclosure of Palestinian land. According to one reporter, Qaryut has already lost more than two thirds of its land to the three neighboring settlements Shilo, Eli, and Shvut Rachel, as well as the “outpost” Adei Ad. In Palestine, geographical fragmentation is nearly always bound up with geographical appropriation. According to village residents, in the past it has been the Israeli military that has erected the road block, which they have in turn taken action to remove, only to have the military erect the barrier once more. Since the beginning of the Second Intifada, this dance has been rehearsed countless times. Recently, however, it seems that the military finally gave in to the village resistance, and begrudgingly agreed to remove the roadblock. Thus, the settlers stepped in and rebuilt the barrier themselves. This Friday’s action reinitiated the village resistance to the roadblock.

The demonstration began in the town, where villagers and solidarity activists assembled amidst music and speeches, after which our march of at least 250 proceeded towards the barrier with the intention of physically removing it. Unsurprisingly, a line of Israeli soldiers stood waiting for us down the road. As often happens in such situations, the march paused, not quite sure of what to do next. After a few moments of confused deliberation, we continued slowly and non-threateningly towards the soldiers and the roadblock which lay beyond them. Almost immediately the military began to fire upon the march, shooting volley after volley of rubber-coated steel bullets and teargas canisters directly at demonstrators, paying no heed to the fact that the march was filled with children. The action was effectively crushed in a matter of minutes. Several people were injured, at least one seriously. Two of the solidarity activists from my group were hit with rubber-coated steel bullets, but thankfully only sustained minor injuries (due to the distance from which the projectiles were fired and the parts of their bodies which were hit). It was perhaps one of the most disheartening actions I have attended thus far, leaving me with the feeling that the Israeli military apparatus was swatting us away like flies. Generating such feelings of despair is, of course, one of the primary aims of this kind of state repression. And yet the village has no plans to abandon their resistance.

A short video clip of the action can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=yxNv7FpxulY




Khan al-Luben

I spent the following Sunday and part of Monday in Khan al-Luben, a once beautiful stone building constructed sometime in the early Ottoman era near al-Luben, a village of around 2,500 about 20 kilometers south of Nablus. The property is owned by a Palestinian man named Khalid and his family, and ISM maintains a constant presence there due an extensive history of settler harassment, violence, and defacement of the home – settlers have severely beaten Khalid’s son, sexually harassed his wife, written taunts on the inside of their home, and sabotaged their family’s spring, to cite a few examples at random.



I’ve spent a number of days and nights in their home in the past without incident. In many ways, staying in Khan has provided a bit of respite from the day-to-day violence of the occupation – waking with the rising sun and to the sound of hundreds of birds leaving the crevices in the ceiling which serve as their nightly resting place, working with Khalid in the garden or on minor construction projects during the day with a picturesque view of the rolling hillsides, cooking simple food over a fire in the evening, and settling down for sleep with the setting of the sun. Unfortunately, the calm was deceptive, due primarily to the fact that the nearby road which the settlers generally use has been closed for construction. Now construction is essentially complete, and settler and military presence have increased in turn. Earlier in the week, the military stopped by and accused Khalid of residing on property which was not his. They also asked one of my fellow ISMers for his passport, and when he told them he didn’t have it on him at the moment, they took him away to be detained (to add to the tragicomedy which is daily life in Palestine, the military vehicle got into a car accident on the way to the jail). When I arrived in Khan, Jeff reported that a settler had been standing outside the house taking photographs earlier that morning. In the late afternoon, three settlers arrived in what looked like a Ford Focus (settler cars are often immediately identifiable by how starkly they contrast with Palestinian cars in terms of their quality). They stood around for maybe 45 minutes, condescendingly laughing at Khalid and telling him that his home belonged to Israel, gesturing with Torahs as if they were deeds to the land.




In this type of situation, it can be quite a challenge to keep one’s cool, to try and act on the basis of principles of solidarity rather than emotional impulse. My impulses urged me to confront the settlers, to demand some acknowledgment of their wrongdoing, but I resisted this compulsion, knowing that such a confrontation could very well escalate the situation and ultimately make things worse for Khalid and his family. And so instead I simply stood silently by Khalid as he engaged in this humiliating exchange with the settlers. After they left, I spoke with Khalid, and he made it clear that he felt entirely comfortable with me engaging with them verbally, with demanding some measure of accountability for their actions (provided that I documented the exchange with a video camera, that is). Knowledge for next time. The main lesson here, however, is that solidarity is rarely straightforward, as it is determined in relation to a world of ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. It is for this reason that developing a nuanced analysis of power relations and deriving some general principles from it is so important. Beyond this, however, we can only do the best we can, and then try to honestly evaluate where our choices have led us.



We received the call about the demolition while staying in Nablus. Though we rushed to the scene as quickly as we could, we arrived at least half an hour after the Israeli military had departed, leaving destruction and despair in their wake. Unfortunately, the logistics of transportation to the Jordan Valley pose significant obstacles, especially when time of the essence. The demolition had taken place in a small Bedouin village near Aqraba. Like most Palestinian villages in the Jordan Valley, this village is located in Area C of the West Bank (placing it under both full Israeli civil and military control), a fact which renders these communities especially vulnerable to home demolitions. In this particular instance, the family had build their modest concrete home in November of 2011, only to be told that their home would be subject to demolition, as the lacked the appropriate building permits. Talk of “appropriate permits” is nothing but a cruel joke, however, as it is Israel who grants these permits, and the systematic discrimination of the Israeli bureaucracy in this regard has been well documented (between the year 2000 and 2007, 94% of the requests for building permits in Area C were rejected). Even the authority of Israel to grant such permits is a cruel irony of history, as a community may have been living in a particular location for a thousand years, yet they are required to ask a state just over six decades old for permission to build a simple structure on their own land. The absurdity of this juridical arrangement becomes all the more apparent once one realizes that Israel’s entire permit system (insofar as Palestinians are concerned) is aimed less at regulating construction for the sake of public welfare (in accord with the typical self-representation of modern liberal states), and more towards facilitating the dispossession and spatial segregation of the Palestinian population. The Jordan Valley has been especially coveted by Israel, given the significance of its water resources and rich agricultural land. And so Palestinians build, with or without permits, and simply hope for the best.

But fortune was not on this family’s side. After receiving the demolition order, they began the long and grueling process of contesting it in court, a process which was still underway when the bulldozer arrived to destroy their home. According to one resident, when villagers asked the soldiers if they had a proper demolition order, one replied that here he was the judge. If one were to take Israel’s juridical system seriously, one might protest that the soldiers had no right to proceed with the demolition. But to paraphrase Marx, when it comes to the determination of rights, force decides. Thus, the soldiers destroyed the home and left the scene quickly, presumably to avoid the scrutiny of any international solidarity organizations. When Jeff, Andrea, and I arrived, nothing remained of the structure but concrete rubble. It had been home to a family of five.



We spent the first little while helping the family and a handful of other international solidarity activists to create some temporary shelter for the family’s possessions, now entirely exposed to the elements. As if to drive the point home, a storm was moving in, and rain began to pour down shortly after we arrived. After fastening tarps over the family’s possessions, we began to erect some small tents, which would now serve as the family’s home through what would surely be a cold and wet winter. At some point, Andrea and I took shelter in one of the tents, where we found Jeff sitting and journaling silently next to one of the family members, a 58 year old Bedouin woman. With Andrea as our translator, she proceeded to share with us her feelings about the tragic circumstances into which she had been so callously cast. She spoke of utter despair. She was old and sick, she said – what would her family do through these bitter winter months? It wasn’t fair, she said. And what could we say to this? What could we do but reaffirm what she already knew far better than us? – that, yes, she was right, it wasn’t fair. Meanwhile, in spite of her situation, she went out of her way to show us the utmost hospitality and gratitude, making sure that we had hot tea and sincerely thanking us for being present – we, who were all but entirely helpless to do anything substantial to alter her situation, a fact of which she was surely well aware. We were like her sons, she said. Such warmth in the face of such hardship!



And at that moment, in the midst of the sympathy I was feeling for this woman, I began to feel anger welling up inside of me. I was not simply angry at the Israeli military and state, or at the uncritical support for Zionism which is so pervasive in my country, but even more so at the racist and Islamophobic caricatures I have encountered time and again in the US. Here I was, with this woman who had just lost nearly everything, and who was nonetheless able to show me warmth and appreciation, while in the country I come from, the country which had helped pay for and build the bulldozer which had destroyed her home, she would be likely be regarded as a religious fanatic or terrorist. People in the US have often shared with me their concerns about my safety while traveling in Palestine, by which they have generally meant their concerns about the allegedly irrational, violent, and extremist Arabs and Muslims which live there (most white people in the US don’t really bother to make a distinction between the two). In fact, I have never, in any other place in the world (the US included), felt safer than I have amongst Palestinians in the West Bank, for reasons which are not entirely clear to me. Often enough, Palestinians have fed me, housed me, or given me rides while asking for nothing in return. Or perhaps I should correct myself: I have never once felt that my safety was threatened by Palestinians. I have many times felt and been unsafe, but it has been the putatively liberal democratic Israeli state which has been the purveyor of violence. I have been shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets, teargas canisters, sound grenades, and even live ammunition countless times now, and never once come even close to experiencing the kind of insecurity that many Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

Now let me be clear: I am not romanticizing the Palestinian people, as so many North American and European solidarity activists tend to (a tendency which is really just racist Orientalism in another guise); I am simply stating facts which ought to serve as correctives to the pervasively negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims in the US. Certainly Palestinians lie, take advantage of and hurt others just like any other social grouping, but the stereotypes of Palestinians as irrational and violent extremists are simply false. If we are looking for examples of deeply rooted militarism or belligerence, we might instead turn our gaze towards Israeli society (which has been founded upon a militaristic ethos since its inception, as demanded by its particular model of settler-colonialism), or towards our own society for that matter (which has no shortage of bloody history, or examples of deeply-seated violent tendencies in the present). I am reminded of James Baldwin’s reflections upon the Nazi genocide from the vantage point of being black in the US:

“White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust…They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded – at least, in the same way…I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave towards each other. When a white man faces a black man, especially if the black man is helpless, terrible things are revealed. I know. I have been carried into precinct basements often enough, and I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.”

So as we left the village, with the family in little better position than when we came, I did not fixate upon the Israeli soldiers that had carried out this crime, nor even the larger Israeli state apparatus which compelled it, but focused instead upon the role of the US and its population in facilitating these violent processes – and, in particular, the role of racism in the constitution of the hegemonic representation of Palestine and the Arab world in the US, a representation which blinds us to the realities of power, inequality, and domination in the region. Yet here is a sphere where we can actually engage and make a significant impact, for these misguided perceptions are not given, but rather are produced. They are open to contestation, if we make the effort.

Had Jeff, Andrea, and I arrived to the village an hour earlier, perhaps we could have placed our bodies in front of the Israeli bulldozer (as Rachel Corrie bravely did at the cost of her life), and for a time delayed or maybe even halted the demolition of this woman’s home. Yet an even more substantial contribution, in my view, would be a commitment on our part to long-term organizing against anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia in the US, for without these forces, it is quite possible that the bulldozer would never have arrived at this woman’s home in the first place.

References and Further Reading

Baldwin, James, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1993).

Berryhill, Jeff, “Reflections on a brief exchange in the aftermath of a home demolition, 4 December 2012,” International Solidarity Movement (4 December 2012), available from: <http://palsolidarity.org/2012/12/reflections-on-a-brief-exchange-in-the-aftermath-of-a-home-demolition-4-december-2012/&gt;.

“The Jordan Valley: A Microcosm of the Israeli Occupation,” PLO Negotiations and Affairs Department (December 2011), available from: <http://www.alzaytouna.net/english/selections/2012/Jordan_Valley_Israel_2-12.pdf&gt;

A Glossary of Sorts

Before proceeding with further entries, I thought it might be worth clarifying some of the terminology I have employed, not only for the sake of comprehensibility, but also because it should help to elucidate the underlying analytical framework through which my on-the-ground experience is ultimately interpreted. If there are other terms or concepts which readers would like addressed, please say so in the comment section.

Israel/Palestine, Israel, Palestine – Oftentimes these names are used interchangeably, or without a great deal of clarity as to where their conceptual or territorial boundaries lay. My usage is generally more precise. “Israel/Palestine” refers to the social formation that is coextensive with the territorial boundaries of historic Palestine (encompassing Israel within its 1948 borders, as well as the occupied territories: the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip). The underlying assumption here is that discussions which treat any of these territorial units as if they are substantively autonomous polities are misguided at best, disingenuous at worst. “Israel” refers either to the territory of Israel proper (1948 borders), or to the political, economic, and military apparatus which exercises effective domination and control over the entirety of Israel/Palestine. The reason I have chosen to place Israel first in the designation “Israel/Palestine” is not because I believe Israel holds a greater moral claim to the territory, but rather because Israel wields dominance within this configuration.  

Israeli, Palestinian – Nationalist pretensions notwithstanding, “Israeli” and “Palestinian” are not self-evident concepts. They are not categories with inherent and timeless meanings, but rather historically constructed identities. Ironically, when Newt Gingrich caused a stir within the US by calling the Palestinians an “invented” people, he was, strictly speaking, correct; what he left out is that the same is true of Israelis, or for that matter the people of any nation. Modern national identity and nationalism are relatively recent phenomena, really only gaining global prominence during the 19th century. With regard to Israel/Palestine, my use of these signifiers of nationhood is relatively straightforward. When referring to Israelis, I am generally referring to Jewish Israelis. I do this in spite of the fact that some 20% of the Israeli citizenry is Palestinian, operating under the assumption that most Palestinian citizens of Israel do not identify with Israel as a space of national belonging. When I refer to Palestinians, I am referring to the indigenous population of historic Palestine (and their descendants), prior to the founding of Israel. However, I generally exclude from this category that minority Jewish population which preceded Zionist colonization, operating under the assumption that these Jews have been thoroughly integrated into the Israeli national identity. In point of fact, the composition of national, ethnic, and racial identities in Israel/Palestine is quite complicated and often contradictory (pointing, in my view, towards fractures within Zionist discourse and practice). For the moment, however, I am setting aside these complexities for the sake of expediency.

Settler-colonialism, Settler – The term “settler-colonialism” is borrowed from a growing body of scholarly work which argues that modern colonialism has assumed two distinctive forms. As Gabriel Pieterberg’s has summarized in “Settlers and their States,”

“from the 16th century on, European expansion and conquest produced two related but clearly distinguishable forms of colonialism. One was metropole colonialism, in which the European powers conquered and ruled vast territories, but without the emigration there of Europeans seeking to make these territories their national home…The other type was settler colonialism, in which conquest brought with it substantial waves of European settlers who, with the passage of time, sought to make the colony their national patrimony. This process entailed a relationship with the indigenous people that could range from dispossession to elimination, or from slavery—which for the most part did not use the native population—to cheap labour, depending on the economic and social formation of the given settler society.”

Examples of settler-colonial states would include the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Israel (among others); British India stands as a paradigmatic example of metropole colonialism. In calling Israel a settler-colonial state, I am effectively asserting that those who understand the “Israel-Palestine conflict” as essentially a post-1967 affair (i.e. a conflict which has its roots in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, etc.) have a fundamentally flawed analysis. The conflict is not four decades old, but more than a century, beginning with the first wave of Zionist migration in the 1880s, and became a full-fledged colonial relationship with the founding of Israel and corresponding massive dispossession of indigenous Palestinians in 1948. The Israel-Palestine conflict is not therefore some irrational feud between warring national or religious communities, but rather a struggle between colonizer and colonized. It follows that a meaningful resolution to the conflict can only be brought about through a process of objective and subjective decolonization. However, when I use the term “settler,” I am generally using it in its more restrictive conventional sense – to indicate those Jewish Zionists building micro-colonies within the occupied territories. I retain this meaning because these settlers are the bearers of distinctive ideological, military, political, and economic dynamics which set them apart from the rest of Israel colonial society. Yet one should not, as liberal Zionists tend to do, treat them as an aberration, a minority of zealots who bear no relation to the rest of Israeli society. Settlers are just the most blatant and egregious instantiation of colonial relations upon which the whole of Israel is founded, similar in some ways to political groupings such as the Tea Party in the United States.

Zionism – A specific form of Jewish nationalism which congealed in the late nineteenth century, and which has been centered upon building a territorial nation-state for “the Jewish people” (always singular) in historic Palestine. While there have been notable dissident currents within Zionism throughout its history, and particularly in its earlier stages of development, it is the political Zionism I describe here which ultimately became and remains hegemonic, and which comprises the discursive and material foundation of the Israeli state-building project. It is worth noting that while Zionism’s self-depiction is unapologetically teleological, Zionism has been but one of a multiplicity of Jewish responses to anti-Jewish racism, some of which have both stridently opposed Zionism and grounded their own unique resistances to anti-Jewish racism in broader commitments to collective liberation.

Apartheid – I do not use the term “apartheid” as invective, but rather as an analytical category. Use of the term apartheid to describe the contemporary Israeli regime of domination and control in Israel/Palestine has predictably been met with a great deal of resistance. Most of these objections stand upon weak analytical footing, simply stating that there are enormous differences between South Africa and Israel/Palestine. No serious scholar would argue otherwise. Yet, as Lorenzo Veracini points out, these kinds of arguments simply “foreclose on the possibility of comparative analysis…[by] reiterating the obvious fact that Israel/Palestine is not South Africa. On the contrary, a comparative approach aimed at testing the assertion of apartheid-like Israeli policies is interested precisely in highlighting corresponding developments in the context of obviously different circumstances.” Furthermore, as both Veracini and Pieterberg have pointed out, these objections themselves are characteristic of settler-colonial projects, which tend to insist upon their essential uniqueness. Others, such as Moshe Machover, have put forward more interesting critiques of the term – for instance, pointing out that whereas securing and controlling a supply of exploitable indigenous labor was primary in the construction of South African apartheid, in the case of Israel/Palestine land and non-human resources are the central concern while the indigenous population is regarded as a scourge which must be cleansed from the territory, and that the regime is therefore more oriented towards dispossession than exploitation. I see no reason, however, why the exploitation of indigenous labor ought to be a necessary analytical condition of apartheid. My use of the term is more in line with the 2009 study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law, which argues that Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are based upon “three pillars of apartheid” which reflect core structural similarities with the South African apartheid regime:

“The first pillar derives from Israeli laws and policies that establish Jewish identity for purposes of law and afford a preferential legal status and material benefits to Jews over non-Jews. The product of this in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories] is an institutionalised system that privileges Jewish settlers and discriminates against Palestinians on the basis of the inferior status afforded to non-Jews by Israel…The second pillar is reflected in Israel’s grand policy to fragment the OPT for the purposes of segregation and domination. This policy is evidenced by: Israel’s extensive appropriation of Palestinian land, which continues to shrink the territorial space available to Palestinians; the hermetic closure and isolation of the Gaza Strip from the rest of the OPT; the deliberate severing of East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank; and the appropriation and construction policies serving to carve up the West Bank into an intricate and well-serviced network of connected settlements for Jewish-Israelis and an archipelago of besieged and non-contiguous enclaves for Palestinians…The third pillar upon which Israel’s system of apartheid in the OPT rests is its ‘security’ laws and policies. The extrajudicial killing, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and arbitrary arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians…are all justified by Israel on the pretext of security. These policies are State-sanctioned, and often approved by the Israeli judicial system, and supported by an oppressive code of military laws and a system of improperly constituted military courts. Additionally…Israel’s invocation of ‘security’ to validate sweeping restrictions on Palestinian freedom of opinion, expression, assembly, association and movement also often purports to mask a true underlying intent to suppress dissent to its system of domination, and thereby maintain control over Palestinians as a group.”

Decolonization, De-Zionization – The use of terms such as “decolonization” or “de-Zionization” in relation to Israel/Palestine, or to reference to demands such as the Palestinian right of return, tend to conjure up cataclysmic visions of bloodshed and dispossession in popular imaginaries. Yet the vast majority of intellectuals and organizers who advocate decolonization or de-Zionization have never once suggested that Palestinians can or should achieve liberation by doing violence to the extant Jewish population of Israel/Palestine. What they do demand is the radical democratization of the existing polity, the establishment of conditions for substantive egalitarianism, the subversion of colonial discourses and consciousness, and the right of Palestinians who have been dispossessed from their homes and lands to be allowed return or receive compensation. The fulfillment of these demands would indeed mean the dismantling of the militarized and expansionist colonial apparatus which systematically privileges one racialized grouping (Jews) over another (Palestinians) – i.e. it would mean the end of a “Jewish state” – but there is no reason this need entail violence against or the forcible dispossession of Jews presently residing in Israel/Palestine. It is rather a more hopeful and creative vision of cohabitation. As many Palestinians have pointed out time and again regarding the widespread tendency to justify the Palestinian Nakba by referencing the European Jewish Shoah, one dispossession cannot be used to justify another.



Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa, Occupation, Colonialism, Apartheid?: A re-assessment of Israel’s practices in the occupied Palestinian territories under international law (Cape Town: May 2009).

Machover, Moshe, “Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution,” Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust Annual Lecture (30 November 2006), available from: <www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/machover/2006/11/isr-pal.htm>.

Pieterberg, Gabriel, “Settlers and their States: A Reply to Sternhell,” New Left Review (March-April 2010), 115-24.

Veracini, Lorenzo, Israel and Settler Society (Lonon: Pluto Press, 2006).

Why Are You Singling Out Israel?, or a Brief Response to Charges of Exceptionalism

[The following blog entry was inspired by an exchange with a family member. I chose to write it not so much to initiate some kind of debate, but rather because I think the issues our exchange raised have broader implications. To the extent that it may be perceived as a direct response to this exchange, I hope readers will recognize that I have written it without hostility, and in the spirit of constructive criticism. Like most of my entries, it has been written hurriedly due to time constraints.]

When one is engaged in Palestinian solidarity organizing, charges of exceptionalism become familiar refrains: Why are you singling out Israel? Why aren’t you organizing against misogyny in Afghanistan or homophobia in Iran? Why aren’t you confronting human rights abuses in North Korea?

These charges are somewhat ironic, for exceptionalism is indeed pervasive in the discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine, both on the right and on the left. On the right, exceptionalism becomes the means by which Israel and its allies justify an apartheid state and the various forms of material, psychological, and epistemological violence which are required for its reproduction. In both self-representation and external perceptions, Israel becomes the inheritor of a Jewish victimization which is taken outside of time, removed from its specific historical and geographic circumstances and said to exist in perpetuity. If Israel builds up a fortress state which regularly uses military violence against Palestinians or neighboring states, this is because Israel must keep constant vigilance, lest it be consumed by the rest of the world’s unshakable anti-Semitic compulsions (which are, naturally, always on the brink of giving way to another Holocaust). At the same time, exceptionalism manifests in a racist imaginary in which Israel becomes a bastion of Western civilization, bulwark against the barbarous hordes which make up the rest of the Middle East. If Palestinians fire rockets into Israel, it must be because they don’t value life in the same manner that Israelis (and Westerners) do; if (some) queers have greater civil rights in Israel, it must be because Israel possesses an enlightened tolerance which its backward neighbors (codified as Arab or Muslim) lack.

Meanwhile, exceptionalist discourse on the left tends to invert this fallacious representation, depicting the Israeli occupation as a regime unparalleled in its ruthlessness, and in rare instances even slipping into talk of Israel controlling US foreign policy or of Zionist designs for global conquest (contentions which are reminiscent of the anti-Semitic imaginings of an “International Jewish Conspiracy” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). Both of these exceptionalist positions are, of course, entirely spurious. Israel is a settler-colonial state, unique but unexceptional, and there are numerous nation-states with which it can be compared (such as the United States, South Africa, or Australia). Similarly, while the apartheid system which Israel has developed undoubtedly has its own peculiarities, it still shares basic structural characteristics with, for example, (formal) apartheid in South Africa or the Jim Crow US South. As I noted in my introductory post (and which I will expand upon at some later point, time permitting), de-exceptionalizing this discourse – or really situating it within a more radical comparative frame – is essential not only in terms of getting to the roots of the “Israel-Palestine conflict,” but also in terms of revealing the ways in which this conflict is both implicated in and indicative of global processes.

However, most often when charges of exceptionalism are directed at Palestinian solidarity activists, it is not with the intention of deepening their analysis by way of constructive criticism. At best, questions such as “why are you singling out Israel?” are misguided; at worst, cynical attempts to discredit those working to overcome a structure of domination, exploitation, and exclusion. In what follows I briefly outline the reasons why this question is so problematic.

1) The existence of other situations of comparable ethical import does not negate the importance of engaging with this singular issue – The world we live in is filled to the brim with violent and tragic situations – unsurprisingly, as there are few spaces globally which are not integrated into the same macro-structures of domination, exploitation, and exclusion. All of us, however, face practical limitations in terms of the spaces where we can focus our intellectual and material energies. If I am unable to simultaneously confront all of the problems faced by human and non-human life on this planet, should I then withdraw my participation in particular struggles for fear of ethical hypocrisy? Of course not. Certainly I should do my best to situate the issues with which I am engaged in their broader context, highlighting both their particular and general dynamics, as well as their implications for liberatory struggles at large, but I should not bemoan my inability to do everything at once. By choice and accidents of history, we find ourselves unevenly engaged with the social field, and this is simply unavoidable.

2) The particular is not necessarily at the expense of the universal, or the exceptionalism of charges of Palestinian solidarity exceptionalism – When one is charged with an exceptional preoccupation with the misdeeds of Israel, rarely is it accompanied by inquires regarding the other forms of intellectual critique or practical engagement with which one is involved. In my case (and I have been on the receiving end of this charge many, many times), Palestinian solidarity work has not even been my foremost sphere of political engagement. My critical intellectual foci have tended to revolve around historical capitalism and the ways in which structures of racial, gender, sexual, and ecological domination have been articulated with this system, while my political practice has generally fallen into the multifaceted milieu of anti-capitalist/anti-authoritarian organizing (most recently within the Occupy movement). I have, in other words, been both engaged with multiple particular issues and situated these particular issues within more general systemic dynamics. Yet when I have put on educational events about anarchism or food justice, or organized demonstrations against the US war on Afghanistan, or given workshops on the political economy of the global crisis, or engaged in direct actions within the Occupy movement, never have I been charged with focusing on, say, the politics of food to the exclusion of other issues. I have certainly been attacked on many fronts for my politics in these different spheres, but never with the charge of exceptionalism. As soon as I raise critiques of Israel or participate in Palestinian solidarity work, however, I am immediately charged with exceptionalism. In essence, charges of exceptionalism in relation to the Palestinian liberation struggle are often smokescreens for precisely the inverse exceptionalism, in which Israeli settler-colonialism is deemed a subject best left outside the bounds of intellectual critique or political challenge.

3) The particular and uneven ethical implications of one’s social location – Let me be clear: anyone, anywhere has a valid ethical claim to engaging in Palestinian solidarity/liberation or anti-Zionist politics. That being said, many of us, by virtue of our social location, may have a particular investment or disproportionate responsibility which motivates our engagement with these struggles. Speaking for myself, I am, firstly, a citizen of the United States, the erstwhile world-hegemonic power upon which Israel vitally depends for financial, military, and diplomatic support. My tax dollars (provided I consent to paying taxes – and I do) literally help pay for the bulldozers which demolish Palestinian homes and the M16s which extinguish Palestinian lives. Were the US to withdraw its support for Israel, Israeli settler-colonialism would not be long for this world. Thus, as a US citizen, I am implicated in the processes which reproduce Israeli settler-colonialism in particular and disproportionate ways, and can reasonably be said to have greater moral responsibility for the violence it produces. On top of this, I am a white Jewish-American, and thus located within a community which directly or indirectly lends crucial material and discursive support to Zionism and Israel. When I speak out as someone who is Jewish, the ideological hegemony of Zionism combines with racist discursive inequalities to lend my voice far greater weight than that of a Muslim or non-Jewish Arab. Conversely, when I remain silent, my silence carries greater material implications than that of, say, a non-Jewish white person. Thus, once again I can be said to have greater moral responsibility for the violence inherent in the reproduction of Israeli settler-colonialism. Furthermore, I may feel (and do) that I have what the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network calls an independent case against Zionism – i.e. I may seek to confront Zionism not only for the sake of Palestinians or humanity at large, but because I recognize the ways in which Zionism has cynically essentialized and exploited Jewish identities and histories, or has itself been built upon anti-Semitic discourse and substantially contributed to the reproduction of anti-Semitism across the globe. In other words, the particularities of my social location may give me specific reasons for choosing to emphasize the struggle against Zionism and for Palestinian liberation over various other struggles. Were I Indian, I might highlight the ways in which Indian militarism and the rise of Hindutva have been supported by India’s alliance with Israel. Were I a South African or a black American, I might focus on the ways in which Israeli apartheid paralleled my own historical or contemporary experience of apartheid, or the ways in which both are in part products of globalizing structures of racial domination. Were I Native American, I might note that the Palestinian experience of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and historical erasure recalls my own experience with US settler-colonialism. The point here is that our social location implicates us in the struggles against Zionist settler-colonialism and/or Palestinian liberation in particular and uneven ways, and that these facts may motivate a specific (but not exceptionalist) focus on this struggle. (For simplicity’s sake, I have set aside very important questions surrounding how to best navigate the tensions inherent in organizing from one’s particular social location – e.g. for those engaged in a Jewish anti-Zionist politic, how to constructively engage with the fact of one’s voice being privileged in public discourse without simultaneously displacing Palestinian voices, and thereby reproducing the relations of inequality one supposedly seeks to subvert)

4) The particular material and symbolic importance of Israeli settler-colonialism and the Palestinian liberation struggle – Finally, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation is not simply a struggle among struggles, equal to all others in terms of its world-historic implications. At a material level, Israel remains a kind of imperial outpost for a number of North Atlantic states – most importantly the US – in a region which is absolutely central to the reproduction of global capitalism (I am referring here to oil, for while Southwest Asia and North Africa certainly have other reasons for their geostrategic centrality, their concentrated possession of this energy resource is the most important). And while the US may no longer be a world-hegemonic power in the sense that it was a half century ago, it is still by far the most powerful national state apparatus, arguably the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, and the principle state agency through which transnational capitalist class power has been projected. The US would not go through so much trouble to support and defend Israeli settler-colonialism were this small state not especially important to its geostrategic designs (those who attribute US foreign policy in relation to Israel almost exclusively to the presence of a powerful Zionist lobby within the US are, in my view, entirely off the mark). Israel/Palestine is also a kind of laboratory for new forms of militarism, security, and policing which are emerging on a global scale. Here I am referring not only to the obvious ways in which Israel leads the way in the production of new military and policing technologies (weapons, monitoring systems, etc.), but also to their theoretical and organizational innovations in realms such as counterinsurgency. There are few places in the world where exploitive inclusion is so successfully coupled to profound exclusions through constant surveillance, control of movements, fragmentation of space, and low-intensity warfare. In addition, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation has profound symbolic importance to peoples and struggles across the globe. Israel has become a symbol of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, US and Western domination of West Asia and North Africa, modern settler-colonialism and the ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, and an emergent regime of world-systemic inequality – which combines a highly selective and exploitive integration, massive expulsions, and new mechanisms of policing and control – that many are referring to as “global apartheid.” The struggle for Palestinian liberation, meanwhile, has come to symbolize the fights against racism and colonialism, policing and militarism, and even the global justice movement at large. Thus, for those of us engaged in liberatory struggles on a global scale, the struggle against Israeli settler-colonialism and for Palestinian liberation has special material and symbolic import, which we ignore at our own peril.

There is no question that Palestine is hard-wired…into the circuits of the struggle for global justice. At a time when the deep structures of globalization threaten to render politics itself a thing of the past, this struggle seeks to defend and breathe new life into the process of participatory, democratic politics. At a time when the actions of powerful settler states such as the US and Israel threaten to render international law useless, this struggle insists on the need to move past the politics of exceptionalism. And at a time of permanent war and immanent social militarization, this struggle aims to imagine and actualize productive and liberating ways of using the tradition of nonviolent “popular defense” in order to exit from the suicidal dynamic that combines war, ecological destruction and the predatory search for endless capital accumulation. Palestine remains both the site of a struggle to decolonize itself and a key node in the globally networked struggle to decolonize a world whose current structures of inequality and injustice have been shaped by the global politics of settler colonialism.

– John Collins

Further Reading

Collins, John, Global Palestine (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2011).

Veracini, Lorenzo, Israel and Settler Society (London: Pluto Press, 2006).

A Day of Mourning

Today was Rushdi Tamimi’s funeral. Rushdi was a 31 year old Palestinian man from Nabi Saleh, the village where we have been attending weekly demonstrations for some time now. He was shot in the stomach and leg by Israeli soldiers at a demonstration in Nabi Saleh this past Saturday, and died in the hospital yesterday (a video taken by his sister on the day of the shooting can be found here: http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=T4L3oaYtyLs&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Ffeature%3Dplayer_embedded%26v%3DT4L3oaYtyLs).




The day of mourning began with a gathering of family, friends, neighbors, and supporters at the hospital in Ramallah. From there we marched along the streets of Ramallah to Manara Sq. Many were weeping and comforting one another, and nearly all participated in indignant chants of resistance. From Ramallah we took buses to Nabi Saleh, where the funeral itself was held. On our way we passed Palestinian youth clashing with Israeli soldiers, a scene which seems to appear everywhere you turn in the West Bank right now. The funeral in Nabi Saleh was as massive as the march, and the anger and sorrow of the mourners was equally palpable. Towards the end of the funeral, Palestinian youth approached the Israeli military forces which stood ready nearby (as if to accentuate their indifference to the death for which they were responsible) and the day predictably drew to a close with volleys of tear gas, torrents of skunk water, and the clapping of rubber-coated steel bullets and live ammunition being fired.




It is all too easy to let death become nothing more than an abstraction. Having lost a number of people who were close to me, I can attest that this is true even in the most intimate of circumstances. But it is all the more true when death is distant, when lives slip into mere numbers, the seemingly endless repetition of which cannot but help encourage a tragic normalcy. Today I witnessed a single absence within a structure of violence which has extinguished thousands of lives, which extinguishes them still. We must do our best to remember all of the love and sorrow and rage which is contained within these singular absences, to re-humanize those losses which are rendered invisible by remoteness or routine. For once we are able to recognize death in all of its sensuousness, it is far more difficult not to act in the service of life.


When death with its birds

of black foam sprouts from my skin

when my bones question the air

about its rains and its tides

and roots lift their lonely rituals

from my drooping eye

when I’m the only one whose place was


on the roads the only one not there

to round off the footsteps for the day

in your silver body my drowned out words

will still cheer the ripe harvest on.


Travelers in the same cult of love

doggedly we killed oblivion off.

– Roque Dalton

Hurried Notes on Resistance in Ramallah

As the assault on Gaza continues (at the time of writing the death toll has risen to 100, with nearly 850 injured), the West Bank is beginning to feel like a powder keg. Whether or not the frustrations of the population will ultimately take the form of a more widespread rebellion, I cannot say, but for what it’s worth, today gave me some hope that this might at least be a possibility. A few friends and I joined up with a larger group of Palestinian organizers and international solidarity activists for several actions:

The first action was centered on the apartheid wall (what Israel euphemistically refers to as a “separation barrier”). Though ostensibly separating Israel proper from the West Bank, 85% of the wall is actually located within the West Bank, rather than along the 1967 Green Line. It also happens to encompass 98% of the settlements which have penetrated the West Bank, and enclose a large portion of water resources and fertile land. As Saree Makdisi observes, notwithstanding “the talk of this being a ‘security fence’, it is obvious that the real aim of the barrier is to absorb as much land, and as few Palestinians, as possible, to acquire pockets of territory that can easily be connected – and are already de facto annexed – to Israel.” During our action, some of us cut down portions of a fenced segment of the wall, while others (such as myself) stood ready to place themselves between the Israeli military (in the event that they arrived before the action was completed) and those cutting the fence, thereby providing an escape route. As fate had it, we were lucky, and were able to complete the action successfully and flee the scene before any military forces arrived.

The second action was centered on a nearby settler road, and we were not as lucky. There exists an elaborate network of well-maintained roads connecting the Jewish settlements to one another and to Israel proper (approximately 300 miles worth), to which Palestinians are either completely or periodically denied access. Palestinians, instead, are forced to travel upon poorly-maintained roads, movement through which is regulated and disrupted by more than 450 checkpoints or roadblocks. Like the apartheid wall, settler roads are both material and symbolic embodiments of the dispossession, subordination, and exclusion of Palestinians by the Israeli settler-colonial state. We arrived to the settler road en masse, and immediately spread across the road to form a human blockade (I was nearly run down by a semi truck before we created a more coherent formation). The military arrived within minutes, yelling at demonstrators and firing live ammunition into the air. At one point a car of settlers attempted to ram through the blockade, hitting one of the primary organizers of the action in the process (he was taken to the hospital, and while I haven’t yet had confirmation, I believe he is ok). Eventually we retreated, with some seeming to feel as if we had pushed the boundaries with the soldiers enough.

Following these two actions, we returned to Manara Sq. in Ramallah, where a large demonstration against Israel’s assault on Gaza had begun. We carried a large chunk of the apartheid fence with us as we went, the Palestinians among us singing and chanting in Arabic. The demonstration was noticeably larger than a similar one held in the same square just a few days ago – at least twice the size. The format was familiar and tired, but the energy somehow felt different – electric and full of potential.





After a quick lunch of hummus, vegetables, and falafel (and, for me, plenty of coffee), we moved on to a demonstration against Ofer prison, a military incarceration complex on the outskirts of Ramallah. There are more than 4,000 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, with ample documentation of torture and abuse (readers may recall earlier this year when some 2,000 Palestinians protested the Israeli system of incarceration by going on hunger strike). By the time we arrived, the demonstration had already been going on for some time. We stepped out of the van to tear gas and the sound of rubber-coated steel bullets being fired. In the time we were present, numerous Palestinians were injured (including a Red Crescent paramedic) from overexposure to tear gas, being hit with rubber-coated steel bullets, and perhaps live ammunition (I have gotten conflicting accounts on this last point, and need to verify). At least one Palestinian was hit in the head with a rubber-coated steel bullet (I myself was nearly struck in the face with a rubber-coated steel bullet, but somehow managed to just barely duck under). When I departed the demonstration was still going strong.





It is very difficult to get a clear sense of where things in the West Bank are headed at the moment, but there can be no doubt that things are heating up. People are angry about what is taking place in Gaza (rightly so), and the social ferment which has built up in recent years seems as though it could produce a historical rupture, perhaps even a third intifada. But it is too early, and I am too ignorant, to say anything with even the slightest degree of confidence. Meanwhile, the Israeli military forces are also amping up their repression. Scores have been injured during protests in the West Bank over the past few days, and not a few have died. Yesterday a 20 month old baby was killed at Qalandia checkpoint after a teargas canister was shot into his home. Just before I began writing this post, I learned that Rushdi Tamimi – a man from Nabi Saleh, the small village where I’ve participated in Friday demonstrations the past few weeks (see earlier posts) – died in the hospital today after being shot with live ammunition at a demonstration this last Saturday (Saturday’s demonstration lacked the heavy presence of non-Palestinian internationals, and thus the Israeli military acted with far less restraint). For those interested, a video taken on the day he was shot can be found here: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=T4L3oaYtyLs&desktop_uri=/watch?v=T4L3oaYtyLs

Intifada literally translates into English as a “shaking off.” Let us hope that the tragedies presently unfolding in Palestine lead the way to a shaking off of the system of Israeli apartheid that produces this violence.

Selected References

B’Tselem, “Statistics on Palestinians in the custody of the Israeli security forces,” (Oct. 2010). Available from: ;.

Makdisi, Saree, “Diary,” London Review of Books (3 March 2005). Available from: ;.

Palestinian Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Campaign, “The Apartheid Wall: Land Theft and Forced Expulsion 2010 Fact Sheet,” (2010). Available from: ;.

Repression in Nabi Saleh as Microcosm of Israeli System of Control

Yesterday a small International Solidarity Movement (ISM) contingent and I made our way from Ramallah to Nabi Saleh to join in their weekly demonstration against Israeli apartheid and settler encroachment (for background, see my earlier post, “Fragments (1)”). I was already weary, having waited into the small hours of the night for three friends of mine to be released from an Israeli jail in Jerusalem, following their arrests during an Israeli-led demonstration against the current assault on Gaza (incidentally, as I write this, the death toll in Gaza has reached at least 44, and at least another 390 injured). I suspected Israeli repression of the demonstration to be particularly harsh, and it appears that I was not alone – the demonstration was abnormally small (with young children forming a disproportionately high number of the participants), and whereas the media had been prominent in previous demonstrations, this time they were conspicuously absent. Neither of these facts were particularly encouraging, as it meant that the Israeli military forces we encountered would be less accountable on two fronts.




Before our (innocuously nonviolent) march even reached the main road, the military opened up with an indiscriminate barrage of tear gas canisters – shot from jeep-mounted artillery, and at a low enough angle to make these “non-lethal” weapons entirely lethal if one happened to be unlucky (one young Palestinian boy we saw had in a certain sense been lucky, as he had managed to get by with only stitches after being hit in the face with a canister some time before) – and rubber-coated steel bullets (another young girl we saw had a cast on her arm from a bone broken by one of these bullets). The march scattered in different directions, and I took cover until I had recovered enough from the tear gas to see again. The volleys of tear gas continued as a military vehicle made its way up the hill spraying skunk water, drenching the residential road up and down. When I was able to see again, I ran up the hill and swallowed enough tear gas to make me feel as if I was going to vomit. Many had taken cover in the homes of local Palestinians. My friend Jeff and I joined a small group of Palestinians and tried to make our way into the olive groves, where I presumed the military would not follow. My presumption was wrong. The military proceeded to carry out what was essentially an invasion of the village, short only of employing formally lethal weaponry or bursting randomly into homes. They worked their way through every nook and cranny of the village, chasing us with tear gas through the olive groves for a good 45 minutes.







In the end, the costs of this military incursion were not as high as they could have been: a friend caught a couple of rubber-coated steel bullets in the back, and two Palestinians, two Israelis, and one Italian were arrested. However, the degree to which the intensity of the Israeli military response departed from previous demonstrations was notable. What accounts for this departure? Certainly, as I mentioned earlier, the smaller numbers of participants and absence of media were factors, but these facts themselves point to further questions – for why was it that I and others presumed this demonstration would be especially dangerous? After initiating its assault on Gaza (conveniently timed directly after the US and before the Israeli elections), Israel could reasonably expect to see greater anger and perhaps even rebelliousness at demonstrations in the West Bank, and one could assume that their response was merely a reflection of heightened resistance. But the character of our march belies this assumption. I believe that the response of the Israeli military can be more convincingly interpreted as actions aimed at reproducing the system of control that Israel has cultivated in Israel/Palestine. While many aspects of Israel’s apartheid system serve obvious strategic functions (generally revolving around the logic of territorial/resource acquisition and control, mediated by the racist demographic principle of more Jews and fewer Palestinians), at other times they can appear irrational, erratic, or inexplicable. Why do checkpoint closures, or house demolitions, or various forms of harassment take place on one day and not the next? What at first appears irrational upon closer examination is equally functional, for the result of many of these practices is the production of a feeling of hopelessness and disillusionment on the part of the subjugated; it is a means of exterminating agency, of trying to erase from minds even the possibility of resistance. From this perspective, the military response in Nabi Saleh serves the functional purpose of bolstering Israel’s system of control – to remind demonstrators that the violence currently being meted out on Gaza can be visited on them as well, and that facts such as the overwhelming presence of children or a blatantly nonviolent tactical or ethical orientation will not provide any shelter.


If Israeli settler-colonialism could be personified, it would likely have the arrogance to believe that these kinds of measures might eventually squash Palestinian resistance entirely. It would be wrong. Hope is stubborn, and I have witnessed a staggering degree of resilience amongst the people here. Certainly the obstacles faced are great and multifaceted, but the seeds of a mass liberatory movement are there, even if they appear shielded from sunlight at present. In my view, the principle task of those of us doing Palestinian solidarity work internationally is to push back against the instruments of Israeli repression (and those states and non-state actors which sustain them) in hopes that we might create some space for these seeds to take root, for a genuine emancipatory transformation of social relations in Israel/Palestine can only be brought about by Palestinians themselves.

Last minute additions: During today’s demonstration in Nabi Saleh – which, unlike the Friday demonstrations, lacked a large presence of internationals – a Palestinian was shot with live ammunition. Also, tonight in Hebron (al-Khalil), dozens of Israeli soldiers amassed by nearby Checkpoint 56, shortly after an apparently impromptu demonstration by the Suq (central marketplace) was repressed. According to my friend Jeff who was present, they ordered around 50 Palestinians out of the surrounding buildings (including mothers holding babies in their arms), lined them up against a brick wall, and interrogated a handful before releasing the larger group. When I arrived on the scene they were spreading throughout the Palestinian area in which we are located, seemingly to intimidate with a show of strength. As tensions grow around the assault on Gaza, these types of military muscle-flexing will probably become more and more common.