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On Some Particularities of Israeli Colonial Ideology

In the wake of the current round of atrocious settler-colonial assaults on the Palestinian people, even the indie media thinks it is important to remind people that any criticism of Israel's genocidal offensive should be balanced against the shibboleth of anti-semitism.  Take, for example, the Huffington Post's recent article about how synagogues in France were attacked and how we need to recognize that anger over Israel's violence should not permit us to become anti-semitic.

Well no shit.  I've been part of the pro-Palestinian circles for years, arguing for the importance of recognizing Palestinian self-determination, and have always understood that it should have nothing to do with adopting a backwards anti-semitism in response.  So has the majority of the movement; the fringe conspiracy theorists with anti-semitic overtones were always understood as the fringe, just as Truthers and Illuminati conspiracy theorists have been understood as the fringe of the anti-imperialist movement for decades.  Let's be honest, any movement that is opposed to the state of affairs will find some confused reactionaries who are pulled into an orbit they cannot understand and want to make sense of it due to their alienated and under-educated perspective on life.  After all, it's easier to use religion, ethnicity, and conspiracy to make sense of capitalism; it's an attempt to simplify the complexity of reality, and the most vile conceptions of human reality have always been rather simple (i.e. "I can't understand finance-capital, monopoly, and imperialism, and I don't want to, but there's this thing called 'the Jewish banking conspiracy' some old-fashioned preacher told me about and I like it because it's easier to understand!").

So my problem here is not that people are (rightly) upset over anti-semitic activities––we should be upset about this––but only that it manifests in such a way to provide a moral reason to not be outraged at what is the most modern, prevalent, and pernicious articulation of the same doctrine.  In the midst of the offensive on Gaza the Huffington Post is providing picture after picture after picture after picture of what?  Murdered children in Gaza, which is the reality in Palestine?  No: burned out synagogues in France that are supposedly burned by people upset by the fact that children are being murdered in Gaza.  The message?  Don't be too critical of the state that is murdering these children because it will lead to anti-semitism in France, and burned synagogues are worse than shelling an entire people into oblivion.

The anti-semitic burning of synagogues should indeed be attacked as racist, but this is not the issue.  What is bothersome, here, is that such an article appears in the midst of Israel's most recent act of settler-colonial massacre and is articulated in such a way as to blame people who are rightly upset over this massacre for being anti-semites.  Message: you should not be upset about what is happening in Gaza because if you're really upset you will become an anti-semite.  Why else would this article would begin with a mind-numbing pictorial representation of burned buildings France when, at the same time, burned buildings in Gaza wherein civilians are being slaughtered receive no such recognition?

Take, for example, the statement of an Israeli member of parliament about how all Palestinian mothers should be killed so as to prevent the reproduction of the Palestinian people.  Or the statement of right-wing Israeli professor about how the only way "terrorism" could ever end was rape.  (Oh, but he was only describing an "is" rather than an "ought" so, according to Hume, he's not really advocating institutionalized colonial rape, is he?)  With this in mind, then, it is apparently worth arguing: "well let's not get too upset about this because if you're upset you could end up burning synagogues––we have the pictures to prove it!"  And so the crawling genocide of the Israeli state, that always manifests spectacularly whenever there is a confrontation, is legitimated as just.  Palestinian lives just aren't worth as much.

One of my comrades recently pointed out that the headlines of mainstream news sources, regardless of the basic facts they necessarily had to admit in the articles, were complicit in this genocide.  For example, all these headlines that begin with "Gaza violence."  Gaza violence spreads here and there, Gaza violence destroys schools, Gaza violence murders children.  As he pointed out, if one was to simply read the headlines (and many of us just read headlines since reading an entire article requires so much energy these days), we would be forced to think that this conflict has something to do with some vague violence intrinsic to Gaza.  Not the violence of Israel, not the violence of settler-colonialism, but a violence that only manifests within the zone of the colonized that, as if it is part of the air, would be there regardless.  In the face of this normative violence, colonial stability is necessary.  Again: these Palestinian lives aren't worth very much if they're just part of some normative violence that would exist even if Israeli wasn't shelling them into oblivion––this has nothing to do with the day-to-day realities of colonial domination, does it?

The violence that just "is"

No, think instead of what this question will produce: anti-semitism and burned synagogues in France.  The Palestinians, and those who support them, must necessarily worry about whether or not their demand for self-determination helps a bunch of asshole neo-nazis––who hate Arabs as much as they hate the Jews, and these days sometimes even more––decide to use the current Israeli offensive to burn a synagogue and blame it on another race they despise.  Or maybe it was some ersatz member of the Taliban––well fuck them, more justification for the war on terror!

Of course we should despise anyone who attacks the place of worship of a minority; only the most despicable "new atheist" would argue otherwise.  But let's be clear: since the so-called "War on Terror" began, the rise in Islamophobia has far eclipsed modern anti-semitism.  When France banned auspicious religious head-covering and symbology it was primarily Muslim women who were attacked.  When the Parti Quebecois attempted to push through a similar charter it was mosques that were burned and defiled, more Muslim women attacked.  Breivik, a committed fascist, targeted Arabs and Arab sympathizers first and foremost.  European fascists are more than happy to align with Zionists.  It is the Arab (whether s/he is Christian, Muslim, or Jew) who is stopped at the border, treated as suspicious.

Around seven decades ago a tiny European nation decided to massacre other Europeans in the name of its reactionary ideals.  At the time, most of the privileged Europeans and Euro-Americans had no problem with this "final solution"––if they despised the state carrying it out it was only because there was a war and they had conflicting economic interests.  You would be hard-pressed to find an allied ideologue in 1942, unless they were a member of the Soviet Union, that would be extremely opposed to the Nazi's "Final Solution."  The European an Euro-American majority at that time, regardless of their wartime differences, could barely conceptualize genocide as a moral problem.  After all, they had been carrying it out for years on the non-European peoples without any moral qualms––both Cesaire and Fanon understood this fact.  Now these same eurocentric hacks are demanding that a people who had nothing to do with the genocide they legitimated should be judged according to his very genocide, even held responsible.  Who cares if they might be the next victims of genocide, is the argument, we best make sure that we condemn what we were responsible for decades ago and that has nothing to do with them––we have to look good, and it's their fault that we don't.

Of course Israel, despite being a settler state, is not homogenous.  There are massive anti-war demonstrations held by Israelis that should tell us otherwise, but this fact should not be treated as surprising, trotted out to remind us that, in the case of Israel, we need to blame the government and not the people––as if that is the "danger" we are engaging in when we speak of Israeli settler-colonialism and condemn the most recent imperialist incursion.  Really, we don't find a host of these "just remember to blame the state and not the people" moralisms when we criticize America's imperialism, or Canada's vicious colonial policies.  Why the reminders, then, with Israel?  Because the Palestinians are the only oppressed people whose oppression must always be judged according to a past history of oppression experienced by the ancestors of their oppressors.

To speak of Palestinian oppression is to find oneself confronted with a complex ideology that one does not encounter when speaking about the oppression of other people: the liberal warning that it being too outraged might be construed as anti-semitic.  In the decade and a half that I've been involved in Palestinian solidarity work––at one point far more directly and actively than I am now––this shibboleth of anti-semitism was always trotted out to undermine solidarity work.  Although I'm thankful to have experienced a popularization in this solidarity movement where it is now generally considered necessary to be pro-Palestinian in order to have leftist credentials, it hasn't gone away.  As Noel Ignatiev recently pointed out, in the recently published three volume Encyclopedia of Western Colonialism Since 1750 the colonization of Palestine by the zionist movement doesn't merit an entry––three volumes and the most recent historical event of direct, old school settler-colonialism is absent!  (Ignatiev also noted that, in 2008, he had submitted an entry on zionism in the Encyclopedia of Race and Racism only to have it edited out quickly after publication after it was attacked as "anti-semitic".  That zionism was an intentional racial doctrine, similar to many European racist ideologies, was not something denied by its first generation theorists––they were quite open about this fact, and hell everyone was writing racial theories at that time anyhow, it was all the racist rage in Europe––but since it is a living doctrine, that you can cling to and be respectable, it was bad form to even quote Herzl and Jabotinsky's original words.)  An encyclopedia might seem removed from on-the-ground struggles, some ivory tower quirk, but these things, combined with so many other ideological ventures, do contribute to "common sense" thinking.  As Ignatiev would go on to note, Encyclopedia Britannica, long an imperial bestiary of knowledge, has a history of editing out information it found threatening: articles by WEB DuBois and CLR James were both redacted.

Settler-colonial states––whether they be in Israel, Canada, the US, etc.––have to maintain themselves as settler-colonial states in an era were old-style colonialism was supposed to have disappeared when, in the decades following WW2, the entire world was supposed to have become "more enlightened".  Thus, those states that retained internal colonies without a motherland elsewhere, or just embarked ona new round of colonialism (as Israel did in 1948), really have to work hard to downplay the fact that they are not really colonialism.  That was all that stuff that happened in Africa and India and once upon a time in the Americas in another time, wasn't it?  Tragic, yeah, but a thing of the past!  (And, well, neocolonialism isn't really colonialism either because it doesn't look the same, right?)  In my doctoral dissertation, a philosophical intervention on the terrain of anti-colonial theory, I examined the persistence of settler-colonialism after the classic delinking of the motherland-colony relationship and the particular ideology it produced.  I called this sublimated colonialism, and an article about this phenomenon, adapted from my thesis, can be found here.  Without going into too much detail, what I was examining was the particular settlerist ideology that develops within actually existing settler-colonial context (whether they be Canada or Israel or the US or etc.) and how this ideology often becomes a "self-determining concept" that cannot simply be traced, without understanding how the superstructural interest reacts upon the base, to a simplistic economic explanation.

In the case of the recent Gaza offence we can find some economic justification, as this article does a good job of investigating, but this is only part of the story.  In the last instance the economic base provides us with an important understanding but, as Althusser was wont to remind us (quoting Marx and Engels), "the last instance often never arrives."  Whether or not a settler-state can justify a particular colonial offensive according to resource extraction is not what ultimately defines settler-colonialism.  Canada, for example, quite often does craft its colonial policies on the logic of profit––clear-cutting, the tar sands, mining, etc.––but there are also other times when it spends a significant amount of resources in maintaining its existence as Canada at the expense of colonial insurgence.  Hence the amount of resources the Canadian state spent in 1990 to back the settler township of Oka's decision to annex Kahnesatake's cemetery in order to build a golf course; here, the cost of sending in the army was more than what a country club would produce.  Similarly, on a day-to-day basis, Israel spends more money maintaining its more recent settler-colonial existence than it gains in the odd colonial offensive based on resource extraction.  Ultimately this is economically necessary because the settler-state wants to remain an economic entity, and would discover its own economy severely weakened by a successful anti-colonial movement, but this is simply that "last instance".

The distance between colonial ideology and this last instance is clear whenever someone claims that Israel is not a colonial state because it does not use its colonized population as a work force––because why be a colonial power if you aren't going to extract surplus from a subject population?  But the ideological formation of sublimated colonialism is such that remaining settler-colonial states, because they are interested in maintaining that they are not colonial, would prefer that the colonized-colonizer distinction is overcome by eliminating the colonized altogether.  And in the case of Israel there is a very convenient ideology: to sympathize with its oppressed indigenous population, to feel outrage at the state's violence, should only happen within proscribed liberal values or it is just as racist as a state that seeks to annihilate––when not spectacularly, slowly through a suffocating policy––the people whose lands it has occupied.


  1. I am not sure whether you covered this issue before, but what do you make of the Chinese takeover of Tibet?
    Can't that be compared to Palestine in some way? Certainly not with the kind of brutality there is with Israel, but i guess some Tibetans are not so happy about China's takeover of their country, and Chinese moving into Tibet in a big way. Curious what you make of the Tibet issue.

    there are a couple of issues in Communist history that there are either no 'objective, impartial' commentators, and it is hard to know what to make to them. ie Chechnya under Stalin, the takeover of Tibet are two that come to mind.

    1. I don't think Tibet's incorporation initial incorporation into what would become modern [post-colonial] China was colonialist in any way shape or form but rather a part of the larger revolutionary movement that was sweeping throughout the region. It was quite clear at the time that the average Tibetan saw themselves as part of the Chinese Revolution and throwing of the brutality of the lamas (who were imperialist backed) was a good thing––regardless of what movies like *Kundun* and white western Buddhists would have us believe. Tibet and other regions that unified into what is now China were largely the result of the drawing of boundaries on the part of European colonialism. There's some good articles on this, and a good summary one of this is Mike Ely's article (back before the days of Kasama) that can be found here:

      I would say, however, that the situation in Tibet now in China is quite different and one that resembles some form of colonial rule, or at the very least a Han chauvinism. It seems clear that those who would have initially identified and seen themselves as part of an unbroken Chinese Revolution are not at all happy with the current situation and this should be justly criticized.

  2. Excellent article. I have but a single quibble.

    Of course we should despise anyone who attacks the place of worship of a minority; only the most despicable "new atheist" would argue otherwise.

    As both a New Atheist and a communist, I think this statement is inaccurate and over-broad.

    Unfortunately, a minority of (but far too many) New Atheists (e.g. Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens) have really reprehensible, racist views about Islam in general and the Israeli/Palestine conflict in particular. The majority of the New Atheists, however, are non-racist, and recognize at least that the the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is reprehensible and inexcusable.

    However, to my knowledge (which is broad, although not encyclopedic), New Atheists do not advocate attacking anyone's place of worship, majority or minority. There are, perhaps, a tiny, marginalized minority of us who would advocate such attacks, but every group has its jerks. Indeed, it is far more common for these sorts of attacks to be motivated and excused on religious, not atheist, grounds.

    1. Well since the term "new atheist" was a term created by people like Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens (and I would argue that Dawkins is also an Islamophobic ass), then I feel the term applies. I'm curious as to why you would define yourself as a "new atheist" instead of just an atheist, the latter of which is more philosophically defensible and the former of which is recent and is primarily associated with the names and thinking you feel is "marginal". As a communist I have more in common with a theist who believes in class struggle than an atheist who doesn't.

  3. Excellent piece on the whole, with one minor correction - it's "Jabotinsky", not "Jatobinsky". Feel free to delete/not post this, just wanted to point it out 'cuz I've gotten shit from overly anal fact-checkers for similar mistakes.

    1. Haha, I actually wrote "Jatobinsky"? Probably not the only typo in this piece.

  4. Thanks for this post. It makes me think of the new afrikan population in the US and how mass incarceration plays out. I think many people overemphasize the prison industrial complex aspect which not to say isn't important but there is also the political aspect to consider. What better way to keep a colonized population which has the capability to be an insurgent and revolutionary one by just physically isolating them from each other?

    Also wanted to ask you since we're on the topic of colonialism. In you're "From the Anticolonial to the Decolonial" post you referred to Lewis Gordon and Ato Sekyi-Otu as both being annoyed from Homi Bhaba's misinterpretation of Fanon. Can you suggest some of their works which are good on this topic and colonialism?

  5. Hey Josh, since you mentioned my article (and specifically said that “whether or not a settler-state can justify a particular colonial offensive according to resource extraction is not what ultimately defines settler-colonialism”), I just wanted to let you know that I completely agree with you, and that my article just meant to show that there happens to be, in fact, a direct and very explicit economic motive behind this particular operation, even though superstructural elements (built around settler-colonialist ideology) have been necessary to justify the operation, and even though they would on their own be sufficient to allow for the massacre of Palestinians anyway.

    I also read and very much enjoyed your piece on Sublimated Colonialism, by the way. Thanks for writing that.

    1. Hey, I actually didn't think that you believed that colonialism was completely attributable to resource extraction or some other crude economic determinism, mainly based on other things that have been on that website from time to time. I was mainly using your article as a tangental link for people who were interested in looking at the moments when colonialism is connected to economic motives, since I thought it did a good job of showing them, and it wasn't meant to imply that you or the article were arguing anything further than providing this data. Since the quote was

      "In the case of the recent Gaza offence we can find some economic justification, as this article does a good job of investigating, but this is only part of the story…"

      I was merely interested in pointing out the "other part of story" and did not mean to imply that you would disagree or were arguing otherwise.

      And thanks for the props about my sublimated colonialism article.

    2. Hey, thanks for the clarification! Best of luck with the book launch.


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