Anti-Palestinian Racism: Analyzing the Unnamed and Suppressed Reality
Yasmeen Abu-Laban, University of Alberta & Abigail B. Bakan, University of Toronto
For the past fifteen years, we have worked jointly and equally as political scientists with roots in the Palestinian (Abu-Laban) and Jewish (Bakan) diasporic and cultural traditions to analyze Israel/Palestine in relation to race, racism, and anti-racism. For much of the post-World War Two era, race has been curiously absent within political science scholarship in comparison to other disciplines. Moreover, many social scientists actively avoid discussions of the situation in Israel/Palestine in their research and teaching for fear of reprisals, and mainstream public discourse in the West, and in North America in particular, has actively obscured attention to both Palestinians and race in the region. These twin absences – of race generally speaking, and of Israel/Palestine specifically – have distorted understanding of Israel/Palestine, notwithstanding some important notable exceptions amongst critical theorists. The status quo of avoiding Israel/Palestine as an untouchable topic, or steering discussion through race-neutral concepts like citizenship, culture, ethnicity, religion, or democracy, does not address this lacuna, sometimes referred to as the Palestine “exception”. Our commitment to address race as it relates to Israel/Palestine is grounded in consideration of political realities, where state structures, political actors and civil society are rendered knowable through such a framework. Israel needs to be understood as a state and analyzed as such in a world of states; this centrally requires addressing race, just as political scientists have increasingly done with regard to many other states across world regions. In the case of Israel, this necessitates centering Palestinians and anti-Palestinian racism.
We understand “race” to be both socially constructed and historically specific. As such certain groups come to be racialized and thereby designated and treated as a separate group that is inferior to the dominant group. Further, racialization occurs as a result of humanly generated social, political and cultural processes; it involves ascribing certain characteristics of human behavior to phenotypical or cultural traits, such as physiognomy, language or accent, religion or habits of dress. Racism – the ideological expression and material exclusionary practices that follow from specific forms of racialization – necessarily takes different forms and is subject to change over time and place. Systemic racism focuses on the ways in which racism is embedded in established organizations and institutions and is associated with structures of power. For example, in addressing contemporary anti-Muslim racism, British political scientist Tariq Modood has helpfully distinguished between an older form of “color racism” which emphasizes purported biological differences, and a newer form of cultural racism, which fixates on purported differences in culture. As Modood has expressed it “there are of course colour or phenotype racisms but there are also cultural racisms which build on ‘colour’ a set of antagonistic or demeaning stereotypes based on alleged or real cultural traits.” Given that groups of relevance for the Middle East, including both Arabs and Jews, have both historically fallen in and outside of constructed ideas of whiteness, addressing anti-Muslim racism or anti-Jewish racism requires attention to more than phenotypical differences.
As an Arab grouping with a large number of Muslims, Palestinians have encountered both anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism; however, they are also victim to what we refer to as systemic anti-Palestinian racism. In what follows, we consider systemic anti-Palestinian racism in the context of the unique oppressive conditions Palestinians have encountered since 1948: dispossession, occupation, repression of rights, and also the repression of rights claims. While the ideological and material elements of racism specifically targeting Palestine and Palestinians are readily documented, naming and centering anti-Palestinian racism is contested. This is because it involves a particular, though not insurmountable, complexity of looking at a settler colonial state in an era of postcolonialism, and therefore is associated with coded language. Anti-Palestinian racism is a form of racism which does not say its name. Anti-Palestinian racism relies on various forms of coding to hide divisive, undemocratic practices of exclusion in an age where overt racism is considered ideologically distasteful. The complexity is furthered in that the language of antisemitism and Jewish suffering – language that addresses systemic racism against the Jewish people – is a central means through which to code anti-Palestinian racism, and thereby suppress claims for redress. However, insights drawn from anti-racist theory and praxis point to ways out of an impasse in which claims of anti-Palestinian racism are silenced – even at the expense of free expression and academic freedom – rather than taken seriously with the aim of moving towards tangible redress.
The State and Race in Israel/Palestine
Recent developments should give pause to anyone who doubts the importance of attending to race, state, and society in Israel/Palestine. The findings and language used by the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch offer a starting point. In April 2021 Human Rights Watch issued a 217-page report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution. The report holds that despite ongoing references to the “peace process” and the claim that Israel’s now 54-year-old occupation is “temporary,” in fact, a single state, Israel, holds power from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, and exercises discriminatory rule over Palestinians through its entrenched policies. To quote:
Israel has maintained military rule over some portion of the Palestinian population for all but six months of its 73-year history. It did so over the vast majority of Palestinians inside Israel from 1948 and until 1966. From 1967 until the present, it has militarily ruled over Palestinians in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territory], excluding East Jerusalem. By contrast, it has since its founding governed all Jewish Israelis, including settlers in the OPT since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, under its more rights-respecting civil law.
The Human Rights Watch report holds that authorities of the State of Israel have shown clear intent to dominate over Palestinians through policies aimed to favour Israeli Jews, Moreover the report demonstrates that treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) amount to the crimes against humanity of both apartheid and persecution. The word “apartheid” emerged from the historical context of South Africa in which the white minority population dominated. However, in terms of its usage in international law in the contemporary context, “apartheid” relates to specific acts and policies that could be practiced by any state. Hence, in the report notes: “The severity of the repression carried out in the OPT amounts to ’systematic oppression‘ by one racial group over another, a key component for the crime of apartheid as set out in both the Rome Statute and Apartheid Convention.” Persecution is evidenced in the denial of rights to millions of Palestinians through “the discriminatory intent behind Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the grave abuses carried out in the OPT that include the widespread confiscation of privately owned land, the effective prohibition on building or living in many areas, the mass denial of residency rights, and sweeping, decades-long restrictions on the freedom of movement and basic civil rights.”
The findings of the Human Rights Watch report demand attention to race, racism and racialization. Racial formations are also relevant in terms of consideration of Israel as a state in comparative perspective. Apartheid is a notable category of state formation, policy and practice that identifies the centrality of race. Notwithstanding the fact that the majority of countries in the United Nations General Assembly granted Palestine non-member observer state status in 2012, Israel remains the only state in charge of matters from the “river to the sea.” Regardless of whether one sees Israel as a state with the authority of actual governance or anticipates a future system of governance with a more equitable binational system in a newly constructed single state, from the vantage point of understanding power and control, Israel should not be treated as exceptional or sui generis in comparative political science.
Human Rights Watch is not the first to apply the concept of apartheid in the context of Israel. A plethora of scholarship as well as UN reports have considered Israel’s approach to Palestinians in relation to apartheid. These include political scientist Richard Falk who served as the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2008-2014. The “separation barrier”, referred to widely as the “apartheid wall, was also ruled in 2004 to be in violation of international law by the United Nations International Court of Justice, for serving to illegally annex more land from Palestinians.
A lens attentive to race in Israel/Palestine also brings civil society and comparative social movements into focus. The African-American experience resonates deeply for Palestinians. As an example, in 2020, in the wake of the murder of unarmed African-American man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police, many murals depicting Floyd and calling for freedom were painted by Palestinian artists on the wall. In the words of Taqi Spateen, the artist responsible for a mural of Floyd in Bethlehem, “George Floyd was killed because they practically strangled him, and cut off his breathing… and every day, this wall strangles us and makes it hard for us to breathe.” There is also resonance of the Palestinian situation with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, part of a long identification with, and debates related to, racialization across communities internationally.
Palestinians have been subjected to anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, where border regulations, state violence and related stereotypes are institutionalized. Moreover, these forms of racism have only increased over time, particularly since 9/11. Statelessness, in turn, exacerbates racialization. In the absence of state representation, generations of Palestinian refugees have turned to international law as the only political vehicle where claims can be made for human rights. However, there is a repeated denial of the right of return to Palestinian refugees, and Israel has not faced reprisals from powerful states or international institutions in its treatment of Palestinians and ongoing expropriation of land. This overall reality calls for a more focused analytical lens that recognizes the salience of race in relation to entrenched structures of state power. This brings us to consider dispossession, antisemitism and Zionism from this perspective that demands analysis through the lens of race as well as anti-racism praxis.
Dispossession, Antisemitism and Zionism
The continual suppression of Palestinian rights claims is entangled with complex codifications which are commonly, and contentiously, based on appropriation of the suffering of the Jewish community facing antisemitism, here meaning anti-Jewish racism. While the material and ideological aspects of racism specifically regarding Palestine and Palestinians are well documented, naming this reality has proven fraught.Naming anti-Palestinian racism for what it is clashes with a narrative forwarded by the State of Israel and its advocates centered on antisemitism that has also impacted both politics and scholarship.
The active efforts to suppress Palestinian claims of racism, while particularly impacting the Palestinian population in the region and in the diaspora, also carry further implications. Such suppression has threatened the ability of the international community to attend to racism as a global phenomenon in need of consistent and equitable responses. In every effort of the United Nations to hold a world conference to deal with racism – in 1978, 1981 and 2001 – the US and Israel (and sometimes other allies) have refused to participate or join in common statements, precisely because of attention drawn to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In 2021, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Durban Declaration and Program of Action, stemming from the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, history is repeating itself. Tellingly, in the words of a Canadian government spokesperson, Canada joined the US and Australia in boycotting the 2021 anniversary events because “Canada opposes initiatives at the United Nations and in other multilateral forums that unfairly single out and target Israel for criticism.”
The claim that Israel is “targeted” serves as a coded discourse to challenge action against a state that is in ongoing violation of international law in its occupation, and ongoing human rights violations regarding Palestinians. Notably, following the release of the Human Rights Watch report on Israel discussed above, leaders of the Israel advocacy group B’nai B’rith International expressed “outrage”, claiming the report “defames Israel”, reflects “anti-Israel bias” and, since “Israel’s harshest critics often use this apartheid language in an attempt to delegitimize the Jewish state” advances a “pervasive singling out of Israel on the world stage.” Such responses claim to represent the “Jewish community” internationally, while in fact forwarding a particular political view, Zionism. Zionism is a political ideology, rather than an approach representative of Jewish identity, religion, or culture. Zionism is hegemonic as the core foundational narrative and political structure of the state of Israel, and this is also widely accepted among powerful global political allies such as the US, Canada, and other Western countries.
The premise of political Zionism is that Jews cannot live in peace with non-Jews, drawing this pessimistic conclusion from the experience of entrenched antisemitism particularly in Europe. The view is that only an ethnically defined political state can ensure lasting Jewish survival. Zionism since 1948 is the state ideology of Israel. While Zionism may take different forms, political Zionism moved from being a marginal to a mainstream strategy following the Holocaust. Perhaps the most formative experience shaping contemporary political Zionism is that of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, who were systemically denied entry to all the major Western countries before and during World War Two.
This context points to what is, arguably, the key challenge in the discourse of race and politics regarding Israel/Palestine – the disconnect between Zionism as understood in the West, and Zionism from the standpoint of its victims as noted by Edward Said (1992). Palestinians are the subject of occupation, dispossession and racialization, rendered stateless and silenced, from a militarized state claiming to represent the “Jewish people.” While Israel has defined its mission as a refuge for Jews exiled from all other societies due to antisemitism (anti-Jewish racism), this is also a country built on appropriated Indigenous Palestinian land. Israel, like other settler colonial states, was generated through war, dispossession, immigration, and occupation.
This dispossession, however, while offering no comfort from the ongoing ravages of antisemitism in the West, has also been entrenched in international institutions and discourses. A transformative series of events that were instituted after World War Two, symbolized and enforced through the UN Declaration of Human Rights, were finalized in the same year, 1948, as the Nakba. This dispossession of Palestinians has not been redressed through the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1950, nor the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees. As Stephen Castles has observed, initially the Convention was limited in geographic scope to protecting some 40 million European refugees displaced prior to 1951, but with the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, the geographic and temporal specificity was removed. The large number of countries that have signed on to the Convention and Protocol, along with the work of the UNHCR, are typically what scholars have in mind when they refer to ‘the international refugee regime.’ But the connotation and denotation of the international refugee regime problematically erases Palestinians from discussions pertaining to refugees more generally. This erasure is further reinforced by the fact that the UN itself assigns separate responsibility of Palestine refugees to UNRWA, an agency formed in 1949, one year prior to UNHCR.
The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is marked by a racial formation of its own, serving to transform Ashkenazi (European) Jewish refugees and their descendants into settlers and citizens of a new stateThis settlement process laid the basis for the survival and relative advancement of a dispossessed European Jewish population vis à vis other groups in the region, and hence a form of “whitening” in relation to power and privilege. Significantly, the ascendance of a section of the Jewish population was also strongly skewed toward Ashkenazi, or European Jews; other Israeli Jewish populations, including Arab and North African Jews – the Mizrahim (Hebrew for Easterners) – have suffered from longstanding racial and ethnic discrimination relative to Ashkenazi Jews. At the same time, by the 1950s, the restrictive policies and responses to refugees which expressed anti-Jewish and other forms of racism in Western states gradually came to give way to more openness in an age of universal human rights – at least formally. Notably, however, Palestinian refugees continued to be left outside of these measures, and continue to experience uniquely oppressive, and racialized, bordered exclusions. While the right of return has been recognized recurrently by the United Nations, this right is firmly denied in practice, and Palestinians are marked as the quintessential “terrorists” when it comes to international border security and surveillance.
For Palestinians, however, the focus on racism is not recent. There are numerous instances in which race and racism have been invoked to discuss the situation of Palestinians in international bodies before and after the foundation of Israel in 1948. In 1946, Palestinian-American political scientist and UN official Fayez Sayegh, speaking to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry and addressing Mandatory Palestine, framed racism towards Palestinians as being part and parcel of political Zionism’s project of building a state for the world’s Jews in Palestine. In 1975, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 calling Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination” was explicitly linked to South African apartheid as well as settler-colonialism. This was in the spirit of a new General Assembly comprised of many more independent states from the global South.
Issues of antisemitism demand attention, especially in light of the growth of far-right xenophobic groups in North America and Europe. This is painfully exemplified in the armed shooting that killed 11 and injured 6 in the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, USA in October, 2018. And on January 6, 2021, the attack on the US Capitol included those wearing shirts with the logo “Camp Auschwitz”. These are only some of the events indicating in stark relief that the legacy of the Holocaust and the daily realities of anti-Semitism are real and present dangers. But antisemitism should not be trivialized, which is the effect when the term is weaponized to exploit Jewish suffering while in reality serving as coded rationalization to ignore, silence, or discredit the legitimate human rights claims of Palestinians. One racialized group cannot be emancipated through the violent racialization of another.
The study of race in relation Israel and Palestine is an urgent necessity. It is here that the tools offered in political science, including its more recent focus on race, racism and anti-racism, can be productive. The work done on questions of Indigeneity, where Palestinians are an example, and settler colonial states, where Israel is an example, help to place acts of dispossession and racialization in focus.
Critical race theory can also be helpful to understanding the broader international context in which Israel’s human rights abuses garner limited reprisal from the world’s powerful states. In his important work, The Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills uses the idea titling the book to describe a contract that appears to be universal but is in fact only between those with race privilege, and excludes those without. In relation to the case of the United States, Mills argues while the Constitution speaks of “we the people,” the racial contract identifies an unspoken agreement of domination that gives power and privilege to “we the white people.” Extending the concept of Mills to the international level, we have found it useful to theorize an Israel/Palestine Racial Contract. The Israel/Palestine Racial Contract works to assign a common interest between Israel and its allies like the United States, while absenting the Palestinians as non-white, stateless, and subjects who should be repressed and their claims suppressed. This is especially the case when claims are framed in relation to racism in its multiple forms.
Centering anti-Palestinian racism is pivotal to understanding the dynamics and alliances we see in global civil society. Those speaking out against anti-Palestinian racism and Israel’s human rights abuses, many supporting the Boycott Divesttment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, include increasing numbers of people who are not Palestinian, among these Jews in and outside of Israel. Jewish voices which hold to and respect a tradition of universalism, and challenge the narrow political perspective forwarded in political Zionism, indicate the diversity of views among Jewish scholars and in civil society regarding Israel/Palestine. From such a perspective, it is timely and responsible to name and frame anti-Palestinian racism as part of contemporary politics and political science.
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