March 2020
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Day March 15, 2020

Israeli-Jewish Race Traitorship and the Question of Palestine

I first met Noel Ignatiev in the Re-Imagining Ireland conference at the University of Virginia in 2003 when he spoke in the panel on race I had been asked to convene. It was a huge honor to meet the author of How the Irish Became White (1995), a work that assisted Robbie McVeigh and me in our work on racism in Ireland and enabled my teaching race and racism in the postgraduate Ethnic and Racial Studies program I had founded in 1998 in Trinity College Dublin. As program director I invited Noel to give a lecture on the realities of African American lives and he went on to speak in Belfast at the invitation of Robbie McVeigh.

It took me a while, however, to comprehend Noel’s concept of race traitorship and to focus on race rather than racism, particularly as we were all captivated at the time by Paul Gilroy’s 1989 dictum that “race ends here,” which made us put race in scare quotes on this side of the Atlantic. It also took me quite some time to position race front and centre of my analysis of Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians, but doing so eventually led me to writing my 2018 book Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism. When Noel invited me to guest-edit the special Palestine issue of Race Traitor (volume 16, 2005), which focused on the one-state solution, I still didn’t see myself, as I certainly do now, as a race traitor in the context of my Israeli-Jewish pro-Palestine activism and scholarship.

I am writing this just after Trump’s “deal of the century” partition plan, which allows Israel to maintain its hold of an undivided Al Quds–Jerusalem, negates the Palestinian right of return, creating a literal apartheid state, celebrated by official Israel and its Zionist followers and rejected by the Palestinians and their supporters. However, although the plan is clearly based on racial categorization and segregation that has underpinned the Zionist ideology since its early days—something Noel understood a very long time ago—none of the analyses I have read so far use race to explain the white Judeo-Christian supremacy characterizing Trump’s deal.

Noel’s introduction to the volume makes clear that he was well aware that Israel was a racial colonial enterprise quite some time before the late Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe published his seminal comparative study of race and settler colonialism (though not before the work on the Israeli colonization of Palestine by Palestinian scholars Constantine Zurayek, Fayez Sayegh and Elia Zureik, Israeli sociologist Gershon Shafir and French historian Maxime Rodinson). Given his understanding of race as neither biological nor cultural, Noel saw Zionism as based not on religion or language but rather on descent, hence race. Revealingly in view of the Trump deal, Noel viewed the United States as the first Zionist state, the first place settled by people who conquered indigenous lands that they regarded as terra nullius with the certainty that God had promised them the land and authorized them to dispossess and eliminate the indigenous population. For him this was similar in origin to the two-state solution, the precursor of Trump’s partition plan. Another thing that Noel understood was that drawing a dividing line between the state of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory was artificial—it was all occupied territory, a reality familiar to anyone who knows the history of the displacement of the Native Americans.

Israel, Noel emphasized, does not belong to those residing in it but is rather defined as the state of the Jewish people based on descent, a definition copper-fastened with Israel’s passing of the recent Nation State Law. Thus the elimination of the indigenous Palestinians is a building block of the Zionist project, as is the expansion of the Jewish population.

Reading his introduction to the special Palestine issue of Race Traitor shows that Noel understood the Zionist definition of Jews as a race long before I (or even Patrick Wolfe) did. Desperate to increase the state’s loyal population, Israel admitted hundreds of thousands of migrants from the former Soviet Union whose Judaism was dubious and whose nationality was therefore under consideration. In fact the recent introduction of dna tests by Israel’s orthodox state-funded rabbinical establishment to ascertain these migrants’ Jewish descent provides additional proof of the racial nature of the Zionist enterprise. Israel understands being Jewish is being relied upon to repress the indigenous Palestinians, and at the same time the supremacy of Orthodox Judaism was the price to pay for the Biblical justification of the Zionist occupation.

In my own recent work, following David Theo Goldberg’s theory of the racial state and Faez Saegh’s much earlier work on Zionism as a racial project, I trace the historical roots of the Zionist construction of Jewish people as a race through the writings of the early Zionist ideologues Theodore Herzl, Max Nordau and Arthur Ruppin. It is astounding, however, to realize how well Noel understood the racial nature of the Zionist state, where rights are assigned on the basis of being a white European Jew, where Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, as well as non-white, non-Jewish labor migrants and asylum seekers are also racialized, albeit in different ways to the indigenous Palestinians, in whose oppression non-European Jews, otherwise discriminated against, partake, thus acquiring a privileged position in Israel’s racial hierarchy.

Noel was also aware, already in 2005, of the risk of being labeled antisemitic if you criticize Israeli Zionism. The current hysteria about antisemitism—weaponized by the Israeli state—not only ignores the far more widespread realities of Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism, it also overrides the real dangers facing real Jewish people, regularly attacked by the far right. Likewise, his awareness of the imperialist interests of Israel’s supporters, amongst whom are extreme-right politicians and Christian evangelists whose blatant antisemitism doesn’t stop Israel from allying itself to them, is another reason for considering him one of the sharpest analysts of Israel’s racial project, whose analysis becomes more relevant as time goes by.

Trump’s partitionist “deal of the century” is ultimately a two-state blueprint in the guise of a peace plan, which Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy called the start of the third Nakba: “The Palestinians weren’t just missing entirely from the ceremony, they were also nowhere to be found in the plan that could seal their future and that heralds the elimination of their last chance for some belated decency, for a bit of justice, for a drop.

Noel and I, like many Palestinian, Israeli and international activists, were fully committed to campaigning for one state in historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, where full equality will replace the current apartheid regime, the topic of the Race Traitor volume I guest-edited. This solution was championed since the 1970s by the Israeli Socialist Organization Matzpen, one of whose members, Eli Aminov, is a contributor to the volume.

It is clearly up to the Palestinians to decide their own fate and many of them do favor an independent Palestinian state, hence a two-state solution. And as I write in my introduction to the volume, even supporters of the one state (including the Palestinian scholar As’ad Ghanem, one of the volume’s contributors) favor a bi-national state, not letting go of the idea of nation, thus conceptualizing Jews as a nation.

In the introduction I theorized Israel as one of the world’s paradigmatic racial states where racial segregation and categorization operate at all levels. My understanding of race and of Israeli-Jewish racial supremacy has since progressed well beyond understanding race as a social construct, preferring to see it as a political concept, invented in order to preserve white supremacy. However, unlike Noel, with whom I had many discussions on the topic when we became Facebook friends, I have always understood the Jewish tragedy in terms of the dialectic racialization of Jewish people and by Jewish people of their others—Palestinians, but also non-European Jews and non-Jewish, non-white migrants and asylum seekers. Like the British-Jewish Marxist Isaac Deutscher, I must ask what makes a Jew, which he, and probably Noel, too, understood in terms of unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and the oppressed.

Both Irish and Jewish people arguably became white in the usa, though the latter was not Noel’s concern. Racial rule and white supremacy became forcibly clear in the recent ceremony in Jerusalem commemorating the Nazi genocide where no African, Asian or non-white heads of state were among the guests, arguably enabling Israelis to finally become white, to finally assume white supremacy and racial rule. I am sure Noel Ignatiev would have been as angry as I was watching these two ceremonious events that further sold the Palestinians down the river.

Dr. Ronit Lentin is a retired associate professor of sociology, Trinity College Dublin. Among her books: Racism and Antiracism in Ireland (2002), After Optimism? Ireland, Racism and Globalization (2006), Thinking Palestine (2008), and Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism (2018).