excerpted from: Noura Erakat, Whiteness as Property in Israel: Revival, Rehabilitation, and Removal, 31 Harvard Journal on Racial & Ethnic Justice 69 (Spring 2015) (Footnotes) (Full Document)
Cheryl Harris's seminal piece, Whiteness as Property, begins with an anecdotal story of her grandmother passing for white. Her grandmother's ability to traverse legal demarcations allowed her to access employment opportunities, physical spaces, and social realms only available to Whites in Jim Crow United States in the 1930s. Her phenotype, however, was insufficient to qualify her for, and catapult her into, Whiteness. By reifying Whiteness in law, political elite eager to protect their holdings made it impervious to these informal transgressions.
In her pivotal piece, Reflections of an Arab Jew, Ella Shohat similarly invokes the story of her Iraqi Jewish grandmother to describe the construction of racial categories in Israel at the time of its establishment in 1948. Then, Zionist pioneers eagerly established a nation-state for Jews in an attempt to escape European persecution. However, rather than challenge the discriminatory and racist ethos that excluded them from meaningful integration within Europe, Zionists had internalized and reproduced that exclusionary ethos in an effort to finally become European and gain acceptance within Europe. In effect, well before and leading up to Israel's establishment, Zionists established an ethno-national mythology of a new and universal Jew who was white and European. Thus, as a matter of fact, Israel excluded and subordinated the Middle Eastern Jew who required cultural rehabilitation and development in order to become properly Israeli, namely white and European. Shohat describes this jarring episode for her grandmother, who upon first encountering Israeli society in the fifties was convinced that the people who looked, spoke and ate so differently--the European Jews--were actually European Christians. Jewishness for her generation was inextricably associated with Middle Easterness. My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and still communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of ‘us‘ as Jews and ‘them‘ as Arabs.
In order to become Israeli, Shohat's grandmother and other Middle Eastern Jews were forced to purify themselves of their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural constitution, thus internalizing and entrenching the orientalist denigration of their Middle Easternness. For Middle Eastern Jews who immigrated to Israel, the cost of passing was no less than an exercise of “self-devastation.”
The Palestinian native, however, who lacked Jewish nationality was not even eligible for this self-destructive process. Linguistically, culturally, and socially, the Palestinian native was nearly indistinguishable from her Arab Jewish counterpart. Therefore, like the Middle Eastern Jew, the Arab (Muslim, Druze, Christian and atheist) Palestinian was made inferior, denigrated, and pushed to the margins of modernity's framework. Unlike the Middle Eastern Jew, however, the Palestinian native was ineligible to become European, or approximate Whiteness, because law narrowly defined who was a Jewish national. Therefore, within a settler-colonial context that sought to supplant the indigenous population and recreate historical and symbolic significance to the land, the Palestinian native constituted an obstacle. The only remedy was to remove, obscure, and/or contain her.
Zionism necessarily transformed many kinds of Jews and their varying markers of identification into a homogenized national category whereby civil law, and not religious doctrine, defined who was a Jew. Without this transformation, Judaism would have remained a religion whose membership was defined by lineage and/or adherence rather than a nationality that could be recognized and regulated by state bureaucracy. In order to ensure the value of Jewish nationality within a state framework, the law first bifurcated Israeli citizenship and Jewish nationality. Second, the law extended a series of rights and potential privileges to Jewish nationals irrespective of their geographic location, be it within or outside of the state. Simultaneously, the law disenfranchised and disadvantaged Palestinians irrespective of their geographic location, be it within the State, in the Territories to be subsequently occupied, or in exile where Israel banished the native considered to be an excessive population. In so doing, Israel both achieved the supremacy of Jewish nationality as refracted through a lens of European white supremacy and facilitated the dispossession, displacement, and containment of Palestinian natives.
The logic of European enlightenment ideals facilitated both the rehabilitation of Arab Jews as well as the ongoing erasure of Palestinians. Based on concepts of science and reason, Enlightenment ideals constructed a universal prototype marked by particular features of Western European Christians. As a matter of natural order demonstrated by scientific knowledge, the Western European Christian, white and wealthy, reigned as the supreme manifestation of humanity. Whereas science displaced religion as an explanation for Christian and white superiority, it replaced it with orientalist discourse justified by natural order. Simultaneously, secularized enlightenment made Jews eligible for assimilation through a process of social engineering. Inclusion necessitated the obliteration of difference. While Zionists forewent assimilationist aspirations within Europe, they internalized and reproduced these enlightenment ideals in their pursuit of a nation-state in the British Mandate of Palestine; the territory administered by the British as part of the League of Nations trusteeship system that sought to shepherd colonial holdings to independence. Those ideals guided a social engineering process aimed at culturally cleansing Arab and Eastern European Jews and justified the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. As explained by Edward Said in his essay, Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims, Zionism collaborated with those aspects of the dominant Western culture (in which Zionism exclusively and institutionally lived) making it possible for Europeans to view non-Europeans as inferior, marginal, and irrelevant . . . the link between an outright imperialist attitude towards distant lands in the Orient and a scientific attitude to the ‘inequalities' of race was that both attitudes depended on the European will, on the determining force necessary to change the confusing realities into an orderly, disciplined, set of new classifications useful to Europe.
Harris's work, which theorizes the values of property and applies them to Whiteness, as a tangible good and not simply an aesthetic attribute, helps guide the reading of the value of Jewish nationality and its differentiation through white supremacy in Israel today. It does so in at least three ways.
First, her work reveals the coded and explicit violence of liberal democracies. Indeed such violence is embedded in liberal democracies' rule of law, due process, equality, and pluralism that together regulate settler-colonialism, exclusion, and erasure. This exposure undermines legal reasoning as the source of legitimacy by putting into question the naturalness, or rather unnaturalness, of the law. Second, by examining the property value of Whiteness, Harris's work helps transform both the study and definition of race. Beyond colorism and its dimensions, race in law is a scientifically measurable unit, subject to test and verification in the service of the state and, in particular, its political and economic elite. For that reason, it is also malleable and functions as a gateway to other forms of ownership, privileges, and access. Finally, Whiteness increases in value relative to something that is not white. It necessitates a putative other that can be easily identified, defined, and captured in legal categories. These three elements together--the violence of liberal democracies, the codification of race, and the necessity of “other”--inform this particular reading of Whiteness as property onto Israel's legal system today.
Tracing the genealogy of white supremacy and its edification in Israel to its origins in Europe helps complicate a settler-native binary among Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians. It reveals a reinforcing relationship between Palestinian deprivation and Israel's racial logics. Namely, white supremacy in Israel justifies and drives Palestinian deprivation. Conversely, Palestinian deprivation is constitutive of white supremacy and thus reifies Israel's social stratification whereby Western European Jews and African Jews straddle the extreme ends of that racial regime. Several other Jewish social groups span the length of that spectrum, including Middle Eastern Jews, Eastern European Jews, Spanish Jews, as well as Russian Jews and non-Jews. Palestinians do not sit on that last rung of this spectrum, they are outside of it altogether. They constitute a baseline equivalent with social death because of the extreme institutional deprivation they endure that denies them access to opportunities, movement, family, nationhood, land, livelihood, and security in the physical and metaphysical sense. While this relationship to Palestinians imbues Jewish nationality with value, it simultaneously reinforces the exclusionary tropes that gave rise to the Jewish Question in Europe. Settler-decolonization is necessary for Palestinian emancipation and has the potential for Jewish emancipation beyond the state by resisting the disfiguring and Orientalizing tropes that underwrote Jewish exclusion from Europe.
This approach stands in stark contrast to dominant approaches of the conflict that situate Israel as a battlefront combatting religious and irrational non-state actors from moving westward. Israel increases the cache of this framework by drawing on Islamophobic tropes aimed at deliberately collapsing Palestinian groups, like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with Al-Qaeda and more recently the Islamic State. Popular understandings of the conflict have thus been framed as religious, civilizational, and primordial, when in fact it is colonial, political, and contemporary.
By framing the conflict as civilizational, Israel and its Western patrons attempt to naturalize the existence of a Jewish state and obfuscate an ongoing legacy of settler-colonialism. They do so by framing Israel's presence as timeless and its Jewish polity, within and without its borders, as homogenous. This is plainly harmful to Palestinians whose very existence is denied and negated. It is also harmful to Jews, on whose behalf Israel purportedly speaks regardless of their own prerogative. This arbitrary relationship thus presupposes that nationalization of Judaism and its embodiment within a state is the proper remedy to systematic anti-Semitism in Europe. In doing so, it also embodies and reproduces the racist and exclusionary logics that precipitated the structural violence against Europe's Jewish population. It then projects it onto a global Jewry regardless of the details of their respective, and often optimal, experiences beyond Europe's shores.
To demonstrate the value of Jewish nationality as refracted through white supremacy derived from Enlightenment Europe, [part II explores] how Enlightenment ideals accentuated the Jewish Question in Europe.
Part III explores how Zionism, a national revival movement and direct derivative of Enlightenment ideals, came to embody Europe's edification of superiority and violent rejection of difference, thus necessitating the violent bifurcation of Arab and Jewish identity among Middle Eastern Jews.
Part IV explores those fundamental Israeli laws that have ascribed a tiered value onto Jewish nationality and have facilitated the ongoing removal, dispossession, and containment of Palestinian natives. This includes a case study of the Bedouin Palestinians in the Negev today.
The essay concludes with queries about the potential of settler decolonization to achieve Palestinian and Jewish emancipation beyond the state.
Assistant Professor, George Mason University