News ID: 321421
Published: 0409 GMT May 07, 2022
Political sociologist Ronit Lentin:

Train of two-state solution has long left the station

Train of two-state solution has long left the station

By Mohammad Memarian

“One can always find new ways to look at an old wound that never healed, in the hope that one of them would lead to resolution,” a friend of mine once said. He was, in fact, talking about a personal trauma in his life, but his insight can equally apply to collective traumas that are apparently too complicated to be resolved.

A notable example of such traumas in recent history is the issue of Palestine, the fate of Palestinians, their rights, and their struggle to achieve self-determination. Generations of Palestinians have lived under occupation or in exile, trying every means to make a normal life possible for themselves and their offspring. And there are always novel ways to look at that struggle.

Such novel looks are even more interesting when they come from Jewish scholars sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. A case in point is ‘Thinking Palestine’ by Ronit Lenin, former associate professor of sociology at Trinity College Dublin, who by now identifies herself as “a Palestine-born Jew, and a former Israeli.” Originally published in 2008, it theorizes the struggle drawing upon ideas first developed by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben, and a Farsi version of it appeared last year in Iran, which has made some waves.

When I reached out to Lentin for a talk about her book, she said that her “theoretical approach to thinking about Palestine and the Israeli colonisation of Palestine” has changed quite a bit since its publication, as her newer book, ‘Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism’ (2018) concentrates on race and racial supremacy as the main factor.

That’s why I extended my questions in our exchange to cover not only her former ideas, but also her newer insights into the conflict and how it may be better understood.


Q: How is your theoretical approach to thinking about Palestine in your newer work, ‘Traces of Racial Exception’ (2018), different from your earlier work, ‘Thinking Palestine’ (2008)? What happened in that decade which prompted a change in your analytic framework?

‘Thinking Palestine’ was conceived within a Foucauldian-Agambenian theoretical framework. I had come across Giorgio Agamben’s theories of the state of exception and believed that since the Israeli regime was based on emergency legislation which was passed on from the British mandate, a state of permanent exception existed that elevated Israeli Jews above the native Palestinians, keeping the latter outside the law yet within a series of laws that were meant to segregate them, take over their lands, and dehumanise them. I used this analytical framework despite the challenge, in the book – correct in retrospect – by Prof. Ilan Pappe, who argued that Israel is not a state of exception but rather a state of oppression and a ‘mukhabarat’ (security services) state.

In the ten years between the two works I have come to reject Eurocentric theories having done a lot of reading on race, colonisation and decolonisation that brought me to the realisation that the colonisation of Palestine must be theorised as a race project. I realised that to theorise a colonised third world population my work needed to be based on non-European theorists who understand, unlike Foucault and Agamben, that the racialisation of the Palestinians must not be referred only to the Nazi genocide, but has longer and deeper roots in the colonisation of Africa and Asia by the Europeans and the racialisation of their populations. Reading Palestinian, non-European and African American scholars and particularly Alexander Weheliye’s critique of Foucault and Agamben, was central to developing ‘Traces of Racial Exception’.


Q: You repeatedly declare yourself to be an “anti-Zionist Israeli.” Isn’t Zionism intertwined with the idea of Israel as a state? How is it at all possible to disentangle the two?

This is a very apt question. I am deeply rooted in Jewish history and identity without being religious or nationalistic. Zionism is the official ideology of the state of Israel but it as a 19th century political movement, its ideological building blocks were the construction of a ‘Jewish race’ even though, as argued by several historians and bible scholars, Jewish people do not share common biological origins. ‘Anti-Zionism’ is primarily a political stance, and not an identitarian or theoretical definition.

I was born in Mandatory Palestine prior to the birth of the state of Israel to Jewish migrants from Romania. While I am a citizen of the state of Israel (because I have never renounced my citizenship), and while I did define myself as an ‘anti-Zionist Israeli’ in the past, today I would no longer define myself as an Israeli but rather as a Palestine-born Jew, and a former Israeli. Nonetheless, I am often racialised as a Jew in Ireland due to my anti-racist and pro-immigrant politics, and criticised as an anti-Zionist by Israelis and the Irish Jewish community


Q: In your introduction to ‘Thinking Palestine’, you said that you are “deeply committed to the de-objectification of the Palestinian subject.” But shouldn’t “de-objectification” come from within the objectified community? How can an outsider be helpful in that regard – unless, of course, the outsider in question deeply identifies with the objectified?

Another apt question. You are right that the objectified, racialised community has the right to define itself and decide the terms of its liberation. But as the racialisation and objectification of the Palestinians are products of their construction by the Zionist ideology and the state of Israel, it is up to those of us who believe in the Palestinians’ right to self-determination to be committed to their de-objectification. In other words, it is the duty of Jewish people who believe in Palestinian liberation and in the decolonisation of Palestine to regard Palestinian people as equal human beings. This sounds simplistic, but considering the segregation of the Palestinians both in the state of Israel and in the territory occupied by Israel in 1967 (including the Gaza Strip), and in the diaspora – segregation deemed as an apartheid regime by four recent reports by Israeli and international human rights organisations including Amnesty International and by the UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territory – this is the first step towards their de-objectification. The Palestinian road to decolonisation, however, is up to them alone, and our duty as pro-Palestinian activists is to support them on the road to decolonisation.


Q: In ‘Thinking Palestine’, David Theo Goldberg observes (and you quote him as saying) that, “Israel cannot live with the Palestinians … but cannot live without them, conceptually as much as materially, existentially as much as emotionally.” But at least in the formative stages of Israel, Palestinians were not the Other in contrast to which Israel would define itself, especially given the “Land without People” myth. It’s my understanding that the Other against which the idea of Israel was originally pitched was a history of persecution and vulnerability. How did an embodied, concrete Other come to replace that abstract one?

There are several issues that must be unpacked in replying to this question. First, the myth of a ‘land without people’, or “terra nullius” as Patrick Wolfe calls it in his work on settler colonialism, was, in the case of Palestine, a Christian, not a Zionist concept. It was first coined in 1843 by the Church of Scotland clergyman Alexander Keith, who advocated the idea that Christians should encourage the biblical prophecy of a Jewish return to the ‘land of Israel’ even though he was well aware that Palestine was populated because he had travelled there in 1839.

Second, most early Zionist ideologues tended to ignore the fact that Protestant British support for assisting Jews in populating Palestine had antisemitic undertones, and by and large (with the exception of a small number of 19th century Jewish writers, including Ahad Ha’Am) not only ignored the native population, but also tended to regard the land itself as barren and under-developed, available for colonisation and development, as any examination of Zionist writing reveals.

In more specific answer to your question: Goldberg’s suggestion that ‘Israel cannot live with the Palestinians… but cannot live without them’ is not only about Palestinians as concrete, embodied Others, but also about a whole panoply of Zionist myths. These include the notion that today’s Jewish people are the direct descendants of Judean and Israelite tribes that existed in the land that is today’s Palestine, the notion that these people – who were not ‘Jews’ but rather Judeans and Israelites – were exiled not once but twice (claims refuted by Israeli historian Shlomo Sand in ‘The Invention of the Jewish People’), and the notion that Jewish people united by a religious belief are a unified people that can trace its origins to a biblical past, and hence that the ‘land of Israel’ – allegedly promised to it by a monotheistic god – belongs to it and it alone. The Palestinians – who banished from their lands in 1948 and who continue to be oppressed and segregated to this day – are constructed as Zionism’s embodied Other, and, as Goldberg argues, Israel needs them as its antagonistic Other to justify its oppressive policies of colonisation, occupation and siege.


Q: Reading through ‘Traces of Racial Exception’, I was reminded of something that Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian activist currently residing in Bethlehem, told me in an interview: “Like every other instance of apartheid, Israel has created a tier system of social rankings which comprises a dozen classes of people. At the top of the pyramid, as one might call it, are Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin). Then come Sephardi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, and other intra-groupings of them. Then we have several classes of Palestinians with the Gazans, at the bottom of the pyramid, who are literally dying in an open air prison.” My impression is that you’d concur with his general description. Then, isn’t it more helpful to understand the struggle in that land in terms of top-tier Jews vs. everyone else rather than Israelis vs. Palestinians? And, given your observation that Palestinians under Israeli rule should be construed as “agents of decolonial resistance,” can’t low-tier Jews join hands with the Palestinians in that resistance?

Another very pertinent question. In ‘Traces of Racial Exception’ I theorise Israel as a racial state par excellence, taking David Theo Goldberg’s definition of a racial state. But it is more than that, it is a racial colony, maintaining a settler colonial regime of race. Race, as Alana Lentin formulates it (in ‘Why Race Still Matters’, 2020), is a ‘technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy’. Theorising race in relation to Israel and what Edward Said so pertinently called ‘the question of Palestine’, relates not only to differences between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, but to the multi-tiered racialisation of different groups of Palestinians – citizens of Israel, residents of Jerusalem who have residence permits but no citizenship, Bedouin citizens of Israel, occupied Palestinians in the West Bank, besieged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinians in the Golan Heights, and diasporic Palestinians – and to the multi-tiered racialisation of different groups of Jews – Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi-Arab Jews, Russian Jews (many of whom are not halachically Jewish yet have full citizenship rights in the state of Israel). The book deals with several case studies of specific cases of racialisation, including the history of the disappearance of hundreds of children of Yemeni Jewish migrants, allegedly abducted from their parents and experimented upon by Israeli Jewish medics just a few years after the Nazi genocide.

The question of whether what you call ‘low-tier Jews’ should, or can, join the Palestinian resistance in struggling against the Israeli racial colony is complex. While Arab and Mizrahi Jews (Sephardi Jews are a different case, having been expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century) have been discriminated against by the ruling Zionist Ashkenazi elite when they migrated to Israel in the 1950s. While many of them continue to experience discrimination resulting in lower economic and educational standards, the majority of Israel’s Mizrahi Jewish citizens have joined forces with the Zionist doctrine of Jewish supremacy, using race as a technology of power to maintain differences and Jewish supremacy. Patrick Wolfe calls this the ‘deracination’ of Arab and Mizrahi Jews. There are several cases of cooperation between Palestinian and Mizrahi resistance, but by and large Zionism has managed to enlist Jewishness as supremacy to make such joint struggle impossible.


Q: In ‘Traces of Racial Exception’, you pose several questions regarding the objectives of the BDS movement, including, “Does granting equal rights to Israel’s Palestinian citizens not in fact perpetuate the existence of the state of Israel rather than replace it with a single secular democratic republic?” My impression is that you strongly favor the idea of a one-state solution. Then, what’s so inherently problematic with a two-state solution?

One of the main demands of the BDS campaign is granting Israel’s Palestinian citizens equal rights – something which they enjoy up to a point, despite discrimination in obtaining planning permits and in local authorities funding. Yet, equality before the law, which allows them to elect and be elected and which allows many of them to access higher education and professional posts, and even permits some of them to serve in Israel’s security forces, is not enough in my opinion. While I recognise the right of Palestinian citizen of Israel to define themselves as ‘Israeli Arabs’ and believe in their equality, I believe that the state of Israel, defined as the state of the ‘Jewish nation’ (in the 2018 constitutional Nation State Law for example) can never offer true equality to the 20 per cent of its citizens who are Palestinian Arabs, and adhere to what has been defined as the one secular democratic state solution to what has been defined as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The two-state solution – as argued by many Israeli and Palestinian writers, academics, journalists and activists (including Prof. Ilan Pappe and the Palestinian human rights lawyer Jonathan Kuttab for instance) – is a train that has long left the station. Let me remind your readers that Israel and Palestine is a very small territory – equal in space to a quarter of the size of Ireland where I now reside, with a population of 14 million, half Israeli-Jewish and half Palestinian. Establishing two viable states in such a small territory is a physical impossibility. Moreover, the partition of historic Palestine to two states would consolidate a de jure and de facto apartheid regime, depriving the Palestinian natives of their land and the Jewish settlers of access to some of the territory they hold dear. Establishing a secular, democratic non-exclusivist state that grants equal rights to all its citizens, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, complex and difficult as it may be, would provide the only just and peaceful solution to what the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi calls ‘The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine’ (2020).


Q: In an interview about ‘The Rise of the Arab American Left’ (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), Pamela Pennock, professor of history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, told me that over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, Arab Americans managed to integrate their activism, particularly Palestinian rights, “into anti-racist and anti-imperialist discourses” which led to “growing association with African American activist organizations.” Some, however, might argue that the issue of Palestine is so characteristically distinct that it’s impossible for it to be identified as a whole with other anti-tyrannical movements even if such moves bring it potential tactical advantages. What’s your take on that?


Pennock is right that the struggle for the liberation of Palestine is integral to the worldwide anti-racist decolonial struggle. There is a long history of support by the American civil rights movement for the Palestinian struggle as demonstrated in the writings of African American scholars and activists such as Angela Davis among others, and by Native Americans as argued by the Palestinian-American scholar Steven Salaita and others. Likewise, prominent Palestinian American scholar-activists, such as Prof. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, link their activism with decolonial and Indigenous rights movements.

I firmly believe in joining the struggles and this pertains not only to Palestine solidarity activists in the west or to Palestinian activists in Palestine and beyond, but also to scholars and activists in the MENA region, including Iran. The struggle against racialised and dictatorial regimes must be universal and solidarity activists who single out Palestine while ignoring the plight, say, of refugees and asylum seekers or racialised, gendered and Indigenous communities at home are sometimes motivated by antisemitism, which, unlike anti-Zionism, is a racist doctrine. As an anti-racist, decolonial, abolitionist, pro-Palestine activist, I have engaged in and believe in struggling against any form of racism, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, any form of homophobia and transphobia, and any form of border regime.


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