The Harvard Divinity School program of Religion and Public Life is running events presenting Israel in a negative light.
The Religion and Public Life initiative was established in 2019. It integrates a number of existing Harvard Divinity School programs along with seminars, conferences, and other activities initiated by faculty, intending to “strengthen the public understanding of religion across multiple sectors, toward a more creative, just, and peaceful future.”
Instead of focusing on peace, they trash Israel. This is not surprising because Palestinian American Hilary Rantisi is the associate director.
The radical Israeli academic activist is Atalia Omer, a senior fellow. She was interviewed in 2019 in an article by The Nation on BDS and anti-Zionist activism, where she discussed her book Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity With Palestinians. She revealed that “the radical synagogue I attend, Tzedek Chicago, invited Omar Barghouti, the cofounder of the BDS movement.”
The examples of their Israel bashing are numerous. For instance, a recent project, “Disrupting Injustice and Promoting Moral Imagination in Israel/Palestine” talked about “illuminating transnational solidarities, reimagining Jewish identity, Palestinian steadfastness (Sumoud), and cultivating moral imagination and creative possibilities for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.” In another event that took place recently, titled “Shared Resistance and Solidarity: A (Re)Newed Paradigm,” Oriel Eisner was in a conversation about “engaging in immersive solidarity work and shared resistance in the last year as a part of a renewal of efforts in joint struggle against the Occupation.”
In another event, “The Decolonizing Rubric: Modernity, Religion, and Re-imagining Palestine/Israel,” three scholars participated: Dr. Bashir Bashir, from the Israeli Open University, the co-editor of The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, in 2018 whose also authored The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Entanglement in Palestine and Beyond (2020); Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University, who discussed his most recent book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities, in 2020. Mamdani argued that “the nation state was born of colonialism, urging us to rethink political violence and re-imagine political community beyond majorities and minorities”; Dr. Areej Sabbagh-Khoury of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discussed her forthcoming book, which “examines encounters between kibbutz settlers and Palestinian inhabitants in northern Palestine’s Jezreel Valley before, during, and after 1948. Drawing on resources uncovered in the settler colonial archives.” It demonstrates the “coloniality of socialist Zionist settlers’ practices of purchase, expropriation, and accumulation by dispossession.”
In April, a discussion will take place on “Decolonize Now: A Conversation about Radical Love and Justice in Palestine/Israel”. The speaker is Noura Erakat, from Rutgers University, whose anti-Israeli views are well known: “Since the signing of Oslo, or the Declaration of Principles, in 1993, the question of Palestine has been rammed into the constricting paradigms of statehood and diplomatic negotiations. The peace process framework not only eschewed the consequential dimension of power from the question of Palestine but limited its possible futures by reducing it to a matter of, at best, equitable partitions. This conversation aims to peel back those debilitating frameworks to consider how other approaches like anti-racism, feminism, and anti-imperialism can help overcome restrictive binaries and lead to decolonial futures.”
Also, in April, “Walking Through the Twilight: A Visual Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Anti-Occupation Activism.” The panel would feature “a photographic exploration of American Jewish activism in solidarity with Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation.”
Later in April, the program will feature “Expressions of Sumoud in Palestinian Higher Education,” questioning “What is the role of Palestinian universities in the struggle for freedom and justice?” Rana Khoury “shares her exploration of developing a dedicated curriculum and the experience of Dar Al-Kalima University in shaping Palestinian students as cultural activists.”
Last but not least, the event, “Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Colonization of American Judaism.” Rabbi Brant Rosen of Tzedek Chicago and Daniel Boyarin of the University of California, Berkeley, will converse on the “ways that Zionist hegemony is expressed through the Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) that has become a staple on the American Jewish holiday calendar, projecting themes of militarism, colonialism, and empire on to sacred religious tradition.”
As can be seen, the sessions are all exercises in bashing Israel, featuring some of the more radical anti-Israel voices. More to the point, there is nothing in the Harvard program concerning the many issues the Palestinians have faced. For instance, there is a real possibility that Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, under the guidance of the Quds Force, the foreign division of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards, would try to take over the West Bank. Fearing such an outcome, the Palestinian Authority canceled last year the democratic elections.
The organizers of the Harvard Divinity School program would be well advised to read the article of Daniel Levin, “Iran, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” published by The United States Institute of Peace, in 2018, updated in May 2021. Levin discusses the real issues the Palestinian society faces today, not the convoluted presentations in which Israelis can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong.
Religion and Public Life – Harvard Divinity School | Harvard University
Disrupting Injustice and Promoting Moral Imagination in Israel/Palestine
January 31, 2022
Conflict and Peace Fellows at Religion and Public Life (RPL) talk about their projects illuminating transnational solidarities, reimagining Jewish identity, Palestinian steadfastness (Sumoud), and cultivating moral imagination and creative possibilities for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.
Shared Resistance and Solidarity: A (Re)Newed Paradigm
Tuesday, February 15 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR FEBRUARY 15
Oriel Eisner, Topol Fellow at RCPI, and on-the-ground organizer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence
In conversation with Neomi-Nur Zahor, Activist and Arabic teacher, and Basil al-Adraa, Activist and Journalist
RCPI Fellow Oriel Eisner in conversation with a Palestinian and an Israeli activist—talking about their experience engaging in immersive solidarity work and shared resistance in the last year as a part of a renewal of efforts in joint struggle against the Occupation.
Moderator: Hilary Rantisi, Associate Director, Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative, HDS
Breaking Walls: Historical and Contemporary Mizrahi Feminist Struggles for Housing in Israel/Palestine
Tuesday, March 1 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR MARCH 1
Sapir Sluzker-Amran, RCPI Fellow; Human Rights Lawyer and Co-founder of Breaking Walls Feminist Grassroots Movement
In conversation with Yali Hashash, Head of Gender and Criminology Department, Or Yehuda College
Sapir Sluzker Amran along with Yali Hashash will explore the role of powerful civic grassroots movements in Israel/Palestine that center feminist-queer-class-race intersectionality and solidarity while challenging secular liberal thinking about feminist leadership. They will discuss the role of alternative and community archives by showcasing feminist activism from the 1950’s onwards and highlighting Mizrahi feminist struggles for housing in Israel/Palestine.
Moderator: Lihi Yona, JSD candidate at Columbia Law School focusing on employment law and race theory in Israel and the United States.
The Troubled Everyday in/of Gaza: Restoring Agency and Creative Possibility
Tuesday, March 8 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR MARCH 8
Salem Al-Qudwa, RCPI Fellow and Architect
In conversation with Sara Roy, Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University
Salem Al-Qudwa will showcase his work focusing on community and people with an emphasis on ethics, social injustice, and architecture in conflict zones such as the Gaza Strip. He will also introduce his work on gender and in-between spaces exploring barriers, exploitation, and the relationship of widowed women to space and architecture.
Co-sponsored by The Middle East Forum at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard
To Eat Alone Is To Die Alone: A Voyage into the Lives of Seeds and their Communities
Tuesday, March 22 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR MARCH 22
Vivien Sansour, RCPI Fellow; Founder of Palestine Heirloom Seed Library
In conversation with Riad Bahhur, Professor of History and Global Studies at Sacramento City College
Vivien Sansour will be sharing excerpts of her upcoming autobiographical book weaving a poetic narration of people, plants, and other food stories from Palestine to South America, taking us on her journey of establishing the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library and the projects that resulted from it. Professor Bahhur will explore with Vivien how stories inform our political and social realities on a global level and how they can be catalysts for a new conversation about indigenous knowledge and spirituality.
A Home for the Human Spirit: Cultural Activism and the Moral Imagination in the Inherit Art Project
Tuesday, March 29 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR MARCH 29
Taurean J. Webb, RCPI Fellow; Instructor of Religion and Race at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
In conversation with Brian Bantum, Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Lux Eterna, Australian-born Palestinian artist featured in exhibition
This presentation chronicles the evolution of the collaborative art exhibition, Ye Shall Inherit the Earth & Faces of the Divine. The exhibition featuring works of artists from the African Diasporic and Palestinian exilic communities, attempts to gesture towards some commentary about both the universality and specificity of conversations ranging from human rights, human dignity, and artistic production-as-a practice of resistance. Follow the Inherit exhibition on Instagram @inherit_exhibit22.
Decolonize Now: A Conversation about Radical Love and Justice in Palestine/Israel
*Wednesday, April 6 | 1–2:00pm EST | Zoom*
REGISTER FOR APRIL 6
Noura Erakat, RCPI Fellow; Associate Professor at Rutgers University, Department of Africana Studies
In conversation with Marshall Ganz, Rita E. Hauser Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organizing, and Civil Society at Harvard Kennedy School
Since the signing of Oslo, or the Declaration of Principles, in 1993, the question of Palestine has been rammed into the constricting paradigms of statehood and diplomatic negotiations. The peace process framework not only eschewed the consequential dimension of power from the question of Palestine but limited its possible futures by reducing it to a matter of, at best, equitable partitions. This conversation aims to peel back those debilitating frameworks to consider how other approaches like anti-racism, feminism, and anti-imperialism can help overcome restrictive binaries and lead to decolonial futures.
*Please note that this event falls on a Wednesday at 1pm EST.
Walking Through the Twilight: A Visual Exploration of Contemporary Jewish Anti-Occupation Activism
Tuesday, April 12 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR APRIL 12
Mati Milstein, RCPI Fellow; American Jewish photojournalist and documentary photographer
In conversation with Awdah Al-Hathaleen, Activist, Oriel Eisner, Activist, and Emily Glick, Activist
Walking Through the Twilight is a photographic exploration of American Jewish activism in solidarity with Palestinians against the Israeli military occupation. The project explores the interplay between Jewish religious identity and activism, discussing issues of identity, faith, and action.
Moderator: Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame and T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding and Senior Fellow in Conflict and Peace at Harvard Divinity School
“Sumoud” by Varvara Abd al-Razeq, Dar Al-Kalima University
Expressions of Sumoud in Palestinian Higher Education
Tuesday, April 19 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR APRIL 19
Rana Khoury, RCPI Fellow; Vice President for Development at Dar Al-Kalima University
In conversation with Hilary Rantisi, Associate Director, Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative, Harvard Divinity School
What is the role of Palestinian universities in the struggle for freedom and justice? Rana shares her exploration of developing a dedicated curriculum and the experience of Dar Al-Kalima University in shaping Palestinian students as cultural activists.
Yom Ha’atzmaut and the Colonization of American Judaism
Tuesday, April 26 | 12–1:00pm EST | Zoom
REGISTER FOR APRIL 26
Brant Rosen, Topol Fellow at RCPI; Rabbi, Tzedek Chicago
In conversation with Daniel Boyarin, Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture in the Departments of Near Eastern Studies and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley
In conversation with Daniel Boyarin, Rabbi Brant Rosen interrogates the ways that Zionist hegemony is expressed through the Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) that has become a staple on the American Jewish holiday calendar, projecting themes of militarism, colonialism, and empire on to sacred religious tradition. He will also present an alternative framing of this day as a religious observance – one that expresses remembrance, repentance, and reparations.
Moderator: Atalia Omer, Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at University of Notre Dame and T. J. Dermot Dunphy Visiting Professor of Religion, Violence, and Peacebuilding and Senior Fellow in Conflict and Peace at Harvard Divinity School
Video: The Decolonizing Rubric: Modernity, Religion and Re-imagining Palestine/Israel
November 9, 2021
No longer do scholarly accounts of Palestine/Israel presume the “two-state solution” as a tangible political principle, if they are realists, or accountable for historical injustice and imagining of alternative futures, if they are concerned with justice, not only peace. This panel featured a conversation among authors of recent scholarly works that grapple with the changing paradigm of analysis with decolonial sensitivities. The panelists discussed the ethical limits of a paradigm based on ethnoreligious and national segregationist logic and illuminated where religion might fit (or not) in alternative political paradigms that undo exclusionary nationalist ideological frames.
This event took place on November 9, 2021.
SPEAKER 1: Harvard Divinity School.
SPEAKER 2: The Decolonizing Rubric: Modernity, Religion, and Re-imagining Palestine/Israel, November 9th 2021.
HILARY RANTISI: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative webinar, The Decolonizing Rubric: Modernity, Religion, and Re-imagining Palestine/Israel. My name is Hilary Rantisi, and I am the Associate Director of the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, a program of Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. Our work at the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative centralizes an analysis of structural injustice, violence, and power, and examines how more capacious understanding of religion can yield fresh insights into contemporary challenges and opportunities for just peacebuilding.
The primary case study we’re focusing on is on Israel/Palestine. Our aim is to stretch the scholarly discourse around religion and the practices of peacebuilding and examine the decolonial potentialities of art, religion, and identity transformation. Our fall series has focused on the themes of religious terminologies and secular nationalism and political violence, and on decolonial sites of practice and theory in Israel/Palestine, and political emancipatory theologies from a comparative perspective. Today’s event addresses decolonial sensitivities and gives us a space for reimagination.
I’ll now hand off to my colleague Atalia Omer, who will introduce herself and our panelists. Atalia?
ATALIA OMER: Thank you, Hilary. So greetings, everyone. My name is Atalia Omer. I’m a Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and the Keough School of Global Affairs, both at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. And I’m also, and it is in this capacity that I’m here today, I’m also the [INAUDIBLE] visiting professor in religion, violence, and peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School’s Religion and Public Life program, which is kind of the umbrella framework of the Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative, which hosts and sponsors this event today.
OK, so our starting point for this panel today is that no longer do scholarly and activist accounts of Palestine/Israel presume the, quote, “two-state solution” as a tangible political principle, if they are [? realized ?] or accountable for historical injustice and imagining of alternative futures, if they are concerned with justice not only peace. This panel features a conversation among established and emerging authors of recent scholarly works that grapple with the changing paradigm of analysis with the colonial and anti-colonial sensitivities. The panelists will discuss the ethical limits of a modernist paradigm, based on ethnoreligious and national, majoritarian, segregationist logic, and will illuminate where religion might fit or not in alternative political paradigms that undo exclusionary, nationalist, ideological frames.
I’m now going to introduce the speakers extremely briefly in alphabetical order. So first, Dr. Bashir Bashir is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication at the Open University of Israel. He’s also a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute. Among other numerous publications, he is the co-editor of The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History, which came out with Columbia University Press in 2018. And the second book, a recent book, is The Arab and Jewish Questions: Geographies of Entanglement in Palestine and Beyond, also with Columbia University Press in 2020.
Next, Dr. Mahmood Mamdani is the Herbert Lerman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. IN his most recent book, Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities that was published in 2020 with Harvard University Press, Mamdani draws valuable lessons from the history of the United States, Sudan, Palestine/Israel, Nuremberg, and South Africa, and argues that the nation state was born of colonialism, urging us to rethink political violence and re-imagine political community beyond majorities and minorities.
Next, Dr. Areej Sabbagh-Khoury is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her research interests lie in political and historical sociologies, colonialism, indigenous studies, and critical social theory. Her forthcoming book with Stanford University Press examines encounters between kibbutz settlers and Palestinian inhabitants in northern Palestine’s Jezreel Valley before, during, and after 1948. Drawing on resources uncovered in the settler colonial archives, it demonstrates the coloniality of socialist Zionist settlers’ practices of purchase, expropriation, and accumulation by dispossession. She shows in the book, in the forthcoming book, how their representation of the past facilitated disavowal of the indigenous right to sovereignty. Sabbagh-Khoury received her PhD from Tel Aviv University and has held postdoctoral appointments at Columbia, New York, Brown, and Tufts University. She’s a member of the board of Mada al-Carmel Arab Center of Applied Social Studies and its academic research committee.
The format for the event is conversational. I encourage the audience to submit your questions via the Q&A function in your Zoom screen. At this point– I see that all the panelists already turned on their cameras, so that’s wonderful. So let me go ahead and just proceed with the first question to Professor Mamdani. So in your book, Neither Settler nor Native, which I just alluded to, you write toward the end of your Palestine/Israel chapter, and I quote, “De-Zionization would involve the de-politicization of Jewish and Palestinian identity so that Israel may be a rights-protecting democracy, rather than the servant of a permanent national majority”– end of quote. This is from page 55.
Would you please unpack and contextualize this statement, paying, perhaps, particular attention to your analysis of what Jews, Judaism, and Judaization, or Zionization, have to do with this case of settler colonialism? Also, if you could bring into your analysis or discussion just now the case of the [INAUDIBLE], perhaps also the Ethiopians and their, quote-unquote, “Judaization,” that would be greatly appreciated, as I’m aware that many people in the audience may be especially attuned to this issue. Thank you.
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Thank you, Atalia. Great question. Let me just begin by saying that and Jews and Judaism have no necessary relationship to settler colonialism. The Jewish population of mandate Palestine belong to three different groups. There were those who had never left Palestine. I consider these among the natives of Palestine.
Then there were those who returned to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage, seeking a religious homeland. They were content to be part of the existing polity. They’re known in the literature and in Jewish history as the First Aliyah. They were not natives, but they were immigrants.
And then finally, in contrast, were those in the Second and the Third Aliyahs. They look to create their own exclusive polity. In other words, they look to displace the existing polity with one of their own, a Jewish nation state in place of the existing polity. These were the settlers. The settlers, from my point of view, are defined by a political project.
Both Jews and Judaism have flourished without settler colonialism. You just have to look at New York City, which is where I live. And contrasted with Israel, Jews in New York City are far safer and have a far more productive environment to create a flourishing Jewish life than they are in Israel.
Now I come to Judaization, Zionization. Unlike Jews and Judaism, Judaization is integral to settler colonialism. Underlying Judaization is the conviction that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and not necessarily to citizens of the state, and not to those who reside on the land.
A number of Jewish organizations have been historically created, the Jewish National Fund amongst them. And they’ve been established towards realizing this purpose: they historically, systematically privilege Jews, and just as systematically discriminate against Jews. They function as if they were state organizations, but are not subject to nondiscrimination laws.
Now, if Israel is to be a state for Jews only, it has to answer the question, who is a Jew? Its answer cannot avoid flattening the diversity of world Jewry into the Jewry sanctioned by the state. At the legal level, this question has bedeviled Israeli authorities since the Law of Return was passed in 1950. Is a Jew defined by religion, or by ethnicity, or both?
The state of Israel now has two legal definitions of who is a Jew: the narrow definition, provided by religious law, Halakha law, which Israel enforces in the sphere of personal affairs, and the broad definition in the amended Law of Return. Now, at the political and social level, Judaization eliminates unacceptable forms of Jewishness.
The acceptable form is associated with Ashkenazi, European Jews who trace their lineage to Yiddish-speaking parts of Europe. Ashkenazim were the founders of the state who claimed to be civilizers committed to bring other Jews into line with the national ideal. In particular, Ashkenazim have sought to civilize Mizrahim, and then later, the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews.
The Mizrahim are Jews. They present a special challenge to Zionism, for Zionism presumes that Arab and Jewish identity are both incompatible and indelibly hostile toward one another. Otherwise, there would be no need of a Jewish state in historic Palestine. Ashkenazi Israel has demanded of the Mizrahim that they denounce their Arab culture and embrace only their religion, Judaism. After several decades, the Mizrahim have paid back by standing behind a stark religious Zionism that has two targets: the Palestinians, but not only the Palestinians, also the Ashkenazi.
Judaization has two dominant aspects: Judaizing the land and Judaizing Jews, in particular Arab Jews. At the core of political Zionism is a political project to build not just a Jewish religious community in the Holy Land, but a Jewish state. Political Zionism seeks to erase the distinction between state and society. Thank you.
ATALIA OMER: Great. Thank you for getting us started already on the very depth of the grammar, the logic, that is unfolding, has unfolded, in Palestine/Israel.
So next I’ll turn to you, Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury. In recent work that I had the amazing privilege to read just recently, you have examined the production of knowledge in Israel in Israeli academia, highlighting the ideological blinders of most Jewish Israeli critical sociology, and you are listing of a few exceptions. How, in your view, has scholarship in Israeli academia persistently obscured the enduring and entrenched Jewish Zionist hegemony? And how does the field of comparative settler colonialism studies, this particular field, help to subvert this myopia? And what is the significance that such scholarship is often articulated by Palestinian Israeli scholars, such as yourself? More broadly, how do you think ’48 Palestinians fit into the colonial potential futures? Thank you.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: Hello, everyone, and thank you for inviting me to participate today and for the [? generative ?] [INAUDIBLE] [? in ?] [? Somalia. ?] I should note the symbolism of giving a talk on decolonization as a Palestinian currently visiting in South Africa. I hope this will been an indication of the transmission of more political struggle.
In my work, I have traced [? how ?] [? much ?] [? protection ?] the Israeli scientific field has become embedded in broader regimes of power. For me, it wasn’t enough to rely on a simple formula of positionality automatically causes the production of a given discourse. In the end, it’s true that, where one feels oneself situated in social life, one’s relation not simply to the means of production in Marxist terms, but to land ownership, to the nation state via citizenship, to the [INAUDIBLE] via hierarchies of belonging. This is one important facet in understanding why discourses take shape as they do.
Sociologically, I have been interested in the practices of knowledge production, its collective nature, the attempts to the place accepted, or normative claims within movements, the diffusion of paradigms across geographies and temporalities. Doing so was particularly painstaking for me, as a Palestinian indigenous scholar citizen in Israel who received my degrees, all of my degrees, in Israeli institutions. I examine primarily why it is that national paradigms have dominated understanding of the political stakes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find that such paradigm is, if it taken by itself, a mechanism of mystification that misses the fundamental settler colonial nature of Zionism, even if and when imaginations of nationalism and religion become institutionalized and [INAUDIBLE].
To be sure, Zionism fuses colonialism, nationalism, and religion, or, as [INAUDIBLE] writes, “Zionism is an articulation of all the major categories of modernity.” I examine why Israeli critical scholars may usefully take up post-colonial theory to explain constitutive inequalities between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim and the discrimination of Palestinian citizens in Israel, but omitted theories of colonization to describe the nature of relations between Zionist settlers and Palestinian officials, or why the analytic of colonialism was utilized to describe the 1967 occupation, but not the 1948. I pay attention to the formation of Israeli social theory in relation to modernization theory, where scholars [? elided ?] the state and settler violence and disposition that reshaped Palestinian social and political life.
I think about how Israeli epistemological apartheid, including the imposition of settler schemes of knowledge, shaped what the Israeli scholars came to conclude about the Arabs in their midst. I think about how one-quarter of Palestinian population that remained in Israel after 1948 was socially, politically, and economically devastated and still taking time to rebuild social life and, especially, an academic strata, following the devastating effects of the Nakba. Moreover, the very nature of the state violence in Israel, the military rule period that lasted from the emergence of the Israeli state in 1948 until ’66 and the social control that followed, alongside cultural marginalization and discrimination, precluded Palestinians from participating in Israeli institutions of knowledge production for decades.
I find that, in fact, it was primarily Palestinian scholars in the ’60s and ’70s and now who asserted that the nature of Israeli/Palestinian social relation was settler colonial. I argue that the settler colonial paradigm is an interpretative framework of [? conjugative ?] historical analogies and analytical comparisons. Settler colonialism is a series of contingent processes in which hierarchies of social kind become routinized and institutionalized in ways that advance settler claims of land and territorial sovereignty, often through encroaching violence.
The [AUDIO OUT] the [? exceptionalizes ?] Israel/Palestine. Comparative settler colonialism traces [INAUDIBLE] mechanisms across cases of colonial settlery that are shared and, thereby, also identify differences in the emergence of violence in interaction between settlers and natives. This feels direct as to what Edward Said would call a contrapuntal approach. In my work in this regard, I examine top-down processes, state actions, institutionalized practices, the gradual segmentation of structures, and also bottom-up practices, agency, [? daily ?] [? life, ?] struggle, popular resistance.
Since the Second Intifada in 2000 especially, that began the beginning of the failure, also, and the paradigm of the two states, and the repositioning of the Palestinian Israel within the Palestinian national movement, external political movement has contributed to the reanimation of Palestinian citizens of Israel in their articulation of an analytical approach to settler colonialism in Palestine. These are social actors who are by their historical situatedness in this place hold a phenomenological proximity to Jewish Israeli.
They speak Hebrew. Some live in so-called mixed cities. They may interact daily with Israeli Jews. They are educated with Israeli curriculum. But they also possess experience of exclusion. Many are subject to what Wacquant would call advanced marginality– ghettoization, spatial separation, abandonment by the welfare state.
They encounter symbolic and material violence, and they are steeped in what I theorize as a habitus of [INAUDIBLE] steadfastness, wherein they have acquired experiential knowledge to live in and navigate forms of subjugation and counteract them. They are deeply shaped by historical events, recalling the last political protest in May 2021, where Palestinian citizens organize a trans territorial strike unseen since the Great Arab Revolt in 1936-39. Importantly, the encounter between Palestinian and Israeli and Jewish Israelis is markedly different from that between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the 1967 occupied territories.
So in thinking about how we can theorize out of [? impasse, ?] we must consider all these accumulated features and political moments, recalling Mandela’s theorization on South Africa, [? or ?] the lenses of everyday life a Palestinian encounters in the Jewish state, but also, with a future of political liberations that Palestinian and Israel imagined for themselves, in unity with Palestinians everywhere, where they can play a major role in decolonization. In Mandela’s writing, the South African political [? moment ?] represented that transition period between apartheid and decolonization, when resistance transformed from spontaneous acts of contention to a durable force. This is what Palestinians and Israel have started to propose, organize to change, theorizing further questions of decolonizing the Jewish Israeli existence in Palestine Israel. Thank you.
ATALIA OMER: Thank you. I wonder if, Professor Mamdani, if you have an immediate reaction, since Areej is engaging with your work, or we can return to your thinking later.
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Maybe return to me later, because I couldn’t hear very well. They’re all kind of muffled. The instrument muffles the voice.
ATALIA OMER: Yeah, we had– I also had a little bit difficulties, some difficulties, hearing. But I’m not sure what to do about that. All right, so I’ll turn to our third panelist, Dr. Bashir.
So my first question for you is really highlighting one critical thread in your scholarship in recent years has entailed the need to kind of deepen our analysis of Christian European modernity and its relevance to the three so-called questions– the Jewish question, the Muslim question, and the Palestine question. In a recent synthetic reflection that you contributed to the “Contending Modernities” blog that is housed at the University of Notre Dame– it’s kind of a synthetic reflection on the two recent publications that I mentioned, The Holocaust and the Nakba and The Arab Question and the Jewish Question.
So you write, and I quote, “The question of Palestine, the Jewish question, and the Muslim question are conceptually and historically linked, and their entanglement continues to fuel tensions in the Middle East, Europe, and the US”– end of quote. So I just would like to invite you to unpack these entanglements and their significance for a decolonial analysis of Palestine/Israel
BASHIR BASHIR: Thank you, Atalia. So let me just contextualize the unpacking that I will be shortly doing, and that is why the unpacking, or why this intertwining and intersection between these three questions are important, in the context of Israel/Palestine. And they are important for the following reason, that is that, if we interrogate these questions and reveal their intersections, we are stepping in what I call new moral and political [? agreement ?] for Israel Palestine.
And why this new moral and political [? agreement ?] is important– It’s important for the following reason. And I think there is a story to be told for us to make sense of these types of kind of sometimes even silenced connections and links and oppressed and policed types of links. And obviously, all of these links are under the banner of what I call interrogating modernity. But let me just tell the story very briefly in relation to the question of Israel/Palestine so we understand why these questions are important and how we unpack them.
And that is that for the past 30, 40 years, the question of Palestine has been imagined and articulated in a very particular type of vocabulary, imagination, concepts, and notions. And basically, this articulation and phrasing and framing of the Palestinian question, since the mid ’70s all the way to recently, about a decade ago, was shifting from emancipatory liberation discourse of anti-colonialism into peacemaking, or if you wish to, the statehood kind of discourse. And this was a remarkable shift that I am not going to assist now its strategic value. There are debates– there were debates back at the time in the Palestinian national movement. There are debates today who are reflecting back on this kind of pragmatic shift. Whatever the evaluation of that shift, that shift has been an extremely fundamental structural shift in Palestinian nationalism.
Therefore, the question of Palestine by the mainstream tendencies of it– I’m not saying that what I am proposing is exhaustive of the range of vocabularies that were displayed in order to explain Palestine, but the dominant vocabulary, the one that even embraced by the international community, so to speak, and by liberal normativity and its coordinates in that sense, has been framed around the language of peacemaking, around the language of conflict resolutions of different types. And basically, the state is, or the Palestinian state on the boundary, was basically the aim. And all of this is being articulated within the paradigm of partition because, without that, you don’t understand anything. Partition, as a colonial and imperial tool, is the paradigm within which these kind of concepts are being articulated.
Now, to cut a longer story short, there is a very serious, deep crisis when it comes to the question of Israel/Palestine in the past two decades, three decades, in light of the failure of partition epistemologically and politically to deliver any serious thing that brings us anywhere closer to what has been endorsed as a form of a possible political solution. And therefore, many scholars have been engaging in trying to understand these kind of realities through different lenses.
Some have appealed to history. Some to anthropology. Some have microhistory. Others have looked to political theology. In my contributions of my work that has been preoccupying me, my work and many other colleagues that we convene in the Kreisky Forum in Vienna, has been to attack this from a different angle. And that is actually to zoom out rather to zoom in, not in order to undermine the zooming in. The zooming in is happening– extremely critical and very inspirational for our work.
But the zooming out is very critical, in the sense that we need to understand for us to bring back the language of colonialism and settler colonialism to the equation, we need to reframe the question of Palestine in the larger global context and definitely through embedding it in the context within which it emerged. And that is political modernity. And that is– and with political modernity, I am eluding to the [? front ?] [? end ?] to several other things. And here I will start the unpacking in a few minutes.
One is the issue of the Jewish question. The Jewish question is a European question, and it is the failure of a Christian European nationalism to accommodate Jews. And therefore, by extension of the Jewish question, you have created the Palestinian question, which is basically meaning that actually we are here invited to interrogate European nationalism, because European nationalism with all– it comes with all of these– package of being very much informed by desire of homogeneity and purity as a very constitutive feature of political modernity, is something that I think we need really to understand and, surely, that the Jewish question is still burning and is still relevant. It’s not solved, from my assessment. So this is one thing to keep in mind.
But there is another feature that is very constitutive of political modernity that I think is very important to bring into the equation. Not only the drive for a purity and homogeneity, which has many manifestations, not only vis-á-vis the Palestinian questions, but also vis-á-vis many parts of Europe and beyond Europe, as many scholars have shown, and that this is within the rubric of nationalism. But if we add to that something that is intimately constitutive of that, which is a co-founding of modernity, of political modernity, that is settler colonialism, or imperialism, if you wish, with different iterations. And that is basically seeking to eliminate and exterminate natives for the purpose of creating new societies in different parts and rearranging boundaries and different technologies and different tools and practices and policies that were at the disposal of the enterprise of the nation state, when we move from the imperial order to the colonial– to the national order.
So these things all, if you wish– when we look at the question of Palestine in the contemporary times, we also see how, if you wish, we bring also anti-Semitism as a ready accusation, mobilized, weaponized, abused, used, in order to criminalize, silence Palestinians in their struggle for justice. And this is exactly the issue where, actually, in this sense, the discourse of Islamophobia has been indispensable to the articulation and reproduction of modernity and political violence, instead actually of focusing on anti-Semitism and showing how Europe hasn’t– Christian Europe hasn’t handled sufficiently the question, the Jewish question. Actually, the blame is shouldered on Muslims as racialized other in that context.
And all of these questions cannot be disconnected from each other because, in certain particular understanding, not only through the lens of Palestine– but I’m not going to make that claim now, because that is not the focus of my attention at the moment for the sake of this argument, because these questions also are related to many other spheres. So if I try to sum all of this, what we are trying to do in this kind of enterprise to this– through my work, at least, is really to interrogate European nationalism, to interrogate Zionism, and to interrogate Arab nationalism in a particular way. And I think these are very clearly intertwined and only through these kind of things, together with many other perspectives and contributions, I think we can pave the way for viable alternatives, theories and methodologies of decolonization that I think might be at our disposal in the context of Israel/Palestine.
ATALIA OMER: Great. Thank you so much for contextualizing and unpacking, and unpacking the kind of work that you are doing, in terms of thinking and articulating an alternative ethical normative grammar to think through the depths of the contextuality of the place. Before I turn to the next round of questions, I want to return to Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury and ask her to– maybe there are two– you said so many things that were so powerful and so important. And I wanted to ensure that the audience get a chance to think together with you about two points that you made, or two issues that you highlighted.
One is the cons– what you spoke about, what you understand as an epistemological apartheid. What does it mean? What are the political ramifications of an epistemological apartheid? I am highlighting this because, of course, what decoloniality is doing that is distinct, perhaps, from the anti-colonial stance, although they are interconnected, as well, is that it makes an intervention that is epistemological. So perhaps if we can kind of stay with it for a moment before we move on.
And another phrase that you use that really grabbed me was habitus of [INAUDIBLE]. And so I want to invite you to maybe say a few more words about that.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: Thank you, Atalia. Could you hear me now more clearly?
ATALIA OMER: I hear you just fine.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: Yes? Because I changed the setting here. I’m in a room that I am not adjusted to. So it’s clear now, more clear?
ATALIA OMER: Yes. I can hear you quite well.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: OK. So I was talking about how the Palestinian/Israel– a very new proposal– proposing to study Israel as a settler colonial is they are trying to deconstruct the epistemological apartheid in terms that, previously, the Palestinians scholarship wasn’t part of the Israeli academia for different reasons. So for me, it was one of the things to think about and write through tracing the knowledge production in Israel, how we can think about deconstructing this epistemological apartheid. And when I examined the transformation and different paradigms through the Israeli– mainly through Israeli [? sociology ?] and history, I came to understand how proposing a different moment, a different political moment, that was first organized and articulated through political activism, through– I’ll talk more later about this– through the return of history that mobilized the Palestinian scholars to meet the nature of the Zionist movement.
As to the habitus of [INAUDIBLE], I just argued that the Palestinian encounter symbolic and material violences. And they are seeped in this habitus of [INAUDIBLE] that their daily life somehow turns to be a struggle and navigating through different forms of hierarchies and discrimination. But at the same time, their agency in navigating against and working against these structures of power since the beginning of the Nakba in 1948– they had this ability to formulate and to act politically in a way that– you want an example that I can draw from the [? closet ?] period when most of the world was under military– enclosed in their houses, and et cetera. I say to myself, the– all of the world became Palestinian, in terms that we are in this framework of military rule, despite our ability to mobilize, because we are– all the time, Palestinians are [? surveillanced. ?] But they learned how to navigate against it and to propose different forms of sociality that I’ll relate later to.
ATALIA OMER: Great, thank you. So before I turn to the next round of questions, interrelated questions, I would like to invite the audience to submit your questions. And we’ll try to get to as many as possible, and the hope is to have a fruitful conversation. OK, so as I said, now round two, a set of interrelated questions for all the participants, with the recognition that each one of you will come at that question or the set of questions from a different perspective, different set of intellectual genealogies. So again, that makes the discussion deeper and more layered.
So the question is, what do you think about decolonial scholarship’s role in deepening the potential for decolonial and anti-colonial political praxis? And since this event, this panel, is happening in an academic space attentive to how religion intersects with violence in all its forms, but also, potentially, with emancipatory scripts, what space do your visions of decoloniality or the anti-colonial give to religious meanings and identities? Why and how naming the situation, using the comparative analytic of settler colonialism, or the comparison with the end of South African apartheid, or other kind of resources that you draw on to think comparatively, to de-exceptionalize, in some respects, the case, help us shift from the enthnoreligious, national, separationist, majoritarian formula that has defined the grammar of, quote-unquote, peace in that context. So maybe we’ll start with you, Dr. Bashir.
BASHIR BASHIR: Yeah, sure. Let me relate to two points here that I think are relevant for– or they captured my attention, the first regarding the scholarship. I think the scholarship has been incredibly useful for the past 20 years in pushing very seriously the discourse of settler colonialism as a relevant frame for integrating Israel/Palestine. You have to understand that the [? odds ?] were great, and you have to understand the dominance and the hegemony of the discourse that I just alluded earlier on about this peacemaking discourse. And the industry that was, or the industries, that was feeding, that were feeding these types of hegemony and paradigm were really, really remarkable.
And in that sense, there has been very remarkable achievements for the scholarship that has been persistent in the past 20, 30 years or so in penetrating these, if you wish, castle that was hermetically closed, in terms of not really allowing much these voices to come and become vocal about that. And I think what we are witnessing recently about the legitimacy of these kind of terms as lenses, vocabularies, and terms and concepts that have become more legitimate than any time before to use, even among– not only in academic circles, but also in diplomatic activist circles, including settler colonialism, apartheid et cetera. So in that sense, there is a very serious pioneering role for reviving, because this discourse has existed in Palestinian contexts in a way or another, and persisted all the way through. But it never had the attention that it is receiving recently with the help of many others, and in that sense, many, many, many contributors and in different parts of the world. So that’s really the remarkable thing.
However, I have one major reflection here that I think is a type of critique on that. And that critique has two faults. One, I think settler colonialism has been established as an interpretive analytical frame. I think it’s about time that we also not stop there, but move very much about trying to say what decolonization would entail. There is a difference between saying settler colonialism is the analytical and interpretive frame– that’s fine. That’s very helpful for diagnosis, and I think it comes against [? wild ?] [? odds. ?] And I think there are serious qualifications here that need to be very tailored very carefully.
This is my second point. The first point, nevertheless, has been that I think we need also to move to what a process of decolonization, and doing colonialism meaning decolonization, what decolonization means. This is a very critical question. And I think here the spectrum is very wide about the potentialities, the methodologies, and the alternatives, and the theories. And I think the disagreements are greater than we are willing to admit when it comes to the outcome of decolonization. This takes me to the second point.
And the second point is that I think, as much as South Africa and many other cases have been inspirational for our context– I think that has been extremely, tremendously useful and educational and informative. However, I think we need to be very careful about drawing these kind of analogies without qualifications and care of the particular type. In the context of Israel/Palestine, Zionism is definitely a settler colonial movement par excellence, in my point of view. But it also has a very powerful dimension of nationalism that I think has been remarkably successful, by the way.
Without now passing judgment about what did it do, as Professor Mamdani was alluding, reducing the potentiality of being a Jew under the rubric of Zionism has shrinked, whereas before that, things and the spectrum was wider. So that’s something that– it needs to be debated, and I think it’s very relevant. And today, I was earlier speaking to a group of Jewish leaders in this here– in Jerusalem in that perspective. I think this is something that we need to open. And Palestinians have say and have something to contribute to that. But that’s– so this is one.
And the second thing is that I think, while we are engaging– and this takes me to the second point that you raised, Atalia, about majoritarianism and what is the entry here. And I think there are really very serious clashes and tensions, way more than we are willing to admit, between constitutional liberalism as a potential way forward and post-national type of engagement, if you wish, and between national rubric and national grammar as the answer to that. And I think these are very serious clashes. There are serious contradictory tensions between them. Obviously, the spectrum is wide how you can accommodate some combinations of some sort.
And I definitely think that the way for that is what I conceptualize in my private work, and some of it is jointly with other, what I call egalitarian binationalism. And I think egalitarian binationalism, the way, at least, I theorize and conceptualize in my work, is much more promising, if you ask me, not necessarily from the perspective of ethics, but definitely from the perspective of sensitivities of the specificities of the context of Israel and Palestine and the history of the Jews and the history the Palestinians with some these kind of rubrics, with certain conditions, obviously.
And the most important condition of that– and I finish by this, because this relates also to the issue of religion, is basically dismantling and rejecting any form of exclusivity of Jewish supremacy of any sort. Under the egalitarian binationalism that I am proposing, inspired by some other who have done some important work in that respect, is to say that, under this rubric, there is no possibility, even by definition– defining egalitarian by nationalism normatively, the way I define it, doesn’t tolerate at all any form of privileges, exclusivity, and form of a Jewish supremacy of any particular type. But it does allow certain space for certain communitarian national dealing of some sort to be accommodated under the rubric of possible arrangement and possible things.
So I think, to sum this point and finish. I think it’s about time that we scholars who are engaged in that, who are, some of us, also activists in the field, to start moving also, in this very specific context of Israel/Palestine, to start moving towards unpacking and naming the visions and the contradictions, the tensions, that are involved in that, not with the hope that what you design in labs and intellectual gymnastics in libraries necessarily is going to be the platform of activism. But actually, we are inspired very much by the specificities of what we are witnessing in Israel/Palestine.
And this is precisely why I believe this is decolonizing, as well, because this goes against the fixes of political modernity, the way Zionism wanted to implicate in that through what– understanding Zionism to entail statist enterprise, statist logic, [INAUDIBLE] and, obviously, vulgar ethnonationalism of the mainstream Zionism, because Zionism is also many things. It’s not one thing. And in that sense, I think it’s the time for us who are involved in this to push a little bit forward and move from the prognosis to the– from the diagnosis also to the prognosis, and start moving out to do these visions and what it entails in decolonization process.
ATALIA OMER: Thank you. I feel very compelled by the kind of argument that you made, because you highlight the effectiveness, the analytic effectiveness, of that kind of comparative application of the lens of settler colonialism, or apartheid, or whatnot. But kind of what I heard very strongly is the call for not only the demolition, but recognizing that there need to be a– for sure, if you want to think along decolonial register, we need to destabilize and undo any kind of supremacist discourse, and within that context or that grammar of egalitarian by nationalism that you have articulated.
But it’s not only about demolition. It’s also about building. And you use the language of vision and be specific in terms of the vision and here there is a space for thinking of the positive content that will– not only on the negative, but the positive ethical meaning that will constitute this, the space or the political community. So I think this is a very important constructive intervention that is in contrast to that image that you put forward of the lab or the seminar room, that purism of the lab discourse.
So Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury, maybe we’ll turn to you now for your reactions, reflections on that question.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: Yeah, I think, Atalia, your question also is related to what I said previously that Mahmood didn’t hear, which is– I really want to repeat, because I find his work is very illuminating while we think about decolonization. And I argue that in thinking about how we can theorize out of impasse, we must consider all the accumulated features and political moments that Mamdani talks about of the violences of everyday life, as well, and which Palestinian encounters in the Jewish state, but also, of a future political liberation that Palestinian and Israel imagine.
They are not just talking about settler colonialism or diagnosing the case as settler colonialism. But they are proposing and imagining forms of unity with Palestinians everywhere, where they can play a major role in decolonization. And again, in Mandela’s writing about the South Africa political moment represented that transition period between apartheid and decolonization, when resistance transformed from spontaneous acts of contention to a durable force– this is what Palestinians in Israel have started to propose, organize the change, theorizing for the question of decolonizing the Jewish Israeli existence in Israel/Palestine.
And referring also to the question that I didn’t address completely about the role of this Palestinian, ’48 Palestinians, we should clarify here that we are talking about two different things. One is Palestinian political action and intellectual knowledge production. The other is material decolonization. They are inseparable and co-productive. Knowledge production– and this is why it is important, also, to trace settler colonialism, is an indispensable tool for struggle.
[? Autessere ?] teaches us settler colonialism is a struggle for materialism. I argue in parallel way to Marxian thought that critical intellectuals, especially indigenous scholars, must carry out a theorizing distractive to the colonial apparatus, while it’s the political praxis, including the return of history, that is, the return of the Nakba to the public sphere and international solidarity, that allows for the intellectual change. It is the scholar role, beside the activists, to propel thoughts into political actions and contribute to the articulation of the just political projects. The settler colonial framework is an accessory tool in anti-colonial liberation praxis and decolonization. We must be capable of diagnosing and then explaining the colonial condition.
And with that, there’s a condition that makes Zionism so [INAUDIBLE], the context of European modernity and racialization, the Holocaust and more, in order to proscribe liberatory ways out for Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. Perhaps you don’t have to be a Palestinian scholar to be able to describe the colonial condition. And even social and spatial conditions shape an everyday life defined by Israeli supremacy. So theoretically, we need to continue unpacking technologies of power, in which the colonizer and colonized hierarchically construct a system of control. But we must caution ourselves against easy structuralist explanations, and instead understand how contingencies may lead to institutionalized violence.
Last, we must continue debunking the conflation of Zionism and Judaism. The intellectual is implicated as a subject with responsibility in decolonization. In this sense, Antonio Gramsci articulates the role of organic intellectual in countering cohesion, while, for him, it will always be the mass who can precipitate a revolution. And Edward Said sees a powerful role for the intellectual as someone who can contest convictions and institutions and be wholly invested in critique for public. Here, too, feminist thought and theory becomes crucial. In the tradition of feminist thought, scholarship works toward identifying structural conditions and social construction of gender, critiquing masculinist power and patriarchy and [? filtering ?] the subjectivity that has been prominently absent from much intellectual criticism.
This is a way of reflecting on additional frames that structure society– gender, sexuality, and race, which are contingent formations that interact and intersect [INAUDIBLE] across geographies and temporalities, without neglecting materialist aspects. The articulation of [INAUDIBLE] political [INAUDIBLE] we must recognize how the circulation of the settler colonial paradigm not only contributes to an indictment of power structure, but counters with a different way of being in the world, a model of relation and socially predicated on the disposal of colonial privileges and the envisioning of a just future for all.
I will not, however– that I don’t want to overestimate the role of the intellectual. Intellectual labor embeds the scholar in institutional settings that constrains certain action and delimits possibilities. And movements for decolonization don’t necessitate the forms of intellectual discourse we invest our lives in producing. The Palestinian intellectual leader, Azmi Bishara, that moved from the academy to the formal political sphere to propose the project of the state for all of its citizens, for instance, illustrate the ways material decolonization becomes intertwined with intellectual efforts.
That was decades ago. The challenge now is to rearticulate a liberationist and decolonizing project with the atmosphere of the Israeli right wing [INAUDIBLE] and the nation-state law, and to overcome the discrepancy between the decolonizing academic project [? here. ?] We all talk about, in academia, in critical academic discourses, about decolonizing academic project, on the one hand, and the present. But there is a present fractured Palestinian nationalist political movement that embraced that.
But ending with a hopeful note, Palestinian youth all over Palestine maintain a renewed hope. They sense their own volition in decolonization. I think they will be the force to propose these formulas or political project [INAUDIBLE] that will work to decolonize our epistemologies and our existence. Thank you.
ATALIA OMER: Thank you. So many points– one that I think that is so profoundly important is– among the many that you articulated, is the point about the political economy that is often, or is not always, center to the analysis, and also for thinking about the decolonial and the anti-colonial. And I was reflecting back to the initial response by Professor Mamdani about– Professor Mamdani, you mentioned in your first response the Jewish National Fund and its participation in the colonization of Palestine, preceding, of course, 1948, preceding the Nakba. And so that point about the political economy is so critical.
And also the point about the role of scholarship in political movement– of course, not to overemphasize the importance of the scholar– this is a point well taken. But it’s also in a context that is very anti-intellectual. It’s this kind of intervention that is epistemological. It is about the very framing of the discourse, like Bashir spoke, Dr. Bashir spoke about the hegemony of peace, the peacebuilding hegemony that presumes segregation, separation, ethnoreligious homogeneity. And this is where I see, also, convergences.
And I’ll turn to you, Professor Mamdani. For instance, in your book you engage very critically with the whole discourse of transitional justice. So that was kind of like one point of connections that I was thinking about when Bashir spoke about the hegemony of peacebuilding, with respect to thinking concretely about Palestine/Israel. So I’ll turn to you and what grabbed you in that set of interrelated questions.
MAHMOOD MAMDANI: Thank you. Thank you very much. Let me just say at the outset that I am inspired by the responses of my colleagues. They are very productive, and they take our discussion forward. And they take our discussion forward, I think, not as much by providing answers, but providing a set of questions which open up new areas of inquiry.
Now let me start where I agree. South Africa– what should be the status of our study of South Africa? I certainly do not think that we should be studying South Africa in order to draw from it a blueprint, not at all. I think South Africa can provide lessons. South Africa can not provide a one size fits all formula, because history is specific.
Political movements are specific. A political mobilization is lesser or greater. And it is around not always the same issue, but different issues. But she had mentioned the tremendous importance of nationalism in the Israel/Palestine case today. And I think all that has to be taken into account.
At the same time, the lessons of the same place, the history of the same place– Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury mentioned, made reference to, Azmi Bishara and the notion of a state of all the people, not a state of the majority, a state of all the people, a state of all citizens. And I will make a distinction between citizens and people. So let me go to your set of questions, including this what does it mean to be thinking on decolonial terms.
I think first of all, it means changing the frame. And I think the critical change in the frame has to be from the criminal to the political. It has to take a settler colonialism not as a collection of individual crimes, but as a political project. And there is a difference between the two. Taking settler colonialism is a collection of criminal crimes with a view to moving forward in a notion of crime and punishment, either courts or the battlefield, I think that’s the heart of transitional justice, not the battlefield, but the courts, anyway. And I think that’s hugely problematic.
I think part of the problem is that the American notion of criminal justice has become a hegemonic notion. The journey began with Nuremberg in Nazi Germany. And the problem with criminal justice is always that crime is transgression of the law. And therefore, the state cannot commit a crime, because the state makes law. Crime can only be committed by individuals. It can be committed by individual agents of the state, but not by the state.
Now, that’s a very problematic starting point. If your starting point is political, then you understand that this question cannot be addressed from the point of view of grievances of individuals. It has to be addressed from the point of view of entire groups which have been excluded from the political process. And the solution can only be political. It cannot be individual. It cannot be based on the question of crime and punishment. So that’s my first understanding.
Second, your question of religion and violence– and let me say, I, again, find it find it very interesting but educative that Bashir puts this as a problem of modernity. And I agree entirely, because modernity politicizes culture. And it politicizes particular cultural identities, right from 1492 Iberia– the claim that this land must be a land of a single people with a single religion, the trigger to the Hundred Years’ War, which followed in Europe, more or less 100 years, a war between different religions, Catholics and Protestants.
The solution to that war, whether theoretically in John Locke or politically in the series of agreements, was basically that the majority must have sovereignty. And this majority should respect the individual rights of the minority, but the minority cannot have sovereignty. Now that was the liberal state. But the Iberian state was the non-liberal one. This is the liberal one. And the liberal state has been the basis of the problem.
The problem of Israel is that it began with a claim to create a liberal state with a sovereign majority but respecting individual rights of minorities, and has now moved to the non-liberal Iberian-style state trying to ethnically cleanse the land, by hook or by crook. And from then on, you had different identifiers of civilization, civilizing mission, race being one of the most important ones.
So what about the place of religion? In my view, cultural diversity is crucial, but it has to be in the domain of culture. We need to depoliticize, or we need to think of ways of depoliticizing culture, so that politics itself can rise above these diversities and does not just duplicate and reflect these diversities. And politics itself, which has become the basis of identity formation, not culture– really, politics has become the basis of identity formation under modernity is– that’s the paradigm, we need to change.
Final question– why and how naming the situation using the competitive analytical settler colonies helps us to shift from the problem to something forward. So I go to South Africa. I said we can take lessons from it, and I’ll just take one lesson from it. In 1955, the ANC had a program called the Freedom Charter. Freedom Charter had a ringing declaration in it. It said South Africa belongs to all those who live in it. It didn’t say South Africa belongs to all its citizens. It said South Africa belongs to all those who live in it, all its residents.
In 1994, the first post-apartheid election, there was a big controversy who should be allowed to vote– citizens of South Africa or everybody who lives in South Africa? Now, the question was hugely important, because millions of people lived in South Africa who were not citizens. These were migrant workers from just outside of South Africa. And the migrant workers had been critical in trade union elections– in trade union formation, sorry. And the decision then was that anybody who lives in South Africa must have a right to vote.
But from then on, with Mangosuthu Buthelezi and inkatha Party taking over internal affairs in a post-apartheid South Africa, from then on, the rights of migrants were chipped away at step by step. And you had this confrontation between citizen and migrant with xenophobic violence in South Africa. Now, I just want to draw two lessons from it.
One lesson is, if you take this lesson for Israel/Palestine, to me it means that the question of the ’48 Palestinians, the 1948 Palestinians who lived outside the borders of Israel/Palestine is critical and crucial. How that question is resolved will decide whether any resolution will work or not.
Secondly, I don’t think the role of the intellectual– I do not think it is the business of the intellectual to come up with solutions. I don’t think intellectuals can frame a blueprint within the confines of his or her study. I think– so I’m a political theorist, but not in the liberal sense of trying to form a blueprint of what’s the good society. No, I think we take our starting point– popular struggles, a political mobilization, social mobilization, social movements, political movements, which are necessarily internally contradictory, which necessarily move– the center of gravity in these movements shifts as the movements are shaped by actual conflict on the ground.
The business of the intellectual is to take the raw material from the experiences of these movements. And then the work of the intellectual is to address the internal contradictoriness of this raw materials and to present back to the movement its own work, but in a rethought form. Thank you very much.
ATALIA OMER: Thank you. Again, so many critical issues about the concept, of course, of the decolonial is a response– it’s the other side of that construct coloniality that emerges, especially in the context of Latin American thought that understands the history and the epistemology that relates to the colonial space from Christian Europe to modernity. So to think about– so I appreciate so much how those conversations, Bashir’s particular focus on modernity with respect to the three interrelated, quote-unquote, “questions,” and Mahmood’s points that you just unpacked right now, how the recent interventions, of course, also on the epistemological apartheid– those convergences are so powerful.
And already, I think that some of the questions in the Q&A have already been alluded to in just those final reflections, especially the issue of– one question was with respect to the issue of the return of Palestinian refugees and the degree to which its criticality to that discourse of the decolonial register, the thinking through of that different frame. And that also relates to kind of a specific question addressed to Bashir, with respect to that the specificity, that concreteness, of that new ethical grammar of the egalitarian binationalism. And perhaps you can– maybe that would be– we’ll conclude with this here from you, and then maybe another word from Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury, if you want to add anything.
But, Bashir, would– basically, the question that came from the audience was about the– what’s the chance for that vision, that egalitarian binationalism to actually be– to materialize? So certainly, not within the contemporary frame, but go ahead.
BASHIR BASHIR: So I think my understanding of the question is that there is a confusion between egalitarian binationalism as an ethical principle and between binationalist state as an institution, a constitutional arrangement of some sort. I think these are very, very different things. Definitely, egalitarian binationalism, as an ethical principle and a political frame, can lead to a binational state. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be subscribing to this particular thing.
So binationalism, in that sense– the way I look at it with the help of others and for instance, my work with Amos Goldberg places, for instance, the Holocaust and the Nakba at the very core of this. And this takes us, again, to the refugees, the question of the Palestinian refugees. You have– you cannot have any decolonizing process or any imagination that is alternative to the dominant paradigm without bringing the question of the refugees to the center of this politics. The Nakba and before the Nakba, it’s definitely the case. But definitely the issue of the refugees is at the center, and the right of Palestinians, to return is at the center of this configuration. This is, potentially, by invoking that, is definitely the way to decolonize, and it has a potential of decolonization.
Now, the very concrete solution of how you really materialize the right of return is something that I think, as Professor Mamdani was alluding, the specificities of the context are really [? troublingsome ?] and changing and shifting, depending on gravity and power and arrangements. But in terms of the very basic principle, that very much of invoking the right of return has to be constitutive central thing is the most important thing, because the Palestinian question is not about statehood. Statehood is the vehicle through which Palestinians achieve rights. The rights are the [INAUDIBLE] that are much fundamental here. And the right of self-determination of return and many other rights are the fundamental core issues here.
But the last point that I want to make, nevertheless, in this context that I think one of the things that we need really to face very powerfully, and as the South African has a charter, freedom of charter, it’s true that political theorist doesn’t have necessarily to propose solutions. But nevertheless, political theorists also have some role with other activists of envisioning certain visions of some sort that can be fueled and can be platforms for political deliberations and articulation.
And that sense, I think, this is precisely where now those who are engaged in this scholarship needs and ought to start passing the way forward, through which also they will bring to the center of this attention, also, the Jewish Israeli rights to this, because the minute you start saying that the Mediterranean river between– the territory between the river and the sea is the analytical frame and you want to decolonise, part of what you need also to confront and engage with a very daring way is also bringing to the very center of attention not only the Palestinian rights, which are fundamental and the basic structural thing. But also, you will have to bring to the equation also the presence of the Israeli Jews and the success of the formation of certain national identity of a particular type.
That is not something that liberal normativity can accommodate, at least in the context of what we are trying. But definitely we will have to be very careful about the disasters and the problematic capital of ethno vulgar nationalism, the way Zionism definitely have impacted also Palestinian nationalism. We need to open up these types of questions and put for them forward and try to unpack them with [INAUDIBLE] and courage, and intellectual and political courage through which we can– now, does that commit us to a very particular institutional solution of a particular type?
No, I think these are things that will be the subject and the object and the result of a political process that is going to be very painful, because the present and the future, for the [? seen ?] future, is very bleak and very, very, very problematic in that sense, because it’s all about Jewish privilege and Jewish supremacy. And this is why we need, in that shift that we are doing, in the new paradigm or the new grammar that, at least in my work with Amos Goldberg and people who that you alluded to and others such as [INAUDIBLE] and many others who are saying, basically, that we need to shift to this language of right, but bearing in mind also aspects of political theology.
And in that sense, I have something to say about religion that I think might be a little bit too much now to bring in, because we are running out of time. But I think religion– the way it was depicted in this conversation is also very problematic. I think religion in the very specific context of Zionism needs to be unpacked very seriously, because it needs to be understood in relation to this kind of interrogating modernity, because of the question of political theory, the way Zionism is materialized in Palestine, also is something that is worth paying attention and unpacking in a very critical way.
ATALIA OMER: Perhaps you want to say just a few words since you kind of– about what you mean by how we– the ways in which religion has been portrayed in this conversation is problematic? Bashir?
BASHIR BASHIR: Sorry.
ATALIA OMER: I said perhaps you want to just say– unpack a few– say a few more words about–
BASHIR BASHIR: I don’t want to be unfair, because we didn’t pay much attention to that. But my point is that you wouldn’t understand it in isolation from political theology. Zionism is a religious thing. They make it with the language of secularism, and secularism– we slip into this kind of thing that you are very familiar and in your writings, as well, about this relationship between the secular and religious and all of that type.
But in the very specific context here I think, while we need to very much be critical about the potential of religion being conflated with nationalism, we need to be very, very seriously, also, in that kind of decolonization, also through the insistence of not– on the issues of exclusivity and issue of eliminating any form of superiority and privilege. I think we, by definition, committed to these principles, already mediate a very particular notion of religion that actually remains to be relevant for politics, but not in the way that it is actually leading to certain exclusivity and international politics of some sort.
ATALIA OMER: Yeah thank you for bringing this up. And I’ll just telegraph that we’ve had– earlier this semester, we had a panel that interrogated those issues. We also had [INAUDIBLE] as part of the panel on a new book called When Politics Are Sacralized, co-edited by Nadim Rouhana and Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian that really illuminates even the secular registers of Zionism as a political movement. Of course, it relies on a biblical grammar that religion, in the context of contemporary Israel, really obscures– obscures that and obscures that of the settler colonial dynamics. So thank you for bringing this up.
So perhaps a last word from Dr. Sabbagh-Khoury from South Africa.
AREEJ SABBAGH-KHOURY: Thank you, Atalia. I want to just propose that the challenge now, I think, for Palestinian is if Palestinians can convert from the Palestinian question to the Jewish question and to the existence of the Israeli Jews in Palestine. And this is how I think decolonization is possible. And I think that all of Palestinians and critical Israeli [INAUDIBLE] should combine to work together, including the intellectuals and the political activists, to propose such a political moment of transformation, because we have– again, to just accentuate the idea of diagnosing the settler colonial conditions. Most of Israelis don’t perceive themselves as settlers, because of the specificity of the relation of the Israelis, of the Jews, to Palestine or to the areas of Israel.
So this is a crucial component that proposing and asking about proposing their existence in Palestine and deconstructing the supremacy of being a Jewish Israeli is very important for this realization of– to decolonize we must bring back the question of the history of this [? existence, ?] but also enabling a different way of sociality and being in Palestine that is not supremacist, that is for all Palestinian and Israelis. And this is what I perceive as the major challenge for decolonization.
ATALIA OMER: Thank you. How to be a [? political ?] community that is not supremacist is a profound challenge. Thank you so much for this incredibly generative conversation. Thank you for staying a few extra minutes. There are so many more questions and so many more threads to unpack. And really, the hope is that this kind of decolonial engagement will just continue to deepen intellectually and also materially, in terms of praxis. So thank you. It’s such a great honor to be a part of this conversation for me. So thank you, everybody.
SPEAKER 2: Sponsor Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative.
SPEAKER 1: Copyright 2021, President and Fellows of Harvard College.
https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/bds-anti-zionist-activism-atalia-omer-interview/A New Generation of Jewish Activists Is Transforming Judaism Itself
Atalia Omer’s new book considers how American Jews are making solidarity with Palestinians a central feature of their spiritual practice and identity.
By Nathan Goldman
SEPTEMBER 26, 2019
Over the past few years, especially since the 2014 Gaza war, a growing number of younger American Jews have been questioning the supposedly unquestionable bond between Jewish identity and support of Israel. Many of them have been moved to organized action to unsettle the American Jewish community’s pro-Israel consensus. In her new book, Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity With Palestinians, Atalia Omer—associate professor of religion, conflict, and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame—sets out to document and contextualize this burgeoning movement. She charts the rise of organized Jewish movements (including IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace) that directly speak and act against Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, often targeting the mainstream Jewish establishment, which champions Israel and opposes dissent. She also looks at groups (such as the student group Open Hillel and the radical synagogue Tzedek Chicago) that seek to integrate more complex and critical discussions of Israel into the Jewish community. By analyzing the rhetoric, practices, and self-conceptions associated with these movements and organizations, Omer considers how a new generation of Jewish activists is making solidarity with Palestinians a central feature of their Jewish practice and identity—and is thus transforming the very meaning of contemporary Jewishness.
But how is this transformation taking place? Omer suggests that it involves a fusion of critiques of American Jewish complicity in structures of oppression and the retrieval of Jewish prophetic and ethical traditions. In Days of Awe, Omer brings together interviews with activists, historical analysis, and theoretical interventions (drawing from religious studies and social movement theory, among other disciplines), all in the service of one of the first extended studies of this growing movement of American Jews standing against the Israeli occupation, and standing up for justice for Palestinians.
Omer delves into the details of the movement’s theory and praxis, while also tracing its relationship to and intersection with other sites of struggle—for instance, against anti-Semitism, anti-black racism, and Islamophobia, and for decolonization, feminism, and queer liberation. She also probes the movement’s possible limits. She offers sophisticated, sympathetic critiques and asks what untapped intellectual resources might complicate the movement’s preconceptions while also advancing its aims.
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I spoke with Omer by phone for this interview. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nathan Goldman:What was the impetus behind the research that would become Days of Awe? How did it develop over the years you were working on it?
Atalia Omer: Initially, I wanted to do some comparative work. I was trying to get away, actually, from an exclusive focus on Israel-Palestine. But the more I started talking to American Jewish diaspora activists, the more I realized that there was a really important story there to focus on. I saw that it needed to have its own book.
FROM HARVARD STUDENTS TO DIPLOMATS—THE US IS TURNING AWAY EVER MORE PALESTINIANS
NG: You argue that when Jewish anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activists deploy Jewish religious ideas, liturgies, and ritual in protests, it’s not just an instrumental political tactic. Rather, by actively engaging religious practices, texts, and symbols, Jewish activists are actually transforming their meaning in a religious sense. How does that distinction manifest itself?
AO: To start with, the reinterpretation of Jewish symbols, holidays, and liturgies as forms of protest is used to shock and confront the Jewish establishment. The movements use the establishment’s language, which makes it a very effective form of protest. When, for instance, activists build a sukkah in front of the embassy on Sukkot to protest ethnic cleansing of Bedouins, it has a particular impact. That’s the instrumental impact. But also, when I talked to people who participated in those kinds of protests, some of them talked about how, for the first time, they felt welcome and at home and consistently Jewish. In that space of protest, and in the very act of protest, they also rediscovered what it meant to be Jewish. So this becomes something that moves beyond just fighting the occupation or particular policies.
NG: How is that use of the Jewish establishment’s language against itself related to rediscovering what it means to be Jewish?
AO: Jewish anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity movements, such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, use the language of “transforming the Jewish community.” This involves a sense of anger against the elders: the establishment, the educational institutions, the various summer camps and day schools. All that goes beyond just fighting Israeli policies, and how they pretend to represent Jews worldwide and American Jews specifically. It goes beyond the complicity of the American Jewish establishment in enabling the occupation through financial support and political lobbying. Jews in these movements come to feel and say, “My Judaism is not occupation.” But then there comes the recognition that they need to also ask, “Well, what is my Judaism?”
I missed it, but the day before Passover this year, the radical synagogue I attend, Tzedek Chicago, invited Omar Barghouti, the cofounder of the BDS movement, to speak. He was stopped by a US immigration agent in Tel Aviv, and he wasn’t allowed to come. But he still talked to us over Skype. Even though he couldn’t come physically, it was meaningful that he came to a Jewish space. He talked about liberation struggle on the eve of Passover. That moment was meaningful, beyond the question of how it can help the movement. And it’s important for us to think beyond that instrumental level, to generate some sort of constructive reimagining.
NG: In the book, sociologist James M. Jasper’s notion of “moral battery” and your own idea of “critical caretaking” are two of the key concepts you use to understand how anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism can lead to this reshaping of the communal definition of Jewishness. Could you briefly explain those concepts and how they function here?
AO: “Moral battery” comes from Jasper’s study of social movements and their mechanics. It describes something I saw and felt in my research, especially during the delegation to the West Bank I went on with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. There’s the electrifying sense of that communal space. Durkheim calls it “collective effervescence.” Jasper talks about it in terms of the negative and positive of a battery. On the one hand, standing in the southern hills of Hebron, it’s devastating, it’s horrific. You have a feeling of ethical outrage and disgust, and a sense of “this is not my Judaism.” That’s the negative. But the very act of engaging in solidarity, taking directives from the other—in this case, from the Palestinian partners—that creates this electrifying sense of love, and of self-love. That’s the positive. And that combination generates a sense of force and transformative capability.
My concept of “critical caretaking,” which I started to develop in my first book, is about bringing religion into conversations about addressing and transforming violence. This always involves a process of critique—of historicizing identities, historicizing narratives, of “unlearning” (which is the language that the activists often use). But there’s also caretaking of the religious tradition, which is the constructive sense, and requires religious, cultural, and historical literacy. So I’m putting the critical lens and the constructive practices together. They need to come together. Reimagination needs both to be deeply historical and to have that opening for innovation and change. The effort of reshaping the communal self operates multidirectionally.
NG: Much of the activism you discuss in the book relies, at least to some extent, on social media. What do you see as social media’s role in contemporary Jewish anti-occupation and Palestine solidarity activism?
AO: It’s absolutely critical. So many of the activists, especially the young activists, really want to have their stories out there: their stories of transformation and change. For instance, when they go to the occupied territories and come back. It’s a tool to reach out to broader publics, and to educate, and to generate counter-narratives. Especially since in mainstream Jewish formal spaces there are so many restrictive practices, like the policing of questioning. And the movements produce a lot of the reimagining of Jewishness online. Blogs become spaces for alternative liturgies, for the weekly parashot—readings from the Torah—which often reinterpret.
NG: Are there broad lessons that the forms of political work you’ve examined in Days of Awe hold for radical political movements in general?
AO: One of the fascinating facets of these Jewish movements against the occupation and for Palestine solidarity relates to how they participate within a broader struggle for justice. The way, for instance, that Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow understand that they need to fight for the interconnectedness of all the sites of struggle. That they need to fight against homophobia in the US, and that this is absolutely related to the other questions that they’re talking about.
These movements also understand the necessity of focusing on discourse and narrative. They know they need to find ways of changing the story, changing perceptions, changing narratives. Because there is a broader realization on the part of the activists that they’re not only fighting to end the Israeli occupation that is happening in their name, but also, they need to transform the community. So thinking about how to do that really brings to the fore some humanistic engagements: art and very broad coalitions, and actual alternatives—imagined alternatives