How Israel Became Exempt From the Global Reckoning Over Racism

World sensitivity to racism and oppression is surging, but historical injustice in Israel is hardly drawing to an end. In fact, it’s only getting worse

Ofri Ilany
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An anti-annexation demonstration in Tel Aviv.
An anti-annexation demonstration in Tel Aviv.Credit: Meged Gozani
Ofri Ilany

For a few weeks, a furious debate has been raging in the German media, centering around the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe. In the eyes of many, Mbembe, who has taught at Yale and Berkeley, is the most influential African intellectual of our time. He is one of the most prominent and most incisive thinkers about postcolonialism in the present period. He coined the term “necropolitics,” referring to the use of political power to determine who will live and who will die.

Mbembe is well known among the educated public in Germany; some of his books have been published there, and he has been the recipient of prestigious awards. He is also an active participant in the debate over the rise of authoritarian regimes worldwide. But the attitude toward him underwent a sea-change lately, when he was accused of being anti-Israel and of “relativizing the Holocaust.”

Felix Klein, Germany’s federal commissioner for the fight against antisemitism, demanded the revocation of Mbembe’s invitation to participate in a culture festival, on the grounds that the philosopher had denied the distinctive status of the Holocaust and had supported BDS. Indeed, Mbembe has frequently likened the colonial occupation of Palestine to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In previous cases, anyone accused of denying Israel’s right to exist would immediately find him- or herself persona non grata in Germany. But in this case, the dilemma was especially difficult. Mbembe is a popular interviewee in the culture and thought columns of the German press; when the opinion of an African intellectual is wanted, he is sought out.

Furthermore, postcolonial theory is a popular field in academic and literary realms in Germany, and the delegitimation of Mbembe spells the complete rejection of that line of thought. What’s the solution? To pontificate about postcolonialism and resistance to racism, but to mark out Israel as a special case to which the rules of the postcolonial debate do not apply.

The German case is exceptional, because German politicians and media outlets are known for their shameless refusal to countenance any and all criticism of Israel. But the Mbembe affair marks a fundamental paradox that characterizes current public discourse in Europe and the United States. Sensitivity toward racism and white arrogance is on the rise in liberal circles. In the wake of the recent protests in the United States, lively discussions are being held on questions of diversity, appropriation and recognition of colonial crimes. Yet simultaneously, the commitment to the Palestinian cause and the struggle against the occupation is on the wane.

In Britain, former Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn mustered considerable support but was marked as a dangerous fanatic mainly because of his statements against Israel. Increasing numbers of platforms and media outlets worldwide can be seen to shy away from even using the word “occupation” – and this is at a time when Israel is declaring its intention to found an almost overtly apartheid regime in the Jordan Valley.

Different rules have always applied to Israel, both from within and without. Here, anti-African racism is more or less official policy. When it comes to asylum seekers in Israel, there isn’t even an attempt to pretend that black lives matter. The authorities work overtime to embitter the lives of refugees from Africa, at times invoking openly white-supremacist rhetoric. Palestinian resistance – even verbal – to the violence of the army, the police and the Shin Bet security service is also classified as “support for terrorism.”

An anti-annexation demonstration in Tel Aviv.
An anti-annexation demonstration in Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Moreover, when soldiers kill a Palestinian child, the Israeli media tend to worry principally about the PR damage the event might entail. The Israeli government knows that there is hardly any effective barrier today against whatever policy it wants to implement in the territories. At most, there will be feeble remonstrations from Europe.

Precisely at a time of a worldwide awakening of opposition to racism, Israel is considering a horrific scenario that the left has been warning about for 50 years: annexation of the territories. At the moment of truth, attempts to prevent the move seem to be both scattered and hesitant. Racism is infuriating, but the occupation is a yawn.

Different explanations exist for the indifference to the Palestinians shown by world public opinion. It’s related to the political changes in the United States and Europe, the disintegration of Arab nationalism and also the weakness of the Palestinian national project. But what’s odd is that the Palestinians don’t especially interest even President Trump’s avowed opponents – all those young, sensitive people who are waking up and venting their wrath on the streets and in the social media. Most of them couldn’t give two hoots about any annexation plan.

Poor visuals

The explanation for this paradox may lie in the fact that the occupation has yet to be transformed into a dilemma associated with the morality of one’s lifestyle. The questions that currently engage the liberal classes touch on the individual’s consumer choices. Should one use cow’s milk or soy milk? Is it right to watch reruns of the television series “Friends” even though there are no blacks in it? And what do we do with the books of J.K. Rowling, who spoke out against trans people? The occupation, in contrast, is an old, musty political issue. It doesn’t have a visual representation like blackface, and to understand what it’s all about you have to be acquainted with maps and historical dates.

In Israel, too, there are many who want to take part in the current discussion about the issues of racism and cultural appropriation. If it plays well in Hollywood and on HBO, naturally it will sooner or later reach Israel’s hip consumers of culture. As such, we can imagine a group of with-it young folks from the Har Adar settlement or from Ariel University conducting a discussion about whether the safari ad campaign featuring model Rotem Sela, for the clothing retailer Castro, is racist, and whether it’s legitimate for a celebrity to have their photo taken for Instagram next to Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Enlightened Israelis too want to engage in historical recognition and reckoning, and to take a knee on behalf of the oppressed.

The problem is that in Israel, historical injustice isn’t even approaching its conclusion. In fact, it’s just getting worse. One can’t deal with processing the crimes of the past when the crimes belong to the present and the future.

Admittedly, issues of the “new politics” – the politics of self, focusing on the body and identity – have shunted the Palestinian question to the margins of consciousness, both in Israel and everywhere else. Even so, perhaps this situation will ultimately give rise to hope for the Palestinian people, which is being crushed under the occupation. Possibly all that’s needed is to adapt resistance to the occupation to the logic of the contemporary political discourse. To frame the anti-Palestinian racism as a question of lifestyle and cultural representation.

Some are already moving in this direction, with slogans like “Palestinian Lives Matter,” but they are having little success. Still, it might happen – if, say, a young Palestinian-American woman who’s queer and vegan is discovered as the next hot thing on Netflix.

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