Theorizing Modernities article

Zionism and the Politics of Domination: On Protest, Liberty, and the Status Quo

A young man is taking into police custody following during a protest against a parade in Jerusalem on “the Day of Unification” during which anti-Arab slogans were chanted by marchers. Via Flickr User Tal King. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The history of human civilization is a history of domination. Perhaps it began with Cain and Abel, or maybe the serpent and Eve, but in any case, it has continued ever since. Human conflict is almost always rooted in the struggle of those who are dominated against their domination, and then against those who are against domination. To be dominated is not only to be without rights, or to be denied goods and services; it is to live under domination and to be robbed of dignity. It is an erasure of selfhood and self-worth. This underlies the argument in Vincent Lloyd’s excellent new book Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. Lloyd lays out the way Blackness and anti-Blackness in America, from Civil Rights to Black Nationalism, from Afropessimism to Black Optimism, all constitute a struggle to achieve dignity where dignity is denied—and for Black people in America dignity is always denied, even when a Black man becomes president.

Dignity and Respectability

At the outset, Lloyd draws an important distinction between dignity and respectability. “Respectability,” he argues, “is the illusion of dignity.” “Ordinary language often treats ‘dignity’ and ‘respectability’ as interchangeable, yet from the movement perspective, dignity is laudable, respectability indictable. The latter connotes an attempt to perform for a white audience, fulfilling white fantasies of how ‘good’ Black people look and act” (5). Lloyd brings an example of the unconscious way that Joe Biden, as a vice presidential candidate, defined his soon-to-be boss, a Black man, as “clean and articulate” (5). That is, respectable (from the White man’s gaze). That is not dignity. Liberalism, Lloyd argues, and I agree, does not really grant Black people dignity, even as it may aspire to grant them respectability, and even equality. This is why Martin Luther King Jr. was so suspicious of White liberals whose “love of Blacks” may have been, even inadvertently, a “false love.” Lloyd writes, “The love that some of those subject to domination purport to have for the things most associated with their own domination may also prove a false love” (64). One can love those one dominates, but such love does not grant dignity, it rather controls access to society. This is because dignity is a revolutionary struggle against domination, and thus against society, which is why Lloyd provocatively claims that Black Lives Matter (or BLM) does not emerge from multiculturalism but is a rejection of it. As Lloyd sees it, “multiculturalism arose out of a desire to institutionalize—and, consciously or not, contain and control—struggles for racial justice…it is about managing diversity by reducing political claims about domination to claims about the need to recognize and celebrate diverse cultures” (18). It can be likened to the term “civilized,” which Jewish Studies scholar Harry Wolfson noted is not to be legitimized as much as to be “Christianized.”

Black Dignity, Domination, and Zionism

Reading Black Dignity I kept coming back to the question of Zionism and Israel/Palestine, which is a very different conflict. It is one that also revolves around, as most conflicts do, domination. Zionism arguably began as a movement against domination: the domination of Jews in Europe who no longer wanted to live under the aegis of a White Christian society that dominated them, often brutally. Zionism was one answer to the “Jewish Question,”—as Theodore Herzl famously wrote in his 1897 essay “The Jewish Question”—which on one reading is a question of perennial domination, the plight of the unassimilable other. In Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, Immanuel Kant referred to the unassimilable Jews as “the Palestinians among us” (100). So, Zionism was, on this reading, a revolt against European Christian domination. And by escaping the “Jewish Question” they created the “Arab Question,” and many early Zionists knew that when they coined the term “the Arab Question.” That is, by becoming liberated from domination, they became dominators. Was this inevitable? My answer is an equivocal yes, except among very few such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt, as well as others such as Hayyim ben Kiki (1889-1936), who understood the dangers of domination, and warned Zionist leaders against it, to no avail.

Having said that, the early Zionists in Palestine were the distinct minority, and domination is often, but not always, the privilege of the majority (the classic counter example being South Africa and colonialism more generally). And yes, as Jonathan Graubart notes in his new book Jewish Self-Determination beyond Zionism, “long before the Biltmore declaration (1942) or even the Peel Commission (1936), the Zionist movement had declared and implemented a set of policies aimed to bring Jewish predominance and diminish the status of the majority indigenous population…. The leaders’ primary concern was Jewish predominance, not a shared space with Palestinians” (21). Domination which required a demographic project of becoming a majority through settler colonial mechanisms, and not equal co-existence, may not have been operational in pre-state Mandate Palestine but it was arguably aspirational, as Alon Confino recently argued in his essay “The Nakba and the Zionist Dream of an Ethnonational State.” Dominance needn’t be violent, in many cases it is institutional and structural, it is the way a population with power treats a population under its power. And yet, as Lloyd riffs on Lauryn Hill’s 2012 song “Black Rage,” “at its heart [domination] is about violence to souls, about making a human believe she is actually less than human, about making domination seem right and natural” (40). In the language of Afropessimism, borrowing a term from sociologist Orlando Peterson, it is about “social death.”

Naturalizing Domination

Domination often hides behind the veil of “security,” making it “unfortunate” but “necessary.”  This is true of American anti-Blackness. Here we can think of Black men being seen as threatening to White women (or their White husbands) in the Jim Crow south, the urban ghetto as a hotbed of crime—potential and actual—that required increased measures of policing and security. In Israel/Palestine domination is programmatically justified by security. But of course, there is both a real concern and a circularity to the argument. Security is a subjective category, it depends upon who is defining an imminent threat and who is able to question it. And domination itself procures the rage that makes the dominated more threatening. One need only view the film The Battle of Algiers to see how this plays out in horrific ways under a regime of domination. And as James Baldwin said in a 1961 interview, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time—and part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.” Insubordination doesn’t exist before subordination, it is produced by it. The real question about the Intifada that broke out in Israel in 1989, after twenty years of occupation, and forty years since the Nakba, is not why it happened, but why it took so long to happen.

Security is a subjective category, it depends upon who is defining an imminent threat and who is able to question it. And domination itself procures the rage that makes the dominated more threatening.

Lloyd tells us, “Domination tells a false story, and it contaminates our perception to make that story seem true” (159). As I see it, Zionism as it is being lived today in Israel and promoted in the diasporas, largely tells a false story. Or, perhaps, it is a distortion of a true story. Zionism may have been a necessary solution to an intractable problem of European Jewry. But a solution to domination is not domination. Many early Zionists understood the precarity of the “Arab Question,” or perhaps today we might call it the “Palestinian Question,” even claiming that the success or failure of Zionism depended on how it was addressed. But the “Arab Question” is hardly talked about these days. Domination has become so institutionalized and structurally embedded in Israeli society that the question itself has all but disappeared. There still may be a question about how to deal with, manage, or resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict, but the “Arab Question” within Zionism has largely become moot. Zionism as lived in the state of Israel is a form of Jewish domination, even in benevolent terms. Among many Israeli Jews, there is no “Arab Question” anymore.

Reframing the Question of Zionism

In the early days of Zionism there was a category called “the good Arab.” The good Arab, not unlike America’s Uncle Tom, was not “good” because they were unthreatening but good because they succumbed to domination. As Hillel Cohen writes in his 2010 book Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, “The aspiration was to reshape Arab consciousness and identity in accordance with the hegemonic Israeli worldview by controlling society’s political discourse. Through its [Arab] loyalists, the state sought to indoctrinate Arab schoolchildren with the Zionist narrative…to promote obedience to the authorities, and to challenge non-Israeli national identities” (3). The “good Arab” is one who accepts Jewish domination and even protects it through collaboration.

Critics of Zionism often use negative terms to describe the relationship between the Jew and the Palestinian in Israel: Jewish superiority, Jewish supremacy, Jewish chauvinism, ethnonationalism, etc. Defenders of Zionism often cry foul, claiming that these terms are derogatory, overly polemical, and misleading. I too have occasionally used such terms and I think they apply to some extent, knowing their complexity but also frustrated with how to describe a reality of systemic injustice. This is one reason I found Lloyd’s book so helpful. Lloyd seeks to re-frame the question of anti-Blackness in America outside the common descriptors such as White supremacy, systemic racism, etc. He does not deny that they point toward something real, but also acknowledges that they do little to move the majority toward a real confrontation with the injustices the US perpetuates. Choosing the language of domination and dignity, less volatile but no less cutting, offers a different way to assess the reality in which we live.

Zionism as lived in the state of Israel is a form of Jewish domination, even in benevolent terms. Among many Israeli Jews, there is no ‘Arab Question’ anymore.

I think that domination and dignity are also useful terms to describe the situation of Palestinians in Israel. To illustrate the nature of domination of the Arab minoritized in Israel, Asa’d Ghanem in his 2010 essay “State and Minority in Israel: The Case of Ethnic State and the Predicament of its Minority,” offers a helpful distinction. The more common approach to the minoritized Arab in Israel, certainly among many Jewish Israelis and many scholars, is what Ghanem calls the “normal development approach.” As he writes, “this approach describes the development of the Palestinians in Israel as resembling that of other minorities in the Western democracies” (438). That is, since 1948 Palestinian Israelis have developed along two lines: Palestinization through an increasing identification with their belonging to the Palestinian people; and Israelization through their experience as Israeli citizens. In short, he states that many scholars suggest that Arabs in Israel are going through a process of normal development, including ethnic identity formation and integration into a wider society.

Ghanem contests this claim to suggest another approach, what he calls the “predicament development approach.” On this approach, Palestinian Israelis are not faced with a normal case of minority integration but are faced with “state policy that is rooted in the ‘settler society’ behavior, which characterizes the Jewish majority views and the state policy toward the Arab citizens” (444). In short, Palestinian Israelis confront state policies of domination that actually prevent, or at least dissuade, Israelization (unless they are willing to succumb to such domination). This pushes them further toward Palestinization, which can sometimes lead to radicalization and, even if it doesn’t, does lead to a sense of permanent marginalization, which is different than simply minority status. To those who would note that Palestinian Israelis enjoy increasing success in Israeli society, I would counter that may be so, but that is about respectability, and not dignity. It may be true that many Palestinian Israelis enjoy better lives than their Arab counterparts in other Arab countries. But that again is about respectability and not dignity. There is no dignity granted to a population living under domination; and domination remains the state policy in Israel, even codified into law in the 2018 Nation State Law that claimed that Israel is the state of the “Jewish people.” That is, Palestinian Israelis can live in Israel, they can be citizens of Israel, but Israel is not their country, it is the country of the Jewish people.

The Limits of Protest

This brings us to the Spring 2023 protests in Israel. The impending judicial “reforms” in Israel have ignited massive protests. This is because these reforms would erode the autonomy of the judiciary and thus the very existence of democracy. All of this is true and laudable and I support the protests. What the protests are not about though, or certainly not primarily about, is systemic Jewish domination. There may be many good reasons why the protest organizers chose to sideline the occupation; for example, their desire to create the broadest coalition possible. But in doing so they have chosen to leave the status quo of domination in place. Hopefully, these protests will pivot from the erosion of democracy for Jewish Israelis, to the limited democracy of Palestinian Israelis, and then to the lack of democracy for Palestinians living in the West Bank and those under blockade in Gaza. The hazard of such a pivot is that the protests may get much smaller because a true protest against the erosion of democracy will be a protest against a society of domination, what some Israelis might simply call “majoritarianism,” but what are more accurately described in my view as state polices of Jewish domination, even if enacted benevolently.

There is no dignity granted to a population living under domination; and domination remains the state policy in Israel, even codified into law in the 2018 Nation State Law that claimed that Israel is the state of the ‘Jewish people.’

Confronting domination, Lloyd argues, echoing Critical Race Theorists and many in the BLM movement, calls for societal revolution. Domination is not incrementally erased, in fact, incrementalism is often the enemy of the battle against domination. This is clear in Lloyd’s criticism of multiculturalism as a tool for muting calls for justice by regulating diversity. In this way, the protests, as constructive as they are, have exposed a deeper fissure in Israeli society, namely that Israel is a society where the Jewish majority structurally dominates the Arab minority in ways it is not willing to abandon. It is willing to grant respectability to the Arab, but not dignity. Of course, Jewish “majority” is itself a complicated term since it all depends on how one counts and how one relegates territory. If one includes the occupied territories and includes all its residents, most of whom are under Israeli sovereignty (perhaps excluding Gaza which is more complicated) then the Jewish majority largely collapses or is certainly greatly diminished. However, majoritarianism has been from the early days of Zionism the sine qua non of Zionism’s success and Israel functions politically and militarily as a majority even as its claim of majoritarianism is itself a product of domination.

What the protests show is that the “Arab Question” and the “good Arab” are largely things of the past. In fact, the protests are not really about the Palestinian at all even as we do see anti-occupation signs scattered throughout the crowd. They are largely about democracy for the Jew, which of course will impact the Arab. The settler state that has cultivated and continues to cultivate brutal domination over the Palestinian Israeli sector is now turning against the liberals, as should have been predicted. One should also mention the Mizrahi Left who have their own claims against the domination of the Ashkenazi-dominated government which, while not as extreme as it was during the Wali Salib protests in 1959 or the founding of the Israeli Black Panthers in the early 1970s, still remains a fissure in the Israeli social fabric.

The liberals are those who do not quite contest domination—they do not contest Zionism as an ideology of domination, which I believe it is—but seek respectability (yet not dignity) for their Palestinean neighbor. In this way, they have become the enemy of the brutality of domination exercised by the present far-right government, but also to some extent the enablers, and certainly the beneficiaries, of the structures of domination.

Shaul Magid
Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, and the Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical (Princeton University Press, 2021), and The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance (New York: Ayin Press). He is an elected member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the American Society for the Study of Religion.

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