The Threat of Race

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The Threat of Race by David Theo Goldberg Now available from Blackwell Publishing and

Monday January 5, 2009


Posted by David Theo Goldberg 1 comment(s)

If anyone really thought the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine was a viable one, the logic underscoring the ongoing devastation in Gaza should put that to rest. Every missile fired and rocket launched, every mounting death and destroyed home or business, mosque, school, or (potentially) hospital, is a blow to a corpse already rotting. The idea is being buried along with the dead.

What is taking place in Gaza today is less about security than it is a political calculus concerning pending Israeli elections. It is certainly not about safety—more Israelis have been killed by rockets since the bombing began than in the past year; and Israeli rocket deaths in the past week have made up more than a quarter of such deaths since Hamas began the practice of launching home made rockets into southern Israel.

This is not the first time local electoral politics have dictated military action. If the ground invasion Israel launched today into Gaza manages to wipe away rocket launching facilities, they will only be replaced, once again, by suicide missions.  Hamas has already dialed up that response. Indeed, such logics and counter-logics have become predictable staples of domestic politics in Israel. 

The Gaza attacks today are about redemption and reaffirmation. But redemption and reaffirmation purchased with the deadly coin of repression. Redemption in the Israeli electorate’s eyes for the failures of Gaza.  Reaffirmation for the Israeli public of its sense of power in the region, tarnished so badly by the failures in Lebanon.  Israeli politics, once more, are being played out over the lives and deaths of Palestinians. Sharon’s shadow continues to fall far across the landscape.

Debates, such as they are, about a two-state solution are a distraction. Israel has given no indication beyond soft rhetoric that it has any intention (ever?) of enabling a viable, sovereign, economically and politically independent Palestinian state, centered either in the West Bank or Gaza, hostile or peaceful.  Landlocked, the West Bank would have to depend either on foreign countries (including Israel) or on an increasingly distant Gaza for its lifeline to a world beyond Israeli constraint.  The legacy of relying on foreign countries, of course, is one of dependence and economic control, not self-determination and political viability.

Neither Gaza nor the West Bank now has the viable infrastructure of a sovereign state: no international airport or working port of its own, no viable rail system, no economic base on which to build.   No highway grid that is not completely controlled by Israel. Gaza has a coastline on one side useful only to the Israeli navy to launch sea assaults.  All of the territories’ natural assets above or below ground (land, water, air) Israel does or can command—open or close, confiscate or even destroy–at whim. Institutions, whether governing or administrative buildings, schools and colleges, even hospitals become strategic targets of Israeli repression and control as soon as they exhibit any political or indeed self-sustaining economic promise.

One could go further.  There is no viable sovereign state one can point to in recent history that has emerged from, has survived and sustained itself, between two land masses set apart by a more powerful sovereign state between it that has been hostile from the outset to its very existence.  And the hostility of which has been predicated on seeing their respective peoples as constitutively, constitutionally—which is also to say, racially—distinct.

Israel has been a racial state from the moment it appeared as a gleam in the eye of its principal dreamers.  Herzl used the language of race explicitly, and not just because it was the coinage of the day. The very terms of racial logic were built into his argument, as they have been explicitly or implicitly into many of Israel’s leaders and protagonists since (for an elaboration of the argument, see Chapter Four of The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)).

There have been concerns about the current round of devastation expressed—by the UN and EU, by the US government and the like—but mainstream outrage at the carnage has been muted at most. Once again petitions and public expressions of condemnation have begun to circulate, though important as they are it remains unclear what larger effect, immediate or longer term, they might have.  We are certainly far from anything like a global anti-apartheid movement.

For every Israeli citizen killed, there have now been more than 100 Gazans and mounting daily, a quarter of whom have been non-militant civilians on conservative UN counts. Where the unqualified condemnation by political leaders of the repression, of the ongoing restrictions and violations of the most basic of human rights that Israel continues daily to conduct? 

It is amazing the slippage from outright rejection expressed not so long ago of “an eye for any eye” as a viable moral calculus (and still circulated when it comes to some other parts of the world) to pretty much wanton silence when the Israeli state so blatantly and repeatedly violates even that maxim. Sarkozy has been about the only at least Western state head to date to call Israeli reaction to the rocket attacks “disproportionate.”

Many of us have been buoyed in many ways by Barack Obama’s election. His administration promises a vast improvement in general over the past eight years. Yet it remains dismaying that he has proved so far reticent to condemn or at least admonish Israel even while justifiably critical of Hamas. That he is on record as saying that if his daughters were threatened by rocket attacks he too would want to strike back gives pause at the one-sidedness of the comprehension: if it’s okay for one side to retaliate to threat of possible death surely the weight of Palestinian suffering under Israeli destruction meets the measure many times over. 

And yet that logic on both sides leads only to the incessant carnage we now witness. 

Israel’s onslaught in Gaza is far worse than it was in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, as bad as that was.  Lebanon is a sovereign country.  During the attacks targeted people in the south could move, even out of the target zones. They were much more dispersed. Those engaged in resistance to Lebanon’s invasion were better equipped, probably better trained, certainly better nourished, and knowing the landscape better than the invaders. 

Gaza lacks any political power certainly with respect to the world beyond its fences, and besides appealing morally to the conscience of that world.  People cannot move, they are concentrated, with relatively few resources, much easier hits by overhead aggression in a space lacking any anti-aircraft defense. 

The dissembling rationalizations of Israeli government spokespeople mimic the Bush administration’s wanton distortions of the Iraqi invasion. Our war is not with the Palestinian people but with the Hamas terrorists. We do not target civilians but Hamas places its military operations in the midst of populous cities, using civilians as human shields. We have opened crossings into Gaza allowing convoys of food and medicine to reach civilians. How humane. As an ambulance tending to the wounded is bombed, schools and colleges considered rocket factories blown up, Gaza residents reduced to one meal of bread and basics a day, to digging tunnels to smuggle in basic goods from Egypt.  More truthfully, the Israeli Defense Minister declared at the outset, “This is our shock and awe.” We all know what came of that logic in Iraq.

Gaza, in short, is a prison camp, a holding pen, a concentration camp.  What, exactly, are the significant differences from the Warsaw Ghetto at the time of its encirclement, besides the identity of its residents (see David Lloyd’s “Gaza and the Ghetto” Gaza is not a colony, not a separate state, but a racially predicated object of repressive administration, of racial governmentality.

The current decimation of Gaza, then, needs to be understood not simply as another one-time intervention as Israeli elections approach, but as part of a longer, ongoing strategy to make impossible the emergence of a Palestinian state, now or perhaps ever. Hamas, born a pawn of Israeli politics, has become a partner of sorts in this end-game, caught up as much in this (il)logic of impossibility as it traps the population it was elected to represent in repeated cycles of devastation. Fatah, seeming to outgrow that logic at least for the moment, now seems equally caught in the illusion of the two-state solution.

As many have pointed out, there is–there has to be–at least another way not predicated on violence and counter-violence, not on the right of might but the power of right(s).

So, looking forward, are we talking in the case of Israel-Palestine—of its prospects politically, economically, culturally, constitutionally (I pointedly use the singular here)—of a the possibility, the horizon, of a single cohering state, or of two or three racial states? I am suggesting that the two-state conception on the ground has splintered almost inevitably into the three-state one, in the ceaseless spiral of divide and conquer, destroy and control. The two-state solution is a pipe dream exploded every so often beneath the logics of bombs and bombast, rockets and retaliation, repression and resistance. They give rise to nothing but grief and grievance for all on both sides of the manufactured divide.

What is left is a choice—if the freedom to choose is even a possibility here—between three states and one: On one side, Israel, the Fatah West Bank, the Hamas Gaza, the very distinctions ethnoracially and religiously predicated, endlessly divided and divisive, destructive and dashing dreams. If Gaza is a concentration camp, the West Bank is more akin to a repressive colony, settlers and all. On the other side of choice is to be found a single state, predicated on human engagement with each other, messy to be sure, fraught at least at the outset. But with a chance for each and all to participate fully beyond ethnoracial identification and repression(and yes, the same argument would apply elsewhere). 

Another pipe dream, castles in the desert sand? Perhaps.  Yet this is a hope, in a time hope has been rekindled as a strategy for political mobilization, far better than the bankruptcy of  bombs, bombast, endless burials,  and the advancement of ethnoracially profiled prospects for some built on  the bitterness of futile futures for the rest.

A single state for Israelis and Palestinians may be the idea that now needs serious collective consideration, the hope and horizon to reach for.

One response to “FINAL DEATH-BLOW TO THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION? by David Theo Goldberg”

  1. Frank Brown says:

    I agree with your assessment of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It is important to analyze both sides before passing judgment (unlike so many people). One must look at the history behind these two in order to understand how complex, and seemingly, hopeless this conflict has become.

    I understand arguments from both camps, but I empathize more for the Palestinians. Like you said, they are imprisoned without a significant political voice, nor protection. They were allocated land in the UN Mandate, but have never been able to set foot on it.

    The thousands of civilians that have died because of the recent retaliation attack by Israel has only fueled more hatred. As the primary actor, Israel needs to take a non-violent approach. This conflict will never end unless they are willing to concede in some areas. Sadly, I don’t think the hardliners in the Israeli Government will let this happen.

    DUI lawyer

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