Gilad Atzmon: Postcolonial Theory, Whiteness & Palestine
Postcolonial, feminist and gay studies share many similarities to the extent that some academics regard these fields as theoretically and ideologically complementary. These fields of study are primarily concerned with politics, the structure of hegemony, the oppressed and the mechanism that brings about injustice. It is only natural then, that these realms of thought, primarily concerned with prejudice and injustice, would become key instruments in our understanding of Zionism and Israeli oppression.
Without questioning the intellectual validity and the theoretical substance of the postcolonial spectrum of thought, it is clear that some contemporary leading trends within this realm of studies emphasize the role of ‘White male’ and the ‘phallus’ as being at the core of contemporary Western society’s malaise. So the next question is almost inevitable –Where does it leave the ‘White male’? Or more anecdotally, am I, a person who happens to be wrapped in pale skin and is also attached to a white phallic organ, do I bear responsibility for centuries of European genocides? Would my responsibility lessen once I decide to chop my male organ off? Am I, or any other White male, left with any authentic ethical role? Or are we biologically doomed to be the epitome of every wrongdoing of the Western society for generations? The astute postcolonial theorist may suggest that ‘Masculinity’, ‘Whiteness’ and the ‘Phallus’ are mere symbolic representations rather than ‘things in themselves’.
Some postcolonial and feminist theoreticians would argue that imperialism, like patriarchy is, after all, a ‘phallo-centric’, ‘supremacist’, ‘White’ ideology that subjugates and dominates its subjects. This is an interesting and even intriguing statement, yet I am not so sure that it is valid or at all relevant to our understanding of Zionism and the crimes committed by the Jewish state. Zionism and Israel are clearly supremacist ideologies, yet is AIPAC’s push for a war against Iran ‘phallo-centric’? Is the Zionist appetite for Palestinian land ‘patriarchal’, or inspired by any form of ‘phallic’ enthusiasm or even ‘Whiteness’? Is the ‘War against Terror’ that left about one and a half million fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘phallicly’ orientated or is it the White male again?
Let’s face it, Zionism, Israeli politics and Jewish Lobbying are not particularly ‘phallo-centric’ or ‘patriarchal’. They also have little to do with ‘Whiteness’. Zionism, and Israel are actually primarily ‘Judeo-centric’ to the bone. They are racially driven and fuelled by a particular supremacist culture that is inspired by some aspects of Talmudic Goy hating and some sporadic (and false) Old Testament (false) interpretations. But this is exactly the verdict the postcolonial scholar attempts to prevent us from reaching. It is especially embarrassing because Israelis and Zionists openly draw their inspiration and expansionist enthusiasm from Jewish culture and texts, which they interpret in a very particular self-serving manner.
In spite of the fact that this discourse, in its current form, is pretty much, irrelevant to our understanding of Zionism and Israel, this postcolonial discourse is still, very popular amongst some anti Zionists and in particular, Jewish anti Zionists. The reason is pretty simple; it is effective in diverting attention from the real issues; it disguises the magnitude of Jewish power, Jewish politics, the inherent ‘Jewish’ nature of the ‘Jewish State’ and Jewish intellectual hegemony within the west and the Left in particular. Within the realm of the postcolonial discourse we are not even allowed to mention the ‘J word’, let alone criticise Jewish lobbying or Jewish power structures.
In fact, the postcolonial discourse, allows its acolytes to talk endlessly and passionately about Israel and Zionism without saying anything meaningful. It allows the Left to refer to Zionism as ‘settler colonialism’ in spite of the embarrassing fact that no one actually knows where or what exactly is the Jewish ‘mother state’ is. Postcolonial scholars also encourage us to refer to Israel as an Apartheid state in spite of the fact that Apartheid is a racially driven system of exploitation of the indigenous. The Postcolonial enthusiast would obviously turn a blind eye to the fact that Israel is not interested in exploitation of the Palestinians. It prefers to see them gone. Hence, since it aims to get rid of the indigenous, Israel should be realised as an avid follower of the Lebensraum (Living-space) philosophy. From that perspective at least, Israel should be equated with Nazi Germany rather than with South Africa.
The postcolonial discourse, in its current form, allows its anti Zionist enthusiasts to spin endlessly. They can refer to Israel and Zionism without actually disturbing, hurting or even touching Israelis, Zionists and Jewish political structures. The postcolonial theorist is basically engaged in an attack on an imaginary phantasmic construction that has zero relevance to Zionist ideology or Israeli politics whatsoever. It is basically an advanced form of an intellectual onanism.
Like Rabbinical Judaism and Stalinism, the postcolonial discourse is extremely intolerant towards dissent and criticism. It surrounds itself with a defense wall, operates as an intellectual ghetto. In fact, it also invented political correctness just to police and curtail, by means of self-censorship, any freedom of expression.
Arab and Palestinian Postcolonial Scholarship
One of the most influential postcolonial thinkers was Palestinian- American literary theorist Edward Said. Said’s polemic, Orientalism (1979) was a deeply profound attempt to grasp the West’s vision of the Orient, the colony and Islam. The term Orientalism, as coined by Said, covers three interrelated meanings. First, it names the academic study of the Orient. Secondly, it is a form of deliberation that constitutes the Arab as the ‘other’. Thirdly, it is the structures that maintain Western domination over the Orient.
Being an outstanding creative intellect, Said engaged in a vast examination of a multitude of Orientalist discourse. His writings refer to political and historical texts as well as literature and media. Said obviously realised the immense importance of cultural criticism and cultural studies.
Confusingly, some of Edward Said’s Palestinian and Arab successors seem to oppose the very field of study Said championed. For example, as much as Said was immersed in deep cultural examination and discourse analysis, Palestinian activist and academic Ali Abunimah recently claimed the following. “We should be very clear in condemning explanations which try to blame a culture or a religion for a political situation.“ Abunimah basically believes that culture doesn’t explain ‘anything at all’. It seems to me that Abunimah, who often integrates the term ‘Orientalism’ into his political statements and tweets, is apparently unfamiliar with the intellectual core of Edward Said’s thought and methodology.
Ali Abunimah is not happy at all with my reading of the conflict. This is understandable and totally legitimate and furthermore, he is not alone. Other exiled Palestinians seem also to be very concerned. Their outrage at my argument that Israel is not a European style colonial state implies that they fear the end to a discourse in which they have invested so much. Some of those Palestinians were very happy to add their names to the list of book burners who demanded my disavowal. This was indeed a very sad turn – futile, yet, at the same time both revealing and predictable. Though those Arab and Palestinian scholars criticized my work for being ‘racist’ without providing a single racist comment by me, it was disappointing to discover that, it was in fact their writing that was actually saturated with biological determinist comments and peppered with blunt racism.
Recently we came across a video of cultural BDS leader Omar Barghouti exploring some ‘postcolonial’ ideas. He for instance, insisted that “the white race is the most violent in the history of mankind.” This is an outrageous sweeping generalization especially since , Barghouti surely knows that Zionism is Judeo-centric and has very little to do with Whiteness. It is not the degree of ‘Whiteness’ that constitutes the racist element within the Israeli legal system, it is rather the ‘degree of Jewishness’ that makes an Arab Jew privileged in comparison to a Palestinian with a very similar skin colour. Omar Barghouti is studying in a ‘Zionist’ Tel Aviv university (while asking the rest of us to boycott the same university). Seemingly, he has internalised the Zionist academic postcolonial jargon and has integrated and implemented some biological determinist and racist ideas into his pro-Palestinian political thinking.
And Omar Barghouti is not alone. Assad Abu Khalil, AKA The Angry Arab, is another postcolonial enthusiast who also engages in a similar racially driven approach. In his blog post White Man and Paul Newman, Angry AbuKhalil writes “the White Man is not a racial category–or it is not merely a racial category but also a political and epistemological category.” Not only does Angry Arab agree that the ‘White Man’ is partially a racial category, he even goes as far as linking skin colour with a political stand and even epistemology.
Of course, I realise that being an Arab academic in a Zionised American or British university is a tough mission. I guess that for some time the postcolonial discourse was the only possible template that allowed a criticism of Israel and Zionism. But the time is ripe to move on. We’d better now call a spade a spade. It is time to call Israel what it is, namely “The Jewish State”. The time has come to ask what the Jewish State is all about and what is the true meaning of the Jewish symbols that decorate Israeli tanks and airplanes? The time has come for us to grasp that the Jewish Lobby is a primary threat to world peace.
But can we do it all while being thought-policed by the rigid boundaries of the postcolonial realm? Can we talk about Jewish identity politics while some prominent Palestinians activists attempt – to block any discussion on Jewish culture & power? My answer is yes we can, and we’d better make every possible effort to liberate our discourse from the Judeo-centric postcolonial grip.
Whiteness, The Jew & The Queer
In the last few weeks I have wondered why Omar Barghouti attacks the ‘White race’? Is it really necessary? Couldn’t he just refer to the ‘West’, America, Orientalism or the ‘British Empire’? Why does Angry Arab fight the White man? Is it really an elementary political category? Does the introduction of racial categories and biological determinism serve the Palestinian cause or Arab liberation? I decided to jump into the water and immersed myself in some contemporary texts about whiteness and postcolonial theory. I thought that it may help me to understand the emergence of such thoughts.
Following the recommendation of my friend and musical partner Sarah Gillespie, one of the first texts I picked was Richard Dyer’s ‘White’. Dyer is a respected film scholar and a leading writer on the topic. It didn’t take more than five pages before I stumbled upon a very interesting passage that opened my eyes. In the next few lines Dyer speaks about his childhood friendship with a Jewish pal and the impact it had on him.
“The key figure here was a Jewish boy at school, whom I’ll call Danny Marker. I used to visit him and his family in Golders Green, a Jewish neighbourhood of London. I knew by then that I was a homosexual and I envied Danny and his family-they too were an oppressed minority, whom, like queers, you could not always spot; but, unlike us, they had this wonderful, warm community and culture and the wrongfulness of their oppression was socially recognised. I now believe that there are intellectual and political problems with making and analogy between Jews and queers, between ethnic and sexual discrimination, but I am trying to say how it felt then. I envied Danny’s ethnicity and wanted to be part of it, indeed, felt at home with it.” (White, Richard Dyer, White Pg 5)
In The Wandering Who, I wrote extensively about the clear ideological and theoretical continuum between Zionism and other marginal thoughts. I explored the deep ideological similarity between Queer theory and the Jewish national aspiration. On the one hand we notice a legitimate and reasonable call against injustice – the Zionist and the Queer theorist demand to become ‘people like other people’ a call obviously understood and supported by many. But on the other hand, we also detect another forceful demand – to maintain and preserve uniqueness and differentiation. As one can imagine, the humanist call for equality can easily clash with the forceful self-centric, clannish demand for preservation (especially when celebrated on the expense of others).
However, Richard Dyer explores here another special affinity between the queer and the Jew. As a homosexual he expresses a clear and innocent envy of his Jewish schoolmate’s social landscape. Dyer notices that in spite of being oppressed, the Jews have managed to form a “warm and wonderful community and culture.” Dyer’s feeling at home within the Jewish family nest may explain why Tel Aviv has become a Gay capital. It explains why some prominent Queer activists feel so strongly and positively about the Jewish State, Zionism, Jewish culture and Jewishness in general. But it also may explain why some Arab and exiled Palestinian secular academics, feel some affinity to the Jewish dominated anti Zionist postcolonial nest. Operating as an intellectual ghetto, it may also retain some Jewish characteristics, it is probably a ‘warm community’ as Dyer describes it. It may even be that some Palestinian postcolonial secular academics would feel more comfortable in Tel Aviv University than in Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
I obviously understand it and I am far from being judgmental. But am I naïve to expect Palestinian activists and intellectuals to ensure that the, ‘wrongfulness of Palestinian oppression’ be widely and ‘socially recognised’ by the masses, rather than by a few postcolonial Jewish Anti Zionists? It is time for our discourse to leave the ghetto.
I guess that in order to achieve such a goal, we must transcend the decaying postcolonial discourse or else completely revise it. We must drift away from any form of marginal ideology. We must be able to deconstruct Jewish texts and Jewish cultural discourse with the same vigor that Edward Said deconstructed the European canon, whether it was Charles Dickens or Lord Balfour. We actually better locate the issue of Palestine at the forefront of the battle for a better world, humanity and humanism.
We should engage in an inclusive, open intellectual debate that welcomes all oppressed (queers, gays, Arabs, Muslims, people of colour and so on) and oppressors too. At the end of the day, with 50 million Americans living in deep poverty watching 30.000 drones fly over their heads, Gaza is now in Detroit, Newark and Philadelphia. Our solidarity with Palestine can now become a true force of genuine empathy. We don’t now just put ourselves in the shoes of the Palestinians, we actually wear them. We all strive for the same liberty. We are one.
 If Israel is the Jewish ‘Settler State’ we better be informed at last where is the Jewish ‘mother state’ for colonialism is defined by a clear material, cultural and spiritual exchange between a mother and a settler states.
 It would be wrong not to mention professor Joseph Massad of Columbia University. Following his Mentor Edward Said, Massad also writes about the role of colonialism, its structure, its impact and the scars it left behind. Like Barghouti and Abu Khalil, Massad also refers occasionally to skin colour. Yet, unlike Barghouti and Abu Khalil, Massad seems to be far more careful and astute. Rather than falling into the banal biological determinist trap, he seems to critically refer and examine the role of skin colour from structural, social, cultural and political perspectives.