Free Palestine/Free Israel (II)

Palestinians surrender to Israeli soldiers in June 1967 (The Six Day War) in the occupied territory of the West Bank. Photograph: Pierre Guillaud/AFP

Thus, in some form, the constitutive process of a land-appropriation is found at the beginning of the history of every settled people, every Commonwealth, every empire. This is true as well for the beginning of every historical epoch. Not only logically, but also historically, land appropriation precedes the Order that follows from it. It constitutes the original spatial order, the source of all further concrete Order and all further law. It is the reproductive root in the normative Order of history. All further property relations — communal or individual, public or private property, and all forms of possession and use in society and in international law — are derived from this radical title. All subsequent law and everything promulgated and enacted thereafter as decrees and commands are nourished, to use Heraclitus’ word, by this source.

Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth


The 20th century, militant Russian Zionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s essay The Iron Wall (1928) lays out with clinically elegant language the settler-colonialist logic of the project of creating a Jewish state in Palestine.

While confessing emotional “polite indifference to the Arabs”, politically, matters could not be so easily ignored, and this for two reasons: “First of all, I consider it utterly impossible to eject the Arabs from Palestine. There will always be two nations in Palestine – which is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority” and secondly, while promising to do nothing to violate the principle of equality in relations with the Arabs, and therefore, never to endeavour to expel anyone from Palestine, it would nevertheless be extremely unlikely that Jewish colonisation of Palestine could be peaceful, for the simple reason that no native population, historically, ever consented to being colonised. “Every native population, civilised or not, regards its lands as its national home, of which it is the sole master, and it wants to retain that mastery always; it will refuse to admit not only new masters but, even new partners or collaborators.”

And a native population will resist as long as “it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.”

For Jabotinsky, the Zionist ambition was clear and obvious: promote Jewish migration to Palestine, such that Jews become the territory’s ethnic-demographic majority, leading then, inevitably, to a Jewish state. And this could only occur against the desire and will of the Arabs.

“Colonisation can have only one aim, and Palestine Arabs cannot accept this aim. It lies in the very nature of things, and in this particular regard nature cannot be changed.”

To have a Jewish state depend on some sort of agreement between Jews and Arabs would be to give up on a Jewish state. It would simply not be possible.

And therefore, while Jabotinsky recognised the principle of equal rights for all nations, his understanding of the Zionist project and the conditions necessary for its realisation – as an exercise in colonisation – implied, inevitably, the threat and use of violence; what he called “the iron wall” of state power and which the “native population cannot breach”.

As for the “morality” of such a ethnic-political project, Jabotinsky affirms that the justice of the cause is simply inherent in it, that is, from the perspective of Zionism, the colonisation of Palestine is morally acceptable.

Some manner of agreement will eventually be possible with the Arabs, but only when their hope in maintaining their independence against the Jewish colonists is erased.  

“But the only way to obtain such an agreement, is the iron wall, which is to say a strong power in Palestine that is not amenable to any Arab pressure. In other words, the only way to reach an agreement in the future is to abandon all idea of seeking an agreement at present.”

The law of the coloniser – and their “generosity” toward the colonised – will be laid down by the victor, by they who control the land and the people entitled to it.


In speaking of Jabotinsky’s, here, it is in effect to establish a resonance between his unashamedly Jewish-Zionist colonialist aspirations and Carl Schmitt’s reading of the law, of the nomos, as rooted in the dominion and government of land; that the radical title to land is grounded in appropriation and that sovereign state law is born of this foundational violence.

The history of peoples, with their migrations, colonisations, and conquests, is a history of land-appropriation. Either this is the appropriation of free land, with no claim to ownership, or it is the conquest of alien land, which has been appropriated under legal titles of foreign-political warfare or by domestic-political means, such as the proscription, deprivation, and forfeiture of newly divided territory. Land-appropriation is always the ultimate legal title for all further division and distribution, thus for all further production. It is what John Locke called radical title. (Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, 1950)

The much celebrated “rule of law” then is not the reign of abstract, “universal” principles common to all, but rules governed in and through the domination of land, a domination of inclusion and exclusion.

Or to put it differently, it is not law which sustains and governs a state’s forces of order and violence, but the forces of order and violence that generate laws to secure an original ordering (of space and time).


And while not suggesting that the politics of Jewish migration to Palestine in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, nor the politics of Israeli governments since the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948, can simply be read off Jabotinsky’s essay, there is a lucidity in his understanding of Zionism which echoes loudly in both of these forces.

In an excellent documentary entitled the Law in these Parts, the filmmaker Ra’anan Alexandrowicz explores the ways in which Israeli law and military power in the “occupied” territories of the post-1967 war are in fact inseparable and that it is the latter which ultimately shapes, if not dictates, the former, with all of the inevitably violent consequences of colonial rule; or, following Jabotinsky, the consequences of Israel’s “iron wall”.


There was fundamental irreconcilable between Israeli’s or the Zionist movement and Palestinians. It wasn’t about reconciliation, it wasn’t about living in the past, it wasn’t about all this other stuff. It really was about land. And unless you devise a category by which land is not exclusively owned, there’s no hope. And what the Israelis were doing and have done since the beginning, since the 19th century until now, as the Zionist movement, is take more and more land and Palestinians have lost more and more land. And there’s no way of reconciling between these two sort of opposing movements. One losing and dispossessing and the other, I mean, losing land and being dispossessed and the other one taking more. And that’s where I came to the conclusion that the only sensible resolution, given the obstinacy and obduracy of the Israelis, who had so much power thanks to United States, that they could afford to ignore the facts and reality, was to think about a way in which they could live together as equals, not on a partitioned land, but as equals on a land called Palestine, or Palestine-Israel … in which people were equal and not defined by their ethnos or by their religion.

The words are Edward Said’s, stated in a final (video recorded) interview from 2003. And the words not only recall his defence of a single state “solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also point to something that lies beyond any state solution: “unless you devise a category by which land is not exclusively owned, there’s no hope.” Without wishing to attribute anything here to Said, beyond his own beliefs, we venture to say that what he affirms puts into question the weight and inevitability of a constellation of concepts (the “law” – following Schmitt –, the “state” and “sovereignty”) that take us away from the logic of coloniser-colonised altogether (against Jabotinsky’s Zionism). What this “category” is that must be devised, according to Said, we do not know. The idea of it however calls upon us to imagine a different relation to the earth, to the world, that is free of spatial division and borders, free of the armed forces that make such divisions real, and free of the reign of state-centred law.        

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2 Responses to Free Palestine/Free Israel (II)

  1. CyberDandy says:

    I know you wrote, “And while not suggesting that the politics of Jewish migration to Palestine in the late 19th and throughout the 20th century, nor the politics of Israeli governments since the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948, can simply be read off Jabotinsky’s essay, there is a lucidity in his understanding of Zionism which echoes loudly in both of these forces.” but I don’t know if you appreciate the problem with this method of historical analysis. If you take something happening now and use a so-called regressive method of analysis, you construct a false determinism. Looking through the past for the genetic components of something happening now tends to distort the political choices that were made in the contexts they were made in. This is why people like Lefebve and Sartre recommend a regressive-progressive method. Zionists, in their fairly vast diversity, made choices throughout 1881-1948 and beyond that continued to move rightward and those choices were made in conflict situations (which tend to encourage authoritarianism). Examining that history progressively (from Zionisms origins forward) challenges the regressive narrative (from Israeli colonial activity backwards) that Zionism is inherently settler-colonial.

    The real severity of the problem though is that Zionism taps into something basic to all Jews: the awareness of Israel as their place of their origin. The idea of returning to the Land of Israel was another idea that Zionists argued for with various programs for how that should be done and what should be done afterwards. A lot of weight is put on the foreignness of Zionists to Palestine to claim that their project is fundamentally settler-colonialist, which is something that conflicts with what Jews understand about their own history. These things need to be teased out to avoid the very antisemitic claim that Jews aren’t actually from Eretz Yisrael, that they are foreigners, and therefor Zionism is settler-colonialist.

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    It was not our intention, as you yourself quote, to reduce the history of Jewish migration to Palestine from the end of the 19th century and the politics of the state of Israel since its founding to the writings – indeed, one essay – of one man. But nor was it our intention to tell the story of the complex history of that migration and the Israeli state. Others have done so far more competently than we could.

    We share therefore your concern with any simple “regressive” analysis of the present. And we share Karl Marx’s often quoted passage from the The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” And the many circumstances that pushed and pulled at the plurality of Zionist voices and practices, since its foundations, were not the consequence of one or even of a few Zionist writers. And therefore responsibility for acts, the many acts of historical consequence of the Israeli state and of other “historical” actors, cannot be lightly attributed. To quote Jean-Paul Sartre’s Search for a Method (the introduction to his Critique of Dialectical Reason), “if History escapes me, this is not because I do not make it; it is because the other is making it as well.”

    And yet decisions and actions were taken and assumed, in the face of changing circumstances. And of the many possibilities that were open in the past, some were acted upon and others were set aside. And again, as a consequence, an increasingly aggressive and violent form of Zionism would manifest itself in politics of ethnic cleansing, of segregation, of occupation and colonisation. These can all be considered as parts of the Zionist project – to emply Sartre’s term, within the plurality that was and is Zionism and such a project (itself, complex) was always, and remains, an overwhelming part of the reality of Zionism for Palestinians.

    And yet it is precisely because the Zionist project was never monolithic, that its past was marked by tensions and the projects that it carried within it would be and are the object of political struggle, that other possibilities/projects remain. To disentangle these possibilities should be the work of ethically concerned Zionists and Jews (and no doubt of others as well). And this could perhaps begin by broadening the “domain” of possibilities to the vastly larger and richer intellectual-ethical traditions of Judaism, and – if we may be so bold – to traditions of justice beyond Judaism.

    If we may be permitted to quote Judith Butler on this matter:

    “It continues to surprise me that many people believe that to claim one’s Jewishness is to claim Zionism or believe that every person who attends a synagogue is necessarily Zionist. Equally concerning is the number of people who think they must now disavow Jewishness because they cannot accept the policies of the State of Israel. If Zionism continues to control the meaning of Jewishness, then there can be no Jewish critique of Israel and no acknowledgment of those of Jewish descent or formation who call into question the right of the State of Israel to speak for Jewish values or, indeed, the Jewish people. Although it is surely possible to derive certain principles of equality, justice, and cohabitation from Jewish resources, broadly construed, how can one do this without thereby making those very values Jewish and so effacing or devaluing other modes of valuation that belong to other religious and cultural traditions and practices?

    “One way around this, perhaps, is to consider what it means to derive those principles from Jewish resources. Te idea of derivation implies a consequential ambiguity: if such principles have Jewish sources, do they remain exclusively Jewish principles once they are developed and take new historical forms, or do they to a certain extent depart from that exclusive framework? Indeed, we might ask more generally whether the principles of justice and equality at stake in any criticism of the Israeli state, or other states that commit similar forms of injustice, are always partially derived from various specifc cultural and historical resources and yet “belong” exclusively to none of them. We can include among such resources the classical Greek tradition, the French Enlightenment, and the decolonization struggles of the twentieth century. In these cases, as in others, one can say that such principles are derived from specific cultural resources, but this does not mean that they belong exclusively to any one tradition from which they are derived. Indeed, for a concept of justice to be derived from a specific tradition means that there must be some way for it to depart from that tradition, to demonstrate its applicability outside that tradition. In that sense, the departure from the tradition is a precondition of any tradition yielding strong political principles. So the dilemma is clear: if the critique of state violence relies on principles or values that are finally, exclusively, or fundamentally Jewish, understood variously and broadly as a religious, secular, or historical set of traditions, then Jewishness becomes a privileged cultural resource, and the Jewish framework remains the only or privileged one by which to think the critique of state violence. But if one undertakes this critique because one objects to the principles of Jewish sovereignty that govern that region, historic Palestine, and because one is in favor of a polity that would put an end to the colonial subjugation in the West Bank and Gaza, and acknowledge the rights of the more than 750,000 Palestinians forcibly displaced from their homes and lands in 1948—and through subsequent and recurrent forms of land confiscation—then one is arguing for a polity that would apply equally and fairly to all the inhabitants of that land. It would then make no sense to say that Jewish frameworks can provide the basis for political cohabitation or, indeed, binationalism, since the whole point is to develop a polity that would not only shelter multiple frameworks, but commit itself to a binationalism that will only become fully thinkable once colonial rule has come to an end. Rather than a bid for an easy multiculturalism, my proposal is that the vast and violent hegemonic structure of political Zionism must cede its hold on those lands and populations and that what must take its place is a new polity that would presuppose the end to settler colonialism and that would imply complex and antagonistic modes of living together, an amelioration of the wretched forms of binationalism that already exist.

    “So, though one needs to contest the hegemonic control Zionism exercises over Jewishness, one needs, equally, to contest the colonial subjugation Zionism has implied for the Palestinian people. In fact, one would not be concerned with the frst hegemonic move (Jewish = Zionist) if one were not primarily concerned with ending the history of subjugation. How does one move on both fronts at once?” (Judith Butler, Parting of Ways, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 3-4)

    As for the “foreignness” of Jews in Palestine-Israel, or as to who properly belongs in this territory, or, again, as to whom does this territory belong, justice demands that this or these questions cannot be answered by an appeal to a sovereignty – whatever its grounds or justification – that excludes some part of the population that is judged as “foreign”.

    A fundamental ethical-political task lies before us – all of us, we believe –, namely, that of rethinking the idea of belonging freed from the oppressive weight of sovereignty, in all of its many guises.

    If we have titled our short and modest commentary “Free Palestine/Free Israel”, it is because we believe that both communities must free possibilities or projects from within themselves (learning as well from those outside) that make it increasingly difficult or impossible to see the “other” as foreign.

    Is this merely utopian? Our answer would be no. It is rather urgently utopian.

    We end with the words of Henri Lefebvre:

    “Revolution presents itself as worldness on the move: a transformation with multiple aspects, dominated by peasant, national, state [étatiques], and political questions. Turning the world upside down also includes the overturning of this domination. Which leaves room for the combined action of the worldwide working class and of theory reaching the concrete universal.

    “The theory explores the possible/impossible and declares that “one must” (a theoretical imperative, not an ethical one) want the impossible in order to realize the possible. Nothing closer to and nothing further from the possible. Utopia therefore assumes an urgent character. Urgent utopia defines a style of thinking turned toward the possible in all areas. Which tends to redefine “socialism” and “communism” not by the state [l’étatique] and the political, but by, on the one hand, a critique of the state [l’étatique] and the political, and on the other hand, as production, appropriation, and management [gestion] of space. Neither the individual nor the group exist without an appropriated space (produced as such).

    “Conceptual thought explores ways, ventures on paths. It can precede practice, but cannot separate itself from it. Practice alone, freed from political obsession and released from state pressure [la pression étatique], can effectively realize what promises to be the simultaneous use of concept and imagination (utopia). Theory opens the road, clears a new way; practice takes it, it produces the route and the space.” (Henri Lefebvre, “The World Wide Experience”, in Henri Lefebvre, State, Space, World: Selected Essays, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 287-88)

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