Traces of Racial Exception

Radicalizing Israeli Settler Colonialism

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Ronit Lentin
Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In a 2015 talk on the Black Lives Matter movement, poet and theorist Fred Moten remarked, “settlers always think they are defending themselves” (“Do Black Lives Matter? Robin D.G. Kelley and Fred Moten in Conversation” Vimeo, uploaded by Critical Resistance, 2015). In her book, Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism, Ronit Lentin shows how this logic of self-defense manifests in Israel’s settler regime, arguing that race/racialization is essential to understanding Israel as a settler colonial state “where the permanent state of emergency enables one rule (life) for the state’s Jewish citizens and another (death, threat of death, and expulsion) for the state’s occupied and besieged subjects” (12). Lentin defines the limits of her project clearly: the book is not an ethnography, rather it is a work of race critical theory guided, in particular, by black studies (19). This book is a timely intervention, given contemporary pushes by Western politicians to insulate Israel from criticism by conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, 

Drawing on the work of Patrick Wolfe and Alexander Weheliye, Lentin demonstrates the difference race makes for theorizing and contesting Israeli settler colonialism. Although the book should be of interest to scholars and activists in these fields, readers unfamiliar with these topics will also find Lentin’s book accessible and generative. It is written self-reflexively, as “an often-agonizing lifelong reflection on my privileged position as a white Ashkenazi Jew, and a member of Israel’s settler colonial perpetrator collectivity” (18). 

First, Lentin understands race, not as a biological essence or genetic inheritance, but as a performative “doing.” For her purposes, this means “exploring how Zionism historically conceptualized Jews as a superior race and Palestinians and Arab Jews as inferior races, leading the State of Israel to enacting racial technologies of segregation, categorization, and discrimination” (85). Israel’s settler colonial practices and militarized occupation are the acts that create racial distinctions. The point here is that race does not preexist the socio-political conditions in which it is created. 

In this way, Lentin distinguishes her argument from those that center on ethnicity. Such approaches, according to Lentin, obscure practices of racialization by representing Israeli Jews as “ethnically homogenous despite their obvious ethnic heterogeneities” (9). In contrast, by focusing on racialization, Lentin argues that Israel is a white supremacist settler state, which defines itself, not only against the racialized Palestinian, but also by the creation of racial distinctions between “Ashkenazi [European] Jews, Mizrahi [Arab and ‘oriental’] Jews, and black [Ethiopian] Jews” (12). 

In conversation with Wolfe, Lentin explains that settler colonialism “aims to gain access to the Natives’ territory and is about the elimination and replacement of the Natives” (52). She argues that Israel illustrates these aims “by the expulsion of the Palestinians from their lands during and after the 1948 Nakba, by the resettlement of their villages and urban neighborhoods by Israeli Jews, by the 1967 occupation of the West Bank, the Golan, and Gaza, and by the increasing military and civilian control of the Palestinian territory through military actions and Jewish settlement projects” (52-53). In foregrounding race as an analytic, Traces of Racial Exception builds on existing frameworks for understanding Israel as a settler colonial project which, in her estimation, undertheorizes racialization. 

As this is a book about the state of Israel, it is helpful that Lentin foregrounds the work of early Zionists who describe Zionism in explicitly racial terms (e.g., Max Nordau, Arthur Ruppin, Theodore Herzl). Lentin tracks how 19th century Zionists understood the Jewish people to be defined as a racial essence, whose claim to Palestinian lands were anchored in the belief that God granted them the land. For these architects of Zionism, the establishment of a Jewish colony would “save the Jewish biological stock from the degeneration of its enforced diaspora existence” (91). Furthermore, the Jewish colony would also be a civilizing presence outside of Europe’s territorial boundaries, transplanting white European civilization in the supposedly backwards Arab world.

In this way, the inhabitants of Palestine are displaced conceptually and materially, and racialized as “invaders,” “threats to national security,” and “terrorists.” The book’s focus on race illuminates how the Israeli state rationalizes its militarized occupation as a reflex of self-defense. Through legal categories—such as “security prisoner”—Israel’s settler project disappears and reappears as an agent of the international global War on Terror (149). Race, then, facilitates the transformation of the Palestinian victims of Israeli settler colonialism into terrorists, against whom Israel must defend itself. In this regard, Lentin argues that one of the aspects that makes Israel’s colonial project unique is the way in which “Israel legitimizes its existence as a Jewish state by exploiting historical and present-day Jewish victimhood and at the same time denying its own racism, which it cloaks under the self-defense mantle” (113). 

The fifth and penultimate chapter is where we see Lentin develop her own contributions more clearly. With race still the focal point, she deploys a gendered analysis of Israeli settler colonialism. Racialization, Lentin argues, is both experienced in gender-specific ways, and is, in itself, a gendered relation. As the “trace” of settler colonial rule, race overdetermines one’s vulnerability to sexual violence, to the loss of house and home, and to economic precarity. Lentin criticizes Israeli feminists concerned with gender equality absent criticism of Israel’s ongoing violation of Palestinians. Although the state of Israel represents Palestinian women as victims of their own patriarchal culture, Lentin argues that the context of their subjugation is Israel’s settler violence. 

Lentin is also concerned with highlighting Palestinian women as agents of resistance, including everyday resistance in the household, alternative routes forged by Bedouin women’s access to education, and participation in armed struggles against Israel’s colonial policies (127). Finally, in conversation with Frantz Fanon, Traces of Racial Exception concludes by examining the meaning of decolonizing Palestine. Importantly, Lentin distinguishes between decolonization and reconciliation, believing that “decolonization must mean the actual rather than symbolic repatriation of all the colonized land,” and is incommensurable with projects of “reconciliation” which would leave the settler state intact, and perpetuate the racialization of Palestinians (165).

Throughout the text, Lentin maintains a tension between decolonization and support for “an equal democratic Palestine for all its citizens, Palestianians, Jews, and other humans” (170). It is this tension, between decolonization and the establishment of an equal democratic state that could be further explored in relation to the works of people such as Moten and Jasbir K. Puar, who both argue that the state itself is a settler colonial project. An engagement with this tension would deepen the book’s affirmation of Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s description of decolonization as “an elsewhere” (170). To its great credit, through its analysis of Israel as a racial settler state, Lentin’s book contributes to efforts to work towards such an elsewhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin G. Robinson is an Independent Scholar and recent doctoral graduate in Religion and Culture from Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ronit Lentin is former Associate Professor of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She has published extensively on Palestine-Israel, racism and immigration in Ireland.


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