lorenzo veracini’s response to a. b. yehoshua


A Response to A. B. Yehoshua, by Lorenzo Veracini:

Yehoshua wants to define Zionism ‘realistically’ (‘Defining Zionism: The Belief that Israel Belongs to the Entire Jewish People’, Haaretz, 21/05/13). ‘Realistically’, which appears in the subtitle and in the text, is key: different positions – all other opinions in a multifarious debate in fact, those located to one side and those positioned on the other (he places himself in the very middle) – are implicitly unrealistic; they are not premised on reality. Zionism, Yehoshua also implies, is about reality. But with a twist: not reality as is, but reality as it could or should become (which means that it isn’t about reality, only about changing it). Indeed, although he does not say it, this is an inescapable and defining feature of his definition, Zionism is about the future as distinct from the present. At first, a long time ago, it was about the future state, and once a state was finally constituted, about its future populations. On the other hand, as well as a conquest of the middle ground, his definitory exercise is presented as a return: once everyone knew what Zionism was: ‘simple, clear, easy to define and understand’. To get back to that pristine environment, Yehoshua offers a set of four negative definitions.

First, he argues, Zionism is not only about residing in Palestine. There are Zionists who operate from somewhere else, and there are, and there were, Jews who resided in Palestine and are/were not Zionists, Yehoshua notes. Besides, there are ‘Israelis’ (the collective category defining those who reside in the state of Israel, a category Yehoshua distinguishes away from Zionists), who are legitimately non-Zionists. It is not primarily about residency, he argues, because it is about sovereignty. Zionism, he notes, is a fundamentally state-centric. Yet again, Zionism is about a Jewish state in Palestine as a specific location, Zionists are not, for example, territorialists. Which means that Zionism actually is about resident populations.

Second, Yehoshua opines, Zionism is not an ideology because it does not require Zionists to agree on the particular nature of the Zionist state, only on the fact that the state must be sovereign and that it must operate as an autonomous political entity (which means that Zionism is indeed an ideology, and that he is proposing a minimalist definition of it in order to encompass as many Zionists as possible). So, while it is an ideology, albeit a flexible one, Yehoshua also notes, thirdly, that Zionism is not about territory. Size does not matter, he argues, and a variety of possible territorial configurations would not determine the state’s Zionist character. A full suite of sovereign capacities is the fundamental issue, he insists. But, of course, territory is both a prerequisite and a fundamental characteristic of any sovereign polity. Yehoshua cannot change this fact, and Zionism remains primarily about territory. As any general would also confirm, one can compensate with skill but size does matter.

Fourthly, he notes, since Zionism is about sovereignty and since sovereignty was achieved, Zionism is now about the Law of Return. Besides maintaining a sovereign character, the link between the Zionist state as the polity constituted by those who moved or were born there and those who could move there is all that remains. This is, in his words, the ‘belief that Israel belongs to the entire Jewish people’. In other words, Zionism is not, Yehoshua argues, anideology that pertains to those who have moved there and those who actually reside there, but about those who should reside there in the future. This means that Zionism is not about Israelis as they are but as they must be made to be. A capacity to bridge the distance between the actual and the potential resident populations of Israel/Palestine as a specific territory constitutes the biopolitical dimension of the Zionist sovereign polity (so Zionism is fundamentally about residency, and territory). This bridging is called ‘transfer’: transferring a specific socio-political body in, transferring another out. Zionism is the sovereign capacity to enact that transfer.

So far, nothing really new. But you can’t have both. Either ‘Zionism’ is sovereign, or the state it built is. This is a point that Yehoshua may want to consider: isn’t his definition of Zionism dispossessing all Israelis (and not just all Palestinians) of their inherent sovereign capacities? As in a dystopian science fiction movie, the state of Israel of the future is depriving the state of Israel of the present of its sovereign capabilities (that is, if you are a Zionist in accordance with Yehoshua’s definition you cannot accept that the Israel of the present may decide on matters that will affect the Israel of the future as defined by the Law of Return, which is as good a definition as any of a limited sovereign capacity). Let me propose an alternative definition: the transformative sovereign control of a particular territory’s population economy by an exogenous collective is called settler colonialism. Leaving the issue of morality aside, it is not a minor issue but it is not what is being discussed here, and only focusing on how it works, we should note that this specific socio-political formation asserted itself in North America, Australasia and other places. Settler colonialism is the territorialisation of populations and, relatedly, the population (and depopulation) of territory. Settler colonialism is transfer and Zionism is a particular settler colonial formation.

By fundamentally separating ‘Israelis’ and ‘Zionists’, Yehoshua locates Zionism beside (but, really, at least partially outside of) Israel. He does not know it, but his formula ‘Israeli statehood plus Zionist Law of Return’ amounts to the assertion of isopolitical relations between Israel and the Diaspora (isopolities are political entities that are constituted when two or more polities reciprocally or unilaterally bestow political and citizenship rights to each other’s citizens). By endowing Zionsim with a resilient biopolitical sovereign capacity that is distinct from that of Israel, Yohoshua endorses the absurdity of imperium in imperio, a sovereignty within a sovereignty. But a polity whose sovereignty resides partially outside of itself is an inherently defective one, no matter how powerful it is. Pace Yehoshua and paradoxically, as it defies the Zionist imperative of unfettered statehood, the Law of Return should be ultimately seen as an anti- Zionist anachronism. Herzl did not say in Basel ‘I founded the Jewish isopolity’; he said ‘a state’. Not only every aspect of his definition needs qualification, Yehoshua may be undermining Zionism by ostensibly defending it.

Isopolitical arrangements are also not unprecedented and could be looked at in a comparative framework. All settler colonial polities had them in place for a long time after their respective declarations/assertions of sovereign independence. Most US states, for example, had alien voting legislation until the early decades of the twentieth century and immediately granted access to land to immigrating co-ethnics. Australians were not formally distinguished from UK citizens until 1949, and Pakeha New Zealanders still bemoan having been abandoned when the UK joined another forming isopolity in the early 1970s. Whether they like it or not, all successful settler societies eventually assert their independence from the isopolities to which they once belonged. It is the culmination of a process that has the state at its core. That’s what all of them have done (of course, this does not mean that they did not have an immigration policy thereafter; only that prospective migrants were treated as suppliants, not as carriers of an inherent sovereign capacity.)

Despite Yehoshua’s definitory approach, Zionism as settler colonialism was and is about establishing/maintaining a country of some Jewish people (i.e., those who would move there). The recurring prospect of making Israel the country of all Jews (however this category may be defined) subjects Jewish Israelis to the political determination of others. This is also not unprecedented, and in the context of the relationships a settler collective entertains with external polities and agencies, contestations surrounding the ‘state of the Jewish people’ structurally replicate debates concerning the position of the 13 colonies during the revolutionary war in North America. Royalists and Loyalists claimed that the colonies were the indivisible property of the whole British nation (as represented by the king in parliament). The settlers begged to differ, had a tea party dressed up as Indians and established the most successful settler polity of all. Needless to say, the North American settler patriots did not fight for the rights of all as freeborn Englishmen, or for the rights of all freeborn Englishmen. They fought for their own specific rights as freeborn Englishmen and nobody else’s. Pace Yehoshua, discontinuing isopolitical relationships (i.e., repealing the Law of Return), would be the logical culmination of Zionism, its end as a dynamic process, not its discontinuation. Being an ideology defined by a specific objective, Zionism is fated to supersede itself by winning. Being post-Zionist may be the only Zionist thing left to do. Perhaps the actual settlers and their descendants, in alliance with the indigenous peoples, should take control.

Lorenzo Veracini

Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Melbourne

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