A response to Neve Gordon


Neve Gordon recently reviewed my latest book in the Times Higher Education. He has ‘reservations’, like the settler societies I have studied. His first critique is that I do not dwell on the Indigenous peoples who had to endure the settler invaders. True. I alert the reader to this issue, as Gordon also acknowledges, but I wrote about something else: about the imagination of the settlers, about their political fantasies, and there are no Indigenous peoples there. There are indeed very few Indigenous peoples in this archive: the settlers I have been studying tend to foreclose their Indigenous counterparts. I may have written another book, a global history of settler colonialism for example, but I wrote instead about the ways settlers imagined what they would do, and then about how they saw what they were doing. That they could not ‘see’ actual Indigenous peoples even when they confronted them is demonstrable and knowing this feature of the settler gaze seems important. That someone should remark on their absence from my narrative probably demonstrates that they can subsequently reappear in the imaginings of someone intent on salvaging some ways of doing settler colonialism from a critique of all the ways of doing settler colonialism (which does not mean that I find that all settlers are equally abhorrent – on the contrary, I believe that they are all differently abhorrent). The socialist settlers I have worked on and Gordon refers to were settler colonialists even if they did not think they were settling on Indigenous lands. Indeed, they were settler colonialist especially because they did not even think about the Indigenous dispossessed.

Gordon also finds slippages in my work: it is his secondary critique, the allegation that I collapse voluntary displacement with all population movements. Not true. If the previous critique could be explained with reference to a determination to salvage some ways of constructing settler sovereign orders, that is, if that criticism could be framed in the context of a political disagreement (a disagreement that has pitted antizionists against left wing Zionist for decades), this one could only be explained by assuming that Gordon skipped the pages in which I carefully differentiate between various modes of displacing. Different collectives move across space with different political prerogatives, but when it comes to settler colonialism as a specific mode of domination, it is not the way the settlers leave where they are from (or the reasons why they do so) that really matters. They may have been refugees, or they may have been genuinely trying to build a better society. Alas, it is a determination and ability to establish and sustain a settler colonial sovereignty and to repress Indigenous ones where they are going that really counts, because the settlers are made by domination as much as displacement. Focusing on what they aimed to do (and did not), or what they were (and no longer are) is an elision and a slippage at the same time.

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