Shira Robinson. Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State. Stanford: Stanford Univeristy Press, 2013. 352 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-8654-6; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-8800-7.
Reviewed by Orit Bashkin (University of Chicago)
Published on H-Levant (August, 2018)
Commissioned by Ghenwa Hayek (Assistant Professor, Modern Arabic Literature, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago)
Tragic Clarity: Israeli Palestinians between Past and Present
Shira Robinson has authored a remarkable book. Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State looks at the lives of Palestinians under Israeli control in the first two decades of the state’s existence. It provides a detailed panorama of the many ways in which the Israeli state limited the rights of its Palestinian subjects; it reveals the latter’s acts of refusal and resistance; and it provides incredible insights on Israeli perceptions of citizenship and sovereignty, analyzed from the vantage point of the state’s perpetual victims.
Citizen Strangers adds to a growing body of literature by scholars like Maha Nassar, Leena Dallashe, and Areej Sabbagh-Khoury on the lives of the Palestinians who did not become refugees after 1948 and were forced to become Israeli citizens. This scholarship refuses to see this Palestinian community as separate from their brethren in the West Bank and in the diaspora, and prefers to speak about continuities under Israeli rule. This scholarship reflects on how various forms of both Israeli control and Palestinian resistance, which were shaped in the pre-1967 era, informed post-1967 politics and policies. An outstanding social history of Israeli bureaucratic, governmental, and legal systems, and of the Palestinian Arabs who lived under them and attempted to survive them, Citizen Strangers examines the regime imposed on the Palestinian citizens of Israel, known as “the military regime” (ha-mimshal ha-tzva’i, al-hukum al-‘askari), which was established in October 1948 under emergency laws inherited from the British mandate. Robinson explores how the military regime allowed for a whole range of actions against Palestinians, such as house demolitions, confiscation of land, deportations, and especially limitations on movement—that is, the constant curfew under which the Palestinians lived and its effects on their labor rights. Her reconstruction of the ways in which IDs were granted and her study of the permit system are vital to our understanding of the regime imposed on the West Bank not only after 1967, but also extending into the post-Oslo period.
Citizen Strangers argues that the state of Israel was a modern colonial polity whose procedural democracy was established by removing the indigenous Palestinian majority from its territories and forcing the Palestinians who remained in it to live under “a discrete set of individual rights and duties,” determined only by the Jewish state (p. 3). Israel, in accordance with global liberal expectations, granted the Palestinians the right to vote. In its self-view, and in the view it broadcasted to the world, the state transitioned from a mandatory-colonial order to a postcolonial one, and it treated its Arab populations as equal citizens. And yet, the book clearly illustrates how, despite this façade, settler-colonial politics of exclusion, in which the preservation of the Jewish majority, the expansion of its settlement project, and the restriction of the Palestinians to distinct zones, remained prime goals and informed the Israeli state’s legalistic and bureaucratic mechanisms and its notions of citizenship.
Citizen Strangers thus shatters the view that pre-1967 Israel was an ethical space whose commitment to democracy ceased only after June 1967. The Palestinian spaces it covers are not the West Bank, Gaza, or the refugee camps. Rather, the book takes us to the spaces where Israeli Palestinians resided under the military regime, namely, the Galilee, the triangle, and the Negev, and presents to us the bureaucrats (military and civil alike), from junior officers to Shin Bet operatives, whose role was to implement the regime's laws. Robinson explains how these officials interacted with, intimidated, and pressured local notables and ordinary Palestinians attempting to make a living as farmers and workers. Scholars interested in the emergence of Israeli experts on Arab affairs will find much of interest in the book, which portrays the whole range of such experts, from the prime minister’s advisors to the junior officers. The book is also important to the growing scholarship on sectarianism, shedding light on the ways in which the state promoted “divide and rule politics,” in particular with respect to Druze and Sunni Muslims.
Citizen Strangers, however, goes beyond analyzing discriminatory practices as tools of control; it shows them as the building blocks of the meaning of Israeli citizenship, where the state’s ideals and practices of citizenship were structured on the exclusion of the Palestinians. Robinson underlines the fact that Israeli citizenship was constructed through the processes that enabled the law of return (of any Jew to the state) and the denial of the Palestinian right of return to their homeland. She underscores how the encouragement of Jewish immigration and the war against the return of Palestinian refugees were debated in the Knesset and in other legal and bureaucratic spheres, and she analyzes the meaning of the implementation of these laws. Significantly, Citizen Strangers purposefully does away with Israeli terminology, like “Israeli Arabs” or “the war against infiltration,” by studying how these concepts came to be, and providing other, more useful, terminology in their stead. One especially helpful new term the book coins is “the war on return.”
Citizen Strangers also pays heed to the spectacle of sovereignty, scrutinizing the many ways in which the Palestinians had to perform their loyalty to the state, especially in celebrating the Israeli Independence Day. The importance of this spectacle is manifested most clearly in the brilliant chapter on the Kafar Qasim massacre. On October 29, 1956, Israeli Border Brigades shot at close range forty-nine villagers of Kafar Qasim, who did not know of a change in the hours of curfew and were found outside their homes. Israeli censorship prevented the publication of the story. Robinson tells the story of this horrific massacre, but no less important is her insightful scrutiny of its aftermath: the protests against the massacre, such as the ones by Palestinian communist Knesset members; the spectacle of legality in the Israeli government's investigation committee; and especially, the supposed sulḥa (process of resolution and forgiveness) between the leaders of the village and state officials. Importantly, the book does not present Kafar Qasim as an anomaly, as the state did, but rather as a result of processes long in the making.
The battle for the memory of Kafar Qasim is not the only incident in which Citizen Strangers addresses issues of resistance. In fact, the book successfully chronicles the many forms of Palestinian resistance to the state politics, from the lawyers appealing to the high court to the activities of the Palestinian members of MAKI (the Israeli Communist Party) to the work of journalists and everyday demonstrators. For example, the book describes the resistance to the war on return and the hundreds of mass protests and petitions against this, as well as the violence directed against the Palestinians while protesting (p. 81). Robinson also highlights the major achievements of communist Palestinian politicians and leaders, especially Tawfiq Tubi, Emile Habibi, and Hanna Naqara, who worked on behalf of their community under such dire conditions. She pays attention to various spheres of resistance, from border crossings to petitions to popular songs.
Citizen Strangers relies on a multifaceted methodology, including superb research in many Israeli archives (from the state archives to local municipalities) that also incorporates state publications and the Hebrew and especially the Arabic press (both the state Arabic propaganda press and the Arabic press of leftist parties). It also includes an impressive number of interviews, with individuals who lived under the military regime and the children of leading community leaders, in Tur‘an, Tayybeh, Nazareth, and Kafar Qasim. Robinson also interviewed Israeli officials, from the poet who sang the praises of the state (Haim Hefer) to military men like Shlomo Gazit and Mizrahi officials like Nuzhat Qassab, who were members of the main labor union, Histadrut.
In a text as attentive to language and terminology as this one, there remains one term that bears further unpacking. I would still like to devote some thought to Robinson’s use of the term “liberal settler state,” which features prominently in the book’s subtitle. I can see the work this concept does, in that it underlines the tension between the international demands that the state of Israel be, and become, a liberal democracy, and that state's actual settler-colonial practices. Nonetheless, from my own work on the Iraqi Jewish citizens of Israel during the same period, it seems to me that the labor Zionist leadership of Israel never identified as liberal. The ideologues and leaders of the ruling labor Zionist party, MAPAI, saw themselves as socialists, abhorred the term liberalism, and often identified liberalism with parties that did not belong to the labor Zionist camp, like Herut (whose leader criticized the military regime despite his own party's sordid and racist history). MAPAI's policies and public statements never conveyed the principles we identify with liberalism and neoliberalism regarding the labor market or the meaning of citizenship itself. Despite loyalty to the Western bloc in the Cold War, the model was often Eastern Europe, not the United States. Nonetheless, I do think that this term will frame, and will feature in, debates about pre-1967 Israel. More broadly, the conceptual and temporal paradigm suggested in this book will inspire many scholars working in the field. Indeed, Citizen Strangers is a great academic achievement that reveals much about the past and helps us understand, with tragic clarity, the realities of the present.
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Orit Bashkin. Review of Robinson, Shira, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State.
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