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Disruption or Annihilation of Palestinian Life Is Inherent to Zionist Project

Israel wants to eradicate both life and the ability to reproduce a future life.

Palestinians are walking in front of a mural at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees school in Deir Al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, on March 8, 2024.

Today is the 167th day of Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people that began on October 7. Even before Hamas’ strike on October 7, many media sources called 2023 “the deadliest year on record” for Palestinians in the West Bank. Israeli forces had killed 395 Palestinians in the West Bank that year, while settlers were responsible for 9 more killings. While murders such as these are the direct cessation of life, Israel still conducts other forms of violence, for instance attacks on hospitals and schools, that impede Palestinian lifemaking. In Palestine, a declared war is a spatio-temporal escalation of a slow and ongoing war against its people.

In this essay, using the lens of social reproduction theory (SRT), I show that the disruption (through policies) or annihilation (through violence) of Palestinian life is inherent to the Zionist project. Consequently, in this current cycle of violence, Israel is targeting two kinds of social reproductive capacities: institutions of social reproduction such as schools and hospitals; and the future generation, that is, children. Israel wants to eradicate both life and the ability to reproduce a future life. A ceasefire can thus only be a baseline demand. A flourishing of life in Palestine requires more than a cessation of killing; it requires what Marx thought of as the realization of species being. The ineliminable creativity of Palestinian resistance sheds the clearest light on what species being can, and indeed must, mean.

Rethinking Lifemaking Through Marx

Social Reproduction feminists have used the formulation lifemaking to identify the multiple ways in which human beings labor to transform nature to maintain themselves and satisfy needs. I employ the concept to understand the comparisons, connections, and affective outcomes between the nodal points of Zionist violence, both direct and indirect. To acknowledge the continuities between military aggression and militarized containment of Palestinian life, we need to start from the destabilization, vulnerabilitization, and annihilation of Palestinian capacities of social reproduction. Lifemaking as a concept provides us with the analytical connective tissue between the nodes.

In the Economic and Philosophical Notebooks of 1844, Marx leads us through a careful distinction between alienated and unalienated labor. The former, under capitalist direction, feels “external to the worker,” while in the latter humans make “life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness.”1 As humans we are deliberate: we do not merge with our labor (as a spider does). Too many Marxists focus on food, shelter, and so on when citing products that result from humans acting upon nature. Marx, however, saw these bare necessities of lifemaking as limited examples. What, then, is lifemaking in the non-restrictive sense?

Marx uses the word spiritual twenty-two times in this work. He denotes human labor to be a form of activity in which “all the natural, spiritual, and social variety of individual activity is manifested.”2 He is most struck by the deliberation and universality of human labor, where we labor not simply “under the dominion of immediate physical need” but even when we are “free from physical need,” and thus “only and truly… [produce] in freedom therefrom.”3

The distinction between lifemaking through capitalist regimes of work and lifemaking under conditions of freedom is a persistent theme in Marx. He used an Aristotelian framework, mediated through Hegel, to discuss formal freedoms, which are available under capitalism, and the unfreedom and alienation that lurk beneath them. Marx agreed with liberal theorists that the condition of freedom was historical, and that, even in its preliminary proceedings, it had to be grounded in those bare necessities of lifemaking. He thus argued that “the realm of freedom” really begins “only where labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends.”4

Following Marx, we can discern a clear distinction between living (a form of lifemaking under capitalist conditions of formal freedoms but alienated labor) and flourishing (a form of lifemaking that is in our species being).

While the distinction is stark in Marx, it is also clear that within everyday living under capitalism, we frequently catch a glimpse of what I am calling flourishing. If alienated labor is that which is compelled by an external force on the worker, then unalienated labor is that which is both freely chosen and self-determined by the worker themself. Within the overall context of systemic alienation, we still nourish our plants/animals/children, make art, and have great sex — all forms of labor that we engage in with relative freedom. In the Grundrisse, Marx refers to the composition of music as “really free labor,” which requires “the greatest effort,” and is “at the same time damned serious.”5

Thus, when the Palestinian feminist poet, Rafeef Ziadah, writes, “We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life,” I read that as a searing theorization of the politics of lifemaking. I read that as a call to explore what happens to lifemaking, both in the living and flourishing sense, in Palestine.

Nakba and Lifemaking

Israel employs three broad strategies vis-à-vis Palestinian life: expulsion, intentional generational killing, and controlling Palestinian fertility. While settler colonialism, as an analytical framework, explains this biopolitical project of Zionism, SRT and its expansive concept of lifemaking allows us to document the multiple ways in which the Zionist state tries to prevent Palestinians not only from staying alive, but from staying human.

Jasbir Puar’s brilliant concept debility is of use to us here. Through a moving study of Black and Palestinian life, Puar offers us a theorization of the political economy of bodily capacity. According to Puar, oppressive state machineries put death and debility in a productive relationship with each other. States reserve the right to be the sole purveyors of death, but Puar shows that not killing Palestinians is not a “humanitarian sparing of death,” but rather a move to render “them systematically and utterly debilitated” — it is a “biopolitical usage and articulation of the right to maim.” Such constant debilitation creates an “asphixatory regime of power” that threads space and time through intricate social relations of violence and occupation.6

Puar’s concept of debility should be extended to include the maiming of lifemaking institutions. This sense is implicit in Puar when she discusses “infrastructural warfare” or Israel’s assault on infrastructure as “an essential, even central, component of the biopolitical regulation of a malleable humanitarian collapse.” She builds on work done by Omar Jabary Salamanca, reproducing his reference to the Israeli politician Dov Wiesglass describing Israeli policy as “an appointment with a dietician. The Palestinians would get a little thinner, but won’t die.”7

It is the ongoingness of this assault on lifemaking, of this asphixatory power, and of this thinning out that I hope to capture here.

Birthing Difference

Quite the opposite biopolitical approach is reserved for Israel’s domestic Jewish population. Since 1948 Israel has enshrined pronatalist policies in its myriad institutions, constituting a reproductive regime through monetary rewards and committees that ensure a growing birthrate. Critical theorists such as Sigrid Vertommen and Nira Yuval Davis have tracked these initiatives in, among others, the 1949 Heroine Award for mothers with ten children, the 1968 Demographic Centre with its Fund for Encouraging Birth, and more recently, the 2002 Israel Council on Demography.8 Meira Weiss has similarly noted the profoundly eugenicist vein in Zionism that, historically, through a “bodily revolution,” aimed to “create a new people fit for a new land.” The ideal Jewish body that emerged out of these policies was, “masculine, Jewish, Ashkenazi, perfect, and wholesome — one that Weiss callsthe chosen body.”9

Meanwhile, all mothers in Israel are entitled to maternity leave and a large number to a maternity allowance. Citizens of Tel-Aviv speak of the city as one “known for its pampering of new mothers.” City cafés hold “daily ‘Mommy and me’ activities such as arts and crafts, physical therapy and massages, and nursing and sleep clinics.” As a part of this flourishing the Jewish Israeli child is assured a free public education in a school system that ranks fifth in the world (ahead of both the US and the UK).

Today, two broad technologies shape Zionist biopolitics, one clustered around fertility and maternity and the second around fetal diagnostics. While Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) are prohibitively expensive elsewhere, in Israel they are free. In 2010, the Israeli parliament passed the controversial Law on Egg Donation which allows women to donate their ovum in return for financial compensation, thus allowing infertile women to request egg donation. However, amendments to the law stipulate that the donor and the recipient of the egg cell share the same religion, hence making it impossible for a Jewish woman to donate an egg cell to a Muslim, Christian, or Druze person and vice versa.

The second set of technologies emerges after conception. Jewish Israeli women lead the world in birth medicalization and fetal surveillance, with 60 percent of them undergoing predelivery diagnostic testing. Israeli parents prefer abortion, even in cases of minor bodily “impairment” such as a cleft lip, prompting Weiss to comment that the “Israeli obsession with fertility involves not just quantity but also quality.”

The social reproduction of Israeli lifemaking is of course not limited to birth technologies alone. An entire societal and state infrastructure ensures the flourishing of Israeli life and the annihilation/debilitation of the Palestinian. Methods of debilitation vary across historic Palestine. The intentional carving of Palestine into different regimes of control ensures violence everyday upon Palestinians in these derecognized territories, prompting Noura Erakat’s assessment that Israel tries to achieve in Gaza “by warfare, what it seeks to do in the West Bank through martial law, in East Jerusalem through administrative law, in historic Palestine through civil law.”10 In different ways, and compounding upon each other precisely because of this difference, Israel’s strategies forcibly preclude Palestinian flourishing by controlling the key pathways for lifemaking.

International bodies such as the UN and World Bank use certain metrics for judging what they call development — what I am calling flourishing. Access to food, clean water, housing, healthcare, and education are used as the most common evaluative register. In Palestine, access to each of these is produced through colonial technologies. Further, while such registers do form a “list” of sorts, I want to draw attention to Israel’s generalizable model of operations that forms the frame in which they all fit. Differently put, Israel organizes space and people in particular ways that ensures the growth and consolidation of colonial power.

Living Versus Flourishing

Anticolonial scholarship has taught us that landscapes are composed of politics that produce nature not just as the site of human labors but also as a category of thought and imagination. Consider the place of fish in Palestine. The taste and smell of fish are in the cellular architecture of Palestinian history. Folktales weave these histories into tales of the Fish King, while dill, garlic, and chilies entrust this history to the senses. But the waters that lap Gaza are neither neutral, nor without colonial frames. Gazan fishermen are only allowed to fish six nautical miles or less offshore when most of the fish are at least nine miles out at sea. Oceans, deserts, rocks, and fishes, can only relate to Palestinians through Israeli control, thus creating, first and foremost, what Elizabeth Povinelli has called “geontologies” of colonial power.11

In 1967 Israel decreed that Palestinians could not construct any new water installation without a permit. Such permits are still impossible to obtain, thus barring Palestinians from drilling wells, or installing pumps. The Jordan river, in whose valley some of Prophet Muhammad’s most trusted companions are buried, now functions as a wound to Palestinian lifemaking, as they are barred from accessing its waters: over 180 rural Palestinian communities in the occupied West Bank lack access to water.

The situation is more dire in Gaza where drinking water is “as salty as the sea.” Further, since 2007, Israel has kept Palestinian children in Gaza on what the IDF calls a “starvation diet.” Nearly 80 percent of Gazan children survive on less than $1 per day, and consequently a significant portion of them endure hunger daily, as their access to sufficient calories has dwindled through the ongoing siege.12

As checkpoints mutilate the land, many Palestinian children, meanwhile, have to travel long distances to reach the nearest school. Arab schools are allocated resources that are on average 40 percent lower than Hebrew education (on a per student basis). In 2018, the Israeli Knesset passed the Nation-State Law that stripped Arabic of its status as an official language, forcing the Arab child to live an exophonic life.

Palestinians are thus ceaselessly reproduced as out of place in their homeland. Even the roads enact and secure racial exclusion. The color of license plates determines mobility: cars with Palestinian license plates are not allowed on Israeli roads, regardless of the identification held by the driver. An apartheid wall and multiple checkpoints help create a delirious maze of legality across the mutilated land where at each node of contact with the Israeli state, the Palestinian is juridically and emotionally reproduced as an outsider.

These differential policies of social reproduction produce stark results: More than half of Arab families were considered poor in 2020, compared to 40 percent of Jewish families. Here, I want to emphasize the colonial relationship as productive and generative, rather than static. It reproduces itself not merely through laws and state policies, but through a systemic segmenting, ordering, and enclosing of the entire social body.

“Forgetting to Die”

Today Israel expresses the quintessence of global capitalism. The state’s commitment to nonhegemonic control, its poisoning of Palestine’s ecology, and its open rejection of most forms of democracy capture the systemic essence of capitalism when stripped of bourgeois forms. The flourishing of Israeli-Jewish life contains a further purpose and a function beyond the expulsion of Palestinians from the social body. Such flourishing— the beautiful avenues, the well-watered lawns — allows Israeli society to closely mimic the West, thus rehearsing age-old Orientalist tropes of the civilized West versus the barbaric East. Such identification also makes the West more sympathetic to Israeli lifemaking where, in the West’s account books, the value of Israeli life continues to soar over the Palestinian.

In this essay I have tried to show why the infrastructures of lifemaking in Palestine are uniquely and intensely political and how the flourishing of Israeli life is related to the debilitation of Palestinian lifemaking. Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story “The One Who Walks Away from Omelas,” captures this violent relationality. In the story we are introduced to a fairy tale-like city, Omelas, where life is perfect and bountiful for all its citizens. Omelas, however, inters a secret. Buried in the city is this society’s only atrocity, a child kept in constant misery and state of abjection. Once Omelas’ citizens are old enough they are told this truth about their flourishing, and most come to accept this as a necessary sacrifice for their splendor; some do walk away from Omelas, but most choose to remain. Images of Israeli civilians rejoicing as they block aid trucks into Gaza should resituate Le Guin’s insight and unsettle conventional understanding of colonial violence.

But if this comparison with Omelas holds rather well for Israelis, it decisively fails to represent the Palestinian condition, for Palestinians are furthest from that fictional child. Instead, they are a people who come the closest to Marx’s definition of species-being with which we began this essay.

The South African militant Barry Vincent Feinberg once observed that an “an unusually large number of poems stem from Palestinian poets.” A Palestinian poet responding to Feinberg’s comment replied, “the only thing my people have never been denied is the right to dream.” This is an extraordinary but consistent feature of Palestinian life despite one hundred years of colonial violence.

The Palestinian poet’s words, like many other poets’, hold a brilliant contradiction. On the one hand, Palestinian art chronicles the violent expulsion/control of Palestinians from/within the social body, but on the other hand the existence of this art in conditions of debilitation is a rejection of Palestinian deportation. Such expressions of Palestinian lives in art and daily living should prompt us to think through Marx’s contention that music was “really free labor,” and that such labors constituted a continuous leitmotif within and despite capitalist alienation.

Palestine today, I contend, actualizes this irrepressible human strain within capitalism — a reason why, like the slave rebellions in Marx’s time and the resistance of the Vietnamese in the 1960s, Palestinian struggle resonates today with a wide swath of the oppressed who see their own struggle or their humanity being articulated in that of the Palestinian’s.

The Zionist colonizers knew well the power of Palestinian humanity. General Moshe Dayan once said that reading a poem by Fadwa Tuqan was like “facing twenty enemy commandos.” This is how Tuqan spoke of Palestine:

our land has a throbbing heart,
it doesn’t cease to beat, and it endures
the unendurable. It keeps the secrets
of hills and wombs. This land sprouting
with spikes and palms is also the land
that gives birth to a freedom-fighter.
This land, my sister, is a woman. (Fadwa Tuqan, Hamza)

This “dream” of Palestine is of course beyond formal creative energies (such as composing poetry or music), but a dream of return, of homelands, and of histories — thus indicating a set of purposive conscious labors to sustain that “dream.” Such “rational” labor, aiming at the fullness of human flourishing, is quintessentially the species being of humanity. Bertell Ollman indicates that the closest Marx comes to defining “human nature in general” is when he says, “The whole character of a species … is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is man’s species character.”13 What can we call a people who constantly, ceaselessly, despite every attempt against them, continue to perform “free, conscious activity?” In another time and place, we called them revolting slaves, or resistant Vietnamese. Today, without a doubt, we call them Palestinians. Or a people who despite sustained violence and dispossession, continue to express the core instinct of humanity, what it is to be free. In Mahmoud Darwish’s words:

A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die. (Mahmoud Darwish, “Jerusalem”)

Footnotes

  1. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. Martin Milligan (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2007), 72, 75.
  2. Marx, Economic and Philosophic, 22.
  3. Marx, Economic and Philosophic, 75.
  4. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume III, trans. David Fernbach (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1992), 958.
  5. Karl Marx, “Grundrisse” in David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 368, emphasis in the original.
  6. Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 108, 135.
  7. Puar, The Right to Maim, 135.
  8. The Motherhood award was discontinued in 1959 when the government realized that it was mostly Palestinian mothers who were claiming the reward. See, Daiva Stasiulis and Nira Yuval-Davis, eds. Unsettling Settler Societies: Articulations of Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Class (London: Sage Publications, 1995); Sigrid Vertommen, “From the pergonal project to Kadimastem: A genealogy of Israel’s reproductive-industrial complex,” Biosocieties 12, no. 2, 2017: 282–306.
  9. Meira Weiss, The Chosen Body: The Politics of the Body in Israeli Society (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002), pp. 1–4.
  10. Sai Englert, Michal Schatz, Rosie Warren eds. From the River to the Sea: Essays for a Free Palestine, (New York: Verso, 2023), 13.
  11. Elizabeth Povinelli, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016).
  12. Dr. Ghannam quoted in Hashem Said and Zahriyeh Ehab, “Gaza’s Kids Affected Psychologically, Physically by a Lifetime of Violence,” Al Jazeera, July 31, 2014.
  13. Bertell Ollman, Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 109.
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