Israel’s binding social thread is settler-colonialism

Marcelo Svirsky

Middle East Eye  /  July 29, 2021

From family life, to education, to leisure activities, to politics, to religion and media, Israelis are taught to participate in the subjugation of Palestinians.

The reproduction of settler-colonial domination from the river to the sea owes its endurance not just to Israel’s military power, economy or unconditional US support. Israeli collective selfhood, and its relationship with the spoils of colonial domination, makes the Zionist regime possible. 

What can explain the motivation of average Israelis to participate in the myriad civil and military oppressive practices that maintain the subjugation of Palestinians? To answer this, we need to look at the vibrant dimensions of Israeli collective selfhood, where the capacities and predispositions to oppress are socially constructed.

From family life, to education, to leisure activities, to politics, to religion and media, Israelis’ social experiences are geared to shape minds and bodies according to a series of well-known dynamics. These include the military obsession with security, a sacrificial relationship with children, the proclivity to self-segregate, a fascination with self-induced paranoia, and an exclusivist relationship with the land.

These dynamics originated in the pre-state phase of the settler-colonization of Palestine, but have since come to resonate across innumerable practices in various social spheres, creating a suffocating social reality.    

In recent years, we have witnessed some of the excesses of this reality. I’m not referring to the snowballing brutality of the Israeli occupation, but to the grotesque materializations of Israeli selfhood. By that, I mean the extreme embodiments of the predisposition to maintain the subjugation of Palestinians.

Oppressive capacities

There is a qualitative difference between the direct oppression and subjugation of Palestinians from the river to the sea, and the socially acquired oppressive capacities and predispositions that we see: not in the direct reproduction of Palestinian oppression, but in adjacent initiatives.      

Military tourism is perhaps the most awkward of these practices. A number of private firms work in this space, to the point that Israeli army-style training for tourists has become a full-fledged industry. Let us spell this out clearly: tourists enrol in activities to practice war and “anti-terrorism” simulation exercises. What these firms sell is oppression theme parks, drawing upon Israelis’ real experiences.

Secondly, the Israeli prime minister’s office has for years been funding covert units at universities, recruiting students to engage in hasbara activities on social media. During times of high violence, students are asked to reverberate across the internet the sort of messages, myths and beliefs they have learned since an early age. This particular activity has an added value in terms of reinforcing the Zionist machine of domination.

A third example is the surveillance and intelligence industry, with its most scandalous recent example involving Pegasus spyware. That this sort of harmful spyware is being sold to corporations and governments invested in spying on and killing activists and journalists should not surprise us in the slightest. This must be placed against the background of the larger Israeli cyberwarfare private industry, propelled by former Israeli intelligence officers. Human rights have never been high on the ladder of priorities for such organizations.

Collective selfhood

Fourthly, and perhaps the most obvious example, is the arms trade. In 2019, Israel was the world’s eighth-largest arms exporter. For decades, the Israeli arms industry – highly regarded work among Israelis – has been exporting arms to the world’s most repressive governments. 

All of these industries are anchored in the permanency of the settler-colonial regime, and the skills required to perpetuate them are related to, and tap on the social training at the heart of, Israelis’ everyday lives.

These overflows of social identity and collective selfhood are a window into the Zionist soul – a sad view indeed, and one that cannot negate the positive contributions to the world of Israeli medicine, agriculture or energy.

Rather, these overflows of collective selfhood should be grasped in relation to Israel’s attempts to censor any criticism of its principles and policies as “antisemitic”; in relation to the prioritization of demography over democracy; and in relation to what binds Israelis from all walks of life: a commitment to colonial practices.   

Marcelo Svirsky is a Senior Lecturer at the School for Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong, Australia