TRUTH TO POWER: An Interview with Ronit Lentin

"Palestine Nakba Day demo in Berlin" by Libertinus.
"Palestine Nakba Day demo in Berlin" by Libertinus.

Ronit Lentin is former associate professor of sociology, Trinity College Dublin, where she directed the the MPhil in Ethnic and Racial Studies from 1997 to 2012.


She has written extensively on Palestine and Israel, racism and immigration in Ireland, gender, genocide, and the Holocaust.


Her most recent book, Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism, was published by Bloomsbury in 2018.


Q. Israel, where you were born, is sometimes described as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. In your powerful 2018 book, Traces of Racial Exception, however, you refer to the “Israeli State” as a “settler colony”, and proceed to catalogue and dissect the violent stratifications of power, identity, and rights enforced within its (ever-expanding) borders and under Israeli military rule. A large question, I know, but could you explain briefly why you feel “settler colonialism” is the most accurate frame for understanding Israel and its history – and why you chose this over paradigms that primarily emphasise its resemblance to “apartheid” regimes, say, or indeed which depict it as a “flawed democracy”?


A. Let me begin by correcting you: I was born in Palestine, four years before the birth of the state of Israel (I have a British Mandate birth certificate in which both my parents are listed as citizens of Palestine; my birth certificate was re-issued by the Israeli Ministry of the Interior later with the birth place changed to ‘Israel’). I grew up in Israel and, like other people of my and subsequent generations of Israeli Jews, I was fed the Zionist narrative of both Jewish victimhood – Jews were indeed persecuted for generations, culminating in the Nazi genocide – and white Jewish supremacy, according to which the land of Palestine had been promised by the Jewish god to the ‘Jewish people’ who, because of Jewish victimhood, were entitled to colonise it and oppress the indigenous owners of the land who, the Zionists claim, have no rights on their own land. 


I have been writing, both fiction and academic work, about the Zionist colonisation of Palestine for many years, long before my 2018 book Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism. I theorise what I term Israel’s permanent war against the Palestinians as state of exception, settler colonialism, and racial state. The latter description of the state of Israel, which I have since re-termed a ‘racial colony’ – is the main lens through which I analyse the state of Israel, which has instituted a European colonial racial rule not only over the Palestinians, whose lands the Zionists conquered and who they expelled from their lands and properties, but also over non-European non-white Jewish people who migrated to Israel from Arab and North African states, as well as over non-Jewish, non-white labour migrants and asylum seekers.


It was my interest in and research of race critical theory as well as my resistance to the colonisation of Palestine and the oppression of the Palestinians that brought me to use race as my main analytical lens with which to theorise my former country. I say former, because I have lived in Ireland since arriving here with my Irish-Jewish partner, Louis Lentin, in 1969, and as of the last few years I no longer consider myself Israeli, even though many cultural and linguistic aspects still tie me to Israel and to (some) like-minded Israelis.


Race is very often left out of the analysis of the Israeli colonisation of Palestine. Indeed, like the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, which in January 2021 released a report calling Israeli rule, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea an apartheid regime, many scholars and activists have used the apartheid frame to think about Israeli colonialism. Others, like the Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, theorise it as an ethnocracy (Yiftachel) or speak of the ‘ethnic cleansing of Palestine’ (Pappe), assuming it is ethnicity rather than race that create the hierarchical differences between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, a theoretically problematic stance. I use the race lens because apartheid, while it certainly exists in terms of segregating the Palestinians by both legal and spatial means, does not encompass the whole gamut of racialisation; and because ethnicity tends to homogenise both groups, which are actually very ethnically diverse. 


Race has been defined by race-critical scholar Alana Lentin as “a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy;” in Israel’s case this pertains to white Jewish supremacy. The African-American race scholar Alexander Weheliye regards race “not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of socio-political processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite humans and non-humans;” in Israel’s case this means disciplining the population into (European Jewish Israeli) full humans, non-European Jewish Israeli and Palestinian citizen not-quite human, and Palestinian and non-Jewish non-white migrant non humans). The African American theorist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines race as not resting on phenotype or culture, but as “the state-sanctioned and/or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerabilities to premature death”; in the Israeli case this relates to the cheapness of racialised Palestinian and non-white lives.


Bear in mind that like the antisemites, Zionist ideologues constructed Jewish people as a biological race-nation that required its own homeland which was to be a replica of Europe away from Europe, and where racialised European Jews would become white, consolidating their racial supremacy over Palestinians but also over non-European Jews. Escaping from Europe, Ashkenazi-European Jews became akin to European gentiles, whose antisemitic contempt for diaspora Jews is replicated in Ashkenazi Jewish contempt for Palestinians, but also for Arab, Mizrahi and black Ethiopian Jews in present-day Israel. 


So to answer your question, my theorisation of Israel and the colonisation of Palestine focuses on race and I do this through a series of examples in relation to Palestinian people who are not only living in segregated apartheid-like conditions, who were not only expelled in their hundreds of thousands during the 1948 Nakba, who not only had the territories in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in 1967 – they are also continuing to live as colonised subjects under Israeli rule in the whole of historic Palestine. Furthermore, Palestinian refugees are prevented from returning to their stolen homes and lands while Jewish people from all over the world are entitled to migrate to Israel and to automatic citizenship – by legal means, from the 1950 Law of Return, to the 2018 Nation State Law that declares Israel as the state of the ‘Jewish nation.’ Indeed, Israel is not just not ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ – it has not been a democracy since gaining independence in May 1948 when it was meant as a democracy for Jews and not for all its citizens.


Analysing the state of Israel in terms of race, I also examine the racialisation of non-white “Arab Jews” who, although forming about half of the Jewish population of Israel, have been discriminated against since their arrival in the 1950s when they were housed in transit camps in peripheral locations.  Other people discriminated by the Israeli regime of race are Ethiopian Jews brought to Israel from refugee camps in Sudan in a series of secret operations in the early 1980s by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency on the orders of the then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and later in 1991, as an alleged act of rescue but actually in order to combat the UN declaration of Zionism as racism. Ethiopian Jews continue to experience racial discrimination as do non-white labour migrants and asylum seekers. Israel’s regime of race operates a multi-layered system of racial hierarchisation and discrimination, but above all, I attribute Israel’s regime of race to its colonisation of Palestine.


Q. At the time of our correspondence, several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel is being hailed by Euro-American media outlets as a “world leader” in vaccine provision. Often missing from such plaudits, however, is the salient fact that, amid a looming “health disaster” for Palestinian communities (already enduring military occupation, siege, and rationing), Israeli authorities have “refused [to] make Covid-19 vaccines available to Palestinian medical workers”. Can you comment on this lethal, and yet under-reported, pandemic response, and how it might relate (if it does) to your own research and analysis?


A. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights already existing inequalities between the global south and the global north, and between what the Jamaican-British cultural theorist Stuart Hall called “the west and the rest.” Furthermore, members of racial minorities in the west were more frequently infected by Covid-19, not because of their greater tendency to experience diseases such as diabetes and obesity, but because of racial discrimination and inferior living conditions. Likewise, incarcerated populations were also more frequently infected by Covid-19 everywhere in the world, including in Ireland, where asylum seekers in Direct Provision, who were less able to self-isolate, were more vulnerable. 


In Palestine the rates of infection are high, with Covid-19 hitting particularly hard the besieged Gaza Strip, where the health conditions, after a long period of closure and relative safety have deteriorated greatly. By 25 January 2021 the total number of cases in the Gaza enclave stood at 49,834, of whom 508 died. Already experiencing a depleted health system coupled with poor electricity and water supplies, the Gaza health officials were speaking of the imminent total collapse of the health services due to the pandemic. The injustice is even more apparent in relation to the high rate of vaccinations of Israeli Jews (and some of Israel’s Palestinian citizens) compared with Israel’s refusal to provide vaccines to Palestinians under occupation, claiming that it is the Palestinians’ own responsibility to look after “their own people” as per the 1993 Oslo Accords. The fact that 17 per cent of Israeli doctors and many Israeli pharmacists are Palestinian makes its refusal to provide vaccines to occupied Palestinians even more poignant.


Sadly, this enraging state of affairs only confirms my analysis of Israel as a racial colony which refuses to abide by norms of international law and moral justice. In fact, Israel’s exceptionalist refusal was explicitly expressed by its first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion who stated already in 1955 during Israel’s Independence Day celebrations: “Our future depends not on what the gentiles will say, but on what the Jews will do,” a refusal reiterated many times since by many Israeli leaders. The Covid-19 crisis has only strengthened my belief in putting race front and centre in analysing Israel’s ongoing war against the Palestinians. The “international community,” besides faint condemnations, merely looks on and does nothing, despite the increasing solidarity by international civil society, whose support for Palestine and adherence to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is growing as Israel’s unjust colonisation of Palestine continues.


Q. We seem to have entered an age of resurgent antisemitism, linked to white supremacist movements, including here in Ireland. Ironically, in some cases Israeli leaders have cultivated political ties with some of the most toxic contemporary exponents of this ideology (I’m thinking of Benjamin Netanyahu’s warm relations with Hungary’s Victor Orban, for instance). My question, however, is this: in your view, are left-wing (i.e. radical or progressive) organisations and networks working effectively or seriously enough to meet and counteract this trend, in Ireland or farther afield?


A. The link between Zionism and antisemitism has a long history. Upholding Jewish racial uniqueness, Zionist leaders and intellectuals, from Albert Einstein to Israel’s ‘national poet’ Haim Nachman Bialik, explicitly and positively linked Zionism and antisemitism. This was not unique to right wing Zionists; in 1924 the editor of (the New York Zionist workers’ journal) Jewish Frontier, Chaim Grinberg, wrote that “in order to be a good Zionist, one has to be a bit of an antisemite.” Many of Zionism’s early leaders and ideologues, from Theodor Herzl onwards, forged alliances with known antisemites whose support they attempted to enlist, as I document in my book.


While there is little doubt that antisemitism continues to target Jewish people in Europe and the USA as demonstrated by increasing attacks on Jewish communal settings such as synagogues and kosher shops, the contradictory relationship between Zionism and antisemitism goes on in contemporary Israel. On the one hand, Israel is waging a bitter battle against its Jewish and non-Jewish, domestic and international critics and BDS supporters, explicitly equating anti-Zionism and antisemitism, calling non-Jewish critics of Israel antisemitic and Jewish critics ‘self-hating Jews.’ On the other hand, Israel continues to align itself with known antisemites such as Hungary’s Victor Orbán and with genocidal regimes including Myanmar and the Philippines, to which it sells weapons, security systems and military training.


However, arguing that antisemitism is the worst and most prevalent form of racism today and decoupling antisemitism from other forms of racism, particularly Islamophobia, gives antisemitism a political utility that does not illuminate the operations of race, but rather obscures them. As Alana Lentin argues, the objection to antisemitism (as demonstrated for example by the rush to endorse the contentious International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] definition of antisemitism that includes several examples equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism) has been used as a proxy for a commitment to antiracism on behalf of all racialised people. Politicians put the responsibility for antisemitism onto racialised communities, particularly Muslims, even though we need to theorise antisemitism as entangled with Islamophobia, so as to permit Jews on the left to oppose our manipulation in the service of racism and colonialism.


I remember my father telling me at a young age that as a Jewish person growing up in Israel I would not encounter antisemitism suffered by Jews in Europe. He did not tell me anything about his role in the Nakba and the Zionist conquest of the ‘mixed’ Palestinian-Jewish city of Haifa, nor about the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. But he did not prepare me for life in Ireland, where antisemitism became part of my everyday existence. Both I and Louis were often faced with antisemitic remarks such as ‘how can you understand, you’re not Irish, you’re Jewish,’ said to Louis, who was one of RTÉ’s prominent directors, or ‘tell me Ronit, why are all Jewish people so rich?’ In recent years, as I have become known for my work on racism in Ireland, the attacks are mostly online, mostly in the form of ‘Lentin, the Jewess who has come to Ireland to commit genocide against the Irish race.’ I suppose that these antisemitic attacks, coupled with online attacks by Zionists calling me a ‘self-hating Jew,’ prove my effectiveness.


We must, however, be able to analyse antisemitism, which occurs on the left as well as on the right, without always linking it to a discussion of Israel. While most Jewish people support the existence of the state of Israel, most of them do not live there and do not consider it ‘their country.’ And a growing number of, mostly young, Jewish people including those living in Israel, oppose Israel’s policies of colonisation, occupation and oppression. I have encountered blatant antisemitism from pro-Palestine Irish people, but on the whole, I am satisfied that the group I am affiliated to, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC), is determined to oppose antisemitism and other forms of racism. As for me, I do not wish to be a useful ‘good Jew’ in my pro-Palestine solidarity work as I am often called to be. As Alana Lentin writes, “there is a struggle internal to Jewish communities to recognise the pernicious effects of supporting racial-colonial rule through adherence to Israel, abetting antisemitism via shared opposition to Islam and Muslims, and giving succour to white supremacism.”  


Q. Given your last remarks (and thank you for them), I now realise that this may have been a wrong-headed or presumptuous question for me to present to you when I originally got in contact. At that point, I wondered whether your path-breaking work as both scholar and activist over the years had been motivated, in part, by a very personal necessity: to show solidarity, as a Jewish person, with Palestinian communities suffering under the rule of the world’s first Jewish State. I then asked: Has this been an isolating or difficult position to hold?


A. As I said already, growing up in Israel meant being inculcated as a Zionist subject for whom the settler colonial mantra of ‘we don’t have another country’ meant that we were told we were the masters of the land and that ‘Arabs’ (the term ‘Palestinians’ was not used until quite recently) were racially inferior. Living in the Palestinian-Jewish city of Haifa until I went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the age of 18, having luckily not been drafted to the IDF, meant living with the background music of the Nakba, but also seeing and not seeing the Palestinians, whose shadowy existence as workers and merchants we largely disavowed. 


From a young age I became obsessed with reading about the Nazi genocide. My own family came from northern Romania whose Jewish population was deported by the Romanian dictator, Ion Antonescu, to Transnistria – a territory given to him by Hitler, his Nazi ally. My parents had arrived in Palestine before WWII, but many of their family members perished in Transnistria. The Holocaust, however, was never spoken about at home, as, until the Eichmann trial in 1961, Israelis were busy becoming ‘new Jews’ – active and combative, not like their European Jewish ancestors having ‘gone to their death like lamb to the slaughter,’ as the common perception went. Comparing the silence about the Shoah in Israel’s early years with today’s obsession with it as a master narrative of identity making, I reflect on Valentina Pisanty who writes in The Guardians of Memory and the Return of the Xenophobic Right, that at the same time as the Shoah has become the object of widespread commemorative activities throughout the western world (including Ireland), “racism and intolerance have increased dramatically in those very countries where the politics of memory have been implemented with the greatest vigor.”


It was only after the 1967 war, which I spent with a group of friends wandering the streets of Jerusalem, when members of the Trotskyite group, Matzpen: the Socialist Organisation in Israel, imparted the bare facts about Israel’s imperialism and the colonisation of Palestine that the penny dropped. And once it dropped, it stayed dropped, even though I continued to toy with Zionism and Israel, gradually moving from believing in the two state solution to supporting a one secular democratic state in historic Palestine.


So, to answer your question of whether my pro-Palestine activism and scholarship have been motivated by being Jewish, I can only say perhaps, but this is not the whole truth. I have no idea how my opinions or activities would have developed had I stayed in Israel. My Jewish identity was strengthened in Ireland, where I have become more of a ‘Jew’ than an ‘Israeli’. I have always been open about being Jewish, always told my students that I was teaching ‘as a Jew’ but also as a ‘pro-Palestine Jewish Israeli.’ Many Jewish pro-Palestine activists say they were motivated by a ‘Jewish search for justice.’ I am not convinced. But there was something about being the daughter of people who had to flee Romanian and Nazi persecution which, I believe, motivated my antiracist activism. I am thrilled that my children follow the same path and proud that my 13-years old granddaughter has written a project about Palestinian women for her Bat Miztvah – the Jewish equivalent of confirmation.


Has it been an isolating or difficult position to hold? At times, yes. I have had many lasting arguments with family members, and the Irish Jewish community has totally ostracised me. It did bother me for a time but no longer. In my mid-seventies, I no longer consider it isolating or difficult. It’s a duty and a pleasure to be on what I believe is the right side of history.

ronit lentin & ciarán O'Rourke // January 2021