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  • Elimination as a Structure:Tracing and Racing Zionism with Patrick Wolfe
  • Saree Makdisi (bio)

One of the great virtues of Patrick Wolfe's Traces of History is that it locates different settler colonial situations in a comparative framework, thereby allowing us to see both how each situation relates to or draws on the others—but also what renders each distinctive in its own right. The Zionist project in Palestine stands out in this comparative framework, although it has clear relations to other settler colonial endeavors (such as those in Australia and the Americas, also discussed at length in his book). As Wolfe shows, no other settler colonial campaign was so meticulously planned and thought through; none so premeditated; none so wrapped up in so many ideological sleights of hand, so many layers of psychosocial denial and contradiction; none so fraught with anxiety and guilt. And none continues in such an unreconstructed way up to the present. Only in Palestine could one today walk down the street with a yellowing copy of Frantz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth and without any modification apply that 1961 classic to what one sees before one's eyes in 2017: "The settlers' town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about. … The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs."1

In the annals of settler colonialism, as Wolfe points out, "Zionism presents an unparalleled example of deliberate, explicit planning. No campaign of territorial dispossession was ever waged more thoughtfully."2 That last word is of course intended ironically, and it perfectly conveys Wolfe's point. Unlike the case of Palestine, settler projects in America or Australia were not accompanied by a whole archive of meticulously detailed writings on the need to eliminate the indigenous populations. (Neither were they put into execution as other places started to decolonize in the glaring light of the twentieth century—another unique feature of Zionism). Wolfe is careful, however, to note that this detail actually should not alter our assessment of the Zionist project: Palestinian rights remain intact regardless of how premeditated the Zionist project was or was [End Page 277] not. And in any case—addressing one of the book's consistent arguments—the outcome of settler colonialism takes place not in the abstract realm of ideology but at the point of contact between power and the land, at the level of usufruct.

This feature does, on the other hand, signal the extent which Zionism also differed from its Australian and American predecessors in terms of its intensity of focus, its obsessive concentration on the methodical elimination—the Zionist term is "transfer"—of the indigenous people of the land without any kind of assimilationist gesture, again right up to our own day. However belatedly, and with whatever caveats, American Indians and Aboriginal peoples in Australia were finally granted forms of recognition and citizenship in their respective states that Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza can hardly imagine. For, as Wolfe notes in stark contrast to the Australian or US cases, "Zionism rigorously refused, as it continues to refuse, any suggestion of Native assimilation." Thus, he adds, "Zionism constitutes a more exclusive exercise of the settler logic of elimination than we encounter in the Australian and US examples."3

It is not just intensity or extremism that distinguishes the case of Zionism from other settler colonial enterprises, however, but also that peculiar series of subtle—or not-so-subtle—rhetorical, ideological, and psychosocial structures unique to Zionism that are brilliantly traced by Wolfe's book. One structure involves the sometimes grotesque ways in which Zionism parrots some of the key ideologemes of European anti-Semitism. For, as Wolfe shows, the early Zionists were as keen to divest themselves psychologically of the racist caricature of the European Jew (which they seem to have internalized) as they were to simply lay claim to a piece of land, clear it of its indigenous...


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pp. 277-284
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