Racial State, State of Exception

By Ronit Lentin
October 17, 2008


In May 2008 I attended the march of return of Palestinian internal refugees, which this year took part in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya. It was a very moving event, as whole families got together to evoke the Nakba and make a vow to return. My friend and I found ourselves among the enthusiastic, never violent Shabab, carrying placards proclaiming Palestine for the Palestinians and the Golan for Syria. After the speeches and songs we walked down the hill towards the main road, where a large contingent of police and border police awaited the marchers. Within minutes the peaceful event became a violent conflagration as police officers broke up the march, clubbing unarmed demonstrators with batons and firing tear gas and stun grenades into crowds of families that included young children. This demonstrates not only, ‘how far Israel still is from coming to terms with the circumstances of its birth’ (Cook, 2008), but also the banal nature of Israeli surveillance, a crucial instrument of racial states.

The starting point of Thinking Palestine is the analysis of Israel and Palestine in light of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘state of exception’. Now, I want to add another focus. The State of Israel has been theorized as ‘ethnocracy’, ‘ethnic democracy’, settler-colonial society, and even racist state, but to date it has not been explicitly theorized as a racial state, which I want to focus on here. David Theo Goldberg suggests that all modern nation-states are racial states, but cautions against using the concept of racialization as a vague analytical tool, and suggests that we anchor it in specific regional contexts rather than broad generalizations – I try to rise to the challenge as I think about the specifics of Israel as a racial state. My main argument is that theorizing Israel as a racial state is more apt than theorizing it, for instance, as a settler-colonial ethnocracy.

But before I start, it is worth asking why so many Israeli scholars are preoccupied with researching Palestinians. While such research often derives from empathy and solidarity, it may also have to do with the tendency to orientalize the Palestinian other (Said, 1978). She often represents the orient-at-home as exotic, sensual, chaotic but also desired ‘colonial fantasy’ (Yegenoglu, 1998). The preoccupation by some Israelis with Palestine – for instance, Oren Yiftachel’s analysis of Israel as an ethnocracy – is offered as a critique of Israeli state and society. However, being educated in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies also trains Israelis for intelligence work: many Israelis researching Palestinians are security services veterans. Indeed, the close cooperation between the security services and Israeli universities and research institutes is no secret. Furthermore, Elia Zureik (2007) points to the proliferation of postmodern and poststructuralist discourse in Israeli writing about Palestine. One example is the problematic relationship between postmodern theory and military practice, as argued by Eyal Weitzman (2008) in his work on the IDF’s new style of urban warfare in the Palestinian refugee camps.

Israeli national identity is based on Jewish victimhood: despite Israel’s military strength, most Israelis see themselves as forever victims. As minorities in Israel – Mizrahim, Palestinians, Russians immigrants – engage in competing victimologies, I wonder if some of us construct our identities through identifying with the occupied?

Like other anti-Zionist Israeli Jews, I too have a ‘road to Damascus’ account – I am working on a book on the co-memory of the Nakba by Israeli Jews, and as part of it I attempt to imagine my father’s part in the conquest of Haifa (Lentin 2008a, forthcoming). But I must remember that auto/biographical accounts are ultimately about the teller not the told, regardless of our conviction that our personal auto/biography is about empathy and solidarity. Despite the good intentions, in much Israeli research on Palestine, the Palestinians are often erased, their voice subsumed by the voice of the powerful colonizer, leading to a degree of appropriation that we are all guilty of (Lentin, 2008b). The Saffuriyya march illustrates not only state surveillance but also Palestinian resistance: racial states always also involve potentialities of resistance.

State of exception

‘Go inside’, he commanded in broken, hysterical English. ‘Inside!’ – But I am already inside. It took me a few seconds to understand that this young soldier redefined as ‘inside’ everything which was not visible… My being ‘outside’ inside the ‘inside’ bothered him (Khoury, 2004, cited by Weitztmzn, 2008: 15)

The concept of the state of exception has been developed by the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt. He wrote that the state of exception must be understood as a response to superior danger to the continuing existence of the state. The sovereign is constructed by the state of exception, which the sovereign himself determines (Schmitt, 2005: 25-7).

Schmitt, who was a trenchant critic of Weimar liberalism which he saw as ‘Jewish’, later became a Nazi ideologue. It is tempting to link the theorization of the state of exception to the Nazi state, but the Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben insists that the voluntary creation of a state of emergency does not merely relate to the Nazi Reich. Through the state of exception, the sovereign ‘creates and guarantees the situation’ that the law needs for its validity – and this circularity characterizes not only extreme regimes such as the Nazi state, but also the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency which has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic states’ (Agamben, 2005: 2). [1] This involves, on the one hand, the extension of the military authority’s wartime powers into the civil sphere, and on the other, the suspension of constitutional norms that protect individual liberties. [2] Agamben’s theory rests on the notion that the nation (in the sense of volk, rather than citizenry or residency) needs defending from its others. The state of exception is a security state, where security becomes part of ‘the normal techniques of government’ (Agamben 2005, 14).

In Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995), Agamben argues that the constant state of emergency enables the state to turn the lives of those under state rule into what he calls homo sacer or ‘bare life’ – s/he who may be killed at the sovereign’s whim. This concept explains the ‘bare life’ of Nazi concentration camp inmates, but Agamben extends this to the lives of detainees and refugees. He argues that the state of exception applies to ‘the entire political system’ in today’s world (Agamben, 1995: 9).

Israel is characterized by a complex regime of emergency regulations and a fuzzy interaction between the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and the military regarding Israel’s Palestinian citizens and Palestinians living under occupation, based on notions of (Jewish) ‘forced exile’ and ‘return’ and a gospel of ‘national security’. [3] According to the Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav, ‘In Israel there is a constant state of emergency… We must remember what this system enables: one rule (life) for the majority of the state’s citizens, and another (death, threat of death, threat of expulsion) for the state’s subjects, whose lives have been rendered “bare”‘ (2006, 206-7). For Agamben the camp (not only the Nazi lager) is a zone of exception: ‘whoever entered the camp moved in a zone of indistinction between outside and inside, exception and rule, licit and illicit, in which the very concepts of subjective right and juridical protection no longer made any sense’ (Agamben, 1995: 170). This indistinction emerges clearly in Eyal Weitzman’s (2008) description of Israeli soldiers ‘walking through the walls’ of Palestinian refugee camp homes.

Agamben stresses the centrality of security to the state of exception. Security is indeed central to the self-perception of the Israeli state, where the military occupies a central place. As the State of Israel sees itself as a haven for the ‘Jewish nation’, the control of the Palestinians is viewed as an imperative born of necessity, and an ongoing state of emergency, which, to paraphrase Agamben, ‘creates and guarantees the situation’ that the law needs for its validity, enacted to defend (Israeli Jewish) society against its indigenous others.

The Israeli preoccupation with state security determines the prevalence of a regulatory state of exception in governing both the territory occupied in 1967, and the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel. [4] According to Agamben, ‘A state whose main preoccupation is security, and for whom security is the main legitimization, is a brittle organism; such a state will remain vulnerable to terrorism and will ultimately become terrorist itself’.

Racial state

Sharon was explicit: ‘The Palestinians must feel the pain… they must get up every morning and find out they have ten or twelve dead, without understanding how it happened. You must be creative, effective, sophisticated’ (Druker and Shelah, 2005, cited by Weitzman, 2008: 14)

Michel Foucault dedicated some of his 1976 lecture series, to the birth of state racism (2003). The duty to defend society against itself means that the state can scarcely function without racism, which Foucault terms as ‘the break between what must live and what must die’ (Foucault 2003, 254). According to this analysis, racism establishes ‘a relationship between my life and the death of the other that is not a military or warlike relationship, but a biological-type relationship: the more inferior species die out… the more I – as species rather than individual – can live, the stronger I will be’ (Foucault 2003, 255). This explains the ongoing process of ‘Judaicizing’ and ‘de-Arabizing’ Israel, and ‘transferring’ Palestinians outside the state’s borders (Yiftachel, 1999; Pappe 2006).

For David Theo Goldberg (2002) the racial state is a state of power. Through governmental technologies – such as constitutions, border controls, the law, policy making, bureaucracy, population censuses, but also invented histories and traditions, ceremonies and cultural imaginings – modern states, each in its own way, are defined by their power to exclude and include in racially ordered terms, aiming to produce homogeneous populations by keeping racialized others out and by legislating against the ‘degeneracy’ of indigenous minorities. But homogeneity is ultimately ‘heterogeneity in denial’…

It is increasingly difficult to speak about racism as modern states declare themselves anti- and post-racist, despite the fact that ever since the Enlightenment, racism is indelibly linked to state policies. In Israel, the link between racism and Nazism, and the Holocaust as a reference point make it particularly difficult to speak about racism, despite the proliferation of racist phenomena (Herzog et al 2008). Yehouda Shenhav and Yossi Yonah’s (2008) recent collection Racism in Israel breaks the Israeli silence in speaking about race and racism.

Israel: Ethnocracy or racial state?

‘Jews are first and foremost a race, which, despite all climactic influences, adapted to all conditions and preserved its unity’ (Moshe Hess, Rome and Jerusalem: A Study of Jewish Nationalism, 1962)

‘Isolation prevents the improvement of the race… Jews have a unique physical and spiritual physiognomy because they do not marry others’ (Theodore Herzl, 1895)

Theorizing Israel as a racial state is not merely about its relations with the Palestinians. Zionism was articulated as the imperative to protect the nebulous body termed ‘the Jewish nation’ from antisemitic persecutions. [5] Geneticist Rafael Falk reads the entire history of Zionism as a eugenic project, aimed at defending the Jewish genetic pool from the degeneration forced upon the Jews by diaspora existence (Falk 2006, 25). Understanding Judaism as a racial essence became an integral part of Zionist thought towards the end of the nineteenth century when pseudo-scientific racial theories flourished. While some European Jews (such as Ahad Ha’am) struggled with the idea of Judaism as a race, prominent Zionist thinkers such as Theodore Herzl, Moshe Hess, Leon Pinsker, Max Nordau, and even the liberal philosopher Martin Buber adopted the volk terminology – a racial nation shaped by ‘blood and soil’ (Falk 2006, 18-9). Arthur Ruppin, director of the ‘Eretz Israel office’, and Zionism’s main ‘colonizator’, preached eugenic selection of the racially dominant old-new Jewish ‘human material’ in the Zionist settlement of Palestine. Like other race hygienicists, Ruppin, who believed the Jewish state had a central role in ‘improving the race’ of the volk, was instrumental in producing a Zionist repertoire of racial categories and volkist imagery (Bloom 2007).

This is not merely ancient Zionist history. Only last weekend Seth Freedman wrote in the Guardian about his experiences policing the occupation of the West Bank:

The Shin Bet interrogators ordered the soldiers to finish their meals and put the remains from the plates into a sandwich for the Palestinians. Shai refused – ‘Are we Nazis?’ – and gave them half his meal… when the Palestinians offered some of the food back to the soldiers, the Shin Bet men tossed it out the window, saying: ‘Don’t’ eat food after an Arab’s touched it’ (Freedman, 2008: 65).

Nicholson reminds us that ‘people were turned into races when nations extended and defined their political hegemony… race and nation … are the Siamese twins of modernity’ (cited by A. Lentin, 2008a: 17).

The reluctance to theorize Israel as a racial state also stems from the dominance of its theorization as a settler-colonial ethnocracy (Yiftachel, 1999, 2006). After the Holocaust and the UNESCO tradition (A. Lentin, 2008a), the impetus of replacing race with signifiers such as culture and ethnicity, does not overcome the effects of the race idea. In Yiftachel’s ethnocracy, ethnicity grants rights and privileges, state borders are fuzzy, the dominant ethnic group appropriates the state apparatus and creates political, geographic and economic segregation, upheld by culture and ideology which legitimize the uneven reality (Yiftachel, 1999).

Herzog et al (2008) chart the move from a taboo on mentioning racism in the early years of the state when the policy against the Palestinians was the most discriminatory, to the frequent use of the term in the early 21st century, when the condition of Palestinian citizens has allegedly improved. They speak of ‘institutional racism’, and of racism as ‘discrimination enshrined by law’, but stop short of naming Israel as a racial state. Shenhav and Yonah (2008) link racism to regimes of justification. Thus Israel’s nationalist regime of justification produces its own logic in relation to national security, immigration, pro-natalism and ‘judaicization’ policies aimed to deal with the Arab ‘demographic threat’.

While not explicitly naming race as a signifier, such regimes of justification are part of a process of racialization which assigns racial characteristics – not necessarily skin colour – to certain groups with the effect of constraining their full equality. Because racism becomes significant only when it intersects with nationalist ideology (Balibar, 1991), I suggest that theorizing Israel as an ethnocracy minimizes the link between race and state. Supplanting of race with ethnicity regards race as ultimately biologically driven, despite Paul Gilroy’s (2001) argument that ethnicity, or ethnic absolutism, is but a covert way of speaking about race.

Goldberg (2002: 141-7) writes that the law is central to modern state formation and a technology of racial rule, promoting racial categorization and identification, and shaping national identities through legislating on citizenship rights and immigration controls.

There is a no need to re-rehearse here Israeli racial laws such as the Law of Return, the Law for Absentee Property (1950), the JNF Law (1953) and the Law of Agricultural Settlement (1967), which bar – by legal means – the selling, leasing, sub-letting and owning of land by ‘non-Jews’, read Palestinians. Nor do I need to re-rehearse the processes by which, as argued by Yiftachel (1999) and Pappe (2006), Israel instituted a whole panoply of measures aimed at territorial restructuring, culminating with the gradual crawling of the apartheid wall.

Racial states are surveillance states, policing populations and constructing ‘docile bodies’. Yair Bäuml (2007) argues that between 1958 and 1968 Israel’s policies were aimed at stabilizing the Palestinians, seen as a ‘security risk’, while at the same time oppressing their economic development and geographical expansion. The military regulations intended to differentiate the Palestinians geographically, economically, socially and politically read like regulations aimed at racial discrimination. After the 1967 war, the surveillance shifted to the occupied territory. Yet, the abolition of the Military Government on 3 October 1967 did not demolish its legacy. As the police and the Shabak replaced the military as surveillance mechanisms, Israel continued to perceive the Palestinians as an alien entity, their racialization apparent in all areas of life (Bäuml, 2007: 430).

Ultimately, Falk argues that science cannot ‘prove’ who is a Jew or settle the vexed question of the common origin of Jews. Yet the state of Israel continues to attempt to square the religious-social-biological circle: the Law of Return and citizenship rights to Jewish individuals and communities are clearly racist.

Samera Esmeir argues that the 1967 occupation is but the latest cycle of occupation: ‘although in many official narratives Israel uses the term “occupation” for the 1948 events, this has been largely omitted from the international vocabulary, legitimating the existence of the state of Israel and erasing the violence of its establishment’ (Esmeir 2007), even though, as Yiftachel argues, ‘Israel-proper’, ‘as a definable democratic-political entity, simply does not exist‘ (1999, emphasis in the original).

This paper was presented in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, on 1 October 2008.


1. One example Agamben gives to illustrates the biopolitical significance of the state of exception as the structure in which the law encompasses living beings by means of its own suspension is the ‘military order’ issued by the US President on November 13 2001, which authorizes the indefinite detention and trial by ‘military commission’ of non-citizens suspected of terrorist activities. The USA Patriot Act enacted on 26 October 2001 already allowed the Attorney General to take into custody aliens suspected of activities endangering the national security of the United States, though within seven days the alien had to be either released or charged. What was new about Bush’s order was that it erased any legal status of the individual, thus detainees not only did not have a POW status, they did not even have the status of persons charged with a crime according to American laws. Like in the Nazi camps, detainees lose any legal identity (Agamben 2005, 3).

2. As argued by Zreik (2008) in relation to Israeli constitutionalism.

3. See, however, Pappe’s (2008) counter argument that Israel is not a state of exception, but rather a state of oppression, and that the Agamben framework has been appropriated by Israeli scholars wishing to uphold Israel as a both ‘Jewish’ and ‘democratic’.

4. As argued by Sabagh-Khouri and Sultani regarding the trial of Azmi Bishara (2006; Pappe, 2008).

5. Interesting here is also Burleigh and Wipperman’s (1999) theorization of the Nazi state as the ideal type racial state, where the object was the protection of the body of the volk.


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Ronit Lentin is director of the postgraduate programme in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin. She has published extensively on gender and genocide, racism in Ireland, and Israel/Palestine. Her books include Conversations with Palestinian Women (1982), Gender and Catastrophe (1997), Israel and the Daughters of the Shoah: Reoccupying the Territories of Silence (2000), Racism and Anti-racism in Ireland (with Robbie McVeigh, 2002), Women and the Politics of Military Confrontation: Palestinian and Israeli Gendered Narratives of Dislocation (with Nahla Abdo 2002), Re-presenting the Shoah for the 21st Century (2004), After Optimism? Ireland, Racism and Globalisation (with Robbie McVeigh, 2006), Race and State (with Alana Lentin, 2006 / 2008), Performing Global Networks (with Karen Fricker, 2007), and Thinking Palestine (2008). Her next book is Co-Memory and Melncholia: Israelis Memorialising the Palestinian Nakba (2010).