In The Colonizing Self or Home and Homelessness in Israel/Palestine (Duke University Press, 2020), Political theorist Hagar Kotef discusses the violence inherent in settler-colonialism and how this affects the settler concept of “home.” Homes built on stolen or dispossessed land, in this case, Palestinian land, are a form of sustainability for the settler-colonial project. This sustainability is ingrained in the settlers’ consciousness, thus rendering the settlers’ attachment to violence a prominent part of living within the colonial framework.
In an interview with Inside Arabia, Kotef discussed the themes in her book, and the importance of examining the settlers’ presence and narratives, as inherently imbued with violence engendered by settler-colonial practices.
Can you describe the three main facets of settler-colonialism which you identify in your book?
The first is its origin, or history. The second is structural. And third, since settler-colonialism is eventually about building a new political community in a new space, there is the question of affective attachments to territory.
The problem of origin is the most straightforward. Settler-colonialism is a regime based on what others have called “invasion” — a situation in which one community moves to a land inhabited by another community and appropriates this land as its own home at the expense of the second community. I think if we understand it this way, we can bypass many futile arguments.
It does not matter, for example, whether the “invading” community merely “returned” to a land that used to be its homeland, as many advocates of the Zionist project would argue. Nor does it matter whether the invaded community was a sovereign state before this “invasion” or whether it was “indigenous” or not. For example, there are recent Israeli historians who argue that most Palestinians arrived in Palestine relatively late as agricultural workers. My claim is that it does not change the fact that these Palestinians were already there when the massive Jewish immigration waves arrived. This means that rather than asking “who was here first,” or asking about the relations between the metropole and the colony (for example: “was Israel an agent of the West?” but also: “were the Irish arriving in America agents of the British Empire or its victims?” etc.)—questions that are often neither historically straightforward nor politically productive— we should understand settler-colonialism through its practices. And here we arrive at the second issue.
Settler practices are above all practices of homemaking through dispossession – and this dispossession is ongoing. It does not end with the moment of invasion or shortly thereafter. Patrick Wolfe therefore insisted that settler-colonialism is a structure rather than an event. House demolitions, enclaving indigenous people in confined territories, undermining national claims, erasing traces from the past that demonstrate natives’ presence, are all part of this.
My book, however, focuses on another issue, taking these two issues as its departure point. It seeks to ask what happens to the colonizers in and through this process of homemaking, and specifically what impact is there on their sense of belonging to the land. Now, you might ask, “Why should we care what happens to them in this story?” But what I try to show is that understanding this mode of belonging and the changes it undergoes is crucial if we are to develop ways to overcome this violent structure.
Before we continue, I should note that all this is an over-simplification. Settlement practices, their technologies, and frames of justification vary from society to society and from one historical context to another, and so do the political, cultural, economic and even ethical meanings of both indigeneity and settlement. Moreover, the idea of “invasion” itself is founded on the idea that before it took place, there was a clearly defined territory, and that we can think of a stable population before colonial immigration. Yet both are often formed only through struggles around the very question of colonial domination.
How important is “questioning the legitimacy of your home” in the settler-colonial context?
We can say that settler-colonialism is an organized migration movement that seeks to replace the population already living in the land. Moreover, unlike many other migratory movements, it is invested in the practices, rhetoric, and symbolism of stability. At stake, as many thinkers of settler-colonialism taught us, is the indignation of the settlers, the erasure of the fact that they have come from elsewhere. Therefore, as its name proposes, settler-colonialism is about settlement: about creating a home for the settlers.
But this indignation of the settlers necessarily entails an erasure, an elimination, a replacement of the native. As the book tries to show, this means that both concretely and metaphorically, settler-colonialism is an act of living inside someone else’s home – a home that has been destroyed.
I work through several such homes in the book. In some, this “living in” is very concrete and involves Jews who moved to Palestinian homes in Yaffa, Ein Hawd, Haifa and other places, or West Bank settlers who built organic farms on the land of Palestinian villages they actively depopulated using direct violence and intimidation. Sometimes this is less direct, and I look at architectonic styles or landscapes that become a site of longing to show how the array of affective attachments to the land is, for many Israelis, an attachment to a destroyed Palestinian place. Half destroyed terraces, olive groves, stone arches that appear now to be part of “nature” but used to be part of someone’s home—all have become key to how many Israelis portray their homeland.
Now, if this is how homemaking works in the colony, and if home is the underlying symbolic and material foundation of settler-colonialism, then the mode of “questioning” you are referring to is crucial. The ability to question the legitimacy of one’s own home may push one to develop other forms of belonging that are not so exclusive and violent. It is a way to begin to understand the need to share – one’s home, one’s land. I think this is something that is very difficult to do, and it is difficult not just because nationalism has created structures of exclusivity over territories, but also because capitalism has created structures of exclusivity over property.
Can you elaborate upon the “attachment to violence” which prevails in the settler-colonial framework and existence?
What should be clear by now is that settler-colonialism is necessarily violent. If in settler-colonialism the primary identity is the relation to place, and if this belonging is an act of elimination and dispossession, then by being who one is, one is already implicated in violence. Violence, then, emerges as a precondition for the integrity of one’s identity. This does not mean that all settlers are necessarily violent people, or that they necessarily bring about destruction maliciously. But violence is somehow tethered to their past, as well as their present.
The book traces the changing relations to this violence in the Israeli society. One of my main arguments is that we should at least entertain the possibility that sociopolitical conditions that are founded on ongoing violence—such as settlement or colonization—are likely to give rise to a particular mode of attachment to one’s own violence. If violence is the necessary condition to one’s placement in a particular territory, and if this placement is key to one’s identity, then this violence becomes part of this identity. Sometimes people renounce it or find ways to turn a blind eye to it, but one of the main arguments of the book is that if we look at what happened to the Israeli society over the last few decades, we see that people increasingly embrace this violence, even celebrate it. They become attached to this constitutive violence rather than engaging in mechanisms of denial or even what we used to call “shoot and cry.”
What part can the settler-colonial consciousness play in the decolonization of Palestinian land?
I still have not given up the ideal of shared struggles. When we look at Israel/Palestine, the US, or Australia, the inequality of the power-relations is so overwhelming, that it would be difficult to have a successful decolonizing process without the collaboration of at least a significant segment of the colonizing group. Moreover, it seems to me that the outcome of such a joint struggle is more likely to be more just.
I open the book with a quote from Edward Said which for me, says it all: “I think Israelis should be aware that their presence in many places in the country entails the loss of a Palestinian family, the demolition of a house, the destruction of a village . . . . Many Israelis resist this because they think the consequence would be to leave. Not at all. . . . The last thing I want to do is to perpetuate this process by which one distortion leads to another. I have a horror of that. I saw it happen too many times. I don’t want to see more people leave.” For this, the colonizer’s consciousness needs to change.