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The Moral Economy of Settler Colonialism: Israel and the “Evacuation Trauma”

[A portion of the separation wall in East Jerusalem. Image by Paolo Cuttitta.] [A portion of the separation wall in East Jerusalem. Image by Paolo Cuttitta.]

The evacuations of settlements in a colonial situation can represent moments of potential rupture and reversal of a political order rooted in dispossession. In the case of Israel and Palestine, however, such moments are characterized by the re-articulation and re-legitimization of the settler colonial enterprise. This takes place through the development of a specific settler moral economy founded on the political mobilization of trauma. 

I utilize the notion of moral economy of settler colonialism in order to define the way in which, within the settler colonial polity, evacuations are couched as a national trauma and the evacuated dispossessor as a traumatized victim of injustice. Through the analysis of this moral economy, I maintain, we can grasp one of the dominant imaginaries in Israel’s settler colonial model. The underlying question of my investigation, how settler colonialism provides a moral sense of justice within the settler colonial polity and how decolonization is perceived as a threatening injustice, may seem like an old one. Nevertheless, it is curious that this question remains relatively unexplored in the case of Israel and Palestine.

Peace-Traumatic Stress Disorders

At the beginning of October, 2012 the Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post published an article entitled “Peace-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” In it the author, Michael Freund, diagnosed a widespread pathology among Israeli politicians. According to Freund, they are affected by a psychological disorder whose roots could be traced back to the period of the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo peace agreements (1993–1999), and the successive unilateral measures adopted by different Israeli governments as a result of what their leading figures usually refer to as the absence of a Palestinian partner for peace. The syndrome is described as an “anxiety condition”: the will of the Israeli leadership to relinquish the “Land of Israel” through unilateral steps—the evacuation of some of the colonies established after the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

The direct target of Freund’s his article is former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who, in one of his speeches at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, advocated for more Israeli unilateral action in order to put “an end to the conflict, and an end to mutual claims.”[1] In his column, Freund accused Barak—together with the right-wing Netanyahu-led Israeli government—of provoking Palestinian rocket attacks and generating trauma among Israeli Jews by proposing the unilateral measure of new disengagements from some non-strategic outposts of the West Bank: 

“What about the 2005 unilateral [Israeli] pullout from Gaza [implemented by the Sharon government] and the expulsion of the Jews from Gush Katif [the block of Israeli settlements in Gaza evacuated in 2005], which brought Hamas to power and exposed southern Israel to unprecedented rocket fire? [. . .] Israel implemented a policy of unilateral withdrawal, and it blew up in our faces. [. . .] The current government seems to be determined to recreate the trauma of forcibly removing Jews from their homes.”[2] 

From the start, the non-ironic piece defines the difference between Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Peace-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PETS). Freund describes PETS as a mental health expert would when compiling a pathological index. He concludes his pathological assessment by asserting that the only therapy against this chronic “evacuation syndrome” consists in reinforcing the Israeli hold on every part of “Greater Israel.” He goes on to plead for more conquest of territory and the further reinforcement of colonial sovereignty as the prescription for this peculiar malady.

The effort to classify the evacuation of Jewish illegal settlements as a sort of “immoral pathology” aimed at producing Jewish trauma has to be understood as part of a broader deployment of the trauma discourse in the Israeli-Palestinian context. During the last two decades, several Israeli scholars have focused on how political violence has been interpreted repeatedly through the lens of trauma and how political dynamics have often been filled with clinical meanings. They analyzed how on the occasion of the various Israeli wars against its neighbors (with the progressive emergence of the figure of the “traumatized soldiers”) and during and after the Second Intifada (with the growth of attention on Israeli civilians’ trauma by the Israeli and international scholarly community) the trauma discourse often obliterated the political conditions of dispossession from which violence emerged.[3]

Scholars convincingly examined how this discourse depoliticized and de-historicized violence by reducing it to its clinical effects on the Israeli colonial polity. But curiously these scholars left widely unexplored the role of the politics of trauma and its inherent regime of meaning in relation to central questions within the Israeli-Palestinian settler colonial situation. Thus they failed to analyze how trauma is mobilized in relation to the Israeli politics of settling, patterns of evacuation, and territorial redeployment. 

Colonizing trauma

The question I address in this article is precisely how trauma and morality were deployed within the settler colonial polity in concomitance with the evacuations of Jewish settlements.  I am interested in analyzing the theoretical and political implications of this deployment of trauma as a moral frame that tries to legitimize colonization as moral, and decolonization as an immoral act of injustice.

Evacuating the colony means the return of the colonized in a geographical and cognitive space from which she was erased. At the same time, evacuations might mean for the colonizer the loss of what she acquired through conquest, expulsion and dispossession. Many different interpretations and experiences of these vertiginous events may potentially emerge within a settler colonial polity, but what is striking in the case of the two main moments of evacuation in the history of Israel—the state-orchestrated 1982 disengagement from Sinai, and the 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and some settlements of the West Bank—is the crystallization, during both evacuation events, of a common sense understanding translated into the vocabulary of a nationally shared trauma. 

How does this affective “glue” operate in the framework of settler colonialism?[4] What kinds of epistemic and political forces converge to produce settler subjects as “traumatized victims” and to call upon the nation to recognize the trauma of the evacuated settlers? How does it come about that an act like un-settling, that might be considered one of reparation for the Palestinians after decades of dispossession by military occupation and construction of civilian structures of colonization, could instead be interpreted and experienced by various members of the settler colonial polity as one of trauma, victimization and Jewish dispossession?[5] How does trauma become a moral “frame” in the sense in which this notion is articulated by Judith Butler, enabling a series of operations of power whose ultimate effect is the re-legitimation of a regime of violence and displacement of the native?[6]

I propose to answer these questions by exploring the specific ways in which different Israeli social actors have framed the evacuations as a national trauma and, consequently, any form of decolonization as an immoral act of injustice. I argue that the evacuations are relatively unexplored moments in which a certain kind of settler colonial ethos emerges, one in which a particular political utilization of trauma becomes clearly manifest. Indeed, defining and experiencing the evacuations (the potential end of the colony) as traumatic and thus morally illegitimate corresponds to reaffirming the legitimacy of the entire colonization enterprise and re-tracing the moral-political limits of a settler community based since 1948 on the dispossession of the Palestinians. In this moral economy of settler colonialism, to frame the evacuation of the colonies as an act lacking of morality and producing trauma is to affirm the moral value of settler colonialism. 

This re-legitimization takes place through a twofold utilization of the register of trauma—a socio-political register that has a global dimension, as many of the cases described by Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman in Empire of Trauma show—in a way that allows the perpetrators of violence (the “traumatized settler”) to become victims and thus to find legitimization for their activities of dispossession.[7] The first utilization involves de-historicization: trauma and victimhood are claimed by erasing the fact that the settlers initially dispossessed the Palestinians. Then it is as if the land they settled was their own from the beginning. 

The second usage consists in the transformation of the clinical register of trauma into a moral one, whose ultimate aim is the legitimization of settling as an act of justice, and the identification of certain acts of un-settling with injustice. We could define this twofold utilization of the register of trauma in the context of Palestine/Israel as the moral economy of settler colonialism—the social production, mobilization and circulation of moral values and norms politically functional to the perpetuation of settler colonial dispossession. Here the trauma discourse acquires three main functions: it is describes an experience of suffering; it erases the historical conditions that led to that experience; and it fuels a twofold moral claim about the justness of the colony and the un-justness of its end. 

In his proposition to revisit the notion of moral economy, Didier Fassin stresses the heuristic relevance of understanding the political mobilization of moral feelings and values.[8] In the case of the Israeli evacuations of Jewish settlements, the notion of moral economy is relevant both to the analysis of the dynamics of the evacuations and to the theorization of their implications as a way of understanding the broader settler colonial situation of Palestine/Israel. Analytically, Fassin’s formulation reveals the political implications of the deployment of trauma by the various actors involved in the evacuations. Living and interpreting the experience of the evacuation as a trauma inscribed in a linear sequence of Jewish expulsion and victimization can be understood—in light of the fact that the evacuations are ontologically related to an original dispossession of the native—as a specific moral and political history that relies upon a trauma discourse to erase the moment of inception and its historical repetition. Hence, the moral economy I focus on corresponds to a mechanism of constructing a particular settler colonial political subjectivity that is based on the disavowal of native presence. This specific configuration of trauma produces a shared understanding or an affective glue—a belief that the evacuations are a violation of the fundamental values and norms constituting the Jewish-Israeli settler colonial self and body politic.

Colonial inversions

From a theoretical point of view, the notion of moral economy also seems appropriate for grasping another fundamental specificity of the political operation displayed during the evacuations. In fact, my central argument is that what takes place during the evacuations is a form of moral inversion. It is a moment in which what would be commonly understood within the framework of a moral economy of political reparation (the recognition of a practice of colonial dispossession) instead takes on the contours of an experience of victimhood: a traumatization of the national settler community and a violation of what Kareem Rabie and I defined as the “human right to the colony”—the claim to the right to colonize based on the argument that preventing colonization would correspond to a violation of the human rights of the settlers.[9] 

In the moral economy that I investigate, the potential end of domination is experienced and interpreted fundamentally as the beginning of a regime of oppression against the Jewish settler polity. The evacuations in 1982 from Sinai and in 2005 from Gaza are two crucial moments in the emergence of this political deployment of inverted moral values. In the moral economy of settler colonialism, the dispossessor or the settler-evacuee is represented as the dispossessed victim and the potential return of the expelled native Palestinian becomes an experience of settler national trauma. The moral inversion in which this economy is rooted does not merely legitimate the original act of settler dispossession; it also provides legitimacy for a renewed policy of colonization.

In a context in which the ideological, normative, and practical axioms of settler colonialism are not a problem of history but rather a contemporary presence, the “evacuation trauma” does not merely help erase the Nakba—the systematic and organized expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and the stratification of injustice the Palestinians experienced during the following decades of the last century. More fundamentally, the discourse of trauma consolidates the existing settler colonial state and its expansion. During the evacuations, therefore, and in these moments of decolonization manquée, trauma becomes a discourse by which settler colonialism is re-legitimated, reproduced, and ultimately re-enacted. 

[This is a shorter version of an article that initially appeared in History of the Present.]

[1] Ehud Barak in his speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, May 30 2012, quoted in Michael Freund, “Peace-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Jerusalem Post, 6 June 2012. 

[2] Freund.

[3] Baruch Kimmerling, “Patterns of Militarism in Israel,” European Journal of Sociology 2 (1993): 1–28. Yoram Bilu and Witzum Eliezer, “War-Related Loss and Suffering in Israeli Society; An Historical Perspective,” Israel Studies 5:2 (2000): 1–31. Keren Friedman-Peleg and Yoram Bilu, “From PTSD to ‘National Trauma’: The case of the Israeli Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War,” Transcultural Psychiatry 48 (2011): 616–436.

[4] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions (2004).

[5] We could argue, with Idith Zertal, that trauma is the language through which the Zionist project has given itself a legitimacy to inscribe and geographically transfer a combination of memory and oblivion of the European Holocaust to this region. What is interesting in the case of the evacuations is that trauma is not mobilized in order to legitimize settler dispossession, but rather to prevent its end. See Idith Zertal, Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood (2005).

[6] Judith Butler, Frames of War (2005).

[7] Rechtman and Fassin, in their description of the global landscape of suffering, explore different cases of mobilization of the moral economy of trauma: U.S. veterans, Israeli and Palestinian NGOs during and after the Second Intifada, refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, the Balkan conflicts and other situations of humanitarian intervention. In many of these situations, the appropriation and deployment of trauma discourse reproduces and naturalizes a variegated array of inequality and domination relationships. See Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, The Empire of Trauma (2009).

[8] Didier Fassin, “Vers une théorie des economies morales,” in Économies morales contemporaines, ed. Didier Fassin and Jean-Sébastien Eidelman (2012), 19–47.

[9] Nicola Perugini and Kareem Rabie, “The human right to the colony,” in Shifting Borders. European Perspectives on Creolisation, ed. Tommaso Sbriccoli and Stefano Jacoviello (2012), 35–56.

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