In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris tracks the construction of whiteness in the United States as legalized power, specifically as property. Defining property as the expectation of the right to property, Harris paints whiteness as a legalized sense of entitlement. She cites as an example the American legal doctrine that to label a white individual “Black” constitutes defamation. As recently as 1957, Harris notes, calling a white person “Black” was a suable offence because it could lead to concrete injuries for the ‘mislabeled’ party – losses in terms of housing, employment, and so on. This legal tradition – amongst others – acknowledged whiteness’ role as an “object or resource necessary to a person,” a form of external property.
Though explicitly an account of whiteness, Harris’ analysis can also provide a general framework for any racialized settler identity. Indeed, the “whiteness as property” phenomenon that Harris documents begins with European settlement in the “New World,” which established a legal custom of “valorizing whiteness” that continued throughout American history. In a sense, then, what Harris is highlighting is the legal extension of settler consciousness throughout time, the process whereby an entitled, property-seeking state of mind – first named “pioneer” or “settler” and later simply “white” – was inscribed in law.
The legal and social constructions of whiteness in the US and of Jewishness in Israel are by no means identical – they converge, diverge, and influence one another in ways well beyond the scope of this piece. That said, Israeli Jewish identity is similar to American white identity insofar as it functions as a racialized settler identity that, in and of itself, constitutes a form of a property. At a basic level, Israeli citizenship and Jewish nationality, as conferred by the state automatically to any Jew in accordance with the Law of Return, constitutes a form of property, since it legally legitimizes an expectation of the right to Palestinian land based on Jewish heritage. Within Israel, the property of Jewish Israeli citizenship manifests itself in the legal privileges granted to prospective and current Jewish homeowners. For instance, Israeli law prohibits the Jewish National Fund, which owns millions of acres of land, from selling or leasing land to non-Jews. Similarly, under Israeli law, local authorities have the right to refuse housing to non-Jews in neighborhoods where “the absorption of an Arab family would deter other Jews from living there.” Jewish legal privilege associated with housing is further amplified in the case of European/Ashkenazi Jews, whose Sephardic counterparts have suffered systematic discrimination in Israel. The state subsidies granted to settlers living in Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, with benefits including “financial assistance to build or purchase a house” and “leases for land at rates well below its real value,” provide yet another example of the property inherent in one’s legal status as Jewish Israeli.
In both the cases of white and Jewish legally constructed supremacies, legal privilege assumes, to borrow Lukacs’ term, “phantom objectivity,” which he defines as “an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.” In other words, once the legal structure that privileges one group and disenfranchises another is in place, the unequal social reality that the law creates assumes a “naturalness” that disguises its origins. The naturalized power relation between the Israeli and the Palestinian, in turn, allows the former to act on their legal privilege as if they were performing a biologically and divinely predetermined Jewish supremacy and not a deliberately constructed social and legal power.
Last month, an Israeli settler published a piece on Ynet in which she bemoans her guilt vis-à-vis the Palestinian laborers who work on her West Bank settlement. When a Palestinian construction worker saves her child’s life, Racheli Malek-Boda begins to question the theretofore naturalized power relation between settlers and the Palestinians who serve them: “It seemed natural to me that Arabs are building our community, until the week where this strange status quo shattered.”
Malek-Boda clearly intended for her piece to serve as an extension of this revelatory “shattering” of the status quo. She begins with a de-naturalizing reflection on her socialization as a “religious/rightist/settler,” effectively unveiling the disguised origins of her privilege as a Jewish (presumably Ashkenazi) Israeli. She goes on to admit her irrational racism vis-à-vis her child’s savior and the Palestinian population at large. After refusing a ride to the Palestinian who rescued her child, Malek-Boda gives fifty shekels and some advice to a Palestinian window-washer: “Do good things with it.” She then sobs all the way to work.
Malek-Boda’s cathartic and tearful donation, which we might just as easily read as a reluctant and vastly inadequate reparation, does not shatter the naturalized Jewish supremacy embedded in settler consciousness; it pieces it back together. Malek-Boda accepts as an unfortunate reality that a peaceful majority of Palestinians “are forced to pay a heavy price for the actions of a small, dominant and bloodthirsty group.” In short, if Malek-Boda finds herself mired in morally corrupt ground, it is because the “dominant and bloodthirsty” Arab, the one whose docile counterpart is the laborer who saves her children and bags her groceries, has cornered her. Malek-Boda thus embodies the myth that Israel performs daily, that of a perpetual victim forced to commit systematic violence to protect itself from its barbaric neighbors. Like Theodor Herzl’s “outpost of civilization” and Ehud Barak’s “villa in the jungle,” Malek-Boda clings desperately to an innate moral superiority in the midst of a morally compromising (Arab) landscape. Where Israeli military aircrafts drop leaflets warning of forthcoming bombs, Malek-Boda hands out fifty shekel bills. Rather than deliver her advice with affection, Malek-Boda mutters it as a quiet and terse order. At once benefactor and reluctant oppressor, Malek-Boda generously but harshly nudges her subject in the right direction, enacting an age-old civilizing mission, to tame and to reform; “Do good things with it.”
It would be a mistake to dismiss Malek-Boda’s tears as purely contrived. Like many experiences of intimacy between colonizer and colonized, her appreciation for her son’s savior and feelings of guilt are likely genuine. It is the way that she articulates and enacts that intimacy, however, that allows her to integrate this humanizing moment into the overarching de-humanizing fantasy of her colonial project. In Valerie Martin’s Property, a novel narrated by a slave master’s wife, Martin portrays what appears to be a very real paternal bond between the slave master and his “illegitimate” son, Walter, who, as the offspring of an enslaved woman, also happens to be the master’s slave. The notoriously brutal master reconciles his roles as father and owner by treating Walter like an animal: he chuckles fondly as Walter runs around their dining room on all fours, kneeling occasionally beneath his father-master and eating out of his palm, like a dog. This feeding ritual allows the father to express genuine paternal love in such a way that preserves the naturalness and legitimacy of his ownership of and inordinate power over his son. In other words, he protects his property – even the property he has biologically produced – at all costs.
Malek-Boda’s guilt and generosity have a similar effect, in that they allow her to recognize “the good Arab” as a human with whom she can sympathize without forcing her to recognize that human as an equal, thereby safeguarding her own form of property. Much like the lower class American whites who have strategically rejected alliances with lower class people of color in order to safeguard the property of their whiteness, Malek-Boda holds fast to the property of her status as a Jewish Israeli. She effectively re-shapes her guilt as proof of her moral superiority in order to re-legitimate her now questionable legal privilege. In this way, Malek-Boda transforms a revelatory moment into an opportunity to bask in Jewish supremacy. Her guilt becomes a coping mechanism for recovering the de-stabilized “status quo” she references – even in the midst of a partially humanized “other.” In short, her guilt justifies and re-naturalizes the colonial sin that bore that guilt in the first place. It does not shatter the status quo of naturalized superiority and legally reified privilege – it sustains it.