Shira Robinson, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel's Liberal Settler State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
In recent years, much proverbial ink has been spilled debating whether or not Israel can be accurately labeled a settler-colonial state. Numerous studies on the early years of the Zionist movement leave little doubt about Israel’s settler-colonial origins, while recent works on Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories since 1967 likewise lay out Israel’s current settler-colonial policies. Yet, prior to the publication of Shira Robinson’s groundbreaking study, surprisingly little scholarship was available in English on how Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens during the early years of statehood both reinforces and complicates our understanding of settler-colonialism in the Israeli context.
Citizen Strangers calls on readers to think “beyond the conceptual straitjacket” of seeing settler-colonialism and liberalism as static and mutually exclusive binaries (5-6). Robinson coins the phrase “liberal settler state” to show how Israeli policies in fact encompassed elements of both settler-colonialism (i.e., the forcible removal of most of the indigenous population) and liberal democracy (i.e., the extension of a discrete set of rights and duties to those who remained).
The term “liberal settler state” captures well the contradictions that were inherent to the formation of the Israeli state and its policies toward those Palestinians who insisted on staying in (or returning to) their native lands. A core contradiction that Israeli policymakers faced in the early years of the state was whether to “uphold the universalist ideal of a constitutional republic, join the community of nations, and at last afford the Jewish people a transition to a ‘normal existence,’ or maintain the racial privilege at the heart of the ongoing settler-colonial project and live in indefinite isolation” (69-70). After a brief chapter laying out the international legal ambiguities that allowed Zionists to transform themselves “from settlers to sovereigns,” chapters two through five address the discrete, yet overlapping, means by which Israeli policymakers sought to reconcile this fundamental contradiction—and how they chose time and again to maintain Jewish racial privilege at the expense of a more universalist ideal.
As Robinson lays out in chapter two, this contradiction stemmed in part from the rapid changes that Israel faced shortly after it declared independence in May 1948. Having conquered the Galilee over the course of the summer and large parts of southern Palestine that fall, Israel found itself in control of much more land than was originally allocated to it in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. However, those conquests, along with the subsequent armistice agreements it signed with its neighbors, also meant that Israel found itself ruling over roughly 150,000 Palestinian Arabs—far more than Israeli leaders had initially envisioned. They sought to retain control of the land while minimizing the number of Palestinians on it. Yet, because they were already facing international pressure to allow existing Palestinian refugees to return and to extend legal suffrage to those still in the country, they soon turned to developing mechanisms that were aimed at minimizing the number of Palestinians who would be enfranchised while giving the appearance of liberal democracy.
Two of the most consequential legal measures in this regard were the establishment of a military government on Palestinian-population areas beginning in October 1948 and the enactment of the Absentee Property Law in March 1950. By imposing martial law on Palestinian civilians living under its jurisdiction, Israel adopted wholesale the vast majority of British mandatory laws that pertained to the Palestinians, including the colonial Defense Emergency Regulations that severely restricted basic civil rights.
Meanwhile, the Absentee Property Law made permanent earlier emergency regulations that authorized the agricultural minister to confiscate land whose owners were deemed to be “absentee,” even if the owners were present in Israel and could produce documentation supporting their claims of ownership. Because Palestinians were governed by military rather than civilian rule, their options for appealing such confiscations were severely limited. In another sign of the settler-colonial impulses at the heart of the Israeli project, government officials initially resisted extending citizenship to many Palestinians living under their rule. Instead, they preferred to distribute Temporary Residency Permits, which were required in order to cross the numerous checkpoints that dotted the areas where most Palestinians lived. In addition to fleshing out these largely unexplored legal measures undertaken by Israel, Robinson’s work is also groundbreaking in that it turns on its head an all-too-common feature of scholarship on Israeli-Palestinian relations, which is to present Israel as always acting and Palestinians as always reacting. As becomes clear in Citizens Strangers, especially in chapter three, Israeli policymakers found themselves constantly having to react to Palestinian actions, whether at an individual or collective level. Robinson illustrates this dynamic in her discussion of the legal debates surrounding the requirements of Israeli citizenship. The July 1950 Law of Return, which Robinson describes as “Israel’s actual nationality law” (111) laid out the requirements of Israeli citizenship for Jews, but left ambiguous the status of Palestinians living in Israel. It was not until April 1952—after nearly four years of tireless campaigning and legal actions by Palestinian individuals and groups—that Israel passed the Nationality Law extending citizenship to most of the Palestinians living there. Yet in a sign of just how deeply entrenched settler-colonialism had become, the law also created a category of belonging higher than citizenship—namely, nationality—that allowed Israel to continue discriminating against Palestinian citizens by privileging Jewish over Arab nationals. In so doing, Israeli leaders severed the link between nation and state, which gave rise to additional unanticipated contradictions. Some of these contradictions are explored in chapter four, which shows how Israeli officials debated what to do about increasing Palestinian demands for equal treatment and for full rights. Rather than grant Palestinians the equality they were demanding, Israeli leaders instead looked for ways to “bind Palestinians to the Jewish state while denying them meaningful access to its resources” (134). As a result, the state apparatus deployed both “carrots” and “sticks” to try to induce Palestinians to profess their loyalty to the state, especially during the annual Independence Day celebrations. Thus, while Palestinians saw the nighttime curfew over their areas lifted for twenty-four hours during Independence Day, they also witnessed heavy police surveillance over their local Independence Day “celebrations.” These “spectacles of sovereignty” (113) were performative acts aimed at reassuring nervous Israeli leaders about Palestinians’ fealty to the state, but the contradictions inherent in these acts would soon prove untenable.
As decolonization movements gained momentum around the world in the second half of the 1950s, Palestinians in Israel became increasingly vocal in their demands for equal rights. These growing calls came on the heels of the October 1956 Kafr Qasim massacre in which Israeli border police killed forty-eight Palestinians who had unknowingly violated a sunset curfew hastily announced a few hours prior. In chapter five Robinson deftly weaves together this ostensibly local event with national and international developments that resulted in Israel’s gradually easing, then altogether ending, of military rule. The international context is important here: Robinson argues that shifting global public opinion in support of self-determination for colonized peoples pressured Israel to ultimately abolish the military regime while still keeping in place less obvious means of control over the Palestinian population. This is one of the most intriguing—yet underdeveloped—arguments of the book. She briefly mentions some of the new challenges with which Israeli leaders had to contend, including the rise of Afro-Asian solidarity in the wake of the Bandung Conference, international support for Egypt following the Suez Crisis, global sympathy for the Algerians in their war of independence against France, and the rising call for sanctions against apartheid South Africa. However, the ways in which these international developments specifically affected Israeli decision-making vis-à-vis the Palestinian citizens awaits a more thorough study.
In order to present these multiple levels of analysis, Robinson engages critically with an impressive array of sources in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They include municipal and state archives in Israel, government and international publications, interviews with eyewitnesses, newspapers, and magazines, films and music, and an exhaustive collection of theoretical and empirical secondary works. Her mining of the extant Palestinian Arabic sources is all the more impressive given the fragmentary nature of Palestinian documentary sources for this period.
Overall, Citizen Strangers makes an important contribution to our knowledge of Israeli and Palestinian history, as well as the history of settler-colonialism in the mid-twentieth century. Woven throughout the book are fascinating comparisons that Israelis and Palestinians made between their own condition and those of other colonized peoples in Algeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. Further analysis showing how decolonization in these other contexts influenced Israelis and Palestinians alike could have strengthened these lines of argument even more, though Robinson’s work certainly lays the groundwork for additional studies in comparative settler-colonialism.
Notwithstanding its copious referencing and meticulous endnotes, Citizen Strangers is a refreshingly good read that is a far cry from the dry verbiage we have (sadly) come to expect from scholarly monographs. As such, it would be an excellent book to assign in advanced undergraduate and graduate history classes. It will also be of interest to all those who seek to learn more about how states use legal mechanisms to marginalize undesirable groups. Understanding Israel as a liberal settler state not only contributes to our knowledge of Israeli history, but also sheds light on the more confounding aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as they continue to unfold.