Lana Tatour, “Citizenship as Domination: Settler Colonialism and the Making of Palestinian Citizenship in Israel,” Arab Studies Journal XXVII no. 2 (2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Lana Tatour (LT): This article has been in the works for few years. My interest in thinking about the making of Israel’s citizenship regime was born out of my dissertation research on 1948 Palestinians (also known as Palestinian citizens of Israel). While reading the literature on Palestinians in Israel, a common narrative emerged—after the Nakba, 150,000-160,000 Palestinians remained in their homeland. Those Palestinians became citizens. This narrative, however, was too neat. From the story of my grandfather, who became a citizen through naturalization only in the late 1980s, I knew that the story of naturalization of Palestinians was far more complex than is often told. Naturalization was gradual and occurred over the course of more than three decades. Therefore, I became interested in why and how 1948 Palestinians became citizens. At the time of my research, the Israel State Archives was still relatively accessible, and I began looking through archives including the protocols of cabinet meetings, Knesset sessions, and the legislative committee mandated to work on the bill.
With time, the project began to take shape and my focus shifted from looking at the process of naturalizing Palestinians (there is still much work to be done on this front), to tracing the making of Israel’s citizenship regime. I decided to focus on the period between 1948 and 1952, during which the Knesset enacted the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. I became specifically interested in what this formative period, in which the constitutional cornerstones of Israel’s citizenship regime came into being, can tell us about Palestinian citizenship in Israel, and about the institution of citizenship in settler-colonial contexts more broadly.
The political context in recent years has drawn attention to the citizenship status of Palestinians in Israel, given the sharp increase in incitement against 1948 Palestinians, and the advancement of plans that would make their citizenship more vulnerable and easily revocable. For many, these acts, along with the recent legislation of the Nation-State Basic Law, signify an erosion in the status and citizenship of Palestinians in Israel. While we cannot deny the assault on Palestinian citizenship, this discourse seems to miss the fragility ingrained in Israel’s racial citizenship regime since its inception. As I show in this article, the vulnerability of the citizenship of Palestinians in Israel is structural and must be understood in relation to the earlier construction of Palestinians as aliens in their homeland. The Israeli state consciously designed the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law to racially privilege Jews. The state based Jewish citizenship on a semi-birthright; the citizenship of Jewish settlers was and is a birthright even if they were not born in Israel. The state perceived Palestinians’ citizenship to be granted as an act of benevolence, not a natural right. This made the existence of the Palestinians in their homeland conditional on the state’s good will.
An aspiration to challenge the exceptionalism of the Israeli case also informs my approach. Therefore, this article takes a comparative approach to the question of citizenship-making in Israel and situates it within the wider history of citizenship making in Anglophone settler-colonial contexts. I based this decision not only on theoretical considerations, but also on findings from the archives. As the archives show, Israeli leaders explicitly drew on citizenship and immigration laws in Australia, the United States, Canada, and South Africa to shape the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. Just like in these countries, race determined Israel’s citizenship and immigration laws.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?
LT: The article explores the relationship between settler colonialism, race, and citizenship, and illuminates how the Israeli state constituted racial subjects, space, and citizenship in intimate ways. The main argument of the article, an argument that guides my wider work, is the need to conceptualize citizenship in settler-colonial contexts in relation to and as an institution of domination. I show how in Israel, citizenship functioned—and continues to function—as a mechanism of elimination, a site of subjectivation, and an instrument of race-making. The state used—and still uses—citizenship to advance the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. It denies them the right of return, and advances the production of Jewish settlers as indigenous and Palestinian natives as aliens and invaders. It racially distinguishes between Jews—considered authentic subjects of citizenship—and Palestinians, whose citizenship depends on naturalization.
In advancing this argument, I engage with theoretical literature on citizenship, settler colonialism, Israel, and Palestine. Much of the literature in citizenship studies tends to read citizenship through the analytical frames of inclusion and exclusion, and through a focus on how to make citizenship more inclusionary towards racialized communities and indigenous peoples. This approach also extends to the literature on Palestinians’ citizenship in Israel. Such a focus, however, overlooks the ways in which citizenship is entwined with settler colonialism, and the role citizenship plays in the institutional infrastructure of the settler state and its machinery of domination, dispossession, and subjugation.
In the case of Palestinians in Israel, we see a strong commitment to citizenship both in scholarly work and in activist circles. Palestinian struggles and politics in Israel focus on the idea of citizenship, and making it more equal, inclusionary, and meaningful. In many respects, the project of transforming Israel from a Jewish state to a state of all its citizens, which the Palestinian national party, Balad, introduced, is a significant example of how normalized and naturalized citizenship is. By turning to the history of citizenship-making in Israel, I try to de-naturalize citizenship as a common-sense concept. Through showing how citizenship works to (re)produce the elimination of indigenous peoples and the erasure of their sovereignty, I seek to prompt a wider questioning of the potential of citizenship to advance decolonization and political emancipation.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LT: As mentioned, this article was born out of my dissertation research, which focused on the resistance of 1948 Palestinians. There, I focus on exploring how the liberal and racial politics of citizenship and human rights shape the subjectivities, resistance, and political projects of Palestinians in Israel. In this article, I shift my focus to the making of Israel’s citizenship regime, looking at how the state constructed and constituted Palestinian and Jewish citizenship in Israel along racial lines and in the service of the settler-colonial project. The reliance on the Israeli colonial archive alone, however, also informs the limits of this project. Wider consideration of the story of citizenship-making in Israel should also consider the efforts of 1948 Palestinians to advance their naturalization and to give meaning to their citizenship.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LT: I hope that students and scholars of Palestine read the article and that it will bring a new perspective for thinking about citizenship in the context of Israel and Palestine. Importantly, I would like the article to be accessible also to activists. I realize that this may require producing a shorter version in Arabic, which I am hoping to do soon. I would be happy to see this article contribute to a scholarly and activist conversation on the possibilities and limits of citizenship as a tool for the struggle of 1948 Palestinians.
Given the interdisciplinary and comparative nature of the work, this article will also be of interest to scholars working on citizenship, settler colonialism, and indigenous studies. This article, in many ways, joins the wider critique indigenous scholars have been developing on the limits of the liberal grammar of rights.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LT: I am currently working on my book manuscript, Ambivalent Resistance: Palestinians in Israel and the Liberal Politics of Citizenship and Human Rights. The book is an investigation into the politics of race, settler colonialism, and indigeneity in the context of Israel–Palestine, focusing on the 1948 Palestinians. In the book, I explore the political activism and resistance of indigenous peoples in response to settler colonialism along the intersectionalities of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. I analyze three cases: Palestinian rights politics in Israel; the Bedouin in the Negev/Naqab and their mobilization of the international indigenous human rights framework; and the Palestinian queer movement and its encounter with the LGBT rights agenda. The book is based on ethnographic and archival research, and it demonstrates that native resistance to settler colonialism has been shaped in relation to—and as a product of—the encounter of native populations with the liberal and racial politics of both human rights and the settler state. I read the institution of citizenship (marked by inclusionary and exclusionary sensibilities) and liberal human rights (functioning as vehicles of empowerment and domination) as ambivalent bases for native resistance. Ultimately, the book seeks to expand our understanding of the limitations of liberal politics of rights and recognition, and to think productively about indigenous political resurgence. It also examines alternative modalities of resistance from the liberal politics that have come to direct indigenous struggles for justice and sovereignty.
Excerpt from the article
[…] this article traces the making of the Israeli citizenship regime. It considers how the question of citizenship has been intimately tied to geopolitical considerations of territory and sovereignty, as well as to processes of subjectivation. The article focuses on the period between 1948 and 1952, the period in which the 1950 Law of Return, which governs Jewish entitlement to citizenship, and the 1952 Citizenship Law, which governs the status of ’48 Palestinians, were enacted. I am interested in what this formative period, in which the constitutional cornerstones of Israel’s citizenship regime came into being, can tell us about Palestinian citizenship in Israel and about the institution of citizenship in settler colonial contexts more broadly.
We are often told that Israel’s citizenship regime, which guarantees Jewish preference in access to citizenship, is rooted in Israel’s unique position as the state of the Jewish people. The story of citizenship-making in Israel is by no means exceptional, however. New archival evidence presented in this article reveals that Israeli leaders consciously drew on citizenship and immigration laws in Australia, the United States, Canada, and South Africa to shape the Law of Return and the Citizenship Law. Therefore, this article situates the making of the Israeli citizenship regime in the broader history of citizenship-making in Anglophone settler-colonial contexts, focusing on the relationship between settler-colonial domination, race, and citizenship. It shows that in Israel, as in other settler polities, citizenship has figured as an institution of domination, functioning as a mechanism of elimination, a site of subjectivation, and an instrument of race making. What ties these different modalities of domination together is the argument that the Israeli state constituted racial subjects, space, and citizenship in relation to each other in intimate ways. Citizenship transformed space from Arab/Palestinian to Jewish, rendered settlers indigenous, and produced Palestinian natives as alien. The racialization of the territory as Jewish was intertwined with the production of new legal and political subjects. While the Israeli citizenship regime viewed Jewish settlers as natural, authentic subjects of citizenship who were therefore entitled to automatic semi-birthright citizenship, it perceived Palestinian citizenship as a benevolent act by the state. The Israeli state thus designed its citizenship regime to function as the legal embodiment of wider processes of settler indigenization and native de-indigenization, in which “settlers and their polity appear to be proper to the land” and natives become foreign invaders.
When it comes to ’48 Palestinians, citizenship has become the commonsense way of conceptualizing them in both scholarly work and activist circles. State, academic, and public discourse continue to describe ’48 Palestinians as Israeli Arabs, Arab citizens of Israel, and Palestinian citizens of Israel. These phrases, in both their conservative and progressive iterations, do not merely describe the legal status of ’48 Palestinians. They connote an identity to which Israeli citizenship is inherent. This focus reflects a wider acceptance of the liberal notion that citizenship is key to political membership and subjectivity and to the fulfillment of political, civil, and social rights. Citizenship is measured against its inclusionary ideal. Accordingly, the citizenship of Palestinians in Israel—like the citizenship of other indigenous and racialized populations—has been conceptualized in terms of its lack or incompleteness. Thus, many scholars and commentators describe this citizenship as a partial, hollow, and empty category—a citizenship devoid of substance. Others characterize it as a fragile and vulnerable citizenship, a second-class citizenship, an inferior citizenship, or a differentiated citizenship.
A wider epistemological assumption underpins these understandings: that the inherent goal of citizenship—its intrinsic purpose—is to safeguard rights, ensure equality, and promote inclusion. In this reading of citizenship, exclusion is an anomaly. It is the failure of citizenship. Citizenship is viewed as a journey, a movement from “nonpolitical society to political society.” It involves, as Danielle Allen points out, “metaphors of ‘lines’ that can be crossed and horizontal notions of ‘inside and outside.’” Even when the literature demonstrates how histories of gendered, racial, and class-based exclusions are constitutive of the making of modern citizenship, accounts still code these histories as a story of the transition of excluded populations from the outside to the inside, from exclusion to inclusion. This telos illustrates how citizenship functions as “both a normative and empirical concept.” Consequently, we see failures of citizenship addressed through a normative quest to develop a more substantive, meaningful, and inclusionary vision of citizenship (a multicultural notion of citizenship is one prominent example of this endeavor; another is sexual citizenship). Thus, citizenship per se is not problematized, only its deficiency. It is (re)produced and normalized as a virtue to be nourished and expanded, something we ought to realize, transform, and imbue with meaning. Despite the limits of citizenship, citizenship discourse calls upon us to hold onto its potential, not only out of necessity or because it guarantees us, in Arendtian terms, the right to have rights and protection from statelessness, but also out of a genuine belief in citizenship as an institution. And yet, it continues to fail us.
The failure of citizenship to deliver on its promise stresses the need for a radical rethinking of the very nature of citizenship in the context of settler colonialism. To apprehend the limits of citizenship and to understand its discontents, we need “to raise the issue of history.” As Gurminder Bhambra points out, citizenship “is not only to be understood in terms of abstract categories of membership and rights but also in terms of the historical narratives that frame its initial conceptualizations.” Turning to the history of citizenship making in settler-colonial contexts, including in Israel, indicates that citizenship is not failing. It is doing what it was created to do: normalize domination, naturalize settler sovereignty, classify populations, produce difference, and exclude, racialize, and eliminate indigenous peoples.
Much like the story of settler colonialism, the story of citizenship in settler-colonial contexts is also primarily one of domination. Settler colonialism—including the Zionist project—is, as Patrick Wolfe argues, a structure guided by the logic of elimination. It is a project of erasure and replacement: “Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies. Positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base.” Citizenship, therefore, did not emerge as an autonomous or neutral institution, or as an institution antagonistic to settler colonialism. Rather, it is an institution that emerged out of domination, facilitating the elimination and dispossession of indigenous peoples. After all, as Elizabeth Elbourne writes, indigenous “citizenship exists because of past [and present] colonial conquest.” Its evolution in modern settler states has been predicated on the epistemological and historical exclusion of indigenous peoples and on their ongoing dispossession. More than an equalizing force, citizenship has been an institution constitutive of and conducive to the production of administrative categories of difference, racial hierarchies, and inequitable regimes of rights. As Audra Simpson contends, citizenship has been key to the “process of rationalizing dispossession,” working to enshrine and normalize the settlers’ right to colonize, dispossess, and dominate indigenous peoples, while producing indigenous peoples as subjects incapable of sovereignty and property rights.
Indigenous peoples in Anglophone settler-colonial states have always been suspicious of citizenship, warning that “citizenship could serve the political function of reproducing practices of colonization.” As Vine Deloria, a Native American intellectual and activist, pointedly remarked: “There was never a time when the white man said he was trying to help the Indian get into the mainstream of American life that he did not also demand that the Indian give up land.” This suspicion is not unsubstantiated. As history shows, during the nineteenth century, and for much of the twentieth century, settler-colonial citizenship was characterized by unconcealed modes of domination. It blatantly embodied the eliminatory racial logics of settler colonialism and advanced the genocide of indigenous peoples. In Canada, Australia, and the United States, for example, citizenship and enfranchisement were tied to a civilizational assimilative mission. Indigenous peoples often had to relinquish their indigenous status or prove that they were sufficiently civil and cultured in order to be enfranchised and gain freedom of movement. Enfranchisement, settler states believed, would advance the elimination of indigenous peoples through their absorption into settler society and into whiteness.
In Israel, citizenship as elimination took a different form. There, the racial logics of the Zionist settler project rendered assimilation irrelevant. Zionism, as Wolfe argues, “rigorously refused, as it continues to refuse, any suggestion of Native assimilation . . . Zionism constitutes a more exclusive exercise of the settler logic of elimination than we encounter in the Australian and US examples.” In Israel, as I show, citizenship has functioned as an instrument of ethnic cleansing, a way of seeking to deny Palestinians the right to return to their land. As discussions in the Israeli cabinet make clear, the decision to extend citizenship was motivated by a desire to solidify the demographic outcomes of the Nakba (the expulsion and displacement of seven hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians in 1948) by denying the possibility of citizenship to as many Palestinians as possible. At the same time, for the Palestinians who did remain under Israeli control, the possibility of obtaining citizenship and residence status was a matter of survival. Without it, they faced the threat of being deported by the state to neighbouring countries.