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uring an especially intense period in Israel/Palestine late last year, the violence and resistance characterizing the occupation saw a new form: a series of ad hoc Palestinian “stabbing attacks” against Israelis. As is typical there, the boundaries between state, polity, forms of violence, and between categories of people, were fuzzy. In one specific case, Israeli Uri Rezken was stabbed. But a Palestinian did not attack him; another Israeli mistook Rezken for Arab and stabbed him in retaliation for previous stabbings.
The dynamics of race, identification, and separation inside of Israel are crucial to its self-fashioning, and much has been written on the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. There is a long history of work on these questions as they relate colonization and occupation to the construction of national politics, to ideas of the self and gender in Israel, to the archaeological construction of a national past, to the Jewish diaspora, to the built environment, culture, and so on. There is a constant push and pull between identification and non-identification, and clearly imperatives inherent to colonization and large-scale immigration demand certain forms of autochthony, differentiation, and distancing from the indigenous population.
In his Israel and Africa: A Geneaology of Moral Geography, Haim Yacobi complicates this picture by cataloging and examining the ways that Israel constructed itself as state space and as a nation against an external world and against “Africa” in particular. The relationships between Israel and Africa have been central to the formation of nationalism, development, and modernization in Israel. By recording a multitude of practices, from architecture to foreign aid to art exhibitions to the arms trade, Yacobi argues that the geopolitical concept of Africa is one of the lenses through which Israel reproduces its internal racial and ethnic boundaries and spaces. Africa is, he says, a “conceptualizing principle underlying a new interpretation of the interrelations between space and society in Israel.” It is “socially manufactured, collectively imagined, but also culturally denied in Israeli politics.” Africa was and still is a vital contrast for the continual shaping of Israel’s “self-identity as a de-colonized Western Project.” Perspectives on “Israel in Africa” and “Africa in Israel” are used as instruments for the demarcation of Israel’s internal ethnic boundaries and for the production and reproduction of hierarchies of inclusion and exclusion, whitening and blackening. His is a genealogy of ambivalent relationships and forms of knowledge; of ethical claims that produce, reproduce, and morally and politically support discourses and actions of the state (pages 2-3).
Most Israelis, Yacobi suggests, know about the “Uganda Plan” for a Jewish national home and site for Zionist colonization there. That project lacked the “meta-historical claims” and “moral edge” that the Palestine of the bible offered, and the African colonial project was shelved. But it was useful, he argues, as a formative idea for Jewish “refugee colonialism” where “the imaginative Africa became a new space, fascinating yet disturbing, barren and dire” (page 4). Africa has had an important role in shaping Israeli Jewish identity in subtle and lasting ways: it is crucial to Israel’s “moral geographies,” “the ways in which we construct and understand—ethically, politically, and cognitively—the global spatial order” and Israel’s place in it (pages 2-3). Yacobi’s work is a new and valuable contribution to a body of work on the ways that Israel has constructed itself through ideological exports.
Jewish and of Arab descent, Yacobi began this project as a study of Israeli orientalist attitudes and practices. He opens the book with a description of a 1950s family photo of a sewing lesson. As part of the process of habituating Arab Jews, and assimilating them into the Zionist national project, they were trained to do things like sew with machines. During his research, he came across a very similar photo of African women in training taken in 1972 (page 7). As an architect and geographer who has studied the dynamics of mixed-race urban environments in Israel, this photo, and the habituating projects it captured, led him to push beyond Israel, and to explore the “analogical processes of nationalism that produced knowledge and specialties based on the motivation to generate a modern-national territory, identity, and society” (page 7). Put another way, how and why were these two types of populations treated differently, and assimilated differently, into the State of Israel?
This is a book that raises many questions, and presents material drawn from a wide variety of sources. In aggregate, Yacobi’s examples offer a sense of how the dynamics, practices, and consequent moral geographies of the relationship between Israel and Africa have changed over time. Yacobi catalogs and closely reads the import and export of ideas generated in and vis-à-vis Africa. He focuses on Israeli architects working in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, forms of architecture as instruments of foreign policy; how ideas about Africa circulated in Israel through traveling exhibitions of African art and folklore, education, the export of certain forms of colonial knowledge; forms of African, racialized space within Israel; and how practices that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s are reflected in Israel’s current engagement in Africa through the twin poles of agricultural development and the arms trade. The relationship to Africa has been fundamental to “Israel’s moral geography as a Western, modern, white country” (page 21).
As Israel tested ideas about itself in Africa, it also applied its findings inside Israel; as Africans immigrated to Israel, forms of building contributed to simultaneously incorporate and distance them, and to racialize space within Israel. Early forms of this relationship included admiration for African anti-colonial movements; later versions saw Africa as a recipient for Israeli expertise, education, and aid. And even if there are no longer as many foreign development initiatives or traveling exhibitions, a colonial relationship to Africa persists inside Israel, and towards this undifferentiated mass of “Africa” through practices like the arms trade, the racialized spaces that Yacobi describes, and present deportations and forms of state violence against African asylum seekers.
This is a rich and dense catalog of a fascinating relationship. Although it is not his project, and he may disagree with the framing, I couldn’t help thinking about recent work on settler colonialism, a field where this work might have significant applications. Even though, as Yacobi suggests, this isn’t a “classical” example of a neo-colonial relationship (page 127), there is here, as in other settler colonies, a tension between autochtonous claims and racial privilege. Although he does not focus on them, Yacobi describes how Palestinian Arabs are both authentic and backwards in the colonial imaginary. This back and forth between racism and envy is a characteristic of many colonial encounters. If colonial nationhood required authenticity but also superiority, a question emerges: how has Israel distinguished itself as a nation? How was it differentiated in more general ways? They fixed this contradiction on the one hand by drawing in non-white Jews and intermingling Jewish cultural and religious identity with racial identity, and on the other hand by distinguishing the state of Israel from the rest of the world, specifically those parts of the world, like “Africa,” that could somehow still be colonized in the post-colonial period. Put another way, when the Israeli state was established in Mandatory Palestine, European Jews had to become naturalized Middle Easterners but not Arabs; Arab Jews had to become Israelis; it was no longer logically consistent to self-present as European, gentlemen colonists as the early Zionists did.
This book raises important questions about Israel, Jewishness, nationalism, and colonialism. Early Zionists had imperial sponsors, but they lacked a clear metropolitan center. Ideas about victimhood and freedom were influenced by African anti-colonial struggles, but in ways that obscure the colonial character of Israel. Israel was the formation of a Jewish identity and national home out of diaspora. The relationship to Africa allowed Israel a metropolitan logic, and helped to differentiate Jews and reassert their European/white, modern character. In an interesting aside, Yacobi complicates the picture of Israel in terms of its relationship to both “diaspora” and “homeland”. He argues that the link is problematic in the Israeli case, and the “notion of a sovereign homeland is an inherent component and used as a raison d’etre for the production of Israeli space…based on the denial of the diaspora-like time and space of the immigrant population. This denial is central to the Israeli modernization project” (page 88). Pushed a little bit further, this example shows how Israel became both at once through relationships to its outside.
Yacobi’s work has complicated analyses of Israel specifically, and colonialism more generally. Readers interested in human geography, studies of colonialism and colonial expertise, postcolonialism, architecture and art history, and Israel/Palestine will find much to think through. It is a rich text on an excellent topic. It is a fascinating account of a settler colonial enterprise and the intricacies of state, nation, and cultural formation. And it is a worthy addition to recent literature on settler colonialism, on Israel specifically, and on Israel and its global relationships.