On the Notion of Mistake in the Recent Racist Murders and What It Means for “Palestinianness”


Léopold Lambert – Paris on October 19, 2015
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Today (October 19, 2015), Al Jazeera released an article entitled “Eritrean mistaken for Palestinian shot dead in Israel” recounting one more murder of a man of color in Palestine by Israeli civilians. This title reminded another from last week, when an Sephardic Jew was stabbed by an Israeli man who “had him mistaken for an Arab” (see “Stabbed Israeli Jew mistaken for Arab criticises violence” in The Guardian). Encountering the notion of mistake in the context of a racist murder is rather surprising when we come to think of what it implies. Following this logic, the numerous racist murders against Palestinians from the last three weeks would therefore be non-mistaken crimes, even in the cases where the only thing that precipitated the violent death of a Palestinian man or woman was to be finger-pointed by an Israeli person screaming “(S)he has a knife!”. The mistake would thus be less about the legitimacy for a Palestinian to be killed than about the fact that this person is actually Palestinian or not.

This leads us to the question of Palestinianness. Questioning this notion might appear rather strange at first, and it seems to inappropriately recall the contemporary demagogic questions of European nations about who can be said to be truly Hungarian, or French, or Dutch — questions that already have a clear and definite answer in mind while being asked. We usually think of Palestinians as the Arabs (including the Bedouins) who used to live in Palestine before 1948 and their descendants and learn about this nation in several studies, like Rashid Khalidi‘s Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness (Columbia University Press, 2009). Although this historico-ethnic definition has a legitimacy in the anti-colonial struggle since this is a definition applied administratively by the State of Israel (even Palestinians who have the Israeli citizenship are not citizens to the fullest extent), it lacks a certain degree of complexity that could address these supposed “mistakes” in the current racist murders, and that could also use terminology to envision a future for Palestine.

Rather than essentializing bodies according to their origin and  current situations (African Jews, Eritrean immigrants, Bedouins, Palestinians living in Israel, in East-Jerusalem, in the West Bank, in Gaza, refugees in Palestine and outside of it, etc.) we could be tempted of a definition including all bodies whose life is directly or indirectly affected by the State of Israel’s structural racism. We would therefore write that a Eritrean man was not murdered because he was mistaken for a Palestinian but, rather, that he was Palestinian because he was the target of a racist murder — i.e. a murder based on his ethnicity, backed by administrative and political racism that conditioned through various means this crime not to be judged as one.

Nevertheless, this last definition is a problematic one, since it implies that Palestinianness is contingent to the State of Israel, in a similar way that the latter has been demagogically claiming that the very Palestinian nation is born at its own creation in 1948 — something that a book like Palestinian Identity has no problem to prove wrong. There must be a more affirmative definition, resolutely turned towards the future. What if, instead, Palestinians were simply the bodies whose lives are historically intricate to the land of Palestine, as well as those that want to live on it? This definition of Palestinians would thus not be only terminologically political (through the idea a post-Apartheid future including an important population of Jewish Palestinian for example) but also allowing a future open immigration that would not only include the traditional Palestinian diaspora, but also anyone else who would like to live in Palestine.

When we look at the European Union or at Israel, we see the contrast of some borders falling for some specific bodies (anyone from the Jewish diaspora can acquire the Israeli citizenship for instance) and some others either considerably reinforced or created. This contrast is motivated by the racist selection of the specific bodies to which it benefits. Inspired by the exchanges I have been having in the past with Palestinian friends about the future of the country (Nora Akawi: “we can’t solve non-conventional problems with conventional solutions,” Sophia Azeb: “Not a two-state solution, not a one-state solution, just a no-state solution,” and Raja Shehadeh: “A borderless region from Tripoli to the Sinai“), it is my belief that such a broad and unique definition of Palestinianness could emerge through the refusal of such a selection. This emergence could, in fact, be one potential scenario following the abolition of all forms of structural, administrative and policing racism, through the legal and practical construction of a strict equity for all bodies in Palestine.