“So Let It Be Done!” Of John Brown and White Anti-Racism

White anti-racists love to celebrate John Brown, normally at the expense of celebrating Black abolitionists. But does this appreciation value Brown’s actual deeds and words, especially with regarding to abolishing his subject position? For the most part, no. For all the talk about positionality there is relatively little discussion of subject position. John Brown’s life and actions are well narrated by many already. Instead here I want to focus on Brown’s statements at his trial and what they can tell us about white anti-racism and ally politics. I’m not a John Brown scholar and do not assert he would share my entire analysis. What follows is a selective reading, not a contextualization. Further this is not a critique of Brown. Both thoughtful and trash critiques are widely available including by Brown’s contemporaries.

Brown made a few statements to the court during his trial. His November 2nd 1859 address is only six hundred thirty-eight words long but offers some tremendous lessons.

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say. In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted – the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case)–had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends – either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class – and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt. I have stated that from the first what was my intention and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of that kind.

Let me say also a word in regard to the statements made by some of those connected with me. I her it has been stated by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown starts confessing to earlier crimes by directly intervening through participation in the Underground Railroad as he had done for nearly a decade after founding the League of Gileadites in Springfield, Massachusetts. Slavery was/is a social and legal institution, and as such freedom for the enslaved population was inherently criminalized. Actions against African Slavery were criminal acts and Brown embraces this criminality with both arms. Brown then critiques the master/capitalist class by noting if he had intervened through direct, armed action on any of their behalves he would be celebrated. Here Brown describes the misunderstanding that African Slavery imposes on the world. Systemic racism creates a discursive world where Black life can barely be conceived of, much less valued. The discursive break Brown offers is between one where only the freedom of the powerful matters and one where – how to put it – Black lives matter. That phrase is of course not Brown’s and Black revolutionaries have created diverse vocabularies, praxes and philosophies of resistance that long pre-date Brown and, in fact, inspired him to action towards Black liberation.

The most vital part of Brown’s insight comes when he utters, “I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done – as I have always freely admitted I have done – in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!”

This statement is powerful poetry and inspiringly militant. He reframes what is – in the U.S. – wrong as right and right as wrong thereby inverting the relationship he describes in the prior section where the rich and powerful are the valued population. While I hold reservations about “on behalf of,” Brown’s “His despised poor” reorients the power of God through a Christian liberation theology that asserts, as in Matthew, that it is “easier for a camel to pass through a needle eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Brown’s focus is on the enslaved African and Black populations which is different than the working class vs. capitalist class but remains analogous to the Matthew verse. Brown’s key insight, however, offers a more fundamental break.

Assuming the Position

Inside of organizations of power like capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy and others, both individuals and status groups (“men”, “Blacks”, “natives”, “the rich”, etc.) are positioned on various axes. This is the subject position inside of power. One may hold a privileged subject position on one axis and a subordinate one on another which is a key insight of Black feminism’s intersectionality framework. For example, one may be working class vis-a-vis capitalism and thus in an oppressed position, while simultaneously being positioned as superior under white supremacy and patriarchy. This is the position of white, working class, cisgendered men for example. The class-oppressed and race- and gender-free positions are all equally true and not contradictory. The question of subject position is what separates Brown’s statements at his trial from white anti-racism.

White anti-racism is, with few exceptions, more “white” than anything else. The “white” subject position is formed by and predicated on an assumed superiority over “non-white”. The entire history of whiteness is produced towards this end. More specifically “white” was/is produced, originally, in counterposition to “Black” and “Native” providing the ethical basis for African Slavery and Indian Removal. Alternately put, white supremacy is inhered in whiteness and there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. This is to say that whiteness is defined by its subject position, not cultural production; it is the product of the colonization of Turtle Island and enslavement of Africans rather than an accumulation of traditions and influences. Whiteness’ only real tradition is white supremacy.

This presents a problem with the concepts of “white anti-racist” and “white ally”. “Ally”, specifically although not exclusively in the context of white people, is predicated on maintaining a subject position apart from the subordinated status group. To be a White Ally is to position oneself inside white supremacy vis-a-vis Blackness/anti-Blackness (as do, if differently, other settler but non-white identities). Self-identified white anti-racists have in common with neo-nazis and ilk a practice of organizing sociality around whiteness, which is again indistinguishible from white supremacy. “Ally”, “white anti-racist” and neo-nazi embrace whiteness while helping define the boundaries of the subject position. They are all attempts to be the Best Kind of White Person.

John Brown is frequently positioned as an ally par excellence. This, in my read, is a dramatic mischaracterization. Brown says, “if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments – I submit; so let it be done!” Four years before the term “miscegenation” was coined by the nascent worldview of biological racism and Social Darwinism, Brown discussed ‘mingling his blood’ from a fundamentally different point of view. Brown asserts that the mixing of the blood is done through struggle against African Slavery.

His declaration, “So let it be done!” defines abolitionism in a way rarely discussed. For most abolitionism refers to the movement to end African Slavery’s regime of forced labor and bondage. If, in the name of the “furtherance of the ends of justice” it is necessary to forfeit all the protections that whiteness usually provides that is not calling simply for the abolition of the coerced labor and captivity, but also whiteness. It is his very subject position that is deemed both expendable and necessarily forfeited to achieve Black freedom. I read Brown’s statements as calls to abolish the fundamental construct of African Slavery, not simply the forced labor aspect thereof. This means abolishing the subject position of whiteness rather than affirming it.

Brown had “white anti-racist” contemporaries who, though abhorred by slavery and very often militantly opposed to it, never conceived of struggling against their subject position. Their ideological descendants dominate what passes for anti-racism among white people today. At best “white allies” seem committed to navigating positionality without abolishing it. It is not just the neoliberal, individualist framework it so often produces. Actions like, progressive stack during discussions, focusing on whose voices are missing and including them, representation, etc., are vital but insufficient by themselves. Some common White Ally slogans reflect the gap in understanding. “White silence is violence.” True. So is ‘white noise’. They are both true because, again, there is no articulation of whiteness that is not also an articulation of white supremacy. “White folk work.” Some Black, native and NBPOC both are good at and enjoy doing anti-racist work in white communities. Asserting something is “white folk work” is a way to preserve a white subject position. Were maintaining whiteness not central it would just be called “work”. Why not show up and do the work without centering our white settler identities?

If, as white people committed to ending white supremacy in all its manifestations, we are serious, then we must consider our subject position forfeit. This is not the same as pretending positionality doesn’t exist and must not be carefully navigated. We must continue to undertake anti-oppression practices that somewhat mitigate our subject position’s power while doing the work to abolish it. Are we doing this while celebrating John Brown as an “ally”? Impactful opposition to white supremacy by white people has consequences for those doing the opposing. This is just as true in the cases of armed resistance like John Brown and Marilyn Buck as it is for the unarmed resistance of Charles T. Torrey. In these and other cases the cost included their freedom and health and lives as it so often does for Black and native people whether or not they are fighting the system. But being willing to pay white supremacy and anti-Blackness’ heavy costs daily born by Black people whether or not any specific person is rebelling is an important part of abolishing our subject position. The alternative is the maintenance of white supremacy.

The Herero and Nama Genocide and Germany’s Non-Reckoning

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government announced plans to formerly apologize for the 1904-07 Herero-Nama genocide in the Deutsch-Südwestafrika (DSWA) settler colony in Namibia. Germany’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Sawsan Chelbi said “We are working towards a joint government declaration with the following elements: common discussions on the historical events and a German apology for the action in Namibia.” Chelbi continued, “On the question of whether there could be reparations or legal consequences, there are none. The apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it.” Instead Germany is considering “development” projects in Namibia.

This is not Germany’s first formal apology for the Herero-Nama genocide. In 2004 Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Germany’s development aid minister, offered “an apology from the German government.” Wieczorek-Zeul said, “We Germans accept our historic and moral responsibility and the guilt incurred by Germans at that time,” and noted that, “The atrocities committed at that time would have been termed genocide.” An unofficial but still significant apology came from Lothar von Trotha’s descendants in 2007.

Von Trotha was the colonial governor who ordered and oversaw the Herero-Nama genocide. He issued in 1904 a Vernichtungsbefehl – “annihilation order” – that read, “The Herero are no longer German subjects,” (“Die Hereros sind nicht mehr deutsche Untertanen.”). Von Trotha then offered rewards for turning in Herero leaders with the highest reward for Samuel Maharero (“Ich sage dem Volk: Jeder der einen der Kapitäne an eine meiner Stationen als Gefangenen abliefert, erhält 1000 Mark, wer Samuel Maharero bringt, erhält 5000 Mark.”). Von Trotha then asserted that any Hereros remaining in DSWA would be massacred. “The Herero people will have to leave the country. If the people refuse I will force them with cannons to do so. Within the German boundaries, every Herero, with or without firearms, with or without cattle, will be shot. I won’t accommodate women and children anymore. I shall drive them back to their people or I shall give the order to shoot at them. These are my words to the Herero people,” (“Innerhalb der Deutschen Grenze wird jeder Herero mit oder ohne Gewehr, mit oder ohne Vieh erschossen, ich nehme keine Weiber und Kinder mehr auf, treibe sie zu ihrem Volke zurück oder lasse auf sie schießen. Dies sind meine Worte an das Volk der Hereros.”). The Nazis named a small Munich street after von Trotha in 1933, thirteen years after his death.

VonTrothaVernichtungsbefehl

Lothar von Trotha’s annihilation order

Following von Trotha’s order German troops through both direct killing and forcing fatal conditions upon killed around 80% of the Herero population, some 65,000 people, and drove thousands more into neighboring lands. Germans forcibly dehydrated many to death by driving people into the Omaheke desert and preventing them from leaving. In short order the Germans carried out this same process against the Nama people killing some 10,000 more (about 50% of the Nama population).

Survivors were placed in concentration camps. Both women and men endured forced labor in the camps and (mostly though not exclusively) women were raped and kept as sex slaves. These are the events for which Merkel’s government will apologize. While the Herero-Nama genocide is the most well known, it is not Germany’s only colonial genocide in Africa nor even the only one in DSWA.

I am guided by Festus Tjikuua’s question, “Our people’s demand for a structured constructive dialogue aimed at bringing about a restorative justice to the victims of the German colonial wars remains unanswered. Why and for how long should we wait?’” and the late Alfons Maharero’s demands for reparations. In this context, Germany’s position as delineated by Chelbi is multitudinously problematic. Specifically Germany is pursuing recognition of a genocidal event without any accountability for it nor a historical reckoning.

 

Contextualizing Genocides

The Herero-Nama genocide must be contextualized in both earlier and later German history for Germany’s apology to be meaningful. German oppression of Herero people didn’t begin in 1904 with the genocide. This genocide, like all genocides, did not take place in a vacuum. It is part of German settler colonialism in Namibia that began in 1884.

The late Patrick Wolfe noted settler colonialism has a “logic of elimination.” In short the “logic of elimination” refers to inherent native dispossession under settler colonialism. Every five acres of Virginia is five less acres of Tsenacommacah. Every five dunam of Israel is five less dunam of Palestine. Dispossessing natives for settler land bases was a fundamental part of realizing DSWA. Deprose Muchena notes, “Many Germans who came to settle in Namibia such as ex-soldiers, artisans and technicians, called for the appropriation of African grazing land to obtain sufficient land for their own farms.” The Herero and Nama anti-colonial rebellions that were suppressed with the genocide were launched primarily in opposition to dispossession. Muchena continues, “In 1930, the German imperial commissioner declared that 75% of the land owned by Africans had to be sold to Europeans, and that the remaining 25% had to be proclaimed native reserves.” Dispossession followed by inevitable resistance followed by genocide is as clear a descriptor of settler colonialism’s “logic of elimination” as is to be found.

Native land dispossession was policy before and after the genocide. Killing uncooperative natives was policy before and after the genocide. Gendered violence was practice before and after the genocide. Before and after the genocide DSWA created a labor regime that forced native populations into the settlers’ capitalist economy creating a cycle of poverty, further institutionalized during decades of South African occupation, that persists today. Muchena writes, “Between 54 and 60% of [households where Khoisan-languages and Rukwangali are spoken] are affected by poverty. On the other hand, German and English-speaking households are hardly affected by poverty at all. In terms of consumption, the poorest 15% of Namibians account for only 1% of national expenditure while the richest 5.6% account for 53% of expenditure.” Restricting the window to just events in the DSWA settler colony, the Herero-Nama genocide has causes and legacies. It is not a stand-alone aberration during settler rule in Namibia. It is built into settler colonialism.

Germany’s apology does not account for any of this apart from naming the killings. Instead it starts and ends the historical harm with the mass killings and leaves the structure that mass produced Herero and Nama death uninterrogated. Here Germany denying reparations is especially acute. The present tense of past German settler rule demonstrates the historical harm of German policies, including but not limited to the genocide(s). There is perhaps no clearer example of the Herero-Nama genocide’s structural presence than the present day fight for descendants of those driven out during the genocide to return to their ancestral lands in Namibia from Botswana and South Africa. To repeat Tjikuua, “Why and for how long should we wait?”

 

From Namibia to Treblinka

Walter Benjamin killed himself near the France-Spain border in September, 1940, choosing his manner of death rather than be turned over to the Nazis. Not long before he died he composed his Theses on the Philosophy of History which has important lessons for contextualizing oppressive systems. Benjamin writes,

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. […] The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge-unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Benjamin didn’t refer to the Herero-Nama genocide but his offering can go places he does not. In this read German fascism’s practices, including the holocaust, can only be surprising, can only be an aberrant moment, if one’s view of German history does not include German colonialism in Africa. Benjamin was not the first nor last to argue that subaltern perspectives, the “tradition of the oppressed,” should be the fundamental units of social and historical analysis. Here he is in the same ballpark as Gayatri Spivak’s famous question “Can the subaltern speak?” Or Edward Said’s demand for “permission to narrate.” Or bell hooks’ call for feminism “from margin to center.”

Anti-colonial activists and scholars contemporary with Benjamin noted this gap in understandings of Nazism as it was unfolding and in its immediate aftermath. Aimé Césaire noted in his 1955 Discours sur le colonialisme that what the European Christian “cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.”

W.E.B. DuBois wrote in The World and Africa in 1947 that “there was no Nazi atrocity – concentration camps, wholesale maiming and murder, defilement of women, or ghastly blasphemy of children – which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folks in all parts of the world.” Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon would more famously make this connection, as would Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault in their formulations of the ‘boomerang effect’. Despite these interventions both popular and scholarly understandings of Nazism including the holocaust rarely link Nazism and European colonialism.

For this reason scholars and pundits represent the holocaust as something mystical, aberrant or incomprehensible. As one example, Volker Berghahn, author of Imperial Germany, 1871-1914 (1994), writes that, “There may have been times when students of the Holocaust thought they were getting a handle on the incomprehensible; yet the more detailed the evidence that continues to emerge, the more difficult it seems to be to comprehend it.” Julia Klein noted in The Forward last year that, “In two generations, we have witnessed a massive shift in our attitude toward the Holocaust: from regarding it as incomprehensible, defying human understanding, to trying to construct rigorous, often competing historical explanations for its causes and contours.” The examples she gives do not touch upon European colonialism and some, like Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, obfuscate from structural understanding entirely seeking explanations in mass German pathology instead. Many of these are distinctly neoliberal (mis)understandings that treat anti-semitism through metaphors of viruses, something that spreads through individuals rather than being produced by a system and discourse. The supposed incomprehensibility has increased, rather than decreased. The further analysis of European fascism and the holocaust gets from anticolonialism, the further it gets from the “tradition of the oppressed,” the more incomprehensible the holocaust becomes.

German imperialism and settler colonialism in DSWA did not create anti-semitism, not even its racialized version. Variants of Judeophobia predate European colonialism by centuries. Nor is DSWA unique in using genocide (or mass killings less than genocide) to suppress anti-colonial revolts. But the connection between DSWA and Nazism is not limited to generalized genocidal practices. Mahmood Mamdani writes that the link between the Herero-Nama genocide and the holocaust is “race branding, whereby it became possible not only to set a group apart as an enemy, but also to exterminate it with an easy conscience.” Benjamin Madley writes more specifically.

In 1908, while Herero and Nama were dying in concentration camps, [Eugen] Fischer arrived in German South West Africa and began a pseudo-scientific study of 310 children. He aimed to gather two kinds of data from each child: physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, and measurements of intelligence. Fischer then compared these two data sets and fabricated correlations between physical traits and intellectual acumen. The children Fischer studied were Basters, members of an Afrikaans-speaking Namibian minority descended from intermarriage among Boers, Britons, Germans, and Khoikoin. His findings, published as [Die Rehobother Bastards und das Bastardierungsproblem beim Menschen (The Rehoboth Bastards and the Problem of Miscegenation Among Humans)] in 1913, had a tremendous impact in Germany. According to Henry Friedlander, ‘This study not only established [Fischer’s reputation] but also influenced all subsequent German racial legislation, including the Nuremberg Laws’.”

Fischer stole Herero body parts for his eugenics research and still today Hereros are fighting, successfully, to have the remains repatriated. He also co-wrote what Friedlander calls “the classic text of the science of race, the Grundriß der menschlichen Erblehre and Rassenhygiene (Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene).” Friedlander continues, “The Grundiß deeply influenced the development and application of the science of race. [Julius Friedrich] Lehmann, the publisher, gave a copy of the 1923 second edition to the imprisoned Adolf Hitler, who read it and used its ideas in Mein Kampf, and later the authors of the official commentaries on the Nazi racial laws quoted the work as their scientific basis.”

Madley draws out further connections. For example Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo, head of the Luftwaffe and leading Nazi official said at his trial at Nuremberg after World War II that “’the position of my father as the first Governor of Southwest Africa’ as one of the four more important ‘points which are significant with relation to my later development’.” Other prominent Nazis too had first and second-hand connections to DSWA like Nazi Reichstag member Franz Ritter von Epp who was in “one of the first waves of volunteer soldiers sent to suppress the Herero Uprising.” (emphasis mine)

It is impossible to say whether the holocaust would have happened without the Herero-Nama genocide. What is indisputable is that the racial formations developed during German colonialism in Africa informed those deployed against Jews, Roma and other Others during the Holocaust. Anti-semitism preceded German colonialism but the prohibitions on interracial relationships in DSWA were developed during a period of partially successful, albeit tenuous, Jewish assimilation and emancipation struggles in Germany. The way the “boomerang” returned fed colonial racial formations back into Germany’s already existing anti-semitism which the Nazis then embraced as their core ideology. An honest reckoning with the Herero-Nama genocide would necessarily transform Germany’s holocaust education and change how we contextualize it. Listening to the Herero and Nama revolts against DWSA and the genocide that suppressed them answers Arno Mayer’s theological query, “Why did the Heavens not Darken?” The heavens did not darken come the holocaust because they could not, they were already dark. Nothing in the described apology for the Herero-Nama genocide points in this direction.

 

Willful Ignorance

Munich’s Von-Trotha-Straße was, “after a fierce and emotional discussion,” renamed Hereroßtrase in 2006 as part of Germany distancing itself from Lother von Trotha. The Munich city council has since heard debate on renaming more streets that “recall leading persons or villainous events from the German colonial era.” Many citizens support the renaming but only the Left Party voted for it in Munich council. One opponent to the renaming said, “If one were to go by today’s standards everywhere, one would have to rename every fifth street in Munich.” This symbolizes exactly the kind of reckoning Germany seeks to avoid.

What exactly a German apology should encompass and which Herero and Nama narratives should be part of German education is not for me to say. These have been made amply clear by Herero reparations activists and leaders. The German government’s insistence though, that the “apology does not come with any consequences on how we deal with the history and portray it,” gives lie to any claimed earnestness. If the apology does not address, through reparations, the harm still being caused today as well as a return of the plundered wealth, then it is empty symbolism. And if the apology does not introduce changes to how Germany contextualizes the holocaust with colonial history then why should anyone believe Germany means it? All those lost to the camps, in Namibia and Eastern Europe, deserve better.

The Atlanteans and the Middle Passage

This essay was inspired Nijla Mu’Min’s extraordinary film Deluge. Thanks to Amrah Salomon for feedback on the draft.

 

Superheroes have celebrated origin stories. Gamma radiation gives rise to shapeshifting rage monsters. Extraterrestrial parentage provides biological powers. A magician’s curse or a nibble from a radioactive arachnid can turn one superpowered. The story of how one gets one’s powers is a defining part of superhero stories. It is, after all, the sine qua non of any superhero’s existence. But what about the universes in which the superheroes operate? Why don’t we look at their origin stories? And what can those origin stories tell us about the comics universes and popular discourse? What follows explores the origin stories of the DC and Marvel universes through their respective Atlantean populations, focusing on a missing narrative fundamental of the world in which virtually all stories in the DC and Marvel lines happen: African Slavery.

The Marvel and DC universes take place, with some exceptions, in the United States settler colony. The United States has two systemic structures without which it does not exist: African Slavery and Indian Removal (or at least it does not exist in anything remotely resembling its current form). These are the bedrocks of settler colonialism on the continent. The simultaneous destruction of the native world and construction of the anti-Black one define everything from many colloquialisms in White American English to property and land law to policing to the names of sports teams to holidays and comprise the preponderance of U.S. history, not to mention the entire physical geography.

Can this be less true in the Marvel and DC universes? They both have Black characters, albeit relatively few and poorly drawn – often in both senses of the term. Black as an identity (or, per anti-Blackness, a site of capital accumulation and location for gratuitous violence) is tied to the legacy of settler colonialism’s African Slavery. If there was African Slavery then there was transport of enslaved peoples from Africa to colonized Turtle Island (North America). So where were the Atlanteans of the respective DC and Marvel universes during the Middle Passage? Where were Aquaman’s and Namor’s ancestors when the first rebelling or newborn enslaved Africans were tossed overboard to drown, be eaten by sharks or drift slowly to the bottom of the Atlantic?

Exploring these ideas identifies dramatic narrative gaps in between the worlds where these stories purport to take place and the world in which they are told. That they are missing from the Marvel and DC universes exemplifies settler normativity, how the destruction of the native world and construction of the settlers’ anti-Black one is naturalized in and baselines politics and society. Settler colonialism is the organization of power that accomplishes this simultaneous destruction/construction. It is how native Turtle Island becomes the anti-Black North America for example.

It also creates a worldview for its inhabitants. In the same way that men struggle to see sexism, instead just seeing ‘normal’, settlers struggle to see settler colonialism. This settler normativity is one of our very frames of reference. It is basic to our understanding of the world. It is why when we hear about the 49ers we think about the football team or the miners of the gold rush, not the populist genocide the actual ‘fortyniners carried out, despite the depopulation of native California by far being their most enduring and impactful legacy. To question settler colonialism is to question the very world the settlers make. We don’t ask where Aquaman’s ancestors were during the Middle Passage because African Slavery is naturalized in society. It, like men not seeing sexism, is a level below the observable because it is the frame through which observations are made.

So where were Aquaman and Namor’s great-great-great grandparents when they first encountered African Slavery? What was their reaction? How would those reactions change the DC and Marvel universes? I explore some potential scenarios in the paragraphs that follow. Some of these fit inside the current DC and Marvel continuities, namely, the more horrible ones. Others disrupt the current continuities, including those that stop African Slavery in its infancy.

 

Scenario 1: Hotlantis

Those thrown overboard are rescued by Atlanteans and form an Afro-descendent Atlantean population or are assisted in returning home. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

Scenario 2: Successful Anti-Slavery Intervention

The Atlanteans intervene against the slavers and prevent the Middle Passage from happening. Scenario five can work in conjunction with this. This is, in the DC universe term, an Elseworld and is irreconcilable with the current continuities. Scenarios 3 and 4 show why it is irreconcilable.

Scenario 3: Post-Intervention A

Superman’s rocket lands in Pawnee country since there is no Kansas in which to crash without African Slavery. Superman is now a Pawnee hero. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 4: Post-Intervention B

Without African Slavery there is no such place as Gotham in which Thomas and Martha Wayne are shot to later be patrolled by their son Batman. They remain British aristocrats. If Bruce Wayne grows up to be a billionaire vigilante he does so in the UK. This is irreconcilable with the current continuities.

Scenario 5: No Response

The Atlanteans first encounter African Slavery through the at sea disposal of newborns or rebelling Africans and either react only to the drowned bodies and not to the act of drowning or simply go about their business. Here the Atlanteans would be concerned with whaling ships more than slave ships (though the ecological damage of African Slavery is in fact substantial!), to the degree they’re concerned with surface dwellers at all. This does not require adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 6: Unsuccessful Intervention

The Atlanteans attempt to intervene and fail and the Middle Passage continues. This is the basis for the Atlantean distance from the surface dweller world for the next four hundred years until the eras of Aquaman and Namor. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 7: Complicity

Both Atlantean worlds are monarchies of one kind or another which suggests regressive politics. It is thus entirely feasible that Aquaman and Namor’s ancestors were complicit in the Middle Passage in some way. Was a tribute or toll paid to those who control the seas? Thus Atlanteans owe reparations of some kind and direct action at the Justice League headquarters is in order. This does not require significant adjustment of continuities.

Scenario 8: Opportunistic/Humanitarian Intervention

The history of humanitarian intervention is dominated by the interveners integrating a crisis or oppressive system into their own politics rather than ending the crisis or oppression. Alternately put, humanitarian intervention is with few exceptions a tool of empire. Entirely plausible in an intervention scenario is Atlanteans taking over the slave trade rather ending it. This does not require significant adjustment of current continuities.

 

An honest account of U.S. history means dealing with the ugly truths of settler colonialism. Settler society cultural production helps avoid these ugly truths by producing myths. Not myths as in, superpowered beings in symbolic grand battles. But myths as in, the United States settler colony somehow being post-colonial. As it stands, the most implausible thing about comics is not that some beings can fly without apparent means of propulsion, but that they take place in a United States without Indian Removal and African Slavery. DC and Marvel comics are not imagining a utopia without colonialism even if they may think they are. Instead they imagine a world where colonialism doesn’t matter or doesn’t matter anymore, mountains of facts to the contrary be damned.

Comics can do better. Comics can narrate the colonial present and retcon their respective universes to where settler colonialism, including African Slavery and Indian Removal, happen and impact the universes accordingly. Elseworlds-style stories are one way of accomplishing this. For example there is the as-yet not made story Superman: Alien where the Man of Steel’s rocket is found by Mexican migrant workers on a Kansas farm. He then gets deported with his adoptive parents and grows up to be a Mexican superhero. That is at least as plausible as him being found by the white farm owners. This and the more tragic alternate visions offered above veer away from the current continuities in that they contextualize events as if they take place in the universes they purport to.

The question is one of decolonizing comics. Not as in, comics were colonized and must now be decolonized. That is silly. Nobody colonized comics books. To the contrary, comics in the United States are part of settler colonial cultural production. So in decolonizing comics we seek comics that are decolonizing acts; that are decolonizing narratives and, potentially, tools. Some indie comics and zines already explore this. Yet mainstream comics can too play a role in subverting settler normativity through dealing with the world settler colonialism made, the world in which the comics universes exist. One possible story to tell in this direction is the one that tells the story of the Atlanteans during the Middle Passage. Aquaman’s ancestors have some explaining to do.

 

Anti-Zionism isn’t anti-semitic, but Zionism is

Thanks to Tom Pessah for editing suggestions to make this coherent.

 

This week the University of California Board of Regents issued a paper on intolerance that focused on anti-semitism. Early drafts explicitly conflated anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. But as the Electronic Intifada reported , “pressure force[d an] amendment” to the paper whereby only anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism where to be disallowed. Whether this provides a safeguard for anti-Zionist organizing or is more of a slippery slope for anti-Zionism to be categorized as anti-semitic isn’t yet clear.

Anti-semitism isn’t rare in Palestine liberation organizing because anti-semitism isn’t rare in society and everything wrong in society also shows up in movement spaces, if less common or differently articulated. In the U.S. at least, it is not as common as settler colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism and anti-Blackness in movement spaces but it still shows up enough to notice.

What seems weird at first though is that anti-semites oppose Zionism in the first place because Zionism itself is anti-semitic. Of course in anti-semitism everything Jews do is wrong because it is Jews doing it, no matter what ‘it’ is, even if ‘it’ is being anti-semitic. For anti-semites the mere presence of Jews is sufficient cause for anti-semitism. Thus Israel, a settler colony ideologically premised in part on anti-semitism, can still be worked into anti-semites’ fantasies.

Shlilat ha-Galut

Joseph Massad writes about Theodore Herzl that:

Herzl and his followers insisted that it is the presence of Jews in gentile societies that caused anti-Semitism. Herzl put it thus in his foundational Zionist pamphlet Der Judenstaat: “The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.” Sharing this diagnosis with anti-Semites, the Zionists called for the exit of Jews from gentile societies in order to “normalize” their “abnormal” situation, transforming them into a nation like other nations.

Rejecting this “abnormality” in Zionist ideology is called shlilat ha-galut, the negation of exile. Eliezer Schweid writes that shlilat ha-galut “is a central assumption in all currents of Zionist ideology.” Ha-galut, exile, is the “abnormal” condition in question. Ha-galut in this construct is what non-Zionist anti-semites simply call being a Jew. In anti-semitism, Jewish presence amongst non-Jews is unnatural, a concept fully embraced by Herzl.

Shlilat ha-galut disavows Jewish cultural production and history outside of Zionism. In its most crudely anti-semitic, shlilat ha-galut perfectly mimics European anti-semitic imagery of Jews as spiritually, morally and even physically weak, parasitical, effeminate and defenseless. Herzl was not alone in this. Prominent early Zionist A.D. Gordon, for example, espoused such views. Zeev Sternhell quotes Gordon:

[W]e are a parasitic people. We have no roots in the soil, there is no ground beneath our feet. And we are parasites not only in an economic sense, but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations. Every alien movement sweeps us along, every wind in the world carries us. We in ourselves are almost non-existent, so of course we are nothing in the eyes of other people either.

Those notions fit comfortably alongside the crudest articulations of the neo-Nazis. Also not neo ones.

Shlilat ha-galut led to anti-semitic riots on the part of the settlers. For example on 27 September 1930 an anti-semitic mob of Jewish colonists gathered in Tel Aviv and laid siege to the Mograbi movie theater for playing a Yiddish-language film. Arthur Ruppin, discussed below, thought Yiddish was a “degenerate” and “impure” language, a view widely held by the settlers. For example, future Prime Minister David Ben Gurion thanked a young Partisan and shoah survivor for sharing her story in with him in 1945 “even though it was told in a foreign and ear straining language,” Yiddish, Ben Gurion’s native language. Zionists frequently characterize the Nebi Musa riots and others as anti-semitic rather than anticolonial but the militant mob actions and later state repression of Yiddishkeit are virtually never portrayed as anti-semitic, no matter their replication of European anti-semitism. Shlilat ha-galut is portrayed as part of a Jewish renaissance instead of destroying Jewish culture.

Zionist anti-semitism’s other Others

Zionist anti-semitism is not just, not even mostly, the suppression of Yiddish culture, but of Mizrachi, Ethiopian and other Othered Jewish populations as well. Here anti-semitism meets anti-Blackness and Orientalism. Arthur Ruppin is a leading figure in Zionist history. He is called the “father of Jewish settlement in Palestine” and there are few important Zionist developments in Palestine between 1905-1940 that he wasn’t involved with at some level. Ruppin was also a dedicated eugenicist whose academic work in the eugenics field was fundamental to his settlement programs in Palestine.

For example, Ruppin rejected Ethiopian Jews as potential candidates for settler colonialism in Palestine. Etan Bloom quotes Ruppin as saying that Ethiopian Jews were:

N****rs, who came to Judaism by force of the sword in the sixth century B.C. They have no blood connection to the Jews. […] [Therefore] their number in Palestine should not be increased.

This was and remains Israeli practice, partially interrupted, though articulated less crudely today. Israelis forcibly sterilizing Ethiopian Jewish women should be read in the context that “their number in Palestine should not be increased”. Bloom writes further about Ruppin’s views on Mizarchim.

The radical decrease in the number of Sephardim is explained by Ruppin as being the result of certain deficiencies in their biological structure. As the most Semitic component of the Jewish race, they came to represent, in his analysis, a degenerate strain in the Jewish Volk. According to Ruppin, not only had the (Ashkenazi) Jews preserved their racial characteristics, they had also succeeded in improving them through a long process of selection which promoted the fittest amongst them: rich Jews married their daughters to the most brilliant students, thus ensuring the mental development of the race. The Sephardic-Oriental (Mizrachi) Jews, Ruppin concluded, were lacking this urge for self-selection, a fact that certainly damaged their “vital force”. Another factor which differentiated the Oriental Jews, according to Ruppin’s assertion, was that most of them were actually Arabs and Moslems who had converted over the generations.

Orientalist and anti-Black ideologies are not relics from Ruppin’s time but present tense phenomena. For example, Israel has stopped Ethiopian Jews from settling in Israel entirely several times and Mizrachim continue to be peripheralized in the settler society. This is not just orientalism and anti-Blackness. Specifically groups of Jews are targeted so it is also anti-semitism.

Yehudon and Galuti

Former Netanyahu advisor Aviv Bushinsky called U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro a yehudon, or ‘little Jew boy’ after Shapiro offered very mild criticisms of certain Israeli policies in the West Bank. Right-wing former cabinet minister Rehavam Ze’evi called former U.S. ambassador Martin Indyk the same thing. Other prominent Israelis called prior U.S. ambassadors the same thing. Sometimes these crude anti-semitic slurs are denounced by high officials. Less crude ones embodying shlilat ha-galut are not.

Israelis use the word galuti, exilic – of exile, as a pejorative often meaning ‘weakness’ or ‘softness’. Having a “galuti mentality” is a common response to criticism’s of anti-Palestinian policies. A typical example is here where the author castigates those in galut for supporting Obama’s very mild opposition to some Israeli policies. Galut is not geographic distance from the supposed homeland but ideological distance from Zionism. Again, the idea of Jews as weak beings is part of European anti-semitism. Tying weakness to ha-galut is tying strength to settler colonial violence in Palestine. Alternately put, in the ongoing nakba, the destruction of the Palestinian world is the construction of an anti-semitic one.

Through forced sterilization, language and culture repression and more, Israel and Zionism have worked hard for decades to destroy groups of Jews. But being a settler colony the first group of Jews Zionism’s “new Hebrews” targeted for elimination were Palestinian. Palestinian Jews were a vibrant community, one of many communities pre-colonial Palestine. Zionism tore Palestinian Jews from their indigeneity, including from their relationships with Palestinian Muslims and Christians, and articulated them instead to the settler society, turning them into Israelis.

Massad wrote of early Zionism, “Much of what anti- Semitism projected onto European Jews would now be displaced onto Palestinian Arabs.” Zionism’s history is first and foremost the history of removing Palestinians and conquering Palestine. But in creating anti-Palestinian geographies Israeli also created anti-semitic ones that rejected Ethiopian, Mizrachi and Yiddish Jewish cultures. None of this is to minimize or forgive anti-semitism in the Palestine liberation movement. Anti-semitism, like any bigotry or oppression, is never excusable. Instead this essay seeks to be a corrective contextualization of the criticism of anti-Zionism as anti-semitic. When Zionists make this conflation they are not criticizing anti-semitism, they are saying it is being done wrong.

France->Detroit->Algeria->Palestine: A spectre of settler colonialism

Detroit organizer, scholar and beloved comrade Kristian Davis Bailey is en route to France to discuss/further Black-Palestinian joint struggle and solidarity. French settler colonialism runs deep through both Turtle Island and Palestine and this little essay is inspired by his trip and efforts.

 

Settler colonialism and imperialism have linkages and traces across the globe. What follows shows linkages between Black people in the U.S. and Palestinians (and others) through the the spectre of French settler colonialism and imperialism, with various sites in France being host to discussions of Black-Palestinian solidarity during Israeli Apartheid Week this year.

 

Starting in Detroit where I’m writing, French colonization of Turtle Island was no less catastrophic than the British or Spanish, even if circumscribed by other imperial powers over time. Locally in what the settler society calls Detroit, the French under the leadership of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, started the destruction of Ojibwe society through the commodification of furs, introductions of European diseases, frontier homicides (though less common than the British later), and introduction of alcohol (a colonial history of alcohol is yet to be written though is direly needed).

 

Early French settlers brought African slavery with them during conquest. Alternately put, French settler colonialism built an anti-Black world as it destroyed a native world. As Bill McGraw writes for Deadline Detroit, “In 1750, for example, toward the end of the French regime, more than 25 percent of Detroit residents kept slaves.” He continues,Many roads, schools and communities across southeast Michigan carry the names of old, prominent families that owned slaves: Macomb, Campau; Beaubien; McDougall; Abbott; Brush; Cass; Hamtramck; Gouin; Meldrum; Dequindre; Beaufait; Groesbeck; Livernois and Rivard, among many others.”

 

The wealth from French colonialism on Turtle Island did not match the profits of French slave colonies in the Caribbean, especially Haiti. Yet the French fur and slave empire in Detroit is part of the colonial and imperial power that, over a century after France left North America after being expelled from Haiti in modernity’s most important revolution, brought France together with the U.K. to create the Sykes-Picot Agreement carving up Southwest Asia between the U.K., France and Russia. Sykes-Picot created the basis for British colonialism in Palestine, a regime that facilitated Zionist settler colonialism. Without the wealth from selling African people as property and colonizing Turtle Island, France would have never had the power to participate in and shape Sykes-Picot.

 

Another key French settler colony, Algeria, began again to face decolonial opposition and organizing shortly after Sykes-Picot (though not because of it).  Over the ensuing four decades the French regimes brutally, but unsuccessfully, suppressed Algerian decolonial agitation and revolt culminating in the Front de Libération Nationale-led rebellion that ended French rule in 1962.

 

Israel has always needed a powerful sponsor and France played that role beginning in 1954. According to Michael Laskier, the Mossad created underground paramilitary units in Algeria that were active in fighting decolonial FLN actions against Algerian Jews (whom anti-semitic French colonialism had positioned as a privileged native caste, one ‘closer’ to European-ness than Algerian Muslims). Israel also supported French rule at the United Nations, repeatedly siding with France during votes on Algerian independence and nuclear weapons tests in the Sahara.

 

For its part, France provided Israel with advanced arms and helped it build an aircraft industry and nuclear weapons. France supplied the aircraft Israel used to invade Sinai during the Suez Crisis, the October 1956 joint British-French-Israeli attack on Egypt. In 1959 France permitted Israel to build the Fouga Magister jet under license while over the decade, selling Israel even more advanced fighters like the Mystère. It was with French arms that Israel attacked Egypt and Syria in June 1967. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria and in the end Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula and Occupied Gaza Strip from Egypt, the Occupied West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.

 

Israel quickly built settlements in the Sinai hoping to prejudice any future talks by creating facts on the ground that would bind parts or all of the peninsula plus Gaza Strip to Israel. Israeli colonization led to inevitable Egyptian resistance. Surface-to-air missile systems took a heavy toll on Israeli aircraft during the War of Attrition. To confuse the anti-aircraft radars, Israel bought its first drones from the U.S. These were both decoy and spy drones. Drones at the time had still photography so returning drones had to be unloaded, the film developed and analyzed, before any intelligence was gained. Egyptian resistance combined with advances in data processing led Israel to modify the drones to deploy real time surveillance. The new drones provided real-time video thereby collapsing the time between reconnaissance and attack, allowing for on-the-spot battlfield adjustments. These new drones didn’t see much use in Sinai which was returned to Egypt in 1981 under Egyptian and international pressure. But all modern drones everywhere in the world can be traced to the Israeli colonization of the Sinai. It is there that drones became real-time surveillance platforms. It is the drones Israel developed there that led to the U.S. reinvesting in a technology it had largely abandoned.

 

France instituted an arms embargo on Israel after the 1967 war. Yet France today uses weapons Israel developed during the Sinai occupation (and deployed in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza). France uses a modified Israel Aerospace Industries Heron drone under the name ‘Harfang’ in the imperial ‘Global War on Terror’ and in unilateral and multilateral French invasions and occupations of Afghanistan, Mali and Libya.

 

In the latter two cases the technology Israel – a settler colony whose existance is partially dependent on the Sykes-Picot Agreement France helped create and implement – developed as a result of its French-armed attack on African soil reverses course and flows from former client to patron for its own invasions of African countries. In this way France profits immensely from actions it supposedly embargoes.

 

These are some of the entanglements of settler colonialism and empire that flow through France, Palestine, Detroit and Algeria.

Rise in Power: Patrick Wolfe

This morning I learned that Patrick joined the ancestors. It’s a loss to decolonial scholarship and devastating personally. Patrick was brilliant, kind and humble. Anything useful I write about settler colonialism or racism is at least in part due to his works. He offered clarity of insight of the kind that you shared out loud with others. And also shared his time so generously!

After two evictions and years without regular work a few years back I ended up, not by choice, squatting in a vacant on the West Side. I was still trying to write and Patrick offered encouragement to keep going, not just in writing, and feedback on what work I did do. With nurturing more than I expected or deserved he told me of his suggestions, “It’s from your corner,” and it actually felt like it. Can’t even tell you how much it meant to get such support from someome whose writings could make you say, “Oh dang. That’s what’s up!” on a regular basis. I just sent him an email last night with my latest little screed because I cited him twice. And now all of us whom he helped have one less person in our corner. Below please find PDFs for many of his writings. He always shared so generously, it’s the very least I can do in his memory. The very most we can do is decolonize. RIP Patrick Wolfe

 

Wolfe, Patrick (1991) “On Being Woken Up – The Dreamtime in Anthropology and in Australian Settler Culture

Wolfe, Patrick (1994) “Nation and MisegeNation – Discursive Continuity in the Post-Mabo Era

Wolfe, Patrick (1997) “History and Imperialism – A Century of Theory, from Marx to Postcolonialism

Wolfe, Patrick (2001) “Land, Labor, and Difference – Elementary Structures of Race

Wolfe, Patrick (2002) “Can the Muslim Speak – An Indebted Critique

Wolfe, Patrick (2004) “Race and Citizenship

Wolfe, Patrick (2006) “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native

Wolfe, Patrick (2006-2012 Arabic Translation) “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native

Wolfe, Patrick (2007) “Corpus nullius – the exception of Indians and other aliens in US constitutional discourse

Wolfe, Patrick (2011) “After the Frontier: Separation and Absorption in US Indian Policy

Wolfe, Patrick (2012) “Against the Intentional Fallacy – Legocentrism and Continuity in the Rhetoric of Indian Dispossession

Wolfe, Patrick (2012) “Purchase by Other Means – The Palestine Nakba and Zionism’s Conquest of Economics

Wolfe, Patrick (2013) “Recuperating Binarism: a heretical introduction

Lloyd, David & Patrick Wolfe (2015), “Settler colonial logics and the neoliberal regime

The Kibush HaShmira and The Violence of Settler Sovereignty in Palestine

This essay derives in part from, though cannot be blamed on, Gershon Shafir’s Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict though it is not directly cited. Thanks to Tom Pessah for helping to make this legible. Shortly after I emailed this article to him to let him know I was citing him yet again, I learned that Patrick Wolfe had made the transition. This article is dedicated to his memory. May those that knew him carry his light onward.

Israel is a settler colony. It is premised on the dislocation of Palestine. Israeli geographic existence and expansion is contingent upon Palestinian geographic contraction. Every five dunams of Israel is five less dunams of Palestine, what Patrick Wolfe calls a relationship of “negative articulation.” This dynamic illuminates the tremendous hostility to Palestinian land transfers – whether coerced, fraudulent or voluntary – to Zionists. When someone from Senegal buys a house in India the space does not become part of Senegal’s sovereignty, it remains India. When settlers obtain Palestinian land they remove it from Palestine and transfer it to Israel. The entire history of Zionism and Israel is this history of anti-Palestine-ing (along with some colonizing of adjacent nations). This is no less, and quite possibly most, true of the arms industry and Israeli military-industrial complex.

Max Weber described states as any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” The common shorthand version describes states‘ defining premise as holding a monopoly of legitimate violence. As the early Zionist settler society aspired to statehood in Palestine one of its key tasks was achieving monopolies on legitimate violence wherever it could.

Some of the first Zionist settlements in the 1880s had settler guards but virtually all were supplanted in the coming decade. By 1905 it was primarily Bedouin and Circassian Palestinians under contract guarding the settlements. Alternately put, local relations of force – Palestinian guards subordinate to Ottoman rule – prevailed during the early period. Beginning with the Second Aliya (a wave of Zionist settlement between 1904-1914) the nascent elements that would come to be called Labour Zionism (the forerunners of the Mapai, Mapam, Achdut Ha’Avodah, Avodah, Meretz & related parties) began a three-pronged ideological program of conquest. Three Kibushim (conquests) – Kibush Ha’Avodah (Conquest of Labour), Kibush Ha’Adama (Conquest of Land) and Kibush HaShmira (Conquest of Guarding) – created the base for a separate settler sovereignty.

The Kibush Ha’Avodah created labor fields where Jewish settlers would not be in competition with Palestinian natives. The Kibush Ha’Adama created geographic spaces exclusive to Zionist settlement. The Kibush HaShmira put settlement guarding solely in the hands of settlers. The latter combined parts of the former two while bridging them, providing a labor field exclusive to settler workers while establishing settler relations of force in limited geographies. The Kibush HaShmira conquered the act of guarding that guarded the act of conquest. The Kibush HaShmira built the proto-state organs dependent upon a monopoly on violence and separated, partially, Zionist settlement from local relations of force (even while still subordinate to Ottoman and later British imperialism). The Kibush HaShmira created proto-state spaces through which intrasettler land and labor relations separate from settler-native relations could operate. The Kibush HaShmira imagined and created the first Israeli geography.

The Kibush HaShmira ideologues created in 1907 the Bar Giora in and then Hashomer militias to take over guarding at some of the first kibbutzim. The leadership disbanded Hashomer in 1920 when the Yishuv organized the Haganah. They founded the Haganah in response to early 1920 Bedouin raid on the Tel Hai settlement and the Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem in which several Jews (primarily natives in the latter instance, often forgotten is that Zionism destroyed Palestinian Jewry too as part of dispossession all Palestinians) and Palestinian Muslims were killed. The Yishuv felt the British colonial regime had not done enough to put down Palestinian activists in either instance and set about improving their own military capabilities. The Haganah in 1920 also created the first underground arms workshops and weapons procurement program from which all Israeli weapons production descend.

Each of the Haganah’s subsequent military reorganizations and tactical and technological developments was a direct result of settler colonialism. Alternately put, they were shaped by the Zionists’ relationship of dispossession with Palestinians. Most prominent amongst these are Palestinian military and diplomatic resistance to Zionist and British colonialism, British support for the Zionist settler society during World War II, Palestinian and Lebanese resistance to Israeli occupation and the colonization of the Sinai Peninsula. What follows are two examples, Zionist counterinsurgency kibbutz construction during the 1936-39 Arab Revolt and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) development 1967-81 settlement of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Homa Umigdal‘s architecture of removal

The architectural style of homa umigdal (‘wall and tower’, alternately translated as ‘tower and stockade’) shows the Palestinians’ fundamental importance to the Yishuv’s political, ideological and military infrastructural development. Homa umigdal settlements, in James Gelvin’s words, “were built between 1936 and 1939, the period of the ‘Great Palestinian Revolt’ in those ‘frontier’ areas of Palestine where the Yishuv sought to establish and maintain a presence in the face of Arab Palestinian resistance.” Its fundamental principle were an enclosed perimeter and a watchtower.

John Patrick Montaño writes, referring to British settler colonialism in Ireland, “if we follow the cultural geographers in seeing landscape as rife with meaning, then we can read the built environment as a document of ideological text created to convey a particular message or view of the world.” What then, is homa umigdal‘s message?

Sharon Rothbard notes that the homa umigdal “is more an instrument than a place.” “The primary tactical requirement for the Homa Umigdal settlement,” she writes, “was that it had to meet several conditions: it had to be planned in such a way that it could be constructed in one day, and later even in one night; it had to be able to protect itself for as long as it would take for backup to arrive; and it had to be situated within sight of other settlements and be accessible to motor vehicles.” Rothbard observes that homa umigdal was a tool of conquest and control as much as an architectural form. Its design makes it “first and foremost an observation point.” As a mechanism of control its “constant panoptic observation policed by the vantage point of the ‘tower’ determined the overpowering relations” between the colonists and their surroundings.

Homa umigdal is a paradigmatic settler colonial form, a space that excludes (homa) the indigenous populace while simultaneously observing and controlling it (migdal). Homa umigdal is a further integration of the kibush ha’adama and kibush hashmira. Here the conquest of guarding is the conquest of land. They’re indistinguishable and the violence of settler sovereignty and its concomitant geographic ethnic cleansing is made pure. From a labor perspective the workers from an exclusive labor caste created an exclusive settler space. In a friendly amendment to Rothbard’s analysis I offer that homa umgidal is not “more an instrument than a place,” but, like all settler geographies, is an instrumental place, a geography exemplifying Zionism’s “negative articulation” to the native Palestinian population.

Israeli Colonization of the Sinai Peninsula and the development of modern drones

UAVs are a key export of Israel’s arms industry. A number of Israeli firms export drones, most prominently Aeronautics Defense Systems, Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries. UAVs are commonly used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. More recently some models have begun to carry armed payloads. All of them stem from Israeli colonization of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

Israel conquered the Sinai during the June War in 1967. In short order Israel built settlements in the Sinai, primarily south of the Gaza Strip to create facts on the ground that would separate Egyptians and Palestinians in and around Gaza from the rest of Sinai and articulate the geography to Israel instead. Israel had to deal with substantial Egyptian resistance during the Sinai occupation and developed technologies to do so.

During the first years of the Israeli occupation of Sinai, according to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), “Egypt began to deploy the SA-2 and SA-3 antiaircraft systems. The appearance of the batteries led to a number of IAF losses, and harmed the Air Force’s ability to gather intelligence from the frontlines. During the search for a method of intelligence gathering that would not put the lives of air crew at risk, the possibility of acquiring UAVs was explored.”

Alternately put, the cost of Egyptian resistance to Israeli colonization required mechanisms of pacification. In September 1971 the first squadron of U.S.-made Firebee UAVs was deployed to the Refidim Airbase in Occupied Sinai and the “squadron’s first operational flight was carried out almost immediately”. In the October (Yom Kippur) War, according to Kenneth Munson, the IAF “was able to reduce its manned aircraft losses by using inexpensive Chukar decoys to deceive and saturate Egyptian [surface-to-air missile] battles along the Suez Canal.”

They were deployed similarly to support the colonization of Syria’s Golan Heights where they “fooled the Syrians into thinking that a massive combat plane strike had begun against their [anti-aircraft] positions.” The key Israeli innovation was not use as decoys, but in modifying the surveillance payload from film to video. The “operational need for real time intelligence on the front lines led to the idea of a UAV carrying a stabilized camera that could broadcast pictures.”

Munson notes that shortly after the war the Israeli government “charged the IAI and Tadiran companies with developing small, versatile, low-signature [UAVs], able to send back real-time intelligence by direct video link, and capable of being operation in the field by ordinary soldiers after only three to six months training.”

Both IAI and Tadiran responded successfully. Tadiran produced the Mastiff UAV and IAI the Scout with the first units entering into service in 1977 though were sparsely used in Sinai as Israel began drawing down its in preparation for the withdrawal from Sinai after Camp David. Instead, Stephen Zaloga writes that the concept was first tested in battle “in 1981 when the South African Army used the IAI Scout during Operation Protea in Angola.” Operation Protea was an attempt to destroy the South-West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). The South African military’s use of drones in a colonial war of military occupation forecast Israel’s first UAV surveillance combat deployment in Lebanon in 1982. The IDF invaded and attacked Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) bases analogous to the South African attack on SWAPO, also engaging in combat with the Syrian military and Lebanese irregulars. The Israeli attack on Lebanon and the PLO turned out to be a turning point in the deployment and popularization of UAVs and the driving motivation for U.S. investment in UAVs, a technology it had largely abandoned at that point. All modern surveillance and attack drones descend from this.

Kibush hashmira in the Present

Settler violence – apart from the horrifying but peripheral violence carried out by fundamentalist ideologues, the West Bank “hilltop youth” for example – is settler sovereignty and there is no Israeli rule in Palestine without it. Anarchist and Weberian analyses of the state are never more prescient than when locating sovereign state violence in describing settler state dispossession of native nations. Or rather, they would never be more prescient if they were used to analyze settler states or colonial encounters which they are not.

Proportionately small numbers of Druze and Bedouin Palestinians are in the Israeli army, intelligence apparatuses and Border Police and proportionately smaller yet number work in the arms industry. The idea of kibush hashmira as a segregated labor caste, the conquest of the act of guarding, continues. So too does the Israeli military industrial complex continue to guard the act of conquest. The conquest of the act of guarding that guards the act of conquest is not a phenomenon from the Second Aliya, it is phenomenon of the present. Wolfe wrote that settler colonialism “is a structure, not an event.” The kibush hashmira is one such example of Zionism’s structural presence. The conquest of guarding created both a phenomenon of sovereign violence and a segregated labor caste based upon sovereign violence that underlays the ongoing Zionist colonization of Palestine.

Though the term kibush hashmira is not in use and has not been for around a century its meaning has not lessoned. It is the guiding logic of the Israeli arms industry and military and all Israeli military industrial production is part of this colonial production of violent settler sovereignty.