Jerusalem: Colonized City

Against the Current, No. 181, March/April 2016

an interview with Thomas Abowd

THOMAS ABOWD IS the author of Colonial Jerusalem. The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948-2012 (Syracuse University Press, 2014). Against the Current interviewed him about his research and observations on the present crisis. — David Finkel for the ATC editors

Against the Current: Your book connects the post-1967 Israeli occupation with the earlier pre- and post-1948 periods. But if we can start with the present situation: the attacks by individual Palestinians and the large numbers killed by Israeli soldiers, police and vigilante, Netanyahu’s threat to cancel residency for East Jerusalem Palestinians, etc. — how do you see the present crisis connecting up with the recent past and older history?

Thomas Abowd: I argue that colonialism is a process, a continual process of human rights abuses, land theft, and racial exclusion. Where many writers, scholars, journalists talk about colonialism as something in the past, I see it as a set of policies and practices that connect the past with the present.

Colonialism is not just about a seminal moment of conquest but rather the implementation of various designs that over decades actively and radically alter laws, land use policies, property rights, and that also reconfigure urban spaces with new city planning strategies.

Race and new racist logics are crucial to these violent transformations — and they are usually quite violent in one way or another. Israeli governance, I assert in the book, is consistent with settler-colonialism, a specific form of colonial rule that seeks to replace one group of people with another.

This idea goes all the way back to the beginning of the Zionist movement over 100 years ago. Some theorists of settler-colonialism have referred to this racist vision as a “logic of elimination,” an ideological position that sees the colonized as the “wrong” kind of human being that “pollutes” the body politic of the dominant. Zionist settlers (who often called themselves settlers) were aligned with organizations like the Jewish National Fund and the Palestine Colonization Association in seeking to build a Jewish state with as few Palestinians as possible.

This historical vision links up with your question about the heightened violence of the last few months. That vision has more or less remained unchanged to this day. In my view, there would be something wrong if a population living under harsh military rule for decades (or even months) did not rise up and resist that rule, including the continual theft of their land and resources.

Now, among those forms of resistance are those recognized internationally as legitimate and others that are not. But it should be remembered that we will soon enter the 49th year of a quite brutal and illegal Israeli military occupation over East Jerusalem, the rest of the West Bank, and Gaza (along with the often forgotten Syrian Golan Heights).

These are all colonized territories and I can tell you that U.S. complicity in this military rule is not lost on the Palestinians and the Israeli left.

The current crisis also demands that we ask why it is that “violence” in Palestine/Israel is more likely to be reported when it is happening to Israelis? I wrote Colonial Jerusalem in part because violence and terrorism, however defined, have been committed by states like Israel and the United States far more routinely than that committed by those they dominate. I wanted to point to the ways violence is often not dramatic but woven into the experiences of everyday life for occupier and the occupied, alike. Israeli military rule is violent all of the time and in ways not covered or discussed in mainstream U.S. journalism or scholarship.

The stabbings of Israeli civilians are indefensible, but there is such a massive disparity between the levels of brutality against Israeli civilians and Palestinian civilians. When violence against Israeli Jews is committed it is typically referred to as “terrorism.” But Israeli (and, of course, U.S.) state terrorism in the Middle East has since 1948 been far greater. We can see this from Jerusalem to Beirut to Baghdad to Yemen.

Let me give you one example: in the wake of the killing of the three Israeli settlers in the summer of 2014, Israeli forces (and Jewish settlers) unleashed attacks against Palestinian civilians that killed nearly two dozen people in just a few weeks. The Israelis then provoked a war in which a largely defenseless Palestinian civilian population in Gaza was bombed quite viciously.

Nearly 2000 Palestinians were killed. In that case, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) activities were not uncommonly referred to as “retaliation” or “anti-terrorism” measures meant to stop Palestinian terrorism and their makeshift rockets.

Long ago, Frantz Fanon talked about a dialectic of violence and counter-violence that characterizes colonial cities. Those living under colonial rule rarely simply submit to it. Palestinians are no different.

This does not mean that any act of militancy or violent resistance is justified. But I always try and challenge others — particularly pacifists and Zionists of all stripes — to see the current conflict through the eyes of the oppressed, of a Palestinian population three-fourths of whom have only known Israeli military occupation.

It is interesting to note that since Israel initiated its bombing of Gaza in the Summer of 2014, friends in Jewish Voice for Peace report a nearly doubling of their national membership. The views of American Jews, I think, are changing rapidly — particularly among the young and secular.

Well, how would the Israelis or the Americans respond if they were subjected to decades of human rights abuse, humiliation, house demolitions, and land theft of this kind? And how would the United Nations and the U.S. government respond if, say, the Syrian or Egyptian military were doing these very same things to Israeli Jews in Tel Aviv?

In early November 2014, it was reported in the U.S. Jewish magazine Forward that a conflict arose between Israeli generals and members of Netanyahu’s cabinet over the reasons for the latest widespread protests against Israeli military occupation in Jerusalem and elsewhere.

Apparently, the generals, including the chief of military intelligence Herzl Halevi, told Netanyahu’s cabinet that the upsurge in militant resistance and street clashes were due to such things as Palestinian anger over the unsolved July 31 murder of the Dawabsheh family in the West Bank, as well as rage and despair among Palestinian youth who see no future and feel they have “nothing to lose.”

The generals, according to this story, were attacked by these politicians for apologizing for Palestinian violence and “blaming Israel.” On this, I am compelled to agree with the sober and fairly honest assessment of the Israeli military establishment. (

Colonization and Racism

ATC: Stepping back from the current crisis, tell us what you mean by “colonial Jerusalem” historically and post-1967. And is this actually a united city, or what?

TA: In the book I try to use the terminology of “colonialism” and colonial power as precisely as I can. Referring to Israeli rule as colonial rule is not about advancing a sterner rebuke of the state’s policies. Instead, it’s about looking at how most Zionists and Israeli officials have for decades sought to create an exclusivist state on the land of the Palestinians, a Jewish state where Palestinian Christians and Muslims have been kept spatially isolated as a matter of policy.

Jerusalem is at the center of this colonial struggle. That fact gets us back to the question of race and racism, to the racist assumptions about who belongs and who does not. Israel is a self-declared “Jewish state,” one which accords rights and privileges (often explicitly) based on whether one is Jewish or not. This sets the context for what happens today in Palestine under Israeli military rule.

This has been seen quite vividly in Jerusalem, a city from which nearly the entire Arab population of West Jerusalem was expelled in 1948 and their homes and property stolen by the Israeli state. The scholarly evidence for this claim is overwhelming and some writers — including a growing number of Israeli scholars — have increasingly documented the forced expulsion of nearly 750,000 Arab Muslims and Christians in 1948.

Israeli officials (as well as some amazing Israeli human rights activists like those at B’Tselem and Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions) have been quite clear about their demographic designs in Jerusalem and I write about them throughout the book. Former Israeli city planners and politicians such as the late Sarah Kaminkar and Meron Benvenisti have written that in the years after Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, it sought to limit the number of Arabs in the city and increase as aggressively as possible the number of Israeli-Jews.

These planners also assert that one of the guiding principles of Israeli governance was to reconfigure Jerusalem in such a way as to take in “the maximum amount of Palestinian land, but a minimum of Palestinians.” The ways Israel redrew (and continues to redraw) the boundaries of the city underscore this racist vision. The perceived threat is and has always been not a military or a terrorist threat but a demographic one: the fear of too many Arabs rising up as what Israeli officials have referred to as an Arab demographic time bomb.”

For instance, in just the last 25 years illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have nearly tripled. These settlements are overwhelmingly built on land taken from Arab Muslims and Christians.

What I witnessed in Jerusalem and other places was a Palestinian population increasingly “warehoused” in deeply circumscribed and policed areas — almost completely under Israeli control. These towns, villages, neighborhoods, and refugee camps are often surrounded by Israel’s destructive (and illegal) separation barrier.

At the same time, those who resist Israeli military rule (even children as young as 10) are routinely detained and most of these detainees, Israeli and other human rights organizations tell us, are badly beaten or tortured.

Today, more than 70% of East Jerusalem (as defined by Israel) is off limits to Palestin­ians, who are largely precluded from building homes on their own land and with their own money. Arab population centers have been deeply constrained by Israel’s illegal “separation wall,” and Palestinians have been restricted to less than 15% of the land.

Meanwhile, on neighboring hilltops (usually on land appropriated from these same Palestinians), subsidized housing for Jewish settlers expands rapidly. However, despite the effort to move Israeli Jews into occupied East Jerusalem and to limit Arab “growth” in the city the Palestinians are still the majority in East Jerusalem.

Now, you mentioned prevailing Zionist discourses of Israel’s “liberation” and “reunification” of Jerusalem. Here is the great irony: despite the claims of Israeli governing authorities (and their supporters abroad) that Jerusalem is the “eternal, undivided, and immutable capital of the Jewish people,” the city remains one of the most segregated urban centers in the world.

Imagine the realities of de facto segregation that exist in, say, Detroit intensified through enforced, de jure, forms of racist exclusion. That is essentially what you have in Jerusalem. Lofty discourses of “unity” and “liberated” spaces and “making the desert bloom” are consistent with other expressions of ideology that have been deployed in nearly all other colonial contexts. They can be every bit as powerful as tanks, F-16s and battleships because they normalize and naturalize a landscape of domination.

ATC: You did extensive field work in your research for the book, all over the city and its various communities. How does the on-the-ground feel of the city compare to the sense we might get from conventional media accounts?

TA: It’s remarkable how what is typically not said in most mainstream reporting — from Fox to NPR to Rachel Maddow — is every bit as crucial as what is said.

Those who rely on mainstream U.S. corporate media for information about Palestine/Israel will miss crucial dimensions of this conflict. And these are pretty crucial omissions that are not found nearly as often in the BBC, the French press, al-Jazeera, or other international media.

One example that I talk about in the book is the fact that the position of the entire international community (including the official position of the United States) regards Israel’s presence in East Jerusalem as illegal and unlawful under international law. How often did you hear that on CNN when their journalists were reporting the violence of the last three months?

No country recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, including the U.S. government. And yet, the U.S. government and Zionist organizations in the west have given Israel the means to build and expand Jewish settlements and steal Palestinian land here and elsewhere. I just read a report published in Israel’s main newspaper Ha’aretz that some $200 million dollars of donations are given by Americans to support the illegal settlements in places like East Jerusalem. And these donations are, in many cases, tax deductible. (

You ask about the realities on the ground of everyday life in the city that Colonial Jerusalem addresses. Well, one thing I discovered in the course of research was that human rights abuses are felt by occupier and occupied alike in ways that quantitative data in human rights reports can’t capture.

Those expressions of violence and cruelty, say of demolishing more than 25,000 Palestinian homes since 1967, have real human victims. These are civilians whose lives are often shattered by the destruction of their homes. Children who are beaten or tortured by Israeli settlers or soldiers are traumatized in unimaginable ways.

During my more than three years in Palestine/Israel, I was able to witness and document many of these everyday forms of domination as well as the resistance to them. I saw the ways fear, humiliation and violence under military occupation impact Palestinian children and adults, men and women, privileged and poor. They become in a sense spectators in their own life.

I saw how what the Marxist tradition refers to as reification — or, the “thingification” of human beings — occurs in Jerusalem under Israeli military occupation. You can begin to understand where the anger comes from among Palestinians when you see, as I did innumerable times, the daily ways in which they are humiliated. I mentioned before that even some Israeli generals understand that the upsurge in Palestinian protest and (at times) violence against Israelis has a great deal to do with the way Palestinians are treated in their everyday lives.

It was almost impossible to walk the city for any substantial length of time before witnessing some act of abuse by Israeli soldiers or settlers. There are certainly Israelis — even soldiers — who refuse to engage in these practices — some Israeli men and women refuse to serve in the IDF altogether. But the larger structures of military culture, ethos and practice make acts of domination and humilitation part of the encounter between colonizer and colonized. Those acts of cruelty and abuse were difficult to witness but also difficult to miss.

Gender relations, and the particular ways in which men and women in Palestine experience Israeli colonial policies differently, required that I really pay attention to micro-occurrences, the daily lives of those who labor and toil just to survive.

I have serious disagreements with much of the emphases and theoretical trajectories of mainstream, elite anthropology. But I have to agree with the general sentiment among more traditional, conservative ethnographers that witnessing and observing and living within the communities you are writing about for great periods of time allows you to gather information about social relations that really can’t be gotten in any other way.

You can read statistical information that provides a general, more global understanding of Israeli colonial governance. But there is nothing like being there to challenge your own assumptions. I’m fortunate to have been able to live in Palestine and conduct research there for more than three years.

The Politics of Theology

ATC: People get the impression that what’s happening is basically a religious dispute over the “holy sites” of the Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif, al-Aqsa mosque and so on. How do you read this aspect of the situation?

TA: There is, of course, a religious dimension to the Palestine/Israel conflict. Religious and nationalist ideologies — particularly Israeli and Christian Zionists claims to Jerusalem — have drawn from that great body of religious myth. And this, what I call, the “weaponization of myth” relies on reading the Bible as history to lend legitimacy to colonial domination.

However, this is not a religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. It is primarily a struggle over land and resources between competing national groups. Various religious communities and sects had lived in this city together fairly peacefully for hundreds of years before the rise of British and Israeli colonial rule.

It is vital not to romanticize the past, but it is the case that until the late British colonial era and the birth of Israel, there were far more productive and peaceful intercommunal encounters than exist today. Describing the present colonial context as essentially “religious” conflict has the ideological effect of making this struggle and the violence that defines it “age old” and “eternal,” the product of animosities dating back to Biblical times.

This is no less a myth than that of King David, Moses, and the narratives around the life and times of Jesus. It hasn’t been until the Israeli period that vast areas of the city and the country have been made off limits to particular peoples on the basis of religion. But how many people who refer to this conflict as a “religious” one talk about the fact that the vast majority of Palestinian Christians and Muslims are not permitted to even visit Jerusalem today?

ATC: There’s talk about a “Third Intifada.” But while intifadas can start spontaneously — as the first (1987) and second (2000) in fact did — they have to develop organization and leadership in order to continue or accomplish anything. And individual stabbing attacks are not sustainable in any case. Do you see a potential for this to develop into a Palestinian uprising — and in any case, is that even predictable?

TA: I would take issue with the statement that the first Intifada began spontaneously. Forms of anti-colonial resistance date back to the advent of Israeli rule in East Jerusalem in 1967. As we get further and further away from the period of the First Intifada (1987-2003), we can see how remarkable was that organization and leadership.

But leaving that aside, you are correct to say that revolts and rebellions that take on a mass shape are always at least somewhat spontaneous. And I agree that sustained mass mobilization requires a coherent widely shared vision. The individuals that were capable of providing a more progressive or radical politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s have to a significant extent been killed, imprisoned, or since the Oslo Accords bought off and demoralized.

In my opinion, the true leaders of Palestinian society during the incredible First Intifada were undermined by the so-called national leadership in Tunis in the early 1990s. Arafat and others began to worry that they would be pushed to the side by leaders and activists who were leading the intifada and transforming Palestinian society from within.

The result was the forging of the Oslo process that permitted Arafat to return to Palestine and Fatah to secure control over those under their authority. One brilliant Palestinian analyst I spoke to in the late 1990s described Oslo as “Arafat trading his people for a crown.” I find it hard to disagree with this assessment.

Liberating Prospects

Today the more principled, radical Palestinian leaders — men and women, younger and older generations, refugees and non-refugees — must contend not only with Israeli oppression but also with the U.S.-trained security services of the so-called Palestinian Authority.

Some, like Palestinian sociologist Salim Tamari, have discussed why there was not a similar “Arab Spring” in Palestine against their own bourgosie. The answer seems to be that Palestinians living under Israeli rule still regard them as their primary problem.But returning to your question about leadership: Many perceptive Palestinian activists who are aware of what is happening on the ground, who are there organizing resistance to Israel, talk of a new oppositional and even revolutionary energy among younger generations of Palestinians, a kind of revolt that could surprise many in the coming months.

As a witness to the brilliance of the First Intifada and the disasters of the Second Intifada, I’ve become convinced that if the Palestinians are mobilized with a coherent political vision and with a principled leadership, Israel doesn’t stand a chance politically.

This might seem naïve to some who know little or nothing about the First Intifada (which includes, sadly, most Americans involved in Palestine solidarity work today). But victory and national liberation in our present colonial moment will not mean military victory over the Israeli army. It will consist of building both a distinctly Palestinian liberation movement in Palestine, aided by an international solidarity movement that pressures governments like the United States and corporations like Veolia and Motorola to end their complicity with Israeli colonialism.

ATC: What exactly is meant by “Jerusalem” these days in the context of what Israel is calling “Greater Jerusalem” and “Metropolitan Jerusalem”? And what’s the significance of Jerusalem for Palestinian society and aspirations? What’s the main thing you learned for yourself from researching and writing this book?

TA: As I said before, a central concern of Colonial Jerusalem is to show how this city said by Israeli authorities to be “eternal” and “immutable” has been continually reconfigured and radically altered by those who have ruled it the last several decades.

The major changes to Jerusalem territorially and demographically have been made by the Israeli authorities in just the last five decades. This was done by expelling nearly all of the 40,000 Palestinians of what became “West Jerusalem” in 1948-49. It has been continued since 1967 largely through the racial and chauvinist vision that has endlessly sought to exclude Arabs from the city. In the book I talk about several of the ways this has been done.

I have to say that the crucial thing I learned during the course of the research was how little I knew about the city. Any writer who claims that their basic assumptions weren’t challenged during their research didn’t conduct that research successfully, in my view.

You can, as I did, read extensively about Jerusalem and pour over statistical data and maps and other material before starting, but I learned that it was really through witnessing and hearing about the everyday lived realities of Palestinians and Israelis that you begin to see how urban space is regulated and redefined and contested.

March-April 2016, ATC 181