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Theses Doctoral

Disengaged Lives? Israel-Palestine and the Question of Superfluous Humanity

Cohen, Matan

The dissertation argues that we witness a contingent synergy in contemporary Israel-Palestine between an apparent functional superfluity of Palestinians, and Palestinian labor in particular, with respect to the interests of Israeli capitalists, and their disposability with respect to the identitarian logic of exclusionary ultra-nationalist and settler-colonial politics. Under a matrix of inclusion/exclusion, I propose, Palestinians are today superfluous in a double sense: as the unproductive of the capitalist system, and as the undesired racialized population beyond the pale of law.

I show how, with the withering of a majority of Palestinian workers from the labor market with the becoming capital rather than labor-intensive of the Israeli economy, and with the (unequal) opening of the global labor market that allowed for their substitution with migrant workers, Israel gradually but systematically began shedding its responsibility for the administered population, concomitantly with enforcing an ever greater control over their bodies and territory.

Thus, premised on a principle of minimal responsibility for and maximal control over its subject population, Israeli subjugation of Palestinians is based today on control beyond discipline, and de-capacitization of economic production beyond direct exploitation. Israeli arrangement, control, and management of space and movement today has as its aim to disengage Palestinians i.e., creating a space with the intention of minimizing unwanted encounters with, and responsibility for the subjugated population, while maintaining the highest possible degree of control over them. Predicated on the obviation of native labor as means for its economic flourishing, Israel’s separation regime has mostly expelled Palestinians from the circuits of production and, ostensibly, also from most Jewish Israelis’ conscious mind. No longer mediated to the same degree by the sort of engagements previously operative—be it in the sense of labor relations or cohabitation of public space—racial violence structurally distinct from, and potentially more intensive than that of “exploitative racism” is daily threatening to materialize.

This diagram of militarized capitalism, I suggest, illuminates a crisis of both the State of Israel and of late capitalism, insofar as both increasingly require excessive exercises of violence in order to self-preserve. If capitalism is said to produce its own gravediggers in the guise of the unemployed and the poor, in Israel capitalist elites mitigate the resulting antagonisms by turning increasingly to nurtured ethnonationalist sentiments and a racialized welfare state under a neoliberal mantel, thus alleviating pressures from itself and displacing dissatisfaction onto a criminalized Palestinian “Other.”

I propose that bringing about egalitarian forms of collective life in Israel/Palestine hinges not simply on the recognition of vulnerability, precarity and ontological interdependence as the sine qua non of the human condition (and thus as a foundation for ethical prescriptions and norms), but crucially also on engineering the (political) vulnerability of those structures, institutions and actors that are today in large measure invulnerable or immune to the claims and demands of anti-apartheid and anti-capitalist struggles. I suggest that such an effort would require a radical re-orientation of the unchosen adjacency between Palestinians and Israeli-Jews, and might be brought about vis-a-vis coalitional politics drawing on the remaining webs of interdependence across the segregated landscape of Israel-Palestine, working through the fundamental contradiction between Zionist territorial maximalism and the the imperative to reduce if not entirely avoid contact with Palestinians, and on multiple registers—from directly anticolonial struggles to those under a non-hegemonic articulation.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Thesis Advisors
Hochber, Gil
Mitchell, Timothy P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 20, 2020