Int J Polit Cult Soc (2009) 22:105–116 DOI 10.


Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli “Thing Without a Name”
Lev Luis Grinberg

Published online: 21 March 2009 # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009

Abstract This paper criticizes the words used to critique Israeli repression of Palestinians as ineffective for political struggle and not critical enough. It argues that there is no single word able to comprehend the phenomenon of constant dispossession, violent repression, and righteous blaming of Palestinian resistance as terror. Unable to suggest one comprehensive concept that can at once describe, analyze, and criticize the phenomenon, scholars use inappropriate existing terms—like occupation, Apartheid, colonialism, and Zionism—or invent new words like ethnocracy, politiciside, Bantustine, spaciocide, sociocide, or symbolic genocide. All the concepts are discussed in the paper; it is argued that they are partially correct, but not totally comprehensive. The paper aims to uncover the sophisticated regime that can co-opt every critical word, and present always Israel as a democratic and enlightened regime, a victim of Palestinian violence. It claims that the incapacity to create a critical language is one of the obstacles to develop effective resistance to the regime. Keywords Zionism . Israeli occupation . Palestinian resistance . Israeli-Palestinian conflict In August 1967, 2 months after Israel expanded its borders during the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, leaders of the ruling Labor party had an interesting discussion about future control of the newly conquered territories then referred to as “the administered territories.” Prime Minister Levi Eshkol told Foreign Minister Golda Meir that he understood that “she is pleased with the dowry, but not with the bride.” The lusted after dowry was the land, the “territories.” The undesired bride was the human component of the recent conquest: the Palestinians. “That’s truly the case,” Meir responded, “but have you ever seen anyone receive a dowry without a bride?…

These ideas were first presented at a conference on “Colonialism and Post-Colonialism in Israel” held at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem on 20–21 March 2005. A previous version was first published in Hebrew under the title “The Rejected Bride: the Word Poverty of the Resistance to the Occupation” in Theory and Criticism 27 (2005) 187–196. The Hebrew original version was written in the context of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, but in light of the recent Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip I decided to make the necessary updates and to publish it here in English. L. L. Grinberg (*) Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ben Gurion University in the Negev, PoB. 653, Beer Sheva 84105, Israel e-mail:



Nonetheless, that’s what we all want. I would like nothing more than to receive the dowry and to have someone else receive the bride… But the two things go hand in hand” (Beilin 1985, 46). This is how Israel deals with the Palestinians; it tries to separate the bride from her dowry, to force a relationship on the bride, and to illegally appropriate her dowry out of wedlock. The illegality of Israel’s actions is structured by the state’s relationship with the Palestinians. There has been no wedding, and there are no plans to get married. This is the thing without a name: the continuous process of stealing the dowry out of wedlock and hiding the illegal action by portraying it as temporary. During this process, the bride is stripped of her dowry, her movements are restricted, she is imprisoned to prevent her from interfering, and her resistance against the actions of her abusive husband is publicly portrayed as aggression.1 What can we call this process? In the absence of more suitable terminology, I will refer to it as the Thing Without a Name. The fact that we have no words to define the relationship between Israel and Palestine is the main political problem facing opponents of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. The absence of words indicates that there is no consensus regarding neither the meaning of the process nor the struggle against it. How is it possible to oppose something that does not even have a name? How is it possible to understand it and change it? Critical language needs to be able to assign meaning, determine responsibility, and rectify injustice. However, every subversive word that exposes and condemns the intention and meaning of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian context is sterilized, taken out of political context, and stripped of its true meaning the moment it emerges. The words we use disguise the ongoing process of dowry theft, the silencing and humiliation of the bride, and the destruction of her future. The bride’s desire to keep her property is not considered as a given, and her protests are portrayed as aggressive and unjust. We have no words to describe this complex, unconscious, and sophisticated process. All our words become complicit to the concealment, and this, in turn, makes us complicit to the concealment. The Thing Without a Name co-opts the Israeli opposition. Every act of political resistance becomes an expression of the “enlightened Israeli democracy,” and these very efforts of resistance ultimately help legitimize the Thing Without a Name. We have no words to critique this process of humiliation and theft, in which Israel portrays itself as the victim and the bride as the violent, uncivilized, and irrational aggressor. Israel describes itself as an enlightened democracy—“the only democracy in the Middle East”—and regards “them” as having a tyrannical, corrupt, and violent regime aimed at harming the Jews and casting them into the sea for no reason. According to this geographical dichotomy, “here” there is democracy and “there” there is military rule. However in reality, the imagined line between the two is crossed again and again.2 On both sides of the border, Jews have privileges and Palestinians are denied equal rights. The state, however, distinguishes between the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip (since 2005), and those living as refugees in areas outside of Israeli control (since 1948). These divisions and classifications enable Israel to deconstruct the Palestinian people, and to present itself as having no partner for dialogue in order to stem the violence and negotiate a political solution. Jews on the “democratic” side of the border gain from the Palestinian dispossession and are called upon by the same democracy to serve in the armed forces outside of Israel’s borders in order to “defend” the occupation. The illusion of the border maintains the illusion of Israel as a

1 Neve Gordon (2007) also employed Eshkol’s metaphor to refer to the Palestinians’ separation from their lands as a mean of military control. 2

Grinberg (2008, 2009).

Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli…


democratic state. This, however, is an “imagined democracy.”3 After all, if it were not for the border, no one would ever dream of claiming that the regime governing the area under Israeli control is democratic. “Disengagement” from “Occupied” Gaza The Thing Without a Name is not exactly “apartheid,” but it is also not “occupation.” These two terms are broadly employed in efforts to condemn Israeli control and racial discrimination, but neither successfully comprehends, describes, or analyzes the phenomenon in its full meaning. For this reason, the terms fail to delineate a path for struggling against it. It is not apartheid, in which one particular group is marked, separated, and stripped of its collective rights. In such cases, the political goal is clear and agreed upon: one man–one vote, namely the dismantling of the racist regime and the provision of equal rights and democracy. But the Thing Without a Name distinguishes between different groups of Palestinians, some of which live in conditions that are more favorable than apartheid. These are the Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose limited civil and political rights enable them to advance democratic demands for full equality. Each of the other Palestinian groups has different demands stemming from its unique conditions: those living outside the borders of Israeli control demand the right of return; those living under military rule demand independent statehood; and those imprisoned within the Gaza Strip demand control over their borders. This division of the Palestinian people into subgroups keeps them from waging a united national struggle for independence. It also deprives Jewish citizens of Israel of the ability to support their struggle, as did many whites citizens of South Africa. The Thing Without a Name is not exactly an occupation, that is, according to the acceptable meaning of the term. An occupation regime is the result of war and under international law is defined as temporary. If it were clear that this was a case of belligerent occupation, the international community would be obligated to put the Israeli government leadership on trial, as most of its actions are prohibited under international law. This is true of the establishment of settlements; collective punishment; house demolitions; restrictions on movement; the construction of the separation barrier; and the killing of civilians and political leaders.4 If either international or Israeli public opinion viewed Israeli control in “the territories” as an occupation, then acts of Palestinian resistance would need to be considered legitimate, and not acts of “terrorism.” The Thing Without a Name, and that is neither apartheid nor occupation, paralyzes and frustrates all strategies of resistance—Israeli strategies, Palestinian strategies, and most of all joint bi-national strategies.5 The absence of a political strategy of resistance is reflected in our inability to Name the Thing that is being resisted. The opposite is also true: the absence of a name makes it more difficult to develop a political strategy of resistance. Since 1967, the Thing Without a Name refers to itself as a “Jewish and Democratic State.”6 Within the framework of this state, the bride is not only unwanted but is also dangerous: after all, she is now pregnant and presents a “demographic threat.” It is striking, however, that those Jewish Israelis who regard themselves as in the “the peace camp” speak in terms of a demographic threat as well, thereby adopting the language of Levy Eshkol and
3 4 5 6

Grinberg (1999). For a discussion of the illegality of Israel’s actions, see: Kretzmer (2002); Negbi (2004); Hajjar (2005). On the lack of political strategy for the bi-national idea, see: Raz-Karkotzkin (2007). See Smooha (1993).



Golda Meir with regard to the unwanted bride. As long as this is the language employed by Israeli supporters of the peace process, there is no chance of forging a political partnership between Jews and Palestinians in the struggle for fair and equal relations, whether in the form of a fair divorce (a “two state solution”) or a legal marriage (a “one state solution”). No words are adequate. This is because they are always disconnected from their political and historical context and serve to conceal the oppression of the bride and the theft of her dowry. Consider, for example, the term “Palestinian state.” The moment that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accepted the Road Map and announced his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state, it became clear that this state had become yet another means of camouflaging the continued theft of the dowry. The political meaning of statehood is sovereignty over territory and an army capable of defending it (Tilly 1992; Weber 1964). No one, however, is offering the Palestinians a state according to this definition of the term. Words have power. They mobilize people and create reality, emotions, and identification. However, when they are emasculated and taken out of context, they weaken, create illusions, and de-politicize. Consider for example the power of the word “disengagement,” which was used by the Israeli authorities to refer to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. “Silence—we’re disengaging,” they said in 2005. We cannot talk about anything—not political issues, and especially not the disengagement itself, its unilateral nature, or the disaster likely to follow if it is not carried out within the framework of an agreement with the regime on the other side of the border.7 When Ariel Sharon started speaking in the language of those known as “opponents of the occupation,” he co-opted them, turned them into part of the pro-disengagement camp, and transformed himself into “a man of the peace camp.” Sharon began using many “words of peace,” and his successors Olmert and Livni have followed the same tradition: “Palestinian state,” “withdrawal,” “evacuation of settlements,” “illegal outposts,” and “peace.” Sharon announced that “the occupation is bad for Israel,” and his words were automatically adopted as evidence that the peace camp was right, without examining the meaning of his reference to “occupation.” Later, it became clear that his aim was to control them from without, by creating giant ghettos and closely monitoring all entrances and exits. And the “peace camp” that supported the disengagement later supported the bombardment of Gaza and the killing of Palestinian citizens. The disengagement plan caught supporters of peace and opponents of the occupation in the sticky web of word de-contextualization and the constant de-politicization and concealment of Israel’s acts of theft and humiliation. The enthusiasm produced by Sharon’s statements and by the disengagement plan illustrated the structural difficulties involved with resisting this evasive regime, as long as it has no name—that is, as long as we are unable to accurately define the controlling regime and the political enemy. Without a name, we cannot define who “we” are and who “they” are. It is impossible to mobilize participants in a struggle against or to successfully delegitimize something that we are not even able to call by name. This regime leaves the Palestinians with no effective legitimate strategies of resistance. Their use of violence is regarded as evidence that they want to kill us. It is referred to as “terrorism,” and the war against it is thus portrayed as legitimate. When they try to work diplomatically and to prevent violence, the theft continues uninterrupted and negotiations become a “process” without end. This is what happened during the 7 years of “imagined peace” (1993–2000) during which the Israeli government doubled the Israeli settler population in the territories, built “bypass roads” to ensure the free movement of settlers,


For an analysis of the unilateral feature of the withdrawal and the silencing of political debate, see Grinberg (2009, chapter 10).

Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli…


and split the Palestinian population of the West Bank into hundreds of isolated settlements.8 The imagined border also frustrates all Palestinian strategies: when they operate violently within the green-line, it proves that they want to “throw us into the sea” and that “we have no one to talk to.” The killing of settlers in the occupied territories, however, does not overly disturb most Israelis living within Israel’s sovereign borders. This is because such acts are regarded as happening “there” and harming “them”—“the settlers”—who are seen as tempting fate and taking a risk simply by living “there.” In other words, because Israelis imagine the state of Israel as democratic and sovereign within its pre-1967 borders, attacks within these borders are seen as Palestinian aggression requiring a response. Part of the problem lies in the illusion that a border actually exists, and that Jewish Israelis living within Israel’s sovereign borders are somehow not party to the crime being committed “there,” in “the territories.”

Academic Imagination and Political Irrelevance In an effort to free ourselves from the bear-hug of the regime that transforms us into partners in crime, many academics have suggested new words and concepts. Two salient examples are Yiftachel (2006) term “Ethnocracy” and Kimmerling (2003) term “politicide.” Ophir (2004) and Azoulay (2004) have referred to “the Camp” as a machine for “postponed purification.” In addition, Hanafi (2009) speaks of “spacio-cide,”9 Salah Abdel-Jawad uses the term “socio-cide” (Abdel-Jawad, unpublished paper, “Sociocide: A New Concept to Explain the Zionist and Israeli Policy toward the Palestinian People”), and Ghanim (2008) has suggested the term thanato-politics. Shenhav (2007) has questioned the existence of the green line altogether, arguing that “the occupation does not stop at roadblocks.” RazKarkotzkin (2007) has proposed a “bi-national” perspective, but acknowledges that this refers not to a political program but rather an alternative consciousness. Journalists have also joined in the “naming” effort: Eldar (2003), for example, has coined the term “Bantustine” to highlight the establishment of Bantustans in Palestine. Finally, my own academic work has led me to propose concepts such as “imagined democracy,” “imagined peace,” and “occupying democracy.”10 All of these efforts have been influenced by the post-modern and post-colonial theories that have flourished in Israel since the 1990s. However, although these theories focus primarily on the critique of words, language, and discourse, they have so far failed to liberate us from our crisis of words. We are the ones who are actually undergoing a process of “disengagement,” because we are closing ourselves up in the ivory tower of complex words, within a small, intimate, and condescending community of academics. All attempts to develop vocabulary capable of simultaneous analysis and condemnation begin and end as academic projects of individuals publishing articles for their own professional advancement. They do not penetrate public discourse, but rather remain disengaged, trapped inside the academic community. Our attempts to create vocabulary stem from the crisis of words facing the opposition to the occupation. Here is an example: I just used the word “occupation,” and in so doing I recreated the illusion of a border. I removed myself from “there” and unintentionally
8 9

See Gordon (2008).

Adi Ophir, Ariella Azoulay, and Sari Hanafi presented their ideas at a conference on “The Politics of Humanitarian Aid to the Occupied Territories,” held at the Van-Leer Institute in Jerusalem on 20–21 April 2004. See: Grinberg (1999; 2000a; 2000b; 2008). In more polemical forums, I have proposed additional concepts such as State Terrorism (2002a), BuSharon (2002b), and Symbolic Genocide (2004).




transformed myself into a partner in the deception of “the disengagement plan” and the Thing Without a Name. All the words we propose are emasculated and silenced and fail to emerge as part of a common language with collective, public, and political significance. Terms like “colonialism,” “colonization,” and “Zionism” are also incapable of explaining, describing, or challenging the complex reality of the situation. This is not exactly a case of colonialism, because there is no civilizing project. Israel does not intend to “modernize” the Palestinians, and is not converting them or transforming them into good citizens. In contrast to colonial regimes which attempt to profit from their control of distant regions, Israel neither invests “there” in roads or infrastructure for the “local population” nor establishes “there” enterprises that complement the Israeli economy. In fact, the opposite is true. It destroys infrastructure, buildings, and factories. However, the first and foremost difference between the Thing Without a Name and colonialism is the fact that Israel is separated from the “the territories” by neither sea nor border. Furthermore, there are no separate state apparatuses serving as a device of colonial control. As a result, there is nothing to facilitate an anti-colonial struggle aimed at expulsion of the foreign rulers, decolonization, and the creation of a post-colonial situation. It is also not a case of “colonization,” as there is no complete displacement of the Palestinian population as in Australia; no mass killing, as was the case in the USA; and no incorporation of the local population through the subordination of its existing framework, as in North and South Africa and South and Central America. If things had taken such a course, it would have been possible to struggle for democracy and equal rights with the European settlers, as in South Africa, or for independence and the expulsion of the settlers, as in Algeria. The blurring of the border and the division of the Palestinians into subgroups are salient features of the Thing Without a Name which prevent the struggle for liberation, as the result is that there is not only one regime to oppose.11 Neither is it a case of Zionism. Use of the term “Zionist” is a clear reflection of the crisis of words we face. The concept Zionism has become a fetish, a sort of codeword uttered by many in order to express the desire to shake off our co-option by words and by the Thing Without a Name. The critical use of the word Zionism expresses a legitimate desire to not belong to the thieving collective that is abusing the bride. However, the word Zionism also does not effectively describe the situation. In addition, in the eyes of the majority of the Israeli population which regards itself as Zionist and understands Zionism as patriotism and the negation of Zionism as negation of the existence of the state and of their right to collective existence, the term “Zionism” does not express sufficiently effective condemnation. Whenever we lack a term, we can use the word Zionism and it gives us the feeling that we have said something meaningful. In fact, however, we have said nothing at all. After all, the Jewish settlers’ desire to establish a national community in Eretz Israel (Palestine) did not have to lead teleologically to the monstrous form it presently takes, the Thing Without a Name. The early Zionist leaders would never have dreamed that their enterprise could lead to four decades of military rule, the assassination of political leaders from the air, and the bombardment of a civilian population on the basis of “self defense.” The Thing Without a Name is a concrete historical phenomenon, the result of the extremely unique sequence of events that has brought us to the present. Therefore, when we call the Thing Without a Name “Zionism”, we again take things out of political and historical context, de-politicize, and disengage from public discourse. Use of the word Zionism is therefore another attempt to escape the crisis of words and to withdraw into the closed community of “those who understand the language.”


In addition to my work on the duality of the regime (Grinberg 2008; 2009), see Azouly and Ophir (2008).

Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli…


“The Left” and “Peace” Once upon a time, this Thing had a name. It was called the “labor settlement movement” (tnuat ha-hityashvut ha-`ovedet)—a strange mixture of colonization and nation state building carried out in the name of socialism. Until 1948, labor settlement was the dominant force in the Zionist movement. As such, it shaped the segregated settlement strategy through which Jewish settlers aspired to control “the maximum area with the minimum number of Arabs.”12 Labor settlement is what attempted to dispossess the bride of its dowry even before 1948, and it is also what stole the dowry that remained after the Nakba. The industrialists, the citrus orchard owners, and the urban bourgeois did not aspire to achieve Jewish–Arab segregation, because they sought cheap labor (Shapira 1977). The same was true of the nationalist Revisionist movement, not for this reason but because they wanted to rule over both banks of the Jordan River (including modern day Jordan) and to this end were willing to grant the bride minimal rights of “cultural autonomy.”13 There were also proponents of “spiritual Zionism”—such as Ehad Ha’am, Martin Buber, and Yehuda Leib Magnes—who believed that it was not the state itself that was important, but rather the cultural community it housed (Heller 2003). All these groups opposed the metaphor of Eshkol and Golda, which guided the strategy of labor settlement based on the desire that “someone else” would take the bride and that “we” would retain the dowry. After 1967, Moshe Dayan suggested resolving Eshkol and Golda’s dilemma by means of a “functional division” of the West Bank: the Israeli army would control the area, while the Jordanian monarchy would control the people (only the Palestinians, of course; the Israeli army would “defend” the Israeli settlers). Historically and strategically, labor settlement suffered a crushing defeat. However, the period following 1967 witnessed the emergence of a complex situation that separated the labor movement and its supporters, the European middle classes within “the borders of sovereign Israel,” from the nationalist-religious settlers in the territories, who were still engaged in propagating the labor movement’s settlement strategy. In this way, the “labor settlement movement” underwent a metamorphosis: its biological heirs came to be referred to as “the left,” while those continuing its settlement practices came to be referred to as “the right.” This conceptual confusion has resulted in de-politicization, and has made it easier for those now referred to as “the left” to shake off responsibility for what the settlers of “the right” are doing to the Palestinians “there”, across the “border” of the “democratic” “state.” After all, “we” are not the “occupying settlers”—“they” are.14 After the Likud came to power in 1977, another word was dramatically transformed: “peace.” Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In addition to the agreement regarding the return of the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace, the two countries also agreed on a process that was supposed to lead to peace with the Palestinians. The agreement called for the establishment in the “territories” of a “Palestinian autonomy” to be administered by an elected council. The council would negotiate with the Israeli government regarding a permanent status agreement that was to be reached within 5 years. Since the peace treaty with Egypt, the term “peace process” has come to refer to the
12 13

Gershon Shafir (1993) explained the successful strategy of labor settlement as pure ethnic colonialism.

Zev Jabotinsky’s idea of granting cultural autonomy to the Arabs of Palestine was the source of Menachem Begin’s proposal during the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks of the late 1970s to grant cultural autonomy to the Palestinians in the occupied territories. The evolution of this idea resulted in the On the early period of the separation of the labor movement and the nationalist-religious settlers, see: Goremberg (2006). On the relationship between Gush Emunim and Peace Now, two movements delineating Israeli political discourse, see Feige (2002).




continued military control over the Palestinians, the theft of their land, and the delegitimization of their resistance. The standard association between the words “left” and “peace” is false and misleading. In the Israeli context, “left” is not a political concept but rather a cultural representation of the Sabra community, namely the secular offspring of European immigrants who were born in the country.15 The “imagined peace” of the “government of the left” (1992–1996) actually resulted in the doubling of construction in the settlements, the construction of “illegal outposts,” and the splintering of land through bypass roads, roadblocks, and the separation barrier. The imagined peace is what brought the “left” to call for the construction of the “separation barrier” and for the unilateral “disengagement” from Gaza. At the same time, they completely disregarded the route of the barrier and the fate of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the ghettos established beyond the “fences.”

Symbolic Genocide Our crisis of words became critical in the context of the repression of the Second Intifada and the almost complete absence of criticism and protest from the Israeli “left.” The absence of a broad political movement opposing Israel’s disproportionate use of violence, and the absence of a common goal among those opposing the repression, removed us from the public sphere and prevented us from speaking in public. Our lack of words silenced and paralyzed us. This silencing prevents not only our existence in the public sphere but the existence of a political community that opposes Israeli policies. As individuals and as groups of activists engaged in highly focused activities, we have words, but we do not exist as a movement with a unique critical voice. We do not exist as a political entity challenging the status quo and proposing an alternative way of thinking. After Israel’s occupation of the West Bank cities and the killing of hundreds of Palestinians in April 2002, a group of activists, intellectuals, and artists gathered in a Tel Aviv theater to protest the horrifying Israeli actions. However, despite the many speeches delivered, the most impressive participant was actor and director Muhammad Bakri. Bakri stood on the stage in silence for five minutes, as if trying to say something but actually not saying anything, until finally pronouncing the following words in Hebrew: “Blessed art Thou, who did not make me a Jew.”16 Indeed, in the name of protecting Jews, the Israeli government carries out terrible actions which have absolutely nothing to do with Judaism. What is it called? How can we explain and understand it? How can we condemn it? The Jews’ crisis of words is clear. Bakri also lacks words, but at least he was able to divest himself of responsibility for the actions of his country—Israel—against his people, the Palestinians. For a period of 3 years, I published articles abroad criticizing and condemning Israeli repression, but they were ignored in Israel.17 That is, until the publication of an article in Belgium condemning Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Yassin. My article sparked a particularly furious response due to its introduction of a pair of words that could not be co-opted—“symbolic genocide” (Grinberg 2004). The aggressive responses I received

15 16

On the cultural meaning of the terms “right” and “left,” see Grinberg (2009, chapter 7).

These words should be understood as analogous to the traditional Jewish prayer: “Blessed art Thou, who did not make me a woman.” Grinberg (2001, 2002a, 2002b, 2003a, 2003b).


Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli…


afforded me a first hand taste of the paralyzing violence of silencing.18 My attackers twisted my words, while my defenders argued that I had the right to express myself. At the same time, those close to me stated that they agreed with my political beliefs. However, the result of the silencing response to my article was that nobody paid any attention to its content. Why did my words cause such a storm? Why I had to be silenced? It seems to me that many people were outraged by my exposure of the link between the humiliation and dispossession of the Palestinians, and the ability to commit murder as if it were a legitimate act of self-defense in which Israel was the victim. Israel’s thieving and humiliating actions harm the Palestinian collective, its sense of pride, and its national sentiment. It also sparks demands for restoration of the rights of the imprisoned bride. Israel’s sense of victimization and its self portrayal as acting in its own defense has roots in a different time and place: 1940s Europe. In this way, it severs the oppression from its immediate political context. Since October 2000, symbolic genocide has become the most prominent feature of the Thing Without a Name. As I see it, the term symbolic genocide refers to all types of attacks against the things that symbolize a people and provide it with meaning and hope for the future: things such as land, community, children, youth, demonstrations, protest, activists, and leaders. It is an attempt to deprive the bride of all hope of getting married respectfully and of forging a relationship based on equality, or, alternatively, of getting a fair divorce and recovering her dowry. Such hope was created by the Oslo Accords, which for the first time enabled us to realistically imagine a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. However, Binyamin Netanyahu’s response to this hope was to lower Palestinian expectations. Symbolic genocide refers to the ongoing effort since October 2000 to create despair among the Palestinian people, and to convince them that they will never be able to release themselves from the control of the undesired, illegal husband who beats them and steals their property. Moshe Yaalon was Israel’s Chief of General Staff between 2002 and 2005, during the suppression of the Second Intifada, and in this capacity he headed the apparatus which generates the laundered vocabulary employed by the Israeli regime. According to him, the goal of the suppression was “to burn Palestinian consciousness.”19 I call this attempt to “burn Palestinian consciousness” a symbolic Genocide. After Israel failed to “burn Palestinian consciousness” and pulled its forces and settlers out of Gaza in 2005, it tried to “burn Hezbollah’s consciousness” in the summer of 2006. And after the failure in Lebanon, it tried again to “burn Hamas’ consciousness” in Gaza, in what I refer to as “Black January” 2009.20 The words “symbolic genocide” sparked such extreme responses because they stimulated one of the most sensitive nerves of Israeli society: the nerve that is the source of legitimacy of the Thing Without a Name. The source of legitimacy to rob the bride and accuse her of aggression is not simply colonial or imperial, and it stems neither from the white man’s arrogance over all others or the west’s sense of superiority over the east. Rather, what legitimizes the Thing Without a Name in Israel’s view is the fact that we, the victims of the Holocaust, are the ultimate a-historical victim of human history through the generations. To be clear, the Jews were one of the most serious victims of enlightened modern Europe and Christian nationalism (second only to the native peoples of the

Responses in the media continued for 2 months, between April and May 2004, and included an editorial in Haaretz (April 25, 2004) opposing the demand of Education Minister Limor Livnat that Ben-Gurion University fire me as a condition for her participation in a meeting of the Board of Trustees (Haaretz, April 22–23, 2004). This was the height of the silencing efforts, but the University administration decided to forego Livnat’s presence, and not to fire me (Haaretz April 25, 2004).
19 20

See Ya'alon interview with Ari Shavit “The Chief of Staff: Cause of Concern”, (Haaretz August 30, 2002). Grinberg (2009a).



American continent), and its intolerance to otherness. The Thing Without a Name portrays the Palestinians as part of this a-historical phenomenon of persecution of Jews simply because they are Jews, and in this way it negates their collective rights and casts them as a threat. It is not Zionism, and it is not something that existed in the 1930s or the 1950s. It is something harsh and crude invented and manipulated by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in order to legitimize the unpopular first Lebanon war, when he compared Arafat hiding in his bunker in Beirut to Hitler in Berlin. This became a myth around which Israeli identity, which was unraveling after the outbreak of the second Intifada in late 2000, has been able to crystallize.21 According to the religious myth, “in every generation they rise up to annihilate us.” Although the current modern meaning of this annihilation is anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Palestinian demands are also understood as attempts to wipe out the Jewish collective. This is how the Palestinian refugees’ demand for the right of return is portrayed. The same is true of the demand of Israel’s Palestinian citizens for a democratic state (“a state of all its citizens”) as well as the demand of those Palestinians living under military rule for an independent Palestinian state on 22% of the dowry, with its own army to defend itself. By employing the discourse of the Holocaust and portraying itself as a victim, Israel denies the international criticism of its policies and dismisses such criticism as an expression of anti-Semitism. This is not the result of a sense of colonial supremacy, but rather a combination of cynical propagandizing manipulation and real national trauma which serves to erase the bride, to portray her as murderous, and to justify abusing her. It enables us to utter the wish that she would just simply disappear (in the words of Yitzhak Rabin, “May Gaza be swallowed up by the sea.”) or that someone else would take her (Egyptian administration of the Gaza Strip). It is a built-in discomfort with the future: fear of the collective annihilation of the Jewish people translated into the national consensus, of both “left” and “right,” that the Palestinians constitute a “demographic threat.” Most Israeli Jews do not intend to live side by side with the bride in a relationship based on equality, and they are therefore unable to live in Israel–Palestine without living in conflict. The inability to come to terms with the Jewish past and with the terrible loss in Europe prevents us from looking at the situation with political pragmatism and from concentrating on the present and the future. We are neither “here” (Eretz Israel–Palestine) nor “there” (Europe). Either that, or we are in both places at once. This is the a-political nature of language—its disconnectedness from place and time. Immigration to Eretz Israel and belief in the right to steal the bride’s dowry are intrinsically linked to a collective sense of loss somewhere else, and to the fear of annihilation. Such feelings did not emerge in 1967. Rather, it emerged with the birth of antiSemitic nationalism in Europe and became a national trauma during World War II. Author and Palmah fighter Ben-Yehuda (1981, 181) provided a clear expression of the confusion between “here” and “there” in her article on the 1948 war: “We aimed our rifles at the Arabs, we pulled the triggers, and we killed Nazis.” The sense of self-justification and the link between the Jewish tragedy and the injustice suffered by the Palestinians was reflected in a Mapai leadership’s proposal to the German government during the 1950s. The proposal suggested that the Germans pay compensation not only to Holocaust survivors but to Palestinian refugees as well (Lustick 2005). Most Israelis view the Holocaust as the source of legitimacy for the establishment of the state of Israel, as well as for the ongoing, neverending, a-historic theft of the bride’s dowry. It is the responsibility of Germany’s Nazis and anti-Semitic Europe, the argument goes, not “ours.” We are the victims. For this reason, Europe cannot criticize Israel’s actions because it is the source of anti-Semitism. When Europe criticizes Israel, the meaning as fare as Israel is concerned is that Europe is still anti-Semitic.

See Grinberg 2009 (part IV).

Speechlessness: In Search of Language to Resist the Israeli…


How can we tell this story? How do we break it down? How can we talk about it without being immediately and aggressively silenced? How can we bring the Jews of Eretz Israel– Palestine back to reality, to the here and now, to concrete politics? How can we extract then from their a-historic war against those who wish to harm them? There are no certain answers to these questions, but it is clear that it must be a collective project that is intellectual, academic, and political all at the same time. Separating academics from politics severs critical thought from public debate, and makes it unrealistic, introspective, and devoid of influence. The task of creating critical language is to connect, not to disengage.

Connecting Words The difficulty in naming the Thing Without a Name is our inability to find a term that includes both the act of robbing the bride and the portrayal of the abusive husband as the victim of her resistance. All the critical terms that we academics invent (ethnocracy, politicide, Camp, Sociocide, Spaciocide, Bantustin, occupying democracy) or borrow from the political realm (occupation, colonialism, Zionism, peace, Palestinian state, green-line, militarism, colonization, apartheid) are only partially accurate, and do not effectively link description of the Thing Without a Name with analysis and condemnation. They cannot be connected to a political statement defining the struggle and creating collective identity. They are easily neutralized by proving them “incorrect” or by using them out of context. Actually, the terms that most successfully enable us to talk about the situation are Arabic terms generated during the Palestinian struggle: Intifada, Nakba, Tahadiya, Hudna. These are words which no military force has succeeded in suppressing, no politician has succeeded in co-opting, and no communications media has succeeded in ignoring. These terms are made more powerful when Hebrew speaking Jews use them, and this is why academics and political activists have started using Arabic terms: Ta`ayush (partnership), Tarabut (connections).22 Using the terminology of the Palestinian struggle connects Jews and Arabs and transforms bi-nationalism into a political strategy. My modest contribution to the struggle, interpreted as such in retrospect of my spontaneous speech, is the proposal of an additional link—a link between the horror and frustration experienced by the Jews of Europe, and their actions in Eretz Israel–Palestine. Thus, the term genocide, which refers to an event in a different place and time, becomes symbolic when it is carried out within the reality of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The Jewish ghetto which served to separate and mark Jews in Europe presently serves to separate, mark, humiliate, and control Palestinians here and now: the Gaza ghetto, the Ramallah ghetto, the Hebron ghetto, and the walls of the Palestine ghetto. It seems that, in order to liberate the Palestine ghetto, it is also necessary to release the Jews from the European ghetto, from which they have still yet to be fully liberated.

Azoulay, A. (2004). “On the Verge of the Catastrophe,” Unpublished Paper Presented in the Van Leer Conference: “The Politics of Humanitarianism in the Occupied Territories,” April 20–21, 2004. Azoulay, A., & Adi, O. (2008). This regime which is not one: occupation and democracy between the sea and the river (1967–). Tel Aviv: Resling.


See and



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