Restoring the Past Won’t Liberate Palestine

Amid the graphic images, fierce polemics and endless media criticism that have dominated my social media feeds since the war in Gaza began late last year, I noticed a seemingly bizarre subplot emerge: skin cancer in Israel.

“You are not Indigenous if your body cannot tolerate the area’s climate,” one such post read, highlighting outdated news coverage claiming that Israelis had unusually high rates of skin cancer. (They do not.) Skin cancer, these posts claimed, was proof that Israeli Jews were not native to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea but are in fact white Europeans with no ancestral connection to the region, enactors of one of the worst crimes of the modern age: settler colonialism.

On one level, the claims about skin cancer — like similar ones about Israeli cuisine and surnames — are silly social media talking points from keyboard warriors slinging hashtags, hyped up on theories of liberation based on memes of Frantz Fanon quotes taken out of context. In the context of the ongoing slaughter in Gaza — more than 28,000 people dead, mostly women and children — such posturing may seem trivial. But even, or maybe especially, at this moment, when things are so grim, the way we talk about liberation matters. And I find this kind of talk revealing of a larger trend on the left these days, emanating from important and complex theories in the academy but reflected in crude and reductive forms in the memes and slogans at pro-Palestine protests — an increasingly rigid set of ideas about the interloping colonizer and the Indigenous colonized. In this analysis, there are two kinds of people: those who are native to a land and those who settle it, displacing the original inhabitants. Those identities are fixed, essential, eternal.

I have spent much of my life and career living and working among formerly colonized peoples attempting to forge a path for themselves in the aftermath of empire. The rapacious carving up of much of the globe and the genocide and enslavement of millions of people by a handful of European powers for their own enrichment was the great crime of early modernity. The icons who threw off the yoke of colonial oppression — including Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru and Fanon — were my childhood heroes, and they remain my intellectual lodestars. But I sometimes struggle to recognize their spirit and ideas in the way we talk about decolonization today, with its emphasis on determining who is and who is not an Indigenous inhabitant of the lands known as Israel and Palestine.

A good deal of the antipathy toward Israeli Jews today is undergirded and enabled, I believe, by something that to some ears sounds progressive: the idea that people and lands that have been colonized must be returned to their indigenous peoples and original state. But that belief, when taken literally, is at best a kind of left-wing originalism, a utopian politics that believes the past answers all the questions of the present. At worst it is a left-wing echo to the ancestral fantasies of the far right, in which who is allowed to live in which places is a question of the connection of one’s blood to a particular patch of soil.

Implicit in the emphasis on indigeneity is a promised restoration, albeit one of a very different sort from the imperial fantasies of Vladimir Putin or the gender obsessions of Ron DeSantis. Decolonization “is not converting Indigenous politics to a Western doctrine of liberation; it is not a philanthropic process of ‘helping’ the at-risk and alleviating suffering; it is not a generic term for struggle against oppressive conditions and outcomes,” as the scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang write in an influential academic paper published in 2012, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.”

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