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Critical Counterinsurgency and Zionism

Photo: Free Derry/ Palestine (crop), by Ktoma. CC BY-SA 3.0

When the Tree rises up, the branches
Shall flourish green and fresh in the sun
The laughter of the Tree shall leaf
Beneath the sun
And birds shall return
Undoubtedly, the birds shall return.

            —Fadwa Tuqan, from “The Deluge and the Tree”


The very title of Adam Shatz’s most recent, unfortunate piece of writing announces itself clearly as Zionist apologia. “Israel’s Descent” invokes Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) thereby establishing an idea of evolution and progression linked to the entity of Israel. Admittedly, Shatz (or the London Review of Books—whoever is responsible for this title) is suggesting a descent in the opposite direction to Darwin’s civilizational “progression,” but rhetorical sleights of hand are common in Shatz’s writing.

The idea the title implants is that Israel has somehow slid backwards in a teleological scheme, and that, therefore, it began as something better than what we have witnessed since October 7, namely a fully unleashed, genocidal force dedicated to annihilating Palestinian people, their land, and all its life. The title suggests that Israel has regressed and become closer to Darwin’s “savages.” Such cultural ideas drive the Zionism that the piece so thoroughly, in the end, defends—eugenicist White supremacy fulfilled by settler colonialism. Its framing obscures the fact that there has been an “Ongoing Palestinian Nakba” since 1948, as Cheikh Niang, Chair of the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, noted on May 17. Palestinian testimony over decades amply supports this:

Since 1948, our lives have been marked by adversity. Initially displaced to Gaza, we have since witnessed a series of attacks and wars initiated by Israeli forces.

Ouda Abu Haddaf  and Jaber Shaban

There is a false temporality, then, to the title “Israel’s Descent”: Israel has been genocidal since its establishment in 1948 and was preceded by mass expulsions of Palestinians by the British. There was never a moral plinth from which to descend. The title repeats the “pattern of racial exclusiveness and self-segregation” that Fayez Sayegh tells us characterizes the Zionist state.[1] Why should we be more concerned with Israel’s depravity than with the Palestinians who endure its consequences?

Put alongside his previous article (with its even more embarrassing title) and, more broadly in the context of proliferating defences of a “cultural Zionism” somehow separate to settler colonialism, we must read Shatz’s writing as part of a wider discursive agenda. Zionist critical counterinsurgency is designed to obstruct the growing global support for Palestinian resistance and liberation, to rewrite the narrative of Israel’s decades of genocide, and to rescue Zionism, rather than Palestinians, from the rubble of Israeli destruction.

Haitian historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot (whom Shatz is fond of quoting) states that “power is constitutive of the story” in historiography.[2] We see a battle for power over the narrative fast at work—now that there can be no possible defence of Israel, credibly accused of genocide and war crimes by the ICJ and by the UN inquiry of 12 June respectively, but, most importantly, by the annihilation streamed to the world daily by the people of Gaza. The chorus insisting on recent events as an aberration ironically seems to aim to mitigate the damage to Israel caused by its genocide, rather ending the killing and sufferings of its victims, the Palestinian people.

If this seems an overly intensive reading of the article’s title, blame it on the fact that I am an English professor. Close reading is my trade. Moreover, as a scholar informed by anti-colonial theory, Caribbean and Black thinkers, and Black Atlantic writers, and as someone raised in two places birthed by colonial domination—Trinidad and the North of Ireland, I am very attuned to reading through the lies of colonizers and racists. I have had to live with so many of them. There is a world of difference between “Northern Ireland” and “the Six Counties,” or between “Derry” and “Londonderry,” precisely because colonizers use the power of naming to dominate. Arthur Balfour, who wrote the 1917 Declaration devastatingly “giving” Palestine over as a Jewish homeland, was also the Chief Secretary of Ireland. Like Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, Balfour was a noted antisemite. Colonized peoples read and listen closely to the oppressor’s language.

A close reading of Shatz’s syntax and word choice reveals what is really at stake—the discursive structures of Zionist apologia. “Could the history of Zionism have turned out otherwise?” Shatz asks, inviting us to muse with him that it might have (and perhaps still could). To see through such rhetorical manoeuvres, look no further than the extravagant lies of the US. While claiming to want “peace,” the US has fully armed Israel to enact genocide over decades, has insisted on “red lines” only to erase them, has claimed Hamas never proposed a ceasefire, and then blamed Hamas for not accepting something Hamas wrote and accepted. Lies are the basis of settler entities.

Consider this sentence by Shatz, which is preceded by robust criticism of individuals in the Israeli government:

What we are witnessing in Gaza is something more than the most murderous chapter in the history of Israel-Palestine: it is the culmination of the 1948 Nakba and the transformation of Israel, a state that once provided a sanctuary for survivors of the death camps, into a nation guilty of genocide.

Note the construction “Israel-Palestine,” which uses punctuation and syntactical word order to repeat the segregationism of Zionism. Note the hyphen both conjoining and separating, while asserting putative balance and equivalence between the settler state and the occupied Indigenous nation. The concern is for Israel’s guilt (its descent), framed as a deviation from its originally peaceful purpose of “sanctuary.” The victims of Israel’s genocide in Gaza over 76 years are nudged aside by the sentence’s focus on Holocaust survivors. The tensions of this narrative produce an oxymoronic relation between “transformation,” an ongoing process, and  “culmination” as teleological conclusion, revealing that Shatz’s language cannot fully rescue Israel from its own history. These syntactical contortions and acts of violence are ubiquitous in corporate Western media.

Throughout the piece, Israel is centered. The first three words, “When Ariel Sharon,” immediately set it up as a strident critique of Israel’s “violence.” The second paragraph begins with “The Israeli government” and ends with “Benjamin Netanyahu.” So while copious sentences detail the violence of the settler state in what seems a frank and fair manner, the focus is clear; attribution of Israel’s crimes to its current government, rather than a critique of the Zionist entity in itself as the root cause of all these atrocities. The violence inherent in Shatz’s piece lies in its lengthy descriptions of what Palestine is enduring, which serve as a shield for Zionist apologism.

Hiding in plain sight is Shatz’s affirmation of “another, dissident Zionism, a ‘cultural Zionism’ that advocated the creation of a binational state based on Arab-Jewish co-operation.” Here is the nub: “no-one colonizes innocently,” as Aimé Césaire tells us.[3] The rejection of Zionism by Hans Kohn—whom Shatz cites to defend a “binational” Israel—in his resignation letter of 1929,[4] makes clear that settling was the first violence: “We have been in Palestine for twelve years [i.e., since the establishment of the British Mandate and Jewish National Home in Palestine] without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people.” If a co-operative, binational state had been created, it would still have been a settler-colonial state, based on the land theft and ethnic cleansing necessary for all settler states, including Canada from where I write. In the North of Ireland, we have moved from the outright domination of a Loyalist majority to a “peaceful” interim under the Good Friday Agreement. But there is no question that the border must be abolished, and a United Ireland allowed to emerge. The settler state has to go.

Repeatedly, Shatz “balances” his sentences via the device of antithesis. Even when he appears to criticize Zionism, he presents its arguments as still legitimate: “What many Zionists hear as a call to ethnic cleansing or genocide is, for most Palestinians, a call for an end to Jewish supremacy over the entirety of the land—an end to conditions of total unfreedom.” The modifiers of “entirety” and "total" keep in place a Zionist state. As anyone who has been asked to study Alexander Pope’s oppositions will attest, reading the politics of such structures is basic literary criticism: anyone who has a clear-eyed view of the entire history of the genocide knows it has been has been marked by fatal bothsidesism which is, in fact, wholeheartedly Zionist in intent. Oppositions as putative balance are Shatz’s specialism. He makes the familiar but dangerous equation between resistance (designed to stop colonial violence) and genocide (designed to eradicate a people): “The far left’s denial that Hamas committed any atrocities on 7 October is mirrored by the genocide denialism of American Jews.” Edward Said named the mirroring “hypocrisy” of discursive balance decades ago: “In sheer numerical terms, in brute numbers of bodies and property destroyed, there is absolutely nothing to compare between what Zionism has done to Palestinians and what, in retaliation, Palestinians have done to Zionists.”[5]

At times, Shatz’s legitimizing of the Zionist viewpoint moves away entirely from the subtle. Having on the one hand decried Israel’s “wanton killing of thousands of women and children,” he later poses the stand-alone sentence: “The question is how many Palestinian children must die before Israelis feel safe—or whether Israeli Jews regard the removal of the Palestinian population as a necessary condition of their security.” Palestinians are insidiously cast here as inherently antisemitic, when in fact they did not chose the identity of their colonizers. Israeli definitions of their safety that require the death of Palestinian children as a racially coded threat are, tragically, not merely rhetorical. Israel has slaughtered over 15,000 children in 250 days. Israeli public figures have explicitly called for their deaths.

For Shatz to suggest that any Jewish person (as opposed to an Israeli citizen) might require the death of children in order to be safe slides into the antisemitism that is fundamental to Zionism, and most clearly expressed in Herzl’s Mauschel (1897). It becomes difficult for Shatz to justify Zionism without antisemitic language: “Zionism’s original ambition was to transform Jews into historical actors: sovereign, legitimate, endowed with a sense of power and agency.” If positing that colonial domination via the state is the beginning of history, legitimacy, and agency for Jewish people, then such antisemitism conjoins with Shatz’s anti-Palestinianism in his settler advocacy. Are diasporic peoples not “legitimate”? Were not the Jewish and Arab people who lived in Palestine for thousands of years before Israel was formed "legitimate"? The entire piece is Zionist counterinsurgency disguised as reason, as balance, as historically accurate. It is none of those things. If people miss the wider thrust of seeming liberal, even left, support for a Zionism that might somehow be rescued from genocidal material reality, it is because anti-Palestinian racism remains the normative lens for many.

KERRY SINANAN is Assistant Professor in pre-1800 Global Literature and Culture at the University of Winnipeg. Her scholarship focuses on the Black Atlantic, Caribbean slavery and race, and the global dimensions of Black resistance and abolition, up to the present.


[1] Fayez, Sayegh, Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, (Research Center, Palestinian Liberation Organization: Beirut, Lebanon, 1965), 19.

[2] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Beacon Press: Boston Massachusetts, 1995), 28

[3] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham (Monthly Review Press: New York, 1972/2000), 39.

[4] Reprinted in Martin Buber, A Land of Two Peoples. Martin Buber on Jews and Arabs. Ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr (Univ. of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1983/2005), 97-100.

[5] Edward W. Said, The Question of Palestine, (Vintage Books, Random House: New York, 1979), x.


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