Interweaving: Somdeep Sen on Race, Fieldwork, and Colonization in Israel/Palestine


Hebron (S. Sen)

by John Collins

As part of our occasional series of “Interweaving” conversations, I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Somdeep Sen, a Weave News blogger and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, regarding a number of issues related to his field research in Palestine/Israel. Our conversation touched on his experience of the politics of race and violence while in the field as well as his first-hand observations from Jerusalem and the West Bank regarding the current state of Israel's settler-colonial project. (All images courtesy of Somdeep Sen.)

JC: You’ve been to Palestine/Israel previously, but one of your latest visits came after the most recent large-scale Israeli assault on Gaza (the so-called “Operation Protective Edge”). It also came amidst growing concern about right-wing violence in Israel against Palestinians, immigrants and asylum seekers, and leftist Jews. What was the political climate while you were there, and how did you experience it as a South Asian visitor? 

Dr. Somdeep Sen

SS:  I am usually very hesitant to talk about my struggles conducting fieldwork in Israel. As a foreigner I am quite easily able to enter and leave the field and the moments of discomfort that I face while trying to navigate the political charged and highly securitized landscape of the Holy Land pales in comparison to the everyday struggles of Palestinians, immigrants, asylum seekers and leftist Jews. Flying into Ben Gurion airport I am almost ritually detained along with non-white immigrants and, of course, Palestinians. In this way, Israel is no different when it reminds me that my brown skin is unwanted and subject to suspicion.

But this time around, conducting fieldwork in Jerusalem in November and December, 2015, it seemed that the ‘thin veneer’ of decency that Israelis accorded to me, despite being of the same skin color as their mortal enemy (i.e. Palestinians), was lifted.  Every day I heard of stories of Palestinians being executed, sometimes merely on suspicion. As if suspicion is enough to justify elimination. Israeli politicians have encouraged citizens to carry guns for self-defense so it is not surprising that Israelis have taken on the responsibility to eliminate the suspicious.

Jerusalem (S. Sen)

But even in cases where Palestinians (usually teenagers) have attempted to stab Israelis and were consequently executed either by a civilian or a soldier, I was surprised by the ease with which Palestinians eliminated and the extent to which their lives were considered disposable. In late November I walked on to the scene soon after one of these attacks near Mahane Yehuda market. A bystander told me that a Palestinian teenager had been shot dead and the other was badly hurt. They were wielding a pair of scissors. But when I arrived I was shocked by the swiftness with which the place was being cleaned up and how quickly everyone had returned to normalcy. A Palestinian life was just lost but it didn’t matter. No one spared a thought to consider the life story that preceded the wielding of the scissors. Instead, the entire incident was being mopped up, literally - with the teenager’s bloodstain being washed off the street – and figuratively much like someone would dust a surface. It seemed Palestinian life was just as insignificant as dust.

Of course, being of the same color as people whose life was worthless to Israelis meant that I was not only suspicious but felt potentially susceptible to same ease with which Palestinians were eliminated. This feeling was constant. Walking around in West Jerusalem people would stare at me and scrutinize my every action. One day, while walking around in east Jerusalem, I was frisked five times. On top of this it seemed that everyone was carrying a gun. Being under such scrutiny then meant that I was constantly trying to preempt being treated suspiciously. This may sound stupid but I smiled more, hammed up my fake American accent. It felt like acting or a performance on stage and I was playing the role of the smiling, submissive, non-threatening, good brown guy.

It was especially interesting to interact with Palestinians around Israelis – say in a restaurant or market. I would refrain from using any Arabic greetings and they would speak Hebrew or English to me. It is funny because we are strangers to each other but somehow knew the ‘performance’ we needed to take part in, in order to survive. Sometimes, if we were alone (for instance, the Israeli customers in the shop had left) I would say, “Shukran” (thank you) and Palestinians would respond with almost a sigh of relief, as if saying “finally, we don’t have to pretend any more”.

JC: I recall that you wrote a first-person piece for the Weave several years ago on the subject of racism, xenophobia, and far-right politics in Hungary. How did your experience in Israel compare with that earlier experience?

SS: The two experiences are approximately 8 years apart, so it is difficult for me to recall exactly what I felt when being attacked by Neo-Nazis in Budapest. But I do remember is becoming hyperaware of how I was different – namely, the color of my skin – and of those to whom this difference mattered. For instance in Budapest, after my encounter with Neo-Nazis, I was constantly concerned about the ‘demographics’ of neighborhoods, bars and clubs and the possibility that I would face any sort of racism there. I had also become well-versed in Neo-Nazi apparel. I knew what kind of jackets, boots, emblems and hats the far-right wore and I avoided people who remotely ‘fit’ the profile.

In Jerusalem, I did the same. While searching for apartments to rent I spent a lot of time figuring out how religious/right-wing a neighborhood was and if Palestinians were attacked there. Walking around in Jerusalem I was very wary of civilians carrying guns and tried to be non-threatening – the good brown guy. Incidentally, I even got rid of a backpack I was using everyday on fieldwork that a friend said looked ‘terroristy’.

JC: How have these experiences shaped the kinds of questions that you are asking as a researcher as you investigate the politics of settler colonialism in Palestine/Israel?

Hebron (S. Sen)

SS: These experiences have made me much more aware of the propensity of the settler colonial project to eliminate the indigene and the extent to which the impulse to eliminate is not just a remnant of the distant past. Instead, it is an ongoing contemporary process that attempts to continuously efface the signature of Palestinians from historic Palestine – not least because while the settler colonial ‘dreamwork’ insists that the indigene doesn’t exist, the native persists and continuously fights and resists as a means of arguing the contrary. Of course, having been in Jerusalem in 2015 I witnessed the settler’s willingness to physically eliminate. But I also noticed that the effort to eliminate also took on several nondescript forms – specifically when it came to spatial planning in Jerusalem and the West Bank (which is the topic of my postdoc). I began exploring settler colonial spaces – be it a university campus in Jerusalem or a settlement in the West Bank – by asking ‘Where are the Palestinians?’ Often the answer, of course, is ‘Nowhere’. But this answer then subsequently allows me to explore the manner in which a people are rendered invisible even though they are ‘right there’, inhabiting the same space as the settler.

Beit Hanina (S. Sen)

JC: This close proximity of the two groups within the same space – with radically differing sorts of rights, privileges, and life changes under the colonial project – is why many analysts are using the term “apartheid” to describe the situation. Does this analogy make sense to you, given what you’ve observed first-hand and what you’ve learned through your research? And if it does make sense, does this make you more optimistic or less optimistic about the possibilities for decolonization?

SS: For me the analogy makes complete sense. The existence of an apartheid system is of course evident, as you have mentioned, in the drastically different rights and privileges that are granted to Palestinians when compared to Israelis. But during fieldwork I was also struck by the extent to which the settler colonial project and the system of apartheid that it puts in place hinges on ignoring the human being-ness of Palestinians – ignoring their human being-ness is probably what allows the settler to eliminate Palestinians with such ease.

The infrastructure that informs the settler colonial project can seem daunting and consequently any form of decolonization would seem improbable. Clearly, the occupation has been tenacious and Israel has, to an extent, been successful in constructing a compelling story around why it needs to exist in the manner in which it does.

Bethlehem (S. Sen)

But the potential of decolonization, to me, is evident in the way many in Israel have dropped all pretense of caring for the human being-ness of Palestinians, their lives, aspirations and well-being. This of course is nothing new for Palestinians who have always suspected that Israel wants to efface all evidence of their existence as a people, culture and history. It is probably why Palestinian resistance has been so persistent in some form or another. But the dropping of the pretense has the potential to begin the unraveling of the ideology that underlies the State of Israel – something that, I would argue, is necessary for the process of decolonization to commence.

To be fair, the far left in the country has been consistent in its anti-Zionist stance. But those that identify themselves as center/center-left Zionist have always been fundamentally convinced of the ‘goodness’ of the political project that Israel represents. These are the same people who limit the ‘problem’ of Israel to the occupation in the West Bank and the settlers. They are never willing to concede that the settlements are an extension of Zionism. They would say that Gaza is a problem because of the existence of Hamas but wouldn’t acknowledge that maybe the maintenance of the Gazans in a state of bare existence serves a purpose for Israel and its settler colonial project. Maybe now, looking at the ease with which Palestinians are being eliminated in Jerusalem, the lynching of the Eritrean man in Beersheba or the stabbing of an Israeli man mistakenly thought to be a Palestinian, they will be compelled to admit that the problem isn’t Hamas, Gazans, Palestinians, settlers or the Israeli far right. The problem may in fact lie in Zionism and the manner in which it colors the State of Israel.

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