Framing Palestine by Zahi Zalloua, May 6, 2024

The Philosophical Salon


Framing Palestine

By Zahi Zalloua



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The title of my essay, “Framing Palestine,” has a double meaning. First, I’m using “framing” to describe the ways we try to make sense of Palestine—more specifically, how we make sense of occupied Palestine as a site of violence, counter-violence, and nonviolence. Second, I’m using “framing” to describe how support for Palestinians is being willfully misrepresented by state officials, corporate media, and university administrators.[1] You’re “framed” as anti-Semitic; your speech for Palestinian liberation is simultaneously converted and distorted into hate speech.

Looking at violence critically requires a kind of counter-violence, the dismantling of a prior hermeneutic or interpretive framework. In the case of Palestine, what must be dismantled is what we might call a Zionist hermeneutic framework. What is a Zionist hermeneutic? A Zionist hermeneutic imagines historic Palestine as a Greater Israel in waiting. This is the land that is captured by the slogan “from the river to the sea.” The West Bank is not the West Bank—it is the land of Samaria and Judea as described in scripture.

A Zionist hermeneutic naturalizes its interpretive violence; it creates its own reality and context; it imagines historic Palestine as empty land. So, there is a basic level of symbolic violence that is essential to the workings of a Zionist hermeneutic. From within such an interpretive frame, you don’t see Palestinians, you only see nomads trespassing on the Holy Land of Israel. Even if the rest of the world recognizes the existence of Palestinians as referring to a people, Palestinianness as such, under a Zionist gaze, is made to appear fake, ontologically dubious. Palestinians are really only Arabs who call themselves “Palestinians.” This is the way Emmanuel Levinas put it in his 1982 essay “Zionisms”:

“The origins of the conflict between Jews and Arabs go back to Zionism. This conflict has been acute since the creation of the State of Israel on a small piece of arid land which had belonged to the children of Israel more than thirty centuries before and which … has never been abandoned by the Jewish communities. During the Diaspora they continued to lay claim to it and since the beginning of this century their labours have made it flower again. But it also happens to be on a small piece of land which has been inhabited by people who are surrounded on all sides and by vast stretches of land containing the great Arab people of which they form a part. They call themselves Palestinians.”[2]

Levinas repeats Zionist tropes: metaphysical Indigeneity, how the Jewish state of Israel made the desert bloom, and Palestinians as such don’t really exist—Palestinianness comes into being as result of the Arab encounter with British colonialism and Zionist settler colonialism.[3]

Violence operates here in the erasure of Palestinianness, in the decontextualization of Palestinians, or in the derealization of their being, as Judith Butler might put it. Achille Mbembe alerts us to the pivotal role of language in the enactment of such violence. He observes, “the act of violation [le viol] often begins with language.” Viol, in French, means violation in multiple senses, including “rape”; the violence that begins with language, in Mbembe’s formulation, can thus be symbolic, psychic, and physical.

An anti-Zionist hermeneutic works to counter, jam, and expose the violence of Zionist reason. It proceeds by dismantling a framing of Palestinians that often centers on the so-called pathological Arab mind (this “mind” that is said to drive the “great Arab people” to deny Israel’s right to exist). This is a framing that discloses and reifies Palestinians as “human animals,” and that describes Gaza as a place bereft of innocence.

Have things changed since October 7th? Maybe. Now Western countries and mainstream media are beginning to acknowledge the devastation of the Israeli genocidal campaign (though they typically avoid using the term genocide). Underscoring the level of violence visited on the Palestinian people, news outlets have turned their attention to the misery of the Palestinian people, to the over 34,000 Palestinians killed to date, with women and children accounting for 70 percent of the dead.

But is the Zionist framing of Palestinians faltering due the large global outcry over Palestinian suffering? That remains unclear. Israel is still receiving weapons from its US sponsor. Republican senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas feels embolden to urge people affected by pro-Palestinian protests to “take matters into your own hands.” Cotton’s callous incitement to commit violence received virtually no push back from mainstream media. The crude belligerence of elected officials seems only matched by the astonishing senselessness pervading discussions of Gaza.

Speaking of senselessness, witness the US State Department’s rationale for continuing to supply weapons to Israel, even though US law forbids transferring arms to states using them to abuse human rights. As State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said: “We have not found them to be in violation of international humanitarian law, either when it comes to the conduct of the war or when it comes to the provision of humanitarian assistance.” The US describes Israel’s bombing as “over the top” and “indiscriminate” yet sees no crime; it drops aid packages and builds a pier to deliver aid by sea with one hand, while waving the magic wand of denial with the other.

Israel’s actions earlier in April may have jeopardized this cynical understanding between the US and Israel. The targeting of a World Central Kitchen convoy, containing seven aid workers from Australia, Britain, Poland, US-Canada, and Palestine, provoked outrage—or at least the performance of outrage—among political leaders in the Global North. Biden, we’re told by his staff, was disturbed. His call to Netanyahu compelled the prime minister to allow more aid into Gaza, and Biden warned him that Israel’s military tactics need to change or there would be consequences. The loss of lives of these aid workers is undeniably tragic, but let’s not forget that 177 Palestinian UN staff had already been killed prior to this incident.

It is not hard to conclude that the bodies of Westerners count more than those of faceless Palestinians. When Israel kills Palestinian aid workers, Western officials look the other way. But when Israeli violence is visited on Western bodies, Israel must be held accountable for its criminal actions—or, at the very least, Western leaders have to give the appearance that they care about pro-Palestinian Western bodies involved in the distribution of humanitarian aid.

But even that care has limited ethical and political value. Western bodies standing with Palestinian bodies are devalued; their worth tainted, their judgment condemned, their humanity degraded. This is happening, though at different levels of intensity, both in Gaza and on college campuses. To stand against genocide is a threat to Zionist reason. To stand with Palestinians is a dangerous proposition.

Palestine provokes anxiety. But rather than addressing Israel’s genocidal onslaught directly attention is ideologically diverted to its reception: the pro-Palestinian mass protests. If a Zionist hermeneutic turns the focus to the discomfort prompted by college students’ words, an anti-Zionist hermeneutic returns us to the question of genocide and the multiple scenes of violence taking place in Occupied Palestine. Building on such an anti-Zionist hermeneutic I want to think the current genocidal situation in terms of the violence that it helps disclose and obfuscate.

Slavoj Žižek calls “subjective violence” the type of violence that is performed by a clearly identifiable agent [the Israeli military] and is seen as a disruption of the “normal,” peaceful state of things [the Occupation on October 6]. Unlike “subjective violence,” “objective violence” is indiscernible, “since it sustains the very zero-level standard against which we perceive something as subjectively violent.”[4] The violence visited on Palestinian aid workers collapses the two registers of violence. While subjective violence, in principle, can provoke empathy through a captivating image of the victim, subjective violence in Gaza appears to follow a different logic.

Clearly discernible acts of violence committed against Palestinian non-combatants by Israeli snipers, drone strikes, and extra-judicial killings in hospitals, for example, do not register as subjective violence. They remain invisible, experienced as if the violence were objective violence, as if it was part of the daily fabric of Palestinian life.

Death tolls are reported, and the obscenity of the number clearly impacts the pro-Palestinian public. And yet the outrage that it produces is contained and neutralized at the political level. Its impact on Western policies is blunted. The challenge, as I see it, however, is not to “democratize” subjective violence so that political leaders can empathize with Palestinians. Empathy is not a political agenda. The challenge is to harness the fleeting outrage over the subjective violence visited on the international aid workers by linking it to the objective violence of the Occupation, of settler reality, of colonial time. Empathy is useful only if it opens to a decolonizing agenda.

Israel will undoubtedly survive any setback with the United States and the other Western nations, and push through the world’s visceral reaction to the devastation of Gaza. Israel seems to have made the calculation that it does not really matter how many more Palestinians it kills. What the Israeli government and its supporters fear more and more, however, is the growing dissatisfaction with Israel among a younger generation of Western citizens, including many Jews in the Diaspora. And the blame for this development lies not with Hamas, but with the anti-colonial left, the left that names, ridicules, and shames the refusal of Western leaders to describe what Israel is doing as genocide. The cartoonist Joe Sacco captures these moral and political failures well when he coins the term “genocidal self-defense” and when, countering Western obfuscation of the matter, he gives a stark visual illustration of what the right of genocidal existence actually means.

What throws a wrench in the Zionist framing of Palestinians is an insistence on settler colonialism. But who is afraid of settler colonialism? And why are they afraid of it? I don’t believe that it is the warmongering, far-right or messianic Zionists who are really afraid of settler colonialism. They are not at all ambivalent about Israel’s founding violence; in fact, they are calling for a second and final Nakba. It is the liberal camp who fears the settler-colonial framework. And there are several reasons for this. I will focus on the ones related to violence.

For some, the evocation of “settler colonialism” is off-putting, too aggressive—not respectful of one’s right not to be disturbed. Talk of settler colonialism is divisive, when we should be looking for connections that bring us together. Seyla Benhabib exemplifies this tendency. In her review of Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, Benhabib writes: “I do not believe that we will get very far by repeating the formula that ‘Zionism is a form of settler colonialism.’”

Benhabib’s arrogance, in the guise of a measured intervention, reveals not only the truism that nobody likes to be called a racist—a racist settler, in this case—but also demonstrates a greater concern for the well-being of the occupier, the invader. Like Butler, I refuse to sugarcoat objections to Israeli violence. For the Palestinian question to be heard, a critique of Israel’s systemic violence against Palestinians must be direct and fearless.

Benhabib obfuscates. She is more interested in understanding the collective psyche of the oppressor than attending to the condition of the subjugated. She faults Butler for their ungenerous reading of Israeli Jews and for failing to understand their plight:

“As psychoanalytically astute as Butler is, she seems to turn a blind eye to the lingering collective psychosis of many Jews, whether in Israel or not, namely, their fear of annihilation in the hands of a hostile world. The tragedy of Israel is that the stronger Israel has become militarily, the more paranoid and bullyish it has become.”

Israeli paranoia is both explained and explained away as a response to past trauma and security concerns. Consequently, the colonial situation drops out of Benhabib’s discussion altogether. Israeli paranoia is minimized or even excusable, an expression of timeless vulnerability and absolute victimhood, and has nothing to do with Zionism’s management of Jewish supremacy over the Palestinians. So, I am inclined to say the opposite. I do not believe that we will get very far unless we repeat the formula that “Zionism is a form of settler colonialism.”

When Butler attempts to reorient the discussion to the colonial situation so that a more generative exchange can be had, they are bitterly criticized and dismissed. Declining to label Hamas a terrorist group, Butler, during a recent panel discussion in France, sought to understand the Hamas attacks as an instance of anti-colonial resistance: “I think it is more honest and historically correct to say that the uprising of October 7 was an act of armed resistance. It is not a terrorist attack and it is not an antisemitic attack. It was an attack against Israelis.” It was an attack against invaders; it was an attack against the Israelis caging Gazans.

We can’t forget that the uprising indexes an originary violence; and this violence, for Butler, “comes from a state of subjugation, and against a violent state apparatus.” To better understand Hamas’s attack, we need to examine “the political structure and the violence structure from which that uprising emerged.” If we bracket these structures from critical purview, all we see is a timeless or ontological hatred of Jews; we never understand Palestinians; we never understand Palestinian actions as responses, instances of counter-violence, to the Occupation, to the settler invasion.

Again, unless you subscribe to a Zionist hermeneutic, unless you believe that Palestinians who join Hamas are “simply born bloodthirsty beasts,” pure creatures of hate, you have to look at their actions in a broader context; you have to inscribe their actions in history, in the life-draining reality of the Occupation. Needless to say, seeing Hamas as engaged in acts of armed resistance against an occupying force by no means commits you to endorsing the form that those actions take. You can still object to the targeting of civilians. But this reframing does allow a different debate to unfold: “Let’s at least call it armed resistance and then we can have a debate on whether it’s right or did they do the right thing.” Armed resistance indexes an invader and shakes off an interpretive framework manufactured by Zionists and parroted by Western power and mainstream media. The anti-colonial message is clear: our gaze cannot solely be engulfed by Hamas’s actions.

Despite Butler’s stated preference for the non-violent BDS movement, they do not foreclose the question of armed struggle. Rather, as they say, “it is important to ask those who defend Hamas as a movement of armed resistance how they situate this armed resistance within a history of armed struggles, and what, if any, conditions would have to be met for the laying down of arms. One obvious answer is that Israeli state violence would have to end. If Israeli state violence is the condition of possibility for armed resistance, then the cessation of that violence would doubtless produce another political constellation.” It is that other “political constellation” that the operation of fetishist disavowal wants to eclipse and keep at bay: I know very well that the Israeli government is committing state violence, but all the same I don’t believe that we need another political configuration; Israel in its current form can accommodate the Palestinian desire for self-determination; after Netanyahu we can resume the peace process and talks of a two-state solution.

Prior to October 7th, this fetishist disavowal kept liberal Zionists more or less relevant, at least in the eyes of Western liberals. But now things look much different. Unfortunately, it is not because liberal Zionists have fully assumed the consequences of the knowledge of state violence—that the Israeli government in its default mode is committing a slow genocide and that we have to put an end to it. No, it is rather the opposite. The fetishist disavowal is no longer working because liberal Zionists have allegedly “sobered up.” They no longer believe in co-existence with Palestinians, and, in this respect, on the Palestinian question, they are closer to the Israeli far right than ever.

But for the rest of us who are committed to an alternative political constellation in Palestine/Israel, such a constellation can only be arrived at through a reckoning with Zionist settler colonialism. Only by naming colonial subjugation and fully assuming its consequences can we begin to unframe Palestine in order to reframe it differently as a site of co-existence.

Before entertaining a horizon where Palestinians and Israeli Jews can aspire to a non-violence à venir (and this is where Butler wants to go), there needs to be a reckoning with settler identity. And this reckoning will be violent. As with Audre Lorde’s agitation to dismantle master’s house, dismantling the settler’s house is a violent act. To dismantle is a violent verb, though not necessarily “apocalyptic” as Edward Said warns.[5]

What shape this violence will take is the question. Must there be more armed resistance, if not in Gaza, then in the West Bank, where Israeli settlers—with the help of the Israeli military—are murdering and terrorizing Palestinians day in and day out? On the Israeli side, a true engagement with settler colonialism will hurt; it will require shattering illusions and “false idols” (with Zionism, as Naomi Klein argues, being at the top of the list of murderous idols), letting go of one’s sense of superiority and priority; it will involve a kind of self-violence, a defection of sorts, a decision to go against a Zionist-sanctioned form of self-interest.

This process of self-undoing is none other than decolonization: the painful but liberating experience of decolonizing one’s mind, body, and house.


[1] When academics and activists try to recenter the narrative around themes of liberation and self-determination, they are immediately attacked as anti-Semitic, as cheerleaders for Hamas; some have been suspended, as in the recent case of political science Professor Jodi Dean at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York state.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas, “Zionisms,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 277–78.

[3] The violence of the linguistic erasure persists today. Palestinians who reside in Israel proper are categorized as “Arab citizens of Israel” or “Arab Israelis,” not as “Palestinian citizens of Israel” (the preferred choice of most Palestinians living in Israel). These Palestinians and their families are the survivors of the 1948 Nakba. Some of them are older than the Israeli state. But the Israeli government refuses to see and name them “Palestinians.”

[4] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008),

[5] Edward W. Said, “My Right of Return,” in Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said, ed. Gauri Viswanathan (New York: Vintage, 2001), 451.

The Author

Zahi Zalloua

Zahi Zalloua is Cushing Eells Professor of Philosophy and Literature and a professor of Indigeneity, Race, and Ethnicity Studies at Whitman College and Editor of The Comparatist. His most recent work includes The Politics of the Wretched: Race, Reason, and Ressentiment (forthcoming), Solidarity and the Palestinian Cause: Indigeneity, Blackness, and the Promise of Universality (2023), Being Posthuman: Ontologies of the Future (2021), Žižek on Race: Toward an Anti-Racist Future (2020), Theory’s Autoimmunity: Skepticism, Literature, and Philosophy (2018), and Continental Philosophy and the Palestinian Question: Beyond the Jew and the Greek (2017).

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