To answer this question, we must first ask a more basic one: what is colonialism? In search of a viable definition I turn to the best of the anti-colonial books written in the 1950s, Albert Memmi's 1957 double-essay Portrait du colonisé, précédé par Potrait du colonisateur (Portrait of the Colonized, preceded by Potrait of the Colonizer - the current English edition bears the simpler title, The Colonizer and the Colonized). Several of Memmi's contemporaries wrote more daring or more intellectually sophisticated studies, most notably Franz Fanon's incendiary Wretched of the Earth. However, Memmi's book offers certain clear advantages. One is his independence from the Marxist dogma and rhetoric that hobbled Fanon and even Sartre. More important, however, is Memmi's own background, which gave him a uniquely objective perspective on colonialism: Albert Camus wrote of Memmi, "Here is a French writer from Tunisia who is neither French nor Tunisian..." "He is Jewish (with a Berber mother, which doesn't simplify anything) and a Tunisian subject [...] however he is not really Tunisian." In Memmi's own words he was "a native in a country of colonization, Jew in an anti-Semitic universe, and African in a world where Europe triumphed." He identified simultaneously with both colonized and colonizer while belonging to neither. While Memmi wanted us to understand the truth about colonialism, unlike Fanon, he had no interest in declaring war or calling for blood, for he was not about to make war on himself.
Memmi began his project because he had discovered that the "fact" of having been colonized affected most aspects of his life and personality, "not only my thinking, my own passions and my conduct, but also the conduct of others toward me." "I undertook this inventory of the condition of the Colonized," he wrote, "above all to understand myself and to identify my place among other men." From there came a recognition of the interdependency of colonizer and colonized and his insight that colonization created both. "The colonial relationship," he wrote, "chained the Colonizer and the Colonized in a type of relentless dependency, shaping their respective features and dictating their conduct." (Memmi 13) Memmi observed, for example, that the colonized becomes the colonized by accepting colonization and recognizing the colonizer. "It does not suffice for the colonized objectively to be a slave, he must recognize himself as such." He continued:
Neither colonizer nor colonized could exist without the other; the dialectic of their relationship defined both. It also doomed both. "Just as there was an evident logic to the reciprocal comportment of the two partners of colonization, another mechanism, that followed from the first, proceeded inexorably to the decomposition of that dependency." (14)
Rather than offer a specific definition of colonialism, which would necessarily be tied to a specific historical model, Memmi focused on building typologies of colonizer and colonized with an eye toward how the two defined one another. The result are portraits in which an astonishing variety of people were able to recognize themselves. "So many people recognized themselves in this portrait," he wrote, "that I could no longer pretend that it was only mine or that of the Tunisian colonized alone or even the North African." (13) For the Zionists and Arabs who read Memmi, the question therefore is not "is Zionism colonialism?" but rather "can you recognize yourself?" And if so, in which portrait, the colonizer or the colonized?
The parallels between Israel and the colonial relationship between colonizer and colonized described by Memmi are inescapable. One of the very first arguments Memmi makes, for instance, is that privilege is "at the heart of the colonial relationship," and that in colonialism the meanest colonizer is nonetheless more privileged than the richest colonized. (16) This flies in the face of both liberal notions of meritocracy and Marxist models of class struggle, for it is birth (race) and not class that is the organizing principle of the colonial economic, legal, and social structures. Sadly, this kind of colonial privilege applies all to well to Israel - most obviously on the West Bank but inside Israel as well.
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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