Israel and the Social Sciences, or why race matters

By Noa Shaindlinger
Submitted to Session P4993 (Melancholia, Race, and Enslavement, 2017 Annual Meeting
Israel; Palestine;
By early 1949, the new Israeli state was facing a conundrum: while it was largely successful in its drive to create an overwhelming Jewish majority in the territories under its control, the state also faced a fierce backlash from the international community demanding to repatriate the hundreds of thousands Palestinian refugees. This impetus is evident in UNGA resolution 194 (11 December, 1948) and in the fact Israel was initially refused UN membership unless its leaders show sincere efforts resolving the refugee crisis. Ben Gurion and his cabinet were determined to keep the displaced Palestinians outside of the country, but at the same time desired to be recognized as a nation-state among others. Therefore, they enlisted scholars in the social sciences, in particular anthropology and sociology, to draft an elaborate study of Palestinian Arabs that demonstrated their cultural and racial alterity which rendered them incompatible to the Jewish state. This classified document then goes on to forge a comprehensive program of resettlement in neighbouring Arab countries, based on ethnographic and meticulously collected economic data. Thus, for instance, the document specifies the price of a chicken in Southern Iraq, calculating the amount required to settle a family of Palestinian peasants in that area. My discussion of this elaborate, now de-classified report will reveal the significance of race to the understanding of citizenship in the Israeli and its specific forms of spatial organization which aims to maximize the number of Jews and minimize Arab presence. The report in question has since been cited by generations of Israeli diplomats and politicians, and its logic remains hegemonic today in discussions of future agreements with the Palestinians. The success of Ben Gurion and his social scientists is evident in the ways the Israeli state enshrined itself as the “only democracy in the Middle East” in popular political imagination of the west on the one hand, while successfully eliding itself from the brutal annals of colonialism, on the other.