On Culture and Collective Memory in Times of Crisis

Outsiders are outraged when religious communities flout government regulations that are supposed to protect the general public. But we know that people give meaning to their experiences in different ways. Some ways of knowing the world have been denigrated as “backward” or “irrational” by secular Western forms of knowledge. But secular ways of life may be considered decadent and immoral from a religious point of view, not to mention empirically harmful. “Modern” ways of life create wide differentials in wealth and dignity among people, destroy irreplaceable natural resources, and poison the earth in myriad ways that are fatal to the ecosystems of the Earth that supports us all. Our aggressive encroachment into new ecosystems is one of the reasons we face increasing threat from pandemic disease in the first place.

Read more in The Conversation

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Racism and Anti-Semitism

Racism and Anti-Semitism Are Not Intrusions of a Dark Past Into Our Present

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Luce/ACLS Fellowship

I am very please to have been awarded a Luce/ACLS Fellowship in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs. I will be in residence at Northwestern University for the 2018-2019 academic year.

See the announcement on CLAS Exchange.

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Reading is Research

Remarks delivered in accepting the Atkins Library Faculty Engagement Award, September 17, 2015

Thank you very much. Thank you to the Dean of the Library, Anne Cooper-Moore, thank you Interim Dean Jay Raja, and, of course, Librarian, Stephanie Otis. And, thank you everyone for coming out to celebrate today.

I am very excited about this award because it formally acknowledges the value of education for critical consciousness. Often when we give awards we recognize a major corporation or a big bank. This time, we recognize something much more important to a research institution, one of the most valuable assets to the university and to the citizens of North Carolina. Today, we recognize the central importance of a great library, of books—Hooray for books!!!– and other sources of information and knowledge. We recognize authors and readers and, of course, we recognize great librarians.

This project started about three years ago, when I was looking for a partner to see what we could do for students who were struggling in senior seminar where they have to write a big research paper, and I was very lucky that Stephanie Otis agreed to work with me. Lucky because Stephanie is a wonderful partner who shares a vision and has been flexible and innovative and willing to go much farther than the extra mile to make that vision a reality. But this is also part of a much bigger project. For me, it is one that probably started three decades ago when I first began teaching. But, of course, the work of education for critical thinking has a much longer history.

Much of the inspiration for this project comes from the writings of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who taught us that education is not just about transferring information. Education, he said, either functions “as an instrument … to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Freire 1986 (1968)).

The practice of freedom? The transformation of their world? That may sound a little fluffy, but it’s actually very serious business—thinking critically and creatively is hard work. Teaching students to move away from learned patterns of behavior is tough—no, this is not about pleasing the teacher. It is not about guessing the correct answer. It is NOT about doing as you are told. It is about what Hannah Arendt called “thinking and judging,” which she said should be “distinguished from having correct information and scientific knowledge, (it) is a complicated process which never produces unequivocal results.” This is what Reading is Research is about, “It is an unending activity by which, in constant change and variation, we come to terms with and reconcile ourselves to reality, that is, try to be at home in the world” (Beiner 1992 (1982))

For Arendt “thinking and judging” might be the only tools we have for preventing some of the greatest horrors the world has known(Arendt 1963, 1971, 1994 (1954)). Arendt and other critical scholars of her generation were thinking about the horrors of fascism, they were reflecting on Nazi Europe and on what happens when people stop thinking and just do their jobs, just follow orders, or simply implement very “rational calculations” without considering the outcomes—that’s dangerous!

Here, now, in the U.S., we might not worry so much about the seeds of fascism sprouting on our soil. In our post-economic crisis economy we worry much more about the mundane practical issues of everyday life. We have turned our attention to more pressing problems about paying our own mortgages and keeping our jobs; about how to prepare young people for the challenges they will face in a changing economy. We worry that young people will not find jobs, or that they will not be competitive in the global marketplace. It is precisely this shift in focus that requires us to pause and think again, to think and judge with Hannah Arendt, to consider the Hidden Curriculum that Michael Apple(Apple 1982) taught us about, and to turn to Paulo Freire for direction(Freire 2001).

Today’s pundits, politicians, and educators debate the efficiency of our education system. Educators are judged on “student learning outcomes” which are measured in test scores and jobs upon graduation. Administrators’ eyes are glued to the numbers. How many students graduate? How many find jobs? Do they find well-paying jobs? Are our students as well prepared for the demands of our high-tech economy as students in China? Paulo Friere calls this market-driven education and explains how it works to maintain and widen income gaps, keeping poor people in poverty as the “rich get richer and the poor get prison”(Reiman 2007 (1979) ).

Of course we want our students to do well. But more importantly, we want them to do good, to do good in the world. And Freire was hopeful. Education for critical consciousness can make a difference. This project, “Reading is Research,” sometimes seems like tossing a pebble into the ocean, but the ripples have already begun. Faculty in my department (Global, International, and Area Studies) and across the university are implementing some of the tools we’ve developed and others are devising their own based on ideas generated through this project. But more importantly, we know the value of this work when we see the glimmer in the eyes of students who have taken part in this project, the excitement as they understand and come to own abstract concepts and find the confidence to ask informed questions—the questions they think matter—and begin to find answers. So, thank you, to all those who partake in this work and congratulations to us all!



Apple, Michael W. 1982. Cultural And Economic Reproduction in Education. Boston: Routledge, Kegan and Paul.

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin Books.

Arendt, Hannah. 1971. The Life of the Mind: Volume One Thinking. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Arendt, Hannah. 1994 (1954). “Understanding and Politics (The Difficulties of Understanding).” In Arendt: Essays in Understanding 1930-1954, edited by Jerome Kohn, 307-327. New York: Harcourt Brace. Original edition, Understanding and Politics was origianlly published 1954 in Partisan Review XX/4. Arendt orignally called it “The Difficulties of Understanding”

Beiner, Ronald. 1992 (1982). “Hanah Arendt on Judging.” In Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, edited by Ronald Beiner, 89-156. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Freire, Paulo. 1986 (1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Freire, Paulo. 2001. Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Reiman, Jeffrey. 2007 (1979) The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice. Boston: Pearson.


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The next Gaza war: is dismantling Jewish settlements more dangerous for Palestinians than Israelis?

See my recent opinion piece in openGlobalRights.

Read this piece in Arabic.

Read this piece in Hebrew.



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Another Gaza War

Another Gaza War: What if the Settlers Were Right?

Joyce Dalsheim

Before they were evicted from their homes and forcibly removed from their communities by the Israeli government in 2005, Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip warned that their removal would only make things worse. They warned that the front line of violence between Israelis and Palestinians would move closer to those Israelis who lived inside the Green Line. They claimed their presence provided a buffer. They said God promised this Land to the Jewish people and that they should not abandon it. They said Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip, unlike many other places inside Israel, did not involve the destruction of Palestinian communities or the displacement of Palestinians. Israeli Jews living in Gaza predicted that life would become more dangerous for other Israelis if the government pulled out.

Indeed, that is exactly what has happened. In the southern part of Israel, previously quiet communities have found themselves at the forefront of violent conflict since the 2005 disengagement when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing its soldiers and citizens. Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, once aimed at the settlements in Gaza, have since turned to the communities inside the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Now, missiles are fired from Gaza into the southern towns of the Israeli periphery. While it might seem strange, this has also had some benefits for those communities. In support of those who live on the front lines, the government has reduced taxes in those towns. The train ride from some peripheral areas is now provided free of charge. People began purchasing inexpensive real estate and were able to easily commute to their jobs in center of the country. Towns like Sederot became targets of missile fire, but also began to prosper in ways they had not before. More recently, Palestinian missile fire has increased in number and in range, disrupting life for Israelis throughout the country.

The settlers might not have made public predictions about the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, but surely their situation has become markedly worse since the 2005 disengagement. So far, there have been three major military campaigns and intermittent exchanges of fire resulting in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. The number of casualties and deaths, and the destruction of property has only increased for Gazans since the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory. This might seem strange, but it was probably entirely predictable.

Such might have been the prediction of James Ron (2003), for example, who compares state violence in Israel and Serbia. When a minority is contained within a nation-state, he explains, they may be subject to extensive policing, as has been the case for Palestinians in the West Bank, which he describes as similar to a “ghetto”, or what we might think of as a reservation, or a camp. The ghetto, he says, implies subordination and incorporation, and ghettos are policed but not destroyed.

But state violence increases when those considered outsiders or enemies of the nation are separated and on the “frontier” of the state. In the American West, for example, when the frontier was open and indigenous populations were unincorporated into the United States, they were targeted for dispossession and massacre. And, he explains, when Western powers recognized Bosnian independence in 1992, that helped transform Bosnia into a frontier, setting the stage for ethnic cleansing.

We might ask ourselves if the disengagement set up Gaza as such a frontier. If so, we might have anticipated the extreme violence that has since ensued. Then we are also left to wonder if the settlers were right. What if dismantling Jewish settlements is more dangerous for Palestinians than for Israelis?

Many of those who support the rights of Palestinians have been calling for an end to Israeli settlement and for dismantling existing settlements in Israeli Occupied Territories, in preparation for the establishment of two states for two peoples, side by side.

But what is gained if the ethno-national foundation of the nation-state necessarily leads to containment or removal of those who are not considered members of the nation? This was Hannah Arendt’s warning about the danger inherent in the nation-state formation that makes life precarious for those who are not considered part of the national group that has sovereignty. As Judith Butler (2010) so eloquently explains: “The category of the stateless is reproduced not simply by the nation-state but by a certain operation of power that seeks to forcibly align nation with state, one that takes the hyphen, as it were, as a chain” (pg.12).

If the danger lies in that hyphen as chain, then removing Jewish settlers, like demolishing Palestinian homes, is also part of a larger process of separation, a power that seeks to forcibly align a people with a territory. That separation might seem liberating; a stage on the way to independence. But partition does not necessarily lead to peace. In the case of Gaza, removing Israeli citizens might just have made it possible for increased violence. If it is true that war is only politics by other means, or politics only war, then we have to think further. The political terrain of Israel has changed. If, prior to the 2005 disengagement, there was a vibrant Left Wing opposed to settlement in the Occupied Territories, those voices have faded.

The political terrain has changed, but the foundations of the seemingly intractable conflict in Israel/Palestine have not. Those foundations lie in the normative episteme of nations and states that form the basis for international relations and liberal peacemaking. If Israel/Palestine is a struggle between two national groups for one piece of territory, then fighting for that hyphen as chain will continue and the violence, death and destruction will only increase. If Israel/Palestine is a settler colonial polity, then the forces of separation required for two states should be understood as part of a foundational structure that requires elimination of the natives (Wolfe 1999). It matters little if one believes that Jews have a right to sovereignty in their homeland or if one believes the Palestinian struggle for liberation is justified. If liberation relies on the ethnic purification of territory there can be no winners.

These comments first appeared on the Oxford University Press author’s website:   http://blog.oup.com/2014/10/gaza-war-settlers-israel-palestine






Arendt, H. 2003 (1948). “The Perplexities of the Rights of Man, from The Origins of Totalitarianism,” in The Portable Hannah Arendt. Edited by P. Baehr, pp. 31-45. New York: Penguin.

Butler, J., and G. C. Spivak. 2010. Who Sings the Nation-State? London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull

Ron, J. 2003. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Wolfe, P. 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. Writing Past Colonialism. London: Cassell.


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Israel/Palestine Now

I recently returned from Israel/Palestine where violence, fear, and hatred have reached unprecedented levels. When violence makes the international headlines everyday countless commentators and pundits weigh in with their analyses. Everyone is busily pointing fingers and laying blame, but understanding the roots of this violence requires taking a deep breath and a step back to uncover the deeper foundations that make this situation possible. My new book, Producing Spoilers: Peacemaking and the Production of Enmity in a Secular Age, explores these issues. We can (and should!) try to end this round of violence, work for a cease-fire, a truce, or a longer-term peace agreement. But to arrive at a better way of living together, we must first understand the taken-for-granted ways of being and believing that limit our options and unwittingly trap us even as we seek peace.

Producing Spoilers provides some insight to help shift our moral imaginations and make room for alternatives. The book shows how processes of conflict resolution, diplomacy, dialogue, education, and social theorizing about liberation, peace, and social justice actually participate in constructing enemies, thus limiting the options for peaceful outcomes.  Producing Spoilers looks at the limits of territorial solutions and the consequences of nationalism– the context in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict takes place. That nationalism is contrasted with current theorizing on flexible citizenship and diasporic identity.

Providing examples of people on the ground in Israel/Palestine who have been thinking and acting in ways that defy conventional enemy categories, the book culminates by moving beyond national enmity and outside conventional peacemaking to clear a space in which to think about alternative forms of negotiation, exchange, community, and coexistence.


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Education After Economic Crisis

“The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again.”

—   Theodor Adorno

Those foreboding words, written in 1967, reflect on the possibility of life after Auschwitz and the agonizing burden of “never again.” Now, nearly seven decades after the end of that war, it may seem that this warning is no longer relevant, or perhaps no longer urgent. We have not forgotten the Holocaust or its victims. We have major museums, books, films, and countless commemorative events. Surely we need no longer fear that we are not doing enough to educate against such horror. Now, we have turned our attention to more pressing problems, practical issues and everyday questions about how to prepare young people for the challenges they will face in a changing economy. We worry that young people will not find jobs, or that they will not be competitive in the global marketplace. But it is precisely this shift in focus that requires us to read Adorno again.

Adorno was not concerned about memorializing the Holocaust, or with remembering the victims. Like other critical theorists of his time, Adorno was concerned with how the seeds of fascism could be planted in democratic society. Like Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, he worried about the everyday habits or taken for granted practices that could ultimately lead to the greatest of horrors that we could perpetrate against our neighbors. Ultimately, Adorno suspected that particular post-Enlightenment ways of thinking could undermine Enlightenment values.  Very much like Arendt’s concerns that the seeds of fascism were already planted in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, that totalitarianism could emerge from the very principles we thought made us free, Adorno warned against the dangers inherent in the very rational thought that should free us from intolerance, and from domination by church or state.

That has not changed. Today’s pundits, politicians and educators debate the efficiency of our education system. We are recovering from a severe economic crisis. We must cut back. We must focus on teaching young people the skills they need for the ever-changing job market. Educators are judged on “student learning outcomes” which are measured in test scores and jobs upon graduation. Administrator’s eyes are glued to the numbers. How many students graduate? How many find jobs? Do they find good jobs? Are our students as well prepared for the demands of our high-tech economy as students in China?  This debate spans our entire education system, from early childhood to college. Parents consider sending their toddlers to kindergartens where they can learn Mandarin Chinese, to ensure their babies will have a competitive edge while legislators and administrators focus on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math). And everyone evaluates our education system in economic terms. Is it worth the investment we make? Will the next generations provide us with a good return?

In this great rush to become more efficient and more competitive we risk losing sight of what matters most: Auschwitz must never happen again. That phrase, never again, has been so often repeated that it might be losing some of its meaning. To caution “never again” means much more than speaking out against acts of anti-Semitism, racism, or other injustices. It means something other than standing strong against violent attacks against us.  It means more than commemorating the Holocaust or teaching its history. To caution “never again” requires something deeper, more complicated, more time-consuming, perhaps more expensive, and ultimately far more important. It means, after Auschwitz, that we who remember and we who know have been given the task of teaching our children how to think for themselves. We are charged with encouraging our young people to critically assess situations, to be both open-minded and skeptical, and to follow their own moral compass, even when doing so might be unpopular. “The only education that has any sense at all is an education toward critical self-reflection,” Adorno wrote.  When we say “never again” we must not only remember the horrors and victims, but we must never forget Adorno’s simple dictum, as true today as ever.

Teaching young people to think critically, to question and analyze, is complicated work. Its success cannot be measured by multiple choice tests or graduation rates. The good news is that precisely this kind of education is already going on in classrooms all across the country. Teachers in literature, history, math, science, art, drama, and philosophy classes are challenging their students to question interpretations of events, to consider ethical questions and analyze social and political policy as well as cultural representations. Anthropologists, sociologists and other scholars in the social sciences and humanities have always worked to encourage to students to engage with new experiences and new thoughts, to question the taken-for-granted with a critical and ethically grounded eye. And teachers in primary schools who help the youngest students learn what it means to play, learn, and live together with others different from themselves are educating our children for life after Auschwitz.

The trouble is that these efforts require support and encouragement. They are fragile and the work is never complete. We must ask ourselves how we are prepared to face the universalizing tendencies of authoritarianism. Precisely now, when our cities have increasingly become the meeting places for a diverse range of peoples, cultures, religions, ideas, and lifestyles, we must ask how do we meet with groups who do not follow the mainstream. How do we engage with minorities, subaltern groups or those who are not willing to adopt mainstream ideas about gender, sexuality, religion or state? How do we deal with the experience of incommensurable differences in our multicultural democracy and how will we prepare our children to resist the universalizing impulse against which Adorno warned?

We must not lose sight of the complicated work of teaching critical self-reflection as we downsize, rationalize, and use more technology while reducing teacher to student ratios, focusing always more narrowly on numbers, outcomes and returns on our investments. These returns do not come in the form of high test scores and good starting salaries.  They come in the form of a better society, one where ethical decisions trump simple arithmetic, where living together well is more important than only living well in terms of higher standards of living. Such returns come of the hard work of critical reflection that never ends to ensure that the horrors of Auschwitz remain the ghosts of a distant past.

Adorno had a great deal to teach us about the danger of instrumental reason that always lies just beneath the surface of rational Enlightenment thinking. The orientation toward bare economic reasoning, which becomes increasingly apparent during times of economic strain or crisis, necessarily contains the risk of such instrumental reason. In our rush to teach young people the skills for the jobs and to make them competitive in the global market, we run the risk of producing automatons who are very skilled in technology but lack a critical consciousness. We risk, Adorno said, losing sight of “where the threshold lies between a rational relationship to technology and the over-valuation that finally leads to the point where one who cleverly devises a train system that brings the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible forgets about what happens to them there.”

A different version of this piece appeared in the Charlotte Observer on Sunday 27 April 2014 . This piece was recently reprinted on OpenDemocracy.

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Thinking about thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking– what it is, what difference it makes, why it is difficult– with a recent article by Elizabeth Povinelli (2012),  “The Will to Be Otherwise/The Effort of Endurance, ” in The South Atlantic Quarterly 111(3):453-475.

Have you read it? What do you think?

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“Hannah Arendt, Trayvon Martin and the Banality of Legal” published on openDemocracy


The Banality of Legal

Joyce Dalsheim

I admit it. I didn’t watch the trial. Or at least not the whole televised trial, but it was nearly impossible to turn on the television without seeing testimony or hearing commentary on every little detail. I didn’t watch the O.J. Simpson trial either. And I certainly did not witness Adolph Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem. But Hannah Arendt did, and when she wrote that Eichmann’s actions could not be proven to be intentionally genocidal the world shook in horror at her words. In the post-WWII context, how could she possibly fail to emphasize the cruelty of that infamous Nazi criminal? Was he not a vicious anti-Semite, the embodiment of evil?  Instead of focusing on the horror of the crime, Arendt wrote about the banality of evil. The individual defendant did not have to be a violent, monstrous, hate-filled racist.   Racism is far more insidious, more systemic than the beliefs or actions of a single individual. It is a much larger evil.

Racialized thinking, in fact, is so large that it suffused all of Europe, justified the Atlantic slave trade, and formed the basis of European ethno-nationalism, which nearly exterminated all the Jews of Europe. It is the same underlying logic that made Native Americans barbaric, aggressors whom early American settlers had to eliminate, and the same underlying logic by which Africans could be sold as property and provide unpaid labor that built the United States.

The racial thinking of Nazi Europe is the framework in which people in France are “French”(not Muslim) and people in Israel are “Israelis” (not Arab). Their ethno-national identity endows them the right to claim sovereignty in their homeland. It is also the underlying logic of the Palestinians’ claim to self-rule in their homeland. The logic of racialized thought is deep and often elusive. Entire institutions—nations-states, courts of law, education systems—are built upon its foundations in ways that hide those foundations from our everyday view. Once in a while an event transpires that temporarily exposes those foundations. For some American viewers, the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin was such a case.

I did not watch every minute of the trial, but when the verdict came in the case, I was not surprised. It’s just the law, that’s all. Two stories were told, either one of which could be true. Neither could be proven. There was room for “reasonable doubt,” and according to the law one cannot be convicted of a crime when there is such doubt.  In this case, the Florida law allowing lethal force in self defense resulted in the death of an unarmed African-American teenager. Is this the banality of evil, or just the banality of legal?

While Americans were watching the Trayvon Martin trial, Israelis were watching television too. They watched a video clip of soldiers in Hebron detaining a Palestinian boy for throwing a stone at a car. The boy was five years old. He was shown surrounded by five or six soldiers, automatic weapons slung around their shoulders, packs on their backs, berets on their heads. The boy, accompanied by a young man, perhaps a neighbor who tried to convince the soldiers to just let the boy go, is crying. He’s crying like a child who has just gotten in trouble with a teacher or the principle, or even his own parents. But this time, he is in trouble with armed men. The soldiers ask where the child’s father is; where does the child live? They take the child to their jeep. They want to take him home, to find his father. The little boy doesn’t want to get into their jeep, he cries harder. He throws a tantrum like children do when they don’t get what they want, or when they don’t want to get in the car and be taken home when they know they’re in trouble. Another man who seems to know the child takes his hand and coaxes him into the jeep and sits with him in the back seat as they drive off to the child’s home to confront his father.

The video clip of the young Palestinian boy detained by Israeli soldiers was filmed by a member of the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem as part of their recent campaign to document and expose human rights violations in Israeli Occupied Territories. The videos are shown on Israeli news programs and many Israelis are morally outraged. This is not the way they expect their soldiers to behave. This is no way to treat a small child. Israelis are not like that. The soldiers, however, seem to be following orders, doing their jobs. Their job is to secure the Jewish settlers who live in Hebron. Is this the banality of evil?

The press release on B’Tselem’s [1] website explains the situation in a carefully worded statement: “On Tuesday, 9 July 2013, at around 3:30 P.M., seven soldiers and an officer detained Wadi’ Maswadeh, who is five years and nine months old (his birthdate on his mother’s ID card: 24 September 2007) close to ‘Abed checkpoint, near the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, after he threw a stone.” It recounts the details of the event and summarizes: “B’Tselem has written urgently to the Legal Adviser in Judea and Samaria, demanding his response to a grave incident in which soldiers detained a five-year-old boy in Hebron for two hours, after he threw a stone. The soldiers threatened the child and his parents, handcuffed and blindfolded the father, and handed the boy over to the Palestinian Police. Detaining a child below the age of criminal responsibility, especially one so young, has no legal justification.”

According to this explanation, if the child had been twelve, or say maybe thirteen or fourteen, then this would be fine.  If Wadi’ Maswadeh had already reached his 12th birthday and he threw a stone at a car, and Israeli soldiers detained him for that criminal act, political activists might film the encounter and take note of the asymmetry between armed soldiers and an unarmed boy. They might write a press release detailing the brutality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. They might explain the history of Israel and Palestine and claim that the settlers in Hebron are horrible, violent land thieves who should not be protected. They might show the film on YouTube or send it to Israeli television stations. People might express outrage. But, according to B’Tselem, the legal age of criminal responsibility in the Israeli occupied West Bank, as inside Israel proper, is twelve. Moral outrage aside, the detention of this boy would be legally defensible. And if Wadi’ was 17, and if his face was covered with a keffiyeh instead of a hoodie, and he threw a stone, then he would emerge as the very image of the terrorist and his detention would be both legally defensible and far less disturbing to many viewers. It would be “right.”  That’s the banality of legal.

We watch the video clip of the soldiers in Hebron and hear the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case and we are morally outraged, astonished, or just very sad. This is racism, unnecessary aggression, this is an immoral decision; we would never act like that! We would never shoot an unarmed teenager or detain a five-year old boy for throwing a stone.  And so we remove ourselves; experience ourselves as not directly implicated in the violences of our racialized society. But the broader implication of this should not be missed.  Neither the settlers in Hebron nor the Israeli soldiers are responsible for the harassment and dispossession of Palestinians once the legal framework in which such actions occur specify its appropriate limits. And we are not responsible for George Zimmerman pulling the trigger and killing Trayvon Martin, because the law treats this as an action subject to legal judgment. We have managed to avoid such responsibility because we have successfully built legal, social, political, educational, and economic institutions that allow us to do the “right” thing even when it is very, very wrong.



[1] http://www.btselem.org/press_releases/20130711_soldiers_detain_5_year_old_in_hebron

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