West Jerusalem, December 2017. I am walking down Jaffa street on my way to the Old City. It has only been a few weeks since the embassy relocation was announced, and it feels like I am running into Trump’s face on every street corner. One poster portrays him in a divine light proudly overlooking the Temple Mount, another suggests that he is a gilgul (a reincarnation) of Cyrus the Great sent by God once again assist in the rehabilitation of the Hebrew nation.
A man in a MAGA hat walks past. Approaching Damascus gate now, where a Palestinian protest is assembling. Border police have constructed a road block, teenagers with machine guns checking identity cards. A Palestinian woman leading chants through a megaphone is seized by police and shoved into the back of van. Tear gas canisters loaded and water cannons standby. Israeli military officials will later report that troops successfully dispersed the crowd using “minimal force.”
“These are messianic times, the beginning of a new era,” one my informants would tell me later that same evening, during a Hanukkah celebration in the Old City, one led by activists from the Third Temple Movement who believe that through the conquest of Greater Israel and the revival of a theocratic Torah State, all of humanity will be redeemed. Fast forward to November 18, 2019, I am writing this in the midst of yet another aerial assault on Gaza and the Trump Administration announces the settlements will no longer be considered illegal. Signs of end times indeed.
Jasbir Puar’s book is a tour de force of theory, an analytic tool box for the 21st century, one that will be invaluable for ethnographers like myself tuning into the intersections of religion, white supremacy, and colonialism in the landscape of Israel/Palestine. It is a multi-scalar mapping of neoliberal logics, one that may help us to envision pathways of resistance, in a moment that feels to so many, myself and my informants, albeit for very different reasons, like the end of the world. I want to think about what it means to engage with The Right to Maim now, when we have seen the concurrent rise of what is often referred to as the US and Israeli “alt-rights,” which signal not so much an alternative to a mainstream, but a laying bare of white nationalism, one that is obfuscated by secular-liberal logics of care and human rights.
If secularism functions to disguise regimes of endemic debility, and thereby ensure their replication, I am interested also in the wellsprings of messianic desire and providential theories of empire in which neoliberal logics germinate.
Puar’s book prompted me, someone who attends to religious-nationalism, to ask: What are the theological underpinnings of Israel’s biopolitics of debilitation? The pernicious junctures of Israel’s neoliberal occupation economy with a messianic political theology, one that is shared by Jews and Christians, that views the revival a Hebrew nation as a living out of biblical prophecies. In other words, I would like to ask: how is the liberal settler state bolstered by particular theologies that necessitate the debility of entire populations, and indexes them, in relationship to messianic timelines? Puar’s book skillfully brings disability studies into conversation with critical race theory, by considering debility from economic and political perspectives. As Puar illustrates, debility ensures future sources of profitable capacitation in the name of liberal democracy and liberal rights bearing subjects. I am interested in what can be gained by attending to religion in this constellation, with the goal of further elaborating the dialectic of material and belief that engenders debility.
The US-Israel alliance is a biopolitical strategy that is held together by mutually reinforcing racialized political theologies of empire. An alliance that grew even stronger after 1967, as Evangelical Zionists rose to political power in the United States and the religiously motivated settlement movement in Israel, backed by neoliberal economic policies and technologies of surveillance, created the apartheid landscape that is the West Bank. Israel and the US are both examples of colonial regimes forged from messianic timelines and biblical racial theories. A history that can be traced back, for example, to the origins of English colonialism in the 17th century when English settlers saw North America as England’s Canaan, and the English as God’s new Chosen People. The Native American “savages” were explained using the biblical epic, classified according to biblical racial theory, as descendants of the biblical Ham, Noah’s cursed son. European occupation and rule then became essential to Native American well-being, a project of conquest that was to make way for the Second Coming of Christ on Earth. Could we look at historical examples like these as early political theologies of debility?
At the end of the 19th century, biblical categories of personhood, bolstered also by racial science, again became a valuable resource, this time for the construction of a Hebrew indigeneity and authenticating the Zionist project. In part a product of internalized anti-Semitism in Europe, the Zionist project was, as Puar outlines in Chapter 3, premised on the rehabilitation of the Jewish body, the weak and bookish Jew of Exile, refashioned into a muscular, proud, European man, firmly bonded to the land through agricultural work and military power, resurrected in the image of biblical Israelite ancestors. A redemptive body, not only for persecuted Jews in Europe, but also for Christian Zionists for whom the end of Jewish Exile signals the advent of a messianic era.
This revived Hebrew became, in Meira Weiss’s words, the nation’s new “chosen body,” an “ideal type by which concrete Israeli bodies are screened and molded from their birth to their death” (Weiss 2002, 5). The rehabilitation of this ideal biblical type is accomplished as Puar writes, through the “biopolitical dehabilitation of Palestinian life” (Puar xxi). A biopolitical dehabilitation that I will add, was only increasingly sacralized in the second half of the 20th century through Christian Zionist discourse in the US, and religious nationalism in Israel, which according to my informants signals a “post-Zionist” reality: Israel is described as having reached some endpoint in a project of divinely sanctioned conquest. But what endpoint is really being referenced here? If we take Puar’s work to heart, it is nothing less than an arrival at self-perpetuating cycles of “value extraction of populations that would otherwise be disposable” (Puar xviii).
Perhaps it is worth really pausing for a second on how we have arrived at a construction of Donald Trump as a messianic figure concurrently in Christian Zionist and Israeli discourse. In 2018, Prime Minister Netanyahu himself compared Trump to King Cyrus the Great, following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In the US and Israel, political theologies of divinely sanctioned national white rehabilitation, not only necessitate an economy of maiming but provide the moral coverage and meta-historic meanings that further entrench dehumanization and the subjection of certain human lives to a slow death.
How does one disrupt co-constituting economics and theologies of rehabilitation and dehabilitation? As Puar demonstrates, if a truly an anti-Zionist and anti-occupation politics is to exist, it absolutely cannot rely on “rights frames to produce accommodationist solutions” (Puar 25). In the context of Jewish anti-Zionism and anti-occupation activism, which admittedly remains hinged to the rights framework, I often wonder if a hijacking back of Jewish theology itself is what is needed, a dedicated decoupling of Judaism from Christian colonialism, racialization, and white supremacy in which it has become entangled since the advent of the Zionist movement in Europe. Can theology itself provide exits from the epistemological cage of the West? In Chapter 2, Puar points us to “non-anthropocentric, interspecies visions of affective politics” (29) as the origination point for new ways of thinking, living, and caring. What might Queer theology, liberation theology, or eco-theologies add to this conversation? Could we excavate queer intimacies of divinity, earth, human, material, that escape neoliberal logics from within religious traditions themselves?