“Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities,” by Mahmood Mamdani, Harvard University Press, 2020.
The “Unity Intifada” which began in May has lent a great sense of urgency to discussions around the future of Palestine. Analysts and activists are increasingly debating the adoption of a rights-based approach to counter the outdated two-state paradigm, spotlighting Israel’s apartheid regime and what it means for Palestinian aspirations. Alternative political solutions are being proposed to end the impasse of the “peace process,” and to reverse or at least halt the settler-colonial policies that oppress the native Palestinian population. These include advocacy for new configurations, such as a confederation and various forms of a one-state solution.
It is within this growing discussion that the Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani contributes a unique perspective with his new book, “Neither Settler nor Native,” albeit written and published before the recent uprising. Mamdani — renowned for his influential analysis of colonialism in his book “Citizen and Subject,” among many others — does not focus solely on Israel-Palestine in his new work. Rather, he looks at a number of case studies — the United States, Germany, Sudan, in addition to Israel — to make the argument that the nation-state, born out of violence, necessitates the creation of “permanent minorities,” defined not necessarily by their numerical population but by their power differentials.
These minorities, Mamdani argues, were constructed by European colonizers who cemented ethnic and cultural differences into political separations. These identities were not wholly manufactured, he notes, but the colonial strategy of “drafting native allies and claiming to protect their ways of life” ultimately produced these “assorted minorities… preserved under the leadership of a native elite,” with the colonizer’s backing as the true source of authority. As he explains, for example, about Britain’s colonial methods:
The genius of the British was not in inventing differences to exploit but in politicizing real and acknowledged differences by turning them into legal boundaries deemed inviolable and predicating security and economic benefits on locals’ respect for these boundaries. The British thereby coopted locals into the myth that they were not just culturally different from each other but in fact had always harbored mutually incompatible interests.
To counter these historical legacies, Mamdani points to South Africa as a solution to the conundrum of the nation-state, arguing that the end of apartheid in the country demonstrated how a populace could “reject” the identities of a permanent majority and minority, and instead build a state, essentially, without nations. “All groups were survivors of apartheid,” he argues, and both the perpetrators and the oppressed were victims of modernity. Rather than pursue a narrow form of justice for victims after apartheid, the South African model, in Mamdani’s view, showed how societies may transcend their identity separations and build new collectives.
As such, in his discussion of Israel-Palestine, Mamdani advocates for a similar solution to that of South African apartheid. While reviewing Palestinian history in the context of Israeli colonization, he believes that today’s conditions should no longer be characterized as one of colonizers versus colonized, but as one of “cultural difference” between the two communities — differences, he says, that were politicized by the British Mandate, which ruled historical Palestine from 1920 till 1948. He concludes that a single democratic state without nations is the path forward.
Mamdani’s situating of Palestine in a comparative perspective is certainly a valuable and interesting approach. Unfortunately, his argument in this chapter is based on a number of large claims throughout his narrative that are not always fully corroborated, and which could lead readers to some problematic conclusions.
First, the book often underplays the agency of the colonized people. To Mamdani, nationalism is primarily an idea imposed by Europeans, while divisions among colonized societies were politicized by outside powers. Yet there is a rich literature on national identity formation that is not solely attributed to international intervention, including in Palestine.
The emergence of nationalism in the Arab world, for example, was not imposed from the outside, but was in fact underway in Arab societies under the Ottoman Empire almost concurrently with the rise of some national identities in Europe. European colonizers certainly intervened in these processes to advance their interests, but they did not initiate them. And despite what is often repeated by some academics lamenting the infamous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement that drew up the borders of the Middle East and North Africa, these national boundaries were not wholly artificial, but oftentimes reflected the local socioeconomic and political relations that already existed.
Moreover, regardless of the timing of a particular nationalism’s emergence, Mamdani’s argument is problematic because it implies, inadvertently or otherwise, that people in colonized societies did not have power or say in the development of their own identities. In this narrative, it is almost as if natives could not have conceived of their national consciousness without European intervention. The possibility that colonized groups may have utilized nationalism as a means of demanding self-determination and sovereignty in a world increasingly organized around the nation-state is not fully addressed.
The minimization of political agency stems to some degree from a second problematic aspect of Mamdani’s book, which is its weak engagement with the work of indigenous Palestinian scholars. Many of them discuss the same themes as Mamdani, but arrive at opposite conclusions.
For example, at one point Mamdani relies on the record of Azmi Bishara — a Palestinian citizen of Israel, political thinker, and founder and former Knesset member of the Tajammu’/Balad party — to prove that the book’s idea of a state without nations has support from indigenous thinkers. Mamdani argues that Bishara’s career and writings prove him a visionary in that he abandoned the notion of Palestinian nationalism by pursuing a “state for all its citizens,” thus foreshadowing the nation-less future Mamdani proscribes.
This is, however, a misinterpretation of Bishara’s actual ideas. In fact, Bishara’s contribution to the Palestinian struggle was precisely to push Palestinian citizens of Israel away from the notion of assimilation, and to articulate their demands not merely as a permanent minority with some liberal rights, but as an indigenous population demanding collective rights and asserting their Palestinian national identity. These ideas are well-documented in many of Bishara’s books on the subject, yet they are not cited in Mamdani’s chapter.
This misreading of the historical record occurs more frequently than one might expect throughout Mamdani’s analysis. The Second Intifada, which began in 2000, is described as an attempt by Palestinians to reconstitute Israel as a state of all its citizens, and not as an uprising for national rights that were denied to Palestinians despite the promise of the Oslo Accords. Mamdani goes on to say that both the intifadas of 1987 and 2000 were not geared toward armed struggle, but rather political change — glossing over the very different character of both uprisings and the strategies used therein.
At another point, he even argues that “nonpolitical Israelis do not care very much about the Zionist project, but they have trouble seeing beyond it” — a large claim to make that is not corroborated by any public opinion data. Indeed, in a 2016 Pew poll, 73 percent of Israeli Jews said that the term “Zionist” describes them either very or somewhat accurately.
Neither state nor sovereignty
Setting these problems aside, perhaps the most important issue with Mamdani’s argument has to do with his proposed solution of the so-called conflict, what such a solution would entail, and its viability. For one, many scholars with expertise in the South African case would disagree with his assessment that the post-apartheid period has been a success at ending racial segregation and its impacts, let alone breaking down the identities between the colonizers and the colonized.
If anything, South Africa serves as a warning sign: Mamdani’s proposal to replicate a similar dynamic in Israel-Palestine, to flatten the distinction between perpetrator and victim, and to move on without rectifying the sins of the state’s creation, would only cement and reinforce systems of inequality. Justice must be served to try and compensate victims for what was lost, and to make sure that the path-dependent institutions established by colonizers do not continue to operate as they were intended.
Finally, and crucially, to advocate that Palestinians forego their national identity in order to live in a state with equal rights is simply not viable. As public opinion polling by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) has regularly corroborated, most Palestinians still want a state that represents them, with their national identity at its core.
This is why, despite Palestinians viewing the two-state solution as less viable over time, a one-state solution has still not garnered much popular support. A PCPSR poll last month, for example, found 39 percent of respondents supported two states and only 20 percent supported a single state (a drop from 33 percent three months ago). These attitudes are further corroborated by Arab Opinion Index polling; when the statehood question was asked in previous waves of the Index (2015, 2016, and 2017-2018), results found that support for one state remains low, fluctuating between 21 and 25 percent.
We also saw this play out in the recent Unity Intifada: Palestinians living under all forms of Israeli rule, whether they carry citizenship or not, rejected traditional politics and artificial fragmentation, and insisted instead on asserting their shared national identity. To advocate for anything else in the face of such evidence is to deny Palestinians their collective rights. This does not mean that a dichotomy exists between the liberal notion of individual rights and the idea of collective rights; Mamdani’s solution implies there is a contradiction between them, but they are not mutually exclusive. Both can be upheld.
It is that false dichotomy that needs to be rectified in the growing public debate around Israel-Palestine. Throughout the past century of colonization, Palestinians have seen many attempts to deny them their collective national rights to their homeland, from the Balfour Declaration to the “Deal of the Century.” The two-state solution — which was first demanded by the international community in the 1947 UN partition plan and then imposed under the Oslo era — was presented as a means of fulfilling those rights, and was even officially adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1988. Yet this Palestinian entity was always intended as a state in name only, lacking any sovereignty, to ensure Israeli-Jewish domination — as former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself described in his lecture at Bar Ilan University in 2009.
In an attempt to move beyond this non-viable option, analysts and scholars have argued for various configurations of a one-state or binational solution, asking Palestinians to forego a state exclusive to them and instead exercise a different form of sovereignty within the state’s institutions and borders. This might entail a confederation with separate institutions of self-governance for both people, with open and porous borders across the Green Line as well as shared security and economic coordination. It might indeed entail a single political structure with a common citizenship across the board, and with the national identities of both groups protected and enshrined in the legal system.
These ideas continue to be debated among Palestinians, and there is no unified demand or stance on them. What is striking, however, is that Mamdani’s book goes even further than either the two-state or binational paradigm by proposing not just blurring the binary between settler and native, but also abandoning the pursuit of either a nation-state or sovereignty for the colonized people. For most Palestinians, such a de-nationalized solution would neither be viable nor just.