Revolution : Ariella Azoulay

The border of the sovereign state towards which the Palestinians are marching blocks their movement and prevents them from returning to their homes or the homes of their parents or grandparents from which they had been expelled. However, the same border that keeps them out, out of their homes and homeland, keeps Israeli Jews inside to perceive ourselves on the interior, as the interior itself, a part of that which the Palestinians have no part, and never will. Thus Israeli Jews tend not to perceive the civil potential that might be realized if the various struggles on both sides of the Green Line would declare their common other—the actual Israeli regime.

Such were this regime’s main practices regarding the Palestinian population: Massive expulsion of Arabs, demolition of depopulated neighborhoods and villages in order to prevent return, elimination of Palestinian institutions and governing bodies, distancing of the few un-expelled Palestinians from public service, subjugation of the remaining population to military government. Jews were required to evict people from their own homes and perceive this as an act of self-defense, to expel their neighbors, prevent their return, control their lives through military government, demolish their homes or dwell in them, alienate those who until only yesterday had maintained commercial and friendly ties with them, partake in discrimination and exploitation, disconnect themselves from the Arabs, break civil agreements, replace Arabic signs with Hebrew ones, enlist in the army, and pay fines for trying to maintain direct commercial ties with Arabs.16

This violence practiced in the late 1940s cannot be described as a battle against an enemy. This is the violence of a ruling revolution: out of the local populace it distills the people who will acquiesce to the regime whose creation the revolution has enabled. True to the best eighteenth-century revolutionary tradition, the practice of self-determination and agreement of the people is not universal. A privileged group of the governed becomes the embodiment of the people, and the hypothetical agreement it grants the regime obliterates the widespread disagreement among other groups governed by the constituted regime. Revolutionary ruling violence acts to subdue disagreement by expulsion. A differential regime aims to annul hundreds of civil alliances that people strove to achieve in their efforts to preserve a different—civil—model of life.

In the years following World War II, when the UN, headed by Britain, the United States, and South Africa promoted its answer to anti-colonial uprisings. The UN granted self-determination to peoples “ready” for it, and transferred “excess” populations—the Jews fit the former procedure and the Palestinians, the latter. Thus, instead of the civil language in which Jews and Arabs spoke amongst themselves in local assemblies and gatherings initiated throughout the country, instead of joint indigenous efforts to bring the British Mandate rule to an end, ruling revolutionary violence defeated all other options and the Jewish minority who gained citizenship cheered as if this had been a civil revolution.

Civil Awakening – Joined Power of All Governed

For over six decades the regime, which has not won the recognition of its governed body politic in Palestine, has managed to survive because it succeeded in splitting the uprisings against it into relatively legitimate ones (those of the Jewish governed) and illegitimate ones (those of the Arab governed, and certainly those initiated by Palestinians whom it had expelled).17 The Jewish citizens who won civil privileges that are non civil par excellence—a status of preference—were harnessed by the regime to preserve the fundamental separation between these different uprisings. Thus, those who had not taken part in the constitutive revolutionary violence were required to take part in preserving the ruling revolutionary violence. The intentional confusion in the Israeli context of external alien oppressor—the Mandate government or the Arab state armies—and the indigenous population—the Arabs—enabled the recruitment of most of the Jewish population. Part of it went along because violence had been constructed as a war of survival, others because it was constructed as a war of liberation. But if revolution is the subject, then it cannot be named thus, merely along the lines of separation which the resulting regime drew while declaring its end.

Separating the civil concept of revolution out of its ideic-concept where it is intentionally confused with the ruling concept enables one to free history of the grip of ruling power and to trace the simultaneous uprisings and gatherings of citizens at different moments in history. When these are joined together, the non-fixed exceeds the fixed and a possibility is created to start anew, without any individual or group having any preference or priority.

Civil revolution in Palestine, as elsewhere, will not create a new modernist beginning nor draw rift lines in time. Civil revolution means beginning afresh, returning to starting points, to moments in which another rift can be made. New potential—such as that between the ruling and the civil, and from within the latter—draws on new threads and creates a parallel tradition from which various civil moments interweave anew with events that were not necessarily recognized as “revolution.” These are part of a rich language, a kind of lingua franca spoken by those who do not necessarily share a mother tongue. Civil revolution means correction, reparation, repartition, imagination, common experience, possible dreams. This is a language spoken by individuals in different places in the world. When they have had enough of the sovereignty of the nation-state and the capital to which they are subjugated, enough of the evil it produces and its oppression of them and others in the shadow it casts over the horizon of imagination, their gaze, speech, and action, they begin to speak it in public. They seek interlocutors, rubbing against others who speak as they do and resolve to speak with each other in civil language, no matter what. Urgency drives them to imagine and to act, doing so not behind closed doors but rather in the presence of others—foreigners and strangers—like them. The language they speak expresses an imagined partnership with others and care for the world, an understanding that “No man can be sovereign because not one man, but men, inhabit the earth.”18


Arielle Azoulay is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Modern Culture and Media at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies and Director of the Photo-Lexic Research Group at the Minerva Humanities Center, Tel Aviv University. She is an art curator, film-maker, and theorist of photography and visual culture. Her recent publications include Civil Imagination: The Political Ontology of Photography (2012), From Palestine to Israel: A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation, 1947-1950 (2011) and Death’s Showcase (2001, Winner of The Affinity Award, ICP).


16. See my book From Palestine to Israel – Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 47-50.

17. Those by Mizrachi Jews were caught in the middle and were suppressed more violently then others by Jews. It invites a lengthy discussion that I’ll develop elsewhere.

18. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 234.

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