Security theology: life, death and the everyday in Israel-Palestine

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian spoke to Zoe Holman in the West Bank about Israeli settler-colonialism, a necropolitical regime, and her latest book, Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear.  

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian Zoe Holman
14 September 2015

Zoe Holman: How do you define ‘security theology’?

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian: I say that there is a clear security theology at work in Israel, which means that the state has turned security into a theology whereby no-one can discuss, challenge or talk about this ideology in different ways. Just like a biblical theology, there is also a security theology and this is one of the greatest structures in the history of ethnic cleansing. It allows all sorts of things to be done in the name of theology: it masks state violence through the use of a security presence, which works to naturalise the dispossession and racialisation of the Palestinians. So in my book I talk about the two theologies: on the one hand, there is a Biblical belief in the chosen people and the promised land, and on the other, a security theology that is embedded in a settler-colonial ideology. These ideologies are based on a militaristic system that produces fear of Palestinians and creates legal systems, social systems and media systems – an assemblage of different theologies – that ensure the power of the state.

ZH: So security theology becomes a doctrine that is untouchable, that cannot be questioned? 

NSK: Yes, exactly. And this theology has different layers  – it has bio-political elements, which are clear in the legal system and other demographic systems that maintain control over bodies. One chapter in my book is named ‘Israel in my bedroom’ because of this specific connection between the security theology and bio-politics. The state maintains a level control over Palestinian bodies – who they are marrying, whether those they marry can get citizenship, or live alongside Israelis, and so on. I refer to the case of one young woman, a citizen of Jerusalem, who moved to Gaza, married a Jerusalemite and had four children. They moved back to Jerusalem, where her husband died of cancer, so she ended up being there with no Jerusalem ID - someone who should by law be expelled from her own place. The only way she was ultimately allowed to stay was under various conditions that she must stay with children, never marry anyone from outside Jerusalem and maintain a clean criminal record. Every year now, she must get a police letter stating that she is not a security threat to the state. So here we have a condition where a bio-political state has the power to control the body of a young woman who has just lost husband and is alone with her children, at the state's  mercy. Still, the state defines her as a security threat. Of course, there is also an added geopolitical layer – this element is about land and dispossession and is very clear in Israeli policies like urban planning, architecture, land confiscation and house demolitions. So through this combination of bio-politics, geopolitics and security theology, we reach a situation of what I call a necro-political regime - an economy of life and death which tells you who should live and how, and who should die and how.

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Wall in Israel-Palestine 2009. Photo: Palestine Grafities via Flickr.ZH: So how is this regime reflected in the ability of the state to classify Palestinians as insiders and outsiders, and to control their everyday lives accordingly? NSK: The element of ‘everydayness’ is major in my work. Because I am a feminist scholar and a Palestinian feminist, I look at connection and interlocking - not intersection, because elements do not intersect, but rather interlock – in what happens every day. It is about the epistemology of details, of the mundane, through which the security theology works. For example, I refer to the fact that every day flags are put in your face and there is a violence attached to this act. Those flags not only engage the space, but they also tell Palestinians that they are outsiders here, that ‘you are not included, you are an invader’. It is in the everyday – the ability to go to school, or reach the clinic, or meet family members – that the state is committing an additional sociocide, a killing of society through slow fragmentation. Another example of this is child arrest. One of my studies shows clearly that Palestinian children are being intentionally confined to their homes by security laws. The moment you put children under arrest in their house, the home – the place of sleeping and feeding and safety – is turned into a prison.

ZH: What sorts of physical and psychological effects do you see resulting from these practices? NSK: Palestinians are human beings. We are humans living under a condition of constant uncertainty - not knowing how the day will start and or how it will end. This is affecting Palestinians in so many different ways. In some cases, it produces more determination to resist. Look, for example, at East Jerusalem where Israel claims there was a major increase in cases of children throwing stones. I explain this as those children telling the system that they refuse to accept humiliation as a part of their daily life. They are throwing those stones to tell Israelis ‘we are stronger than you’. For others I work with, like those who have had their houses demolished, I see clear increases in child diabetes, as well as hypertension and other conditions. Or for example, in Gaza we have now learned that the infant mortality rate is extremely high the past year, which shows the clear connection between the political and the personal. Physically, it inscribes power over the body and psychologically, people are very afraid, yet always trying to deny that fact of violence just to get through their daily lives. ZH: And you see this as part of purposeful project by Israel to break-down and demean Palestinians? NSK: Yes. In fact, where people talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD), I talk about a continuous PTSD in the case of Palestinians, a ‘CPTSD’. Because it is not only one thing that has caused trauma - it is something that started and has never ended. It is in our mind, unstopping, and it is hard to see where it is going. In Jerusalem, it is suffocating, a sense of entrapment. It is a maze, and whatever you do, you are either seeing them and their violence against your society, or being controlled by their laws, or threatened by their theatrical mode of showing their power, as in their ‘price-tag’ practices in Jerusalem. These kind of acts are being done with impunity, nobody is controlling them. They can write slogans on houses like, ‘the only good Arab is a dead Arab’ and so it becomes clear; they are unconstrained and they want you dead.

OD price tag 2.jpg

  Workers erase the words 'Price Tag' spray-painted on a gravestone at a Muslim cemetary in Jerusalem, 2013.Photo: Marco Longari, AFP/Getty Images.

ZH: You point out, however, that even the spectre of dead Palestinians continues to haunt the Israeli state – what attempts have you observed to control practices around death and mourning?

NSK: In my book, I try somehow to interview the dead, to show how even as a dead body, Israel is still reading and writing the living power of the Palestinian as a security threat. I give examples of people who, even though they are from Jerusalem, never managed to reach the city to be buried there because the security system and its theology have read the living power of the Palestinian body as dangerous, so it must be evicted from the city.

 You also document many disturbing instances of how security theology affects pregnant women, for example, a woman trying not to have her baby on a bus to Jerusalem, so that she can reach the city where her baby will be born to receive a Jerusalem ID. So there is also an intentional effort to interrupt or limit the Palestinian ability to give life?

Yes. One of the things that bothers me is that birth and death are not looked at, because most scholars examine things in very general terms. I read the Palestinian living and dead in a different way – where even the unborn child and the dead body are deemed a security threat. My book does this from a starting point of what is written on the walls - because this reflects a kind of surveillance over space, it is telling Palestinians from the beginning that ‘your place is outside, you should not be here.’

ZH: Indeed, only days after your talk in Ramallah we saw a murder, where settlers burned to death a Palestinian baby and father in their home, the word ‘revenge’ graffitied on its walls…

Yes, what happened confirmed that we are not making these things up. This is the point you reach when you turn a blind eye to such injustice. The same thing was done in 1948 and the world didn’t do anything, and it is being done again today and no-one is doing anything. So it is on-going.

ZH: How much of this is unique to circumstances in Palestine? What parallels can we see with other settler-colonial societies?

NSK: In each context, practices differ, but there are parallels. I see these in Hawaii, in Australia’s indigenous community, among the Mohawks in Canada - for example, in how they took children from their homes because they thought they weren’t parenting properly - and of course, among native communities in the US. The settler-colonial regime is based on three main elements: in Palestine, you see the demographic element, which you also see in Australia for example, in the issue of stolen childhoods. In Canada and the US, you see the genocidal context, and also the sexual element. These structures are at work in each and every place, whether colonial or settlor-colonial. For example, in India, demographic politics was worked very strongly under the British, who ruled by records, documenting who lived where, who they were married to and so on, and we see Israel doing the same thing. However, in the settler-colonial context, they allow you to stay in your home – they want to profit from you. Over here, under the Israeli settler-colonial regime, the Zionist regime, you have two kinds of power: the security theology that fears Palestinians, and the biblical one in which God gave the land to them. So yes, you have the genocidal logic at work, but also the Biblical logic, which takes it to a different level. Of course, the use of religion is not unique to Palestine – you can find it in South Africa, Ireland, America and elsewhere. So as a settler-colonial regime, it is not unique, but there are particular details and practices in the Israeli case through which it invades so strongly the everyday lives of Palestinians. What the coloniser wants to see is the colonised in a constant state of disappearing.  

ZH: As a scholar, what sort of obstacles do you encounter in producing this kind of work?

NSK: Of course, professionally it is tough and very complicated. But at the same time, I think that I am the lucky one, able to sit and write and produce counter-hegemonic knowledge. I think it is the living aspect that is tougher. Living in the old city of Jerusalem and seeing settlers every day, dealing with the police and the military, trying to protect my family. The professional aspect bothers me, but it does not affect me as much as everyday life – the risk of living under these conditions and not knowing where the risk will end. Not only are you not wanted, but they look at us in theological terms, like animals who should be put in cages, confined in small places. To see my people suffering like this every day – kids who are imprisoned, a woman who is hit, a man arrested and abused– this is what affects me. This is where I have those bad moments, where I feel that I am living in a graveyard and wonder how I can change things. So my only way is my pen, it is my writing.

Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear was published by Cambridge University Press, May 2015.


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