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Why is it crucial to depoliticize identity?

Identity is the qualities, beliefs, or overall characteristics or condition which make an individual or individuals different from others and by which they choose to identify themselves. It may be ethnic, religious, cultural, sexual, or a combination of these or others. Collective identity, in particular, is a social construct, which may or may not be aligned with the reality of how those who make up said identity identify themselves. The politicization of identity is the political choice, made by said individuals or groups, by other individuals or groups, by socio-political movements, or by states, to factor identity in when making political choices and decisions. The politicization of identity necessarily results in, or even equals, discrimination, since choosing not to discriminate on the basis of identity means factoring identity out of politics, i.e. depoliticizing identity. Examples of politicizing identity would include political ideologies, political movements or states:

  • Holding esteem or good will toward or harboring hostility or prejudice against individuals or groups on the basis of their identity
  • Viewing or claiming that individuals or groups are superior or inferior to others in any way, or deserving or undeserving of certain rights or privileges, on the basis of their identity
  • Granting or denying rights or privileges (such as education, work, housing, owning land, freedom of movement, residency, citizenship or others) on the basis of identity
  • Being or claiming to be exclusive or quasi-exclusive to a certain identity

The politicization of identity has particularly been at the heart of humankind’s politics and history since the 15th century, when the identitarian “nation-state” model took shape in Europe and was exported to the “uncivilized” world via colonialism: Whereas immigrants and refugees integrate indigenous polities, settlers such as these supplant indigenous polities with polities exclusive to “them”. The result of this politicizing of identity has been centuries of legal, political, economic and cultural segregation, apartheid, slavery, mass displacement, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other horrors.

Adopting a “human rights” or otherwise legalistic or moralistic approach to such crimes is insufficient, as it may treat the symptom rather than the disease, by judging the crimes or their perpetrators without judging the political project that caused, justified and/or enabled said crimes. Indeed, the nationalist-colonialist model that politicizes identity can only be harmful, for the following reasons:

  • Societies being made up of individuals of different identities, the politicization of identity can only fragment societies it originates from, creates, targets, or otherwise interacts with. Politicizing identity can only create competing, even warring, factions, sects or states.
  • Identity being a social construct, inasmuch as identity groups are not actual interest groups (such as, say, industrialists, farmers, students, low-income families, etc), an identitarian segmentation of society does not align with its citizens’ or interest groups’ actual interests, which leads to political narratives, discourses, programs and policies that do not tackle or align with society’s actual needs.
  • The politicization of identity is riddled with contradictions: Political movements or apparatuses who chose to politicize identity face the burden of having to define it, perhaps even having to create previously inexistent or marginally existent social constructs, as well as the consequent burden of having to impose it on the individuals or populations who may have chosen to identify differently.
  • Politicizing identity may spiral out of control. Identity being what sets us apart from “others”, when a certain identitarian group achieves dominance over others, the group itself may fragment itself into sub-identities that now view each other as the “other”.

The above, of course, applies to the state of Israel, which segregates on the basis of identity between Jewish non-citizens and non-Jewish non-citizens, Jewish residents and non-Jewish residents, and Jewish citizens and non-Jewish citizens. A political approach that focuses on guaranteeing the rights of the Palestinian people, or on Israel’s or Israeli leaders’ crimes, without judging Zionism’s politicization of identity, is lacking. Furthermore, Zionism is not the only project in the region to politicize identity, Maronism, Arabism and Islamism being examples of the same. In putting forward a political program for the depoliticization of identity, namely, the transition to a secular, democratic, non-identitarian state in Palestine, the “One Democratic State” Initiative proposes a political model that is the fundamental antithesis, not only to Zionism, but to the colonial nation-state model and its ideological foundations, beyond the borders of Palestine.

Relevant Readings

Neither Settler Nor Native — The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities — Mahmood Mamdani
An interview with Mahmood Mamdani — Jadaliyya
Ben Ami: Support for Israel threat to US Jewish community — Mondoweiss

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