What is the origin and reason for your interest in Israeli activism for Palestinian rights?
I have been politically active on the issue of Palestine and Palestinian rights for over ten years, with several stays in the country for solidarity and activist work. As a matter of fact, I was initially hesitant about the choice of Israel-Palestine as a topic for my PhD because I saw my political views on the matter as an obstacle to the tenets of academic “objectivity”. Only later, as I grew as a researcher, I came to welcome my political passion as the spark that could “breath life” into my work, as Ghassan Hage writes. I initially wanted to contribute to the understanding of the “how possible” of this situation by looking at how Israelis made sense of (and came to accept and normalise) the violence that was being perpetrated in their name. It was only during my preliminary fieldwork that I eventually chose to focus on Jewish Israeli activism. Once again, what brought me to it was a personal, political drive more than a research-related one: I needed a break from my immersion in Zionist environments and went to spend an evening in a leftist community centre in Jerusalem. There, I was unsettled by the coexistence of familiar left-wing discourses and aesthetics with a surrounding context of deep-seated racism and discrimination. It seemed to me that this tension concerned not only Israeli activism, but activist environments in general, me very personally as a politically minded individual, and the aims and practice of critical research too. I thought this was an interesting tension to explore in my thesis, although it would still take me a while to pinpoint it exactly on the question of embeddedness in power in struggles for political change.
What are your research questions?
Broadly speaking, the thesis is an investigation into the “paradox of privilege” in the struggle for structural political change, as it has been treated across studies of counter-hegemony, social movements, solidarity, decoloniality, race relations, post-conflict studies, and so forth. This is the question of whether and how it is possible to mobilise one’s privileged access to the existing sources of power (systemic tools and discourses, but also embodied privileges and internalised understandings) towards their own dismantlement.
The thesis looks at how this paradox unfolds in practice in the case of Jewish Israeli activists who mobilise in various ways to advance Palestinian rights, in a situation in which the system of discrimination for which Palestinians suffer is the same that grants Israeli activists the privileges they hold (and that constitute the very value added of their contribution to the struggle). Taking the ambivalence of their position as a starting point, the thesis explores how Jewish Israeli activists deal with this ambivalence politically, strategically, and ethically, both in the struggle and in their everyday life, and asks how these negotiations impact the achievement of decolonial change in Israel-Palestine.
How do you go about it in terms of methodology?
The methodological framework I use is ethnographic at core. I spent overall six months in Israel-Palestine between 2018 and 2019. I conducted almost two hundred semi-structured interviews with Jewish Israeli activists, participant observations of their actions, and “hangings out” with them. I have complemented these with the analysis of material produced by and about activist groups, legal sources, and news items, and with the ethnographic observation of the political landscape of Israel-Palestine.
My approach has also been auto-ethnographic, insofar as my focus on the positionality of activists has pushed me to interrogate also my own power-laden positionality as an “engaged” researcher in the field. These reflections have been integrated in the thesis in the form of auto-ethnographic interludes between chapters.
What are your findings regarding the paradox of privilege for Jewish Israeli activists?
The thesis has found that the paradox of privilege holds true in the case of Jewish Israeli activists (that their reliance on privilege reproduces and entrenches it), but also that it cannot be resolved, because such reliance is ultimately inevitable in the present context of de facto asymmetry. As such, the thesis extends the assessment made by critical scholarship on liberal Zionist groups to the whole spectrum of Jewish Israeli activism: it is not only by remaining within the discursive and institutional boundaries placed by Zionism that activism reinforces its normative authority. Zionism is upheld also in less obvious ways because, even when opposing it outright from anti-Zionist standpoints and agendas, activists cannot avoid mobilising, and thus partially entrenching, their structural and embodied privileges. In this sense, the struggles they wage are necessarily “imperfect”, and contribute to strengthening Zionist hegemony in unforeseen ways.
Yet, the thesis has also found that it is precisely by working with and through the compromised nature of their political engagement that Jewish Israeli activists can engender profound counter-hegemonic disruptions. As activists acknowledge their entanglements with oppressive structures, and muddle through them in constant tension (without surrendering to either political paralysis or self-indulgence), they acquire a much subtler understanding of the multifaceted workings of their privileges and of how to interrupt them.
In addition, the thesis has found that the current “shrinking space” of Jewish Israeli activism provides a fertile ground for the emergence of these kinds of disruptions. The internal ostracism of dissent, combined with the urgency to act nonetheless to contain the most nefarious effects of Israeli policies, has pushed many activists to concretise their commitment to change into “messy” political engagements that prioritise compromises over purity, practice over political ideals, and are rooted “on the ground” and in encounters with multiple Others – Palestinians and Jewish Israelis alike. If combined with a deep self-reflexive attitude, this relational and bodily praxis of critique can erode from within the allegiances and understandings imposed by Zionism and build radical alternatives from the bottom up.
So you hope that this praxis can lead to the decolonisation of Israel-Palestine?
Indeed, the thesis has important implications for prospects of decolonisation and decoloniality, in Israel-Palestine and beyond. It complements approaches that have focused on the role of the colonised in reversing colonial structures by conceptualising the role – and indeed the responsibility – of the colonisers too. Indeed, privileged actors take an active part in existing systems of domination and they, too, need to commit to a decolonial engagement through the defamiliarisation and deconstruction of their own deep-seated privileges. This is paramount for achieving not only decolonisation but full decoloniality, that is, the creation of socio-political configurations that are freed from underlying colonial relationships, practices, and epistemologies.
More broadly, the “imperfect struggles” of Jewish Israeli activists can serve as an example to those working for systemic change in situations where the entanglements of power and resistance are more elusive than in Israel-Palestine. While the attempts described in the thesis offer no recipe for politically “pure” struggles, they can inspire better practices of activism and solidarity from a position of privilege, as well as a multitude of personal engagements towards the recognition and deconstruction of our own power-laden subjectivities.
Will you continue your research on the decolonising potential of “imperfect struggles”?
Yes, I hope so. I am currently working on a postdoctoral project proposal that aims to explore how the insights and findings of the thesis could be applied to better understand other contexts in which partnerships in struggle occur across asymmetric power positions.
Another objective I have in the medium term is that of publishing the thesis as a monograph, ideally for both academic and non-academic audiences.
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Alice Baroni defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in November 2022. Assistant Professor Michelle Weitzel presided over the committee, which included Professor Keith Krause and Assistant Professor Jonathan Austin, thesis co-supervisors, and Senior Lecturer Katie Natanel, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, UK.
A political sociologist with an expertise in social movements, race relations, and decoloniality, Alice has over ten years of experience in cutting-edge research and political advocacy across Italy, Switzerland, and the MENA region.
Citation of the PhD thesis:
Baroni, Alice. “Imperfect Struggles: Jewish-Israeli Activists for Palestinian Rights and the Paradoxes of Solidarity from a Position of Power.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2023.
The thesis is embargoed until February 2026. For access, please contact Alice Baroni at email@example.com.
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: part of a photo by Alice Baroni.