Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Elizabeth Bentley

PhD Candidate in Rhetoric, Composition and the Teaching of English, University of Arizona

Owning Extinction: Tracing Rhetorical Figurations of the Last Crocodile in Palestine

In this paper, I consider how the question of property comes to bear on the question of nonhuman species life in Palestine. I draw on multispecies ethnography and archival research to trace a counter-history of regional species extinction that accounts for the layered violences of colonial extraction and racial capitalism. I focus on Nile crocodiles with particular attention to the rhetorical figure of the last crocodile in Palestine. The “endling,” or last living member of a species, is a common trope in environmental literatures on extinction (van Dooren, 2017). Instead of isolating a single biological creature, I consider how the last Palestinian crocodile is repeatedly and productively reconfigured across natural history books, zoos and museums. I situate the crocodile within a web of interspecies relations that exceed fiscal ownership. 

Until the early 20th century, Nile crocodiles lived in the rivers off Palestine’s Mediterranean coast. They received outsized attention from 19th and early 20th century European naturalists and imperial soldiers, who speculated endlessly about the Palestinian crocodile. The last crocodile was allegedly killed in 1912 by a Ghawarni Bedouin hunter from Jisr al Zarqa. Contemporary Israeli public institutions such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo isolate and invoke this historical anecdote in order to frame Palestinians as ecologically irresponsible. This Israeli revisionist history erases the web of relations that led to the Nile crocodile’s regional extinction beginning with one crucial fact: The hunter was commissioned by Father Ernst Schmitz, a German naturalist and priest who administered over the Schmidt School for girls and St. Paulus Hostel in Jerusalem from 1908 until 1921. Schmitz cultivated a network of Bedouin hunters to locate and kill rare animals. Schmidt shipped the animals to expert taxidermists in Germany and then sold the taxidermy to private collectors and museums across Europe who were eager to own “Holy Land” species. Schmitz himself amassed an impressive collection that included the last crocodile. 

For over a century, the crocodile was housed in St. Paulus hostel’s basement museum along with the rest of Schmitz’s collection. It was used for science education at the adjacent Schmidt School, where it was beloved amongst generations of Palestinian students. An international controversy surrounding the crocodile exploded in 2017 when Schmitz’s collection was “transferred” to the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History and Center for Biodiversity in Tel Aviv. Israeli zoologists claimed to have “discovered” the valuable taxidermy, echoing prior generations of colonial scientists that commodified the Palestinian crocodile and isolated it from regional ecology. In response to outrage from Schmidt School alumni and Palestinian activists, the German Association of the Holy Land (DVHL) invoked property laws to defend their decision to permanently loan the taxidermy to the Israeli museum. Heeding Cendric Robinson’s (1983) call that in order to “develop new theory, we need a new history” (p.307), I aim to expose the limits of Anthropocene discourse for the Palestinian context and move towards an analytical paradigm that centers interspecies justice and flourishing.

Elizabeth Bentley is a PhD Candidate in rhetoric and composition at the University of Arizona. Her research examines contested histories of nonhuman species life in Palestine/Israel and how these histories are mediated at public educational sites like zoos, nature reserves and natural history museums. Her research is supported by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). She is co-editor of the edited volume Religion, Secularism, and Political Belonging, which is forthcoming from Duke University Press.