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Israel: A settler-colonial state? A clarification

22 November 2023

“Take away the divine warrant for the Holy Land and where were you, and what were you? Just another land-thief like the Turks or the British, except that in this case you wanted the land without the people. And the original Zionist slogan—'a land without a people for a people without a land'—disclosed its own negation when I saw the densely populated Arab towns dwelling sullenly under Jewish tutelage. You want irony? How about Jews becoming colonizers at just the moment when other Europeans had given up on the idea?”

- Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

There are few terms that ignite more vexation and wrangling in the Israel-Palestine discourse than settler-colonialism. You hear it all the time. It’s quite en vogue on some parts of the Left to moralistically castigate all Israelis as “settlers”. Academia has experienced an industrialization in settler-colonial studies heavily influenced by Patrick Wolfe in which Israel-Palestine has a valued place. The project of much of the actually-existing Left seems to be more “decolonizing Palestine” than world revolution for socialism.

Naturally, this framing has led to pushback. The Israeli scholar, Ilan Troen, has previously claimed that the recent settler-colonial “turn” in analysing the Israel-Palestine conflict is nothing but “a crucial addition to the linguistic arsenal of lawfare used to deny Israel’s legitimacy”. Simon Sebag Montefiore, in a recent essay for The Atlantic, has described the colonial frame as a “toxic, historically nonsensical mix of Marxist theory, Soviet propaganda, and traditional anti-Semitism from the Middle Ages and the 19th century.” James Heartfield in Spiked has also rubbished Israel as a settler-colonial state as “misleading”. Alan Johnson of Fathom Journal in a Twitter thread lambasted applying the settler-colonial paradigm for erasing the unique perspective of the Jewish predicament that led to the need for a Jewish state in the first place.

The charge that Israel is a settler colonial state, and that Zionism was a settler-colonial movement seems outrageous, especially to many Jews, for various reasons. It seems to deny the historical Jewish connection to Eretz Israel and portray Israeli Jews as simply “white” European interlopers on “Arab land”, no different to the white Afrikaners in South Africa, the pied-noirs in Algeria or the white Rhodesians. For one, at least half of Israel’s population is Mizrahim and Sephardic Jews who descend from refugees from the neighbouring countries, so they are just as “indigenous” to the region as any other group. Moreover, it can feel extra insulting given that Ashkenazim Jews were oppressed precisely because they were not regarded as “white” or European. The term antisemitism after all was coined by German racists who saw Jews as racially “semitic”, not European.

Indeed, many Zionists would retort that the Jews are the indigenous people who have managed to maintain their intimate attachment to the Holy Land through a “thin, but crucial line of continuity” (to use Abba Eban’s phrase) for over three millennia. The former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren in a 2019 interview with The New Yorker unashamedly affirmed that Jews have an “incontrovertible right” to settle anywhere in “our tribal lands” (the West Bank as well as Tel Aviv) just as “a member of the Sioux nation has the right to live on Sioux nation territory”. After all, the Zionist movement didn’t create a “New Vilna” or a “New Krakow”, but “restored” ancient Biblical and Talmudic place names in Hebrew. How can it possibly be settler-colonialism if it’s the indigenous people who are repatriating to their ancestral homeland?

Let’s not forget that for a long time the Zionist movement was also enmeshed with the Left, even with socialism. This fact alone can lead one to subconsciously believe that a movement ostensibly marinated in the socialist lexicon cannot be mentioned in the same breath with “colonial”. The idea of Jews “returning” to their lost homeland and creating a socialist commonwealth didn’t seem like a colonial venture at all. Quite the opposite. It seemed like a noble cause to be at least sympathetic to. Especially as the “Arab cause” back then was seen less as national liberation, and more a collection of semi-feudal oligarchies fighting for their own reactionary interests.

As well, the decolonial “Left” leave a lot to be desired. Because of their disavowal of universalism as “white” and “western”, their radicalism is based on an insurgent racialized particularism. Their notion of “decolonization” reeks of reactionary ethnonationalism and nativist restorationism, instead of establishing a free society for all. Their ressentiment and racialist view of history condemns “people of colour” to be permanent subalterns who are nothing more than resisters of modernity. Settler-colonialism for them is a rhetorical rather than analytical ploy; a symbol of evil that must be cleansed so that cosmic justice can reign.

Nevertheless, it is possible to apply the settler-colonial paradigm – not as new as some believe – to Israel and Zionism in a reasonable manner, as Arnon Degani and Lorenzo Veracini have demonstrated, or Maxime Rodinson before them. A settler-colonial movement is in simple terms the movement of settlers from one part of the world to another, irrevocably transforming that territory into their own sovereign polity, usually autonomous from an imperial centre, almost always at the loss at the native inhabitants who were already there, whether in part or in whole.

Settler-colonialism and colonialism are often conflated, but there is a difference between the two. One difference is colonialism follows the logic of extraction, where colonisers demand the natives “work for them”. Whereas settler colonists want the land not the people. They demand that the natives “go away” so that the land will be free to be worked on by imported labourers. Zionism clearly fits the latter since they had no interest in extracting surplus value from the Arab population; they wanted as much land with as few Arabs as possible to clear the way for Jewish settlement to form a Jewish majority polity. The fudging of this distinction is partially why there is so much wrangling over calling Israel a settler-colonial state.

Two arguments are usually trotted out as trump cards as to why Israel doesn’t have settler-colonial origins. First, that the Zionist movement wasn’t beholden to a metropole like the English settlers in Kenya were. They weren’t sent to colonise Palestine on behalf of the British Crown, but to attain independent statehood for itself. Be that as it may, Zionist leaders, particularly Chaim Weizmann, always recognized the necessity of an alliance with a Great Power, to quote Yosef Gorny, to be “sole external guarantee for the achievement of Zionist goals.” Whatever the tensions between the Zionist movement and British empire were, the plain fact is that without the British Mandate and the external protection it provided, the Zionist movement would not have been able to develop the sub-structures, settlement networks, demographic power and institutions that would eventually morph into the state of Israel. In other words, the British Mandate objectively facilitated the Zionist movement’s national colonization project in Palestine.

And second, as James Heartfield claims, the Zionist movement wasn’t settler-colonial because from 1944-1947, it launched an insurgency against the British for its independence. Does the fact that the Boers, the English and Spanish colonists in North and South America fought against their imperial centres for independence disqualify South Africa, the United States or Latin America from being settler-colonial societies? That would be wrong. In fact, it’s a pattern among settler societies to outgrow the imperial sovereign.

Avouching that structurally that the Zionist movement was settler-colonial, need not negate the historic Jewish connection to the Holy Land, or the history of oppression Jews faced in both Christian and Muslim societies, or even mandate that Israel must be “abolished”. In fact, prominent figures within the Zionist movement explicitly made parallels between their movement and other settler movements.

It would be too easy, and rather cheap, to point out the history of Zionist organizations using “colonial” and “colonization” in their official titles, e.g., Jewish Colonization Association. But take the case of Arthur Ruppin, known as the “father of Zionist settlement”, who was inspired by the German settlement project in Prussia that dispossessed many Poles as a model to emulate and improve upon for “national colonization” in Palestine. Labor Zionist Haim Arlosoroff in 1927, when groping for an analogy to compare the conditions the Zionist movement at the time faced, said that South Africa was “almost the only case in which there is similarity in the objective conditions and problems so as to allow us an analogy”.

And of course there is Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the revisionist Zionist tendency, who in his infamous Iron Wall essay had no problem declaring Zionism a “colonizing enterprise” and comparing the Zionists to the “the Pilgrim Fathers” of America, with the Palestinian Arabs – a living nation, not “bribeable rabble” – playing the role of the ‘indigenous’ Amerindian, who “look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervour that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or any Sioux looked upon his prairie.” In fact, his argument that expecting a voluntary agreement with the Palestinian Arabs is fanciful, hence the need for “an iron wall of Jewish bayonets” is based on the realist observation that “every nation fights against colonisers as long as there is even a spark of hope of getting rid of the danger of colonization.”

More crucially, Israel is a settler-colonial state today because of its active settler colonization on the West Bank and East Jerusalem premised on further dispossession and displacement of Palestinians to “Hebraize” the land. For the Palestinians, Zionism was always about the takeover of land by newcomers, which entailed the dispossession of local people and their exclusion from the labour market; and the establishment of a new political order where they had no belonging in and entailed their supplantation. “The fear of territorial displacement and dispossession was to be the chief motor of Arab antagonism to Zionism down to 1948 (& indeed after 1967 as well)”, observed Benny Morris in Righteous Victims: A History of the Arab-Zionist Conflict. This “fear of territorial displacement and dispossession” among Palestinian Arabs was vindicated in the 1948 war (Al-Nakba) where an estimated 750,000 of them were expelled or displaced from their homeland and barred from returning lest they be shot on sight. Their entire society collapsed and now had to endure exile. This is fundamentally the rational and material ‘root’ of Palestinian anti-Zionist rejectionism.

In this sense, 1948 Israel is more like Argentina, Australia and the United States in terms of successfully erecting a sovereign state and a new social order on the ruins of the native society that preceded it. While the settlement project on the West Bank more echoes French Algeria or South Africa in terms of settlers setting up shop on an occupied land, subsidized and protected by their “mother country” in a sea of hostile natives, while all the infrastructure is designed for their benefit alone. But to be really precise, the most direct analogy to make with Israel regarding other settler-colonial movements would be with Liberia–a comparison that would actually illuminate the argument. No analogy is perfect in every single aspect, but the basic parallel between the Zionist and Liberian movements was it is was based on a part of an oppressed, diasporic people developing a utopian nationalist movement based on particularism, a rejection of assimilation and a “return” to a lost ancestral homeland to create a new society and “restore” their nation. However, in the process of “return” they collide with suspicious natives who see them as colonisers and invaders, which in turn leads to their dispossession and subordination, culminating in a multi-decade conflict.

It would be limited though to just see Zionism as a settler colonial movement; it was also a national movement. A lot is said about Zionism, but to understand Zionism as a national movement properly, and not just as a colonizing enterprise, means placing it in its historical context of the development of modern nationalism in post-Enlightenment Europe.

The American and French revolutions bequeathed to us the first ideological conception of the nation, as we understand it today. The definition of the nation enunciated was of a political community grounded in shared democratic, republican values. In this view, the state belongs to its citizens that reside in its territory. What was noteworthy about this Enlightenment conception of nationhood was its universalism. On principle, there ought to be no barriers, whether religious, cultural or ethnic, for anyone becoming a citizen of the democratic republic. The patria (homeland) denoted a civic ideal to be achieved, not a geographical concept. Moreover, due to its cosmopolitan ethic, it understood the nation-state not as a permanent reality, but a historically transient phenomenon; a stepping stone to even more universalist forms of social organization. It looked forward to the day where men, in the words of Anacharsis Cloots, could say “the world is my country. The world is my native land.” Jewish emancipation and the national assimilation of Jews flowed from this all-inclusive revolutionary definition of nationhood.

In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, however, a different conception of the nation came to fore. Its definition was firmly cultural, not political. Indeed, the nation was taken to be a pre-political entity. Its idiom was romanticism. Its touchstone was language, which was regarded as a badge of a primordial national bond. In particular, German romanticism posed the first fundamental challenge to the pretensions of the liberal national ideal. It rubbished the idea that a genuine national community could be established on common political ideals. Instead, the bonds of a nation were alleged to be by blood, that “naturally” united some people and “naturally” excluded others. Because nationhood is grounded in race, therefore each “volk” is fundamentally different from the rest, and thus should develop independently and separately in a land that ‘organically’ belonged to it, and in a state whose ‘character’ is a projection of the organic nation.

Well into the 19th century, these ideas would mutate into the antisemitic integral nationalisms that engulfed Europe. It placed “the nation”, not the individual, as the foundation of the social order, and held that Jews were not, and could not, be truly “of” the nation. They were an “alien” presence on the body politic that could not possibly be integrated because of their semitic “essence”. Thus, they had to be expunged to make the nation “whole”. This ideology rejected on principle Jewish emancipation and the possibility of Jewish integration into society, since their anti-Jewish bias was racial, not religious as it was in pre-modern society.

Zionism, as a sub-set of Jewish nationalism that was a product of the Jewish predicament in the 19th century, emphatically shares an affinity with the various romantic nationalist movements that flourished in post-Enlightenment Europe. Even its most “enlightened” expression is derived from the differentiated universalism of Herder than the cosmopolitanism of Condorcet. Zionism, in both its diagnosis of the Jewish predicament and its prognosis of a Jewish state, is fundamentally at loggerheads with the cosmopolitan liberalism of the Enlightenment, and its scion in Marxism (and with Reform Judaism).

For one, it approached the Jewish predicament as a national question. This understanding was grounded in the assumption that a nation was defined by its “organic” and “profound” bonds and that the Jewish nation was wielded together by such bonds, primarily by the blood. And because Jews were a nation, therefore they were entitled to – and necessarily must seek – their own specific national sovereignty. Any supposed solution to the “Jewish Question” that did not take into account the inescapable and irrepressible “fact” of Jewish nationhood was necessarily quixotic. Moses Hess poured scorn on the cosmopolitan’s “universal strivings for humanity that erase every distinction in the organism of mankind.” A potential harmony between the various races/nations of the world is imaginable, but not its transcendence.

Moreover, it naturalizes antisemitism. It concedes antisemitism to be the deplorable, but “natural” impulse of a national organism infected by an obtrusive foreign element – what Jabotinsky called the “antisemitism of things”. Because Jews were a “ghost nation” (Leon Pinsker’s phrase) who weren’t rooted in native soil of their own they were “eternal strangers” everywhere they lived. At best, Jews in diaspora were glorified “guests” residing in lands that, in essence, “belonged” not to them, but to the majority Christian peoples who had a unique historical-spiritual connection to their land. Therefore, a Jew’s place in these lands will always be reliant on gentile sufferance – if it can be “granted”, it can always be revoked.

This is why Karl Kautsky once said that “Zionism meets antisemitism halfway”. It’s a counsel of despair and defeat. “Any version of Zionist theory”, as Arthur Hertzberg wrote in the introduction to his anthology The Zionist Idea, “must necessarily imply some sense of a loss of hope in the future total acceptance of the Jew as individual by the majority society”. Thus, for Zionism, in the final analysis, any effort to transcend race or nationhood or combat gentile antisemitism in the name of civic equality or communist revolution is a fool’s errand. The only hope Jews could have to live as free men and women in the modern world without dissolving their innate Jewishness, was under a Jewish state where they were the majority that would “normalise” the Jewish nation among the nations of the world because like every other nation they now had a patria that they, by historical right, “owned” and authentically “belonged” to.

The conflict with the Palestinians was foreshadowed in this exclusivist, romantic ethnonationalism of Zionist ideology. Zionism sought to create a Jewish state in the “organic” homeland of the Jewish people with its prerequisite being a Jewish majority. A state in which non-Jews – Palestinian Arabs - would at best constitute a de trop presence, inorganic to both the (Jewish) body-politic and “the land”. While Arabs may have “residential rights”, only the Jewish nation has “historic rights” to Eretz Israel/Palestine. Thus, any democratic rights Arabs may enjoy in the Jewish state is only due to sufferance and grace – implying that they can also be taken away.

To achieve, in practice, its endziel of a Jewish state that the Jewish people had title to, meant, as Chaim Weizmann put it, making “Palestine as Jewish as England is English”. Yet, Palestine at the time was overwhelmingly Arab. Thus, the Zionist movement necessitated a fight with the Palestinian Arabs over the land and its ethnic “character”, which in turn would eventually lead to their ethnic cleansing. When you understand Zionism and Israel like this, you realise how in the history of nation states, not how exceptional Israel supposedly is, but precisely how unexceptional it is.

The Zionist movement had to use the means of settler-colonialization to attain the end of a Jewish nation state. This was a necessity due to the objective conditions of having to gather a dispersed Jewish diaspora to form a Jewish majority in a particular patch of territory that was already inhabited by another people. A quarrel with a native population would likely have ensued wherever the Zionist movement decided to erect a Jewish state. “It was the historical tragedy of Zionism”, noted Walter Laqueur in his standard history of Zionism, “that it appeared on the international scene when there were no longer empty spaces on the map” (a point also acknowledged in a different way by the anti-Zionist Trotskyist, Abram Leon). CLR James in 1938 critiqued the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Kenya as Europe wanting to dump its “Jewish problem” on Africa, while keeping their own borders shut to Jewish refugees and creating conditions for conflict with the already dispossessed native Africans who will direct their ire at Jews, not the imperialists.

The settler-colonial paradigm has value, but a limited one. It doesn’t immediately reveal what a resolution would be, since different settler-colonial societies have adopted different approaches of reconciling the “settler” and “native” populations. Moreover, Israel-Palestine can’t simply be reduced to settler-colonialism; it is also an unresolved national question. There is a solid Hebrew speaking, predominantly though not exclusively, Jewish national community and civil society that is assuredly rooted in the land of Palestine. There is no “mother country” for them to go back to, so any nonsensical talk of an “Algerian solution” is a non-starter, not only because it would be a tragedy for Palestine, but also because it was a tragedy for Algeria. Any socialist approach simply must avoid meeting the ethnonationalism of Zionism with another ethnonationalism of a different flavour.

Part of the problem is the politics of Israel/Palestine has increasingly become defined less as a battle between different visions of society for how Jews and Arabs can live together as compatriots, but more as an existential rassenkampf (race-war). A fight to the finish; winner takes all; kill or be killed; an eye for an eye; a child for a child. The endpoint of this logic can only be annihilation, which is neither possible nor desirable, but will produce far more pointless bloodshed and suffering.

For all the enmity that exists between the two peoples, it is in part because they are more alike than presumed. Memory, trauma, “ancestors” and exile are words familiar in the vocabulary of both peoples. To paraphrase Marx, the trauma of previous generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Both peoples have truly been victims of Hegel’s slaughter bench of history. Shoah and Nakba mean the same thing after all: catastrophe. And yet, the final verdict of history is clear: Jews and Palestinians are condemned to sharing this land with each other, whatever the political form it takes.

“Two things are certain,” Edward Said writes in the conclusion of The Question of Palestine. “The Jews of Israel will remain; the Palestinians will also remain. To say much more than that with assurance is a foolish risk.” There will be no final solution to the Palestine question. How long until this elementary fact will truly sink in? As with all things related to Palestine, it’s going to have to be discovered the hard way.


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