No, Israel is not a ‘settler-colonial’ state
Those painting Israelis as colonisers are trying to dehumanise Jews.
In London, posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas on 7 October have been defaced, with the word ‘colonialist’ written over the faces of the victims. In Europe and America, large groups of protesters have responded to Hamas’s massacre of 1,400 Israelis a month ago by decrying Israel as a ‘settler-colonial state’. And campaigners across the West have routinely accused Israel of ‘genocide’ following the Israeli military’s retaliatory assault on Gaza, which has so far cost over 9,000 lives.
Over and over again, Israel’s Western opponents have made the same allegation – that Israel is an oppressive, colonial power. Like South Africa or the White Highlands of British East Africa, so the argument goes, Israel is an outgrowth of imperialism and is still colonising Arab lands today.
Maxime Rodinson, a French-Jewish Marxist, made this case most clearly in his 1973 book, Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?. Unlike today’s campus activists, however, Rodinson adopted a scholarly approach and made the argument that Israel is a settler-colonial state cautiously – hence the title’s question mark. He weighed up the opposing arguments, notably those of the many socialist Zionists who saw their project as a positive challenge to the feudal influence of Arab states.
While Rodinson may have concluded that Israel was in the colonial camp, it is far from an open-and-shut case. Jews have lived in the lands today called Israel for millennia. Their number was greatly enhanced from the beginning of the Zionist project at the end of the 19th century, on through to the mass migrations after the Second World War. But those arriving from the late-19th century onwards were not privileged white settlers. They were refugees from the awful persecution that culminated in the Holocaust. They fled to Palestine because they were deemed racially inferior by Europeans, not because they were the beneficiaries of what today is called ‘white privilege’.
Today’s anti-Israel polemicists claim that Britain always intended to build up a loyal Jewish state in Palestine from the First World War onwards. They draw attention to the promise made to Jews in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that there would be a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in the Middle East.
But that’s far from the whole story. The British authorities made ostentatious and conflicting promises to other allies in the First World War, too. Sir Henry McMahon promised an independent Arabia to Sherif Hussein in 1915, if he helped the allies defeat the Ottoman Empire – even though British and French diplomats Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were at the same time already dividing up Arabia between France and Britain.
To make the case for Zionism being an imperial project, Israel’s critics have to leave a lot out. At various points, the British Colonial Office did promote Jewish settlers over Arabs in the British-run Mandated Territory of Palestine, notably when Arabs revolted against the British in 1929 and 1936-39. But it’s also true that the Jews themselves revolted against the British, notably after 1944 when – despite the Holocaust – Britain continued to block Jewish migration to Palestine.
Rodinson, and those who followed him, might want to hammer the history of Israel’s birth into a template of European settler-colonialism, but it makes more sense to see it as the result of an anti-colonial revolt against the British Empire. Between 1944 and 1948, Britain fought a bitter war against Jewish revolutionaries determined to overthrow British rule. The Jewish resistance bombed railways and airports in the mandate, drawing down new repressive legislation and the arrival of 20,000 men of the Sixth Airborne Division, swelling the British presence to 100,000 (1).
As the fight between Britain and the Jewish resistance got more violent, the British army mounted multiple attacks on kibbutzim and killed many people. At the same time, Zionist militias Irgun and the Lehi bombed and shot at the British, culminating in a massive explosion at the British army headquarters in the King David Hotel, killing 92 soldiers and other British administrative personnel. Irgun extended its bombing campaign against the British into Europe, attacking the British embassy in Rome, the Colonial Club in London and just missing the Colonial Office. Little wonder that MI5 at the time considered Zionist militant groups Britain’s greatest anti-colonial threat. Both the Lehi and Irgun were trained by Irish Republican Army bomb-makers, who sought common cause with the Zionist militants’ anti-imperial effort (2).
The Soviet Union also backed Israel. When Britain abstained on the UN plan to create an Israeli state in 1947, the USSR backed it. Later, the Soviets sent guns (often from Czechoslovakia) to Israel.
At the same time as the Jews’ fight against the British was being scaled down, their conflict with Arabs was escalating. At the Pan African Congress in Manchester in 1945, a poster read ‘Jews and Arabs United Against British Imperialism’. This was wishful thinking. Arabs and Jews both feared that independence would be a zero-sum game. So Jews attacked Arab villages in 1948 – which the Arabs call the Nakba. In response, the surrounding Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq – attacked Israel, a conflict that ended in 1949, with a significant Israeli victory (3).
Only much later does the contemporary assessment that Israel was allied to Western imperialism have more justification. In 1967 and again in 1973, the United States supported Israel when it was attacked by Arab coalitions. By then, US policy was guided by Cold War considerations, with the Soviet Union increasingly allying itself with the radical Arab states, namely Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The US was grateful for any force that would disrupt Arab nationalists uniting against the West. Israel was arguably most closely allied with US interests during the invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon between 1982 and 2000.
But even taking into account its alliance with the US, Israel does not fit the stereotype of a ‘settler-colonial state’. It stands accused of dispossessing Palestinians of their land, which is clearly true in the West Bank. But Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, with Israelis abandoning their farms and homes there in the process.
Furthermore, unlike the white settlers in Kenya and South Africa, Israelis have never shown much interest in exploiting Palestinian labour. Some 100,000 Palestinians work for Israelis, but that is not many out of a Palestinian population of five million. And two million Arab Israelis enjoy broadly equal rights with their fellow citizens – though there are significant discriminatory laws in relation to military service and intermarriage.
The characterisation of Israel as a settler-colonial state is deeply misleading. It is an attempt to force the distinctive history of this region into a preconceived template. Maxime Rodinson may have been conscious he was making an analogy. But today’s anti-Zionist protesters take the claim as an unassailable fact. The argument serves to delegitimise Israel’s national aspirations and dehumanise its people.
As Doug Stokes explains in his new book, Against Decolonisation, contemporary ideas about a world divided into settlers and colonisers, popular in universities and the media, express a loathing of Western civilisation and accomplishments. This costs students in the West very little. But it costs the Israelis, as the supposed exemplars of the evil of settler-colonialism, their humanity. So, when hundreds upon hundreds of Jews were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists last month, colleges all over North America and western Europe thought nothing of holding protests against Israel.
The claim that Israel is an ‘apartheid state’ is equally tendentious. Israel’s critics can point to Amnesty International’s 2022 report, Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians. But they don’t mention the qualifying paragraph in the report that says Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is not ‘the same or analogous to the system of segregation, oppression and domination as perpetrated in South Africa between 1948 and 1994′.
Perhaps the most warped allegation against Israel is that it is engaged in a genocide against the Palestinians. There is no need to sugarcoat Israel’s wars. In its conflicts with Palestinians, the ratio of the dead is heavily in Israel’s favour. But it is beyond all reason to characterise these conflicts as ‘genocidal’.
There is no plan to exterminate the Palestinian people by the Israeli government, and no equivalent of Goebbels’ Wannsee Conference, where the extermination of European Jewry was planned. The Jewish population of the world has still not recovered from the Holocaust 78 years ago, while the Palestinian population, despite its great misery, has risen from under two million in 1948 to over five million in the West Bank and Gaza today.
War is an evil in its own right, but it is not genocide, even where it is grossly unequal. More than two million Koreans were killed in the war of 1950-53, but it is not generally called a genocide. The characterisation of Israel’s war as a genocide arises out of a desire to undermine the Jewish people’s status as the pre-eminent victim of historical genocide.
There are good arguments to be made against Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, and to other Arab countries. But the attempt to force this conflict in the Middle East into categories drawn from other historical times and distant places reveals the weakness of the contemporary case against Israel. It shows that those protesting against Israel today care less about the actual conditions in Israel and Gaza, than in engaging in a spectral fight against Western civilisation and the ‘original sin’ of colonialism. It is the Israelis’ misfortune that too many in the West have turned them into modern-day scapegoats for our own perceived sins.
James Heartfield writes and lectures on British history and politics. His latest book is Britain’s Empires: A History, 1600-2020.
(1) See Legacy of Violence, by Caroline Elkins (London, 2022), pp 413-56
(2) See Legacy of Violence, by Caroline Elkins (London, 2022), pp 413-56
(3) See Towards the Long Promised Peace, by Omar Massalha (Saqi, 1994), pp126-9; Jerusalem 1948: The Arab Neighbourhoods and their Fate in the War, by Salim Tamari (ed), (Institute of Jerusalem Studies, 1999)
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