Whether modern Zionist history should be considered a colonial project is fundamentally an academic question for historians of colonialism. This question, however, has long been a part of the public debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that debate, when Zionism is considered to be a colonial project, it loses legitimacy. When Zionism is thought to be a movement of liberation, it gains legitimacy.
Activists often uninformed on the history of colonialism and its evolution in thought use concepts as cudgels to support their side in the debate. Recently, this public debate has become more charged as advocates for Israel have begun to claim that equating Zionism and Israel with colonialism is antisemitic.
For example, when Israeli historian Dr. Ilan Pappe, who promotes the idea that Israel is part of a pattern of “settler colonialism,” was invited to the City Club of Cleveland last September, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland opposed the invitation. They wrote: “We are saddened that the City Club would allow its civic platform to be co-opted by an anti-Semitic ideologue who seeks to delegitimize and demonize Israel.”
This article reviews the broad outlines of Zionist history and evaluates them in relationship to basic concepts of colonialism. The hope is that this review will shed light on the question of whether it makes sense to ascribe antisemitism to people who claim that Israel and Zionism fit a colonialist pattern.
Modern Zionism began in the 19th century. While there was a longstanding Jewish population in Ottoman Palestine, the settlement of Jews from Europe was new. The historical factor that most energized Zionist thinkers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the extended period of oppression against Jews that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Czar Alexander in 1881. Groups like Hibbat Zion and Bilu encouraged Jews to settle in Ottoman Palestine in that period. Often called the First Aliyah, few Jews participated, and fewer remained in Palestine.
With the writing and organizing of Theodor Herzl, Zionism emerged as a movement to promote the building of a modern Jewish state as a solution to the oft debated “Jewish question” about the role of Jews in European societies. Modern nationalism had emerged as the central political paradigm for the organization of nation states. These states were typically based upon shared culture and language of the people comprising the state. A new, secular antisemitism emerged, no longer tied to Christian prejudices, but rather based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race and racial characteristics that made Jews in Europe vulnerable, even if most would have liked to assimilate.
In certain ways, the Zionist movement shared a worldview with antisemites in their belief that there existed no place for Jews in European society; the movement doubted whether Jews could be full citizens while maintaining Jewish religion and culture. Herzl’s answer to the Jewish question was to suggest that Jews “normalize” (become like other nations) and follow the path of European nationalism in their own state. Initially, Herzl was neutral about the physical location of that state, but soon was convinced to unify Zionists around the goal of creating that state in Palestine. Herzl called the First Zionist Congress, which met in Basel in 1897 and marked the beginning of the modern Zionist movement.
Jewish migration from Europe to Ottoman Palestine from 1881-1914 is estimated to be 50,000 people, about half of whom are thought to have stayed. During the same period, 2.5 million Jews left Eastern Europe, most of them to North America. In the context of Jewish movement at the time, just 2 percent of Jews who wanted to leave their homes in this period chose Ottoman Palestine as their destination. So while diehard adherents adopted Herzl’s vision and a few thinkers widely disseminated that ideology, the most insecure Jews of Europe—those of Eastern Europe—did not adopt the ideology en masse and only went to Ottoman Palestine in small numbers.
At this early stage, can we call the Zionist project a colonial one?
Here is the definition of colonialism from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2016).
The policy or practice of a wealthy or powerful nation’s maintaining or extending its control over other countries, especially in establishing settlements or exploiting resources.
And here from Random House Kernerman Webster’s College Dictionary (2010)
the system or policy by which a nation seeks to extend or retain its authority over other peoples or territories.
Certainly, these early Zionist efforts do not fit these general definitions of colonialism.
The Jews at that time were not yet an existing nation that could extend its authority, nor did they have any control over other people.
However, in order to better understand the way things then unfolded in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the beginning of the British Mandate, it is helpful to look at the nature of the relationship between these early settlers and the Arabs who were the primary inhabitants of the areas that Jews sought to settle.
From Israeli historian Benny Morris, speaking about the period 1882-1914:
The Arabs sought instinctively to retain the Arab and Muslim character of the region and to maintain their position as its rightful inhabitants; the Zionists sought radically to change the status quo, buy as much land as possible, settle on it, and eventually turn an Arab-populated country into a Jewish homeland.
For decades the Zionists tried to camouflage their real aspirations, for fear of angering the authorities and the Arabs. They were, however, certain of their aims and of the means needed to achieve them. Internal correspondence amongst the olim [immigrants] from the very beginning of the Zionist enterprise leaves little room for doubt.
Most of the early Zionist thinkers, most of whom did the majority of their writing in Europe, barely mentioned the fact that Arabs were living in Palestine. Thus, while these thinkers spoke of building a Jewish society in Palestine where Jews could be workers and farmers, emancipating themselves from the shopkeeper middleman positions that had plagued them in Europe, there was no vision for how the current inhabitants of the land would fit in to that vision.
Russian Jewish thinker Asher Ginsburg (aka Ahad Ha’am) was a notable exception. After his visit in 1891, he wrote an article called “Truth from the Land of Israel,” in which he wrote:
From abroad, we are accustomed to believe that Eretz Israel is presently almost totally desolate, an uncultivated desert, and that anyone wishing to buy land there can come and buy all he wants. But in truth it is not so. In the entire land, it is hard to find tillable land that is not already tilled. … From abroad we are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all desert savages, like donkeys, who neither see nor understand what goes on around them. But this is a big mistake...
The Arabs, and especially those in the cities, understand our deeds and our desires in Eretz Israel, but they keep quiet and pretend not to understand, since they do not see our present activities as a threat to their future. … However, if the time comes when the life of our people in Eretz Israel develops to the point of encroaching upon the native population, they will not easily yield their place...
In the same article, he describes how he saw Jews treating Arabs and warns his audience of the consequences:
Instead of treating the local population with love and respect...justice and righteousness, the settlers, having been oppressed in their countries of origin, have suddenly become masters and have begun behaving accordingly.
This sudden change has engendered in them an impulse to despotism ... and behold, they walk with the Arabs in hostility and cruelty, unjustly encroaching on them, shamefully beating them for no good reason, and even bragging about what they do, and there is no one to stand in the breach and call a halt to this dangerous and despicable impulse. To be sure, our people are correct in saying that the Arab respects only those who demonstrate strength and courage, but this is relevant only when he feels that his rival is acting justly; it is not the case if there is reason to think his rival’s actions are oppressive and unjust. Then, even if he restrains himself and remains silent forever, the rage will remain in his heart and he is unrivalled in taking vengeance and bearing a grudge.
So while the settlers themselves were driven to Palestine—at least in part because of the oppression they themselves experienced in Europe and saw settlement in the Land of Israel as a method by which to liberate themselves—they were insensitive to the desires of the Arabs living there. The Arabs weren’t a part of the vision they had created; they were an impediment to it.
Following the upheaval caused by World War I, the Ottoman Empire was brought down and replaced by French and British Mandates authorized by the League of Nations. Britain had sought the participation of Arab forces in overthrowing the Ottoman Empire. Arabs called it “The Great Arab Revolt.” Based on promises made by Lt. Col. Sir Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner to Egypt in his extended correspondence with Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, the Arabs expected independence over a large swath of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. They didn’t get it.
In 1916, during the period Hussein and McMahon were corresponding, Britain and France had secretly divided up the Ottoman Empire into areas of British, French and Russian spheres of influence, with each great power allowed to set international borders and nation states as they saw fit over their areas of influence. That was called the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Further complicating matters, in November of 1917, Britain’s Lord Balfour made his declaration promising a national home to Jews in Palestine in response to a long and concerted effort by Zionists in and out of Palestine. Only a few weeks later, Russia leaked the contents of Sykes-Picot, adding to the confusion and betrayal felt by Arabs regarding the promises made by Britain to Hussein bin Ali.
The British Mandate for Palestine
The following is from the preamble of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine which was ratified in 1922.
Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have...agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the [Balfour] declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Palestinian nationalist movements have associated Zionism withclassical colonialism largely due to the Balfour Declaration and the enshrinement of those principles in the League of Nations Mandate. The Arabs living in Palestine and the nascent local form of Arab nationalism that had been emerging for some time had no part in agreeing to the designation of Palestine as a national home for Jews. In 1922, Jews constituted only 85,000 souls out of a total population of more than 750,000, roughly 11 percent. After 40 years of Zionism, Jewish population had only increased by about 50,000 people from about 35,000, most of whom did not consider themselves to be a part of the Zionist movement or even desiring a sovereign Jewish state until after 1930.
Britain, as an imperial power, was, in a sense, the sponsor of Zionist aspirations. Britain felt empowered to bestow the Jews’ right to a national home in Palestine without the approval of an Arab entity or representation of Arabs living in Palestine.
However, Zionists did not feel particularly grateful or beholden to Britain. Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the revisionist movement felt betrayed by Britain when, in 1922 as part of a special article included in the British Mandate it formally barred Jews from settling in Transjordan (what is now Jordan), even though Transjordan was technically a part of Palestine. The peak of Jewish ire towards Britain came with the publishing of the White Paper in 1939 written after the final suppression of the 1936-39 Arab Revolt in Palestine. The White Paper set limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine just as Jews in Europe needed every possible refuge.
From an Arab perspective, it was Britain that made it possible for Israel to become a reality. However, Zionists understood it as their historic right. Chaim Weizmann had wanted language that would recognize the reconstitution of a Jewish home in Palestine as recognition of the Jewish claim to the land. To the disappointment of the Zionists, that language did not make it into the Balfour Declaration or the League of Nations Mandate.
We’ve seen that the Zionist project does not fit into a classical colonialist definition.
In the last 50 years, scholars have begun to describe a version of colonialism that they have named “settler colonialism.” It was first defined in the 1960s, but has caught on significantly much more recently.
A settler-colonial project is one in which a group of persecuted white Europeans flee Europe to colonize a place in order to make it their homeland. The colonists view native populations as an impediment to their goals and as such treat them poorly.
The prototypical examples given as examples of settler colonialism are: the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, Kenya and Israel.
Whereas the remedy for colonialism is to send the colonial power and largely its settlers’ home, the remedy for the abuses that take place in a settler colonial project is the application of equal rights.
Until the 1980s, the PLO and others in the Palestinian solidarity movement understood Zionism as a European colonial project in the same way that Algeria was a colonial project of France. The remedy was for the French to return home and leave Algeria to the Algerians.
One of the newer definitions of antisemitism is holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries. The settler-colonial analysis does not do this. It places Israel in the same category as the United States and Canada. And the remedies are the same in all these places.
The fact that Palestinian critics of Israel have embraced the settler colonial paradigm as a way of describing Israel, one could argue, points to a significant moderation in their thinking. Activists defending Israel who don’t understand the difference between colonialism and settler colonialism often miss this important development.
I’m not arguing that defenders of Israel will ever agree with the remedy for transforming Israel from a settler colonial model to a truly democratic one. However, those defending Israel seem to think those advocating for Israel to end its settler colonial ways are advocating for a violent destruction of Israel. This is not the case.
Presumably, this is the logic that leads to the label of antisemitism being applied to Ilan Pappe, an Israeli citizen and child of Holocaust survivors. Pappe is a historian and also an activist. As an activist, he argues for one democratic state from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. He acknowledges that for this to work, the Palestinians themselves must relinquish nationalism as their driving ideological force, so that nationalism will be replaced by connection and access to their ancestral land and full equal rights. This is the same thing being asked of the Israelis in such a proposal: relinquish sovereignty based on ethnicity and gain freedom, as well as access, to the whole country, including Judea and Samaria.
Pappe and others who share both the settler colonial assessment of Israel and the proposal for one democratic state are making a political proposal to solve a long-term problem. Of course, Israel advocates have the right to disagree with that proposal and fight against it. But to call the advocates of these ideas antisemitic is to contribute to the growing antisemitism happening all over the world by confusing people about what it actually is.