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Why Slamming Israel as a 'Settler Colonial State' Is Such a Useless Insult

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Israeli security forces deploy during the demolition of Palestinian shops in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem's predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan last month
Israeli security forces deploy during the demolition of Palestinian shops in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem's predominantly Arab neighborhood of Silwan last monthCredit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Jonathan Zasloff and Steven Lubet, who wrote a recent, strongly-worded piece against categorizing Israel as a settler-colonial state, (Is Israel Really a Settler Colonial State?) simply do not understand the concept of settler-colonialism. To be fair, neither do most pro-Palestinian scholars, intellectuals, politicians, and activists, against whom Zasloff and Lubet argue.

In general, the debate about Israel and settler-colonialism is completely detached from the theoretical literature on the topic, and is driven by ideological commitments robbing the concept of its potential analytical benefits.

Zionism’s detractors have long used colonialism to stress its foreign origins and predict its demise, following the well-trodden path of other colonial occupations. For committed anti-Zionists, pasting “settler” before colonialism is a way to note, if not accept, differences between Zionism and "regular" colonialism, while still associating Zionism with colonialism’s illegitimacy.

Moreover, in the wake of the 1967 war, Israel has been building Jewish "settlements" in the West Bank, so modifying "colonial" with "settler" seems like a natural, albeit retroactive, framing.

A young Israeli settler fixes the Israeli flag outside the window of a Palestinian house occupied the previous night near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in the West Bank city of HebronCredit: HAZEM BADER / AFP

But both detractors and their challengers are falling into fundamental errors that confuse their readers and also have a grievously impoverishing effect on the activism that so closely follows, or hijacks, terms used in academic analyses of Israel-Palestine issues.

Settler-colonialism is not a "colonialism that has settlers." It is a historical formation that often complements colonial projects, but, and I cannot stress this enough, it is analytically distinct.

Zasloff and Lubet appropriately credit the late Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini for identifying key structural differences between colonialism and settler-colonialism. Whereas colonialism is premised on the continual exploitation of indigenous labor by imperial entities, settler-colonial movements are not intrinsically dependent on indigenous labor. Instead, they aim to inherit their lands.

In other words, colonial conquest is invested in the existence of an exploitable native population, and settler-colonization is invested in their disappearance or "elimination."

Pitting a logic of "exploitation" versus that of "elimination" can explain the differences between the violence suffered by colonial subjects and that experienced by natives facing settler-colonialism.

Colonial violence, meant to subdue, often created the very conditions of unsustainable cruelty and repression that led to the eventual withdrawal of the colonial empire and the establishment of the post-colonial nation state.

In contrast, settler-colonial violence greatly reduces the native population leading to settler-only rule. This is how you end up with settler-colonial states like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States — countries that are home to many scholars and activists who use the same term to delegitimize Israel.

So while Zasloff and Lubet correctly observe that settler-colonialism is appended to Israel as "part of an ongoing campaign to undermine Israel by challenging its very founding," they fail to note, as do their pro-Palestinian interlocutors, how utterly useless settler-colonialism is as a tool for delegitimizing Israel’s existence. If Israel is indeed a settler-colonial state, then it is as legitimate or illegitimate as some of the "West’s" most progressive democracies. 

Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Dearborn, Mich. to coincide with President Joe Biden's visit earlier this yearCredit: Paul Sancya,AP

The ignorance surrounding settler-colonialism also eclipses its analytical usefulness for actually providing rigorous explanations for particular moments in Zionist and Palestinian histories.

The term used by Wolfe, "elimination," does not refer only to acts of genocide. The logic of native elimination matches the Israeli refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes after the 1948 War (the Nakba), the depopulation of Druze communities in the Golan Heights in 1967, and more recently, the eviction of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, while settler-colonialism can explain acts of violent removal and even genocide, it also manifested in other, very different ways that Wolfe broadly defined as "assimilation." For successful settler-colonial states, assimilation worked in tandem with the physical removal of indigenous communities.

Without getting into the weeds, the scholarship proves that settler-colonial relationships, unlike colonial ones, allow for the native to stand on a more equal footing with the settler. This often results in consensual arrangements of shared sovereignty which can include cultural autonomy, conferral of citizenship, reconciliation processes, and even a binational constitution.

The attenuation of the settler’s political supremacy facilitates the conferral of indigenous legitimacy upon the settler-state and normalizes the settler community’s presence.

In a sense, what is eliminated here is not the physical bodies of indigenous peoples but rather their claim to exclusive indigeneity, which they now agree to share with the settlers. As the Woody Guthrie song goes, "This land is your land, this land is my land/[…] This land was made for you and me."

Protest against the demolition of houses in the Negev Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran organized the Jewish-Arab grassroots activist movement, Omdim BeYachad Credit: נדב ביגלמן

So settler-colonialism explains the violent aspects of Zionist entrenchment in Eretz Yisrael/Palestine and, paradoxically, uniquely accounts for certain democratic tendencies that Zionism and Israel held throughout the years.

For instance, during Zionism’s earliest decades, all mainstream political currents within the movement advocated for a binational arrangement between Jews and Palestinian Arabs. In the 1960s, there was the Zionist consensus against continuing the martial law Israel imposed over its Palestinian Arab citizens.

And only a nuanced understanding of settler-colonialism can explain the recent willingness of Palestinian-Arab parties and politicians to work in government with Zionist parties from the Israeli center and even the right in order to preserve and enhance some of their constituency’s rights.

Naturally, not every aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be explained with settler-colonialism. The post-1967 occupation, for instance, saw some settler-colonial continuities and breaks, such as the steadfastness of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank, and the fact that Israel did not seriously consider endowing this population with citizenship.

But as long as Jews in this disputed land demand to remain a sovereign nation and not as mere guests, even if they are willing to share this sovereignty — whether through two states or one — then the moral and existential issues they face are not uniquely abominable nor innocuous: they are, in fact, comparable to those of other settler-colonial societies.

Arnon Degani holds a Ph.D, from UCLA History and is currently a Lady Davis Fellow at the Hebrew University’s Avraham Harman Research Institute of Contemporary Jewry, where he is writing a book on the early relationship between Israel and its Palestinian Arab citizens. He is also a research fellow at MOLAD – The Center for the Revewal of Israeli Democracy. Twitter: @arnondeg

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