Opinion |

Is Israel Really a Settler Colonial State?

Framing Israel as a 'settler colonial state' is now routine in academia and the U.S. media, a disheartening signal of the primacy of political activism over critical inquiry – and inconvenient facts

Flypast seen from the beach in Tel Aviv on Israel's Independence Day
Flypast seen from the beach in Tel Aviv on Israel's Independence DayCredit: Moti Milrod

When academics call Israel a "settler colonial" state, it is not meant as a mere descriptor. Rather, the phrase is a deliberately pointed charge, part of an ongoing campaign to undermine Israel by challenging its very founding – akin to the now-revoked UN General Assembly declaration that "Zionism is racism." Its aim is to isolate the Jewish state from the legitimate family of nations.

One might expect the mainstream media to avoid presenting such a controversial and politically charged theory as historical fact. Unfortunately, it has long been all too tempting to blur the crucial distinction between fact and opinion when writing about the Middle East, and the temptation is only intensifying now.

Take a recent example.

The Conversation is a non-profit news service that, in its own words, distributes essays by "academic experts" to "thousands of newsrooms" across the United States. According to its editorial charter, The Conversation provides only "fact-based" and "knowledge-based journalism that is responsible, ethical and supported by evidence." A recent article on Israel, however, appears to have violated that commitment.

Written by Prof. Kristen Alff of the North Carolina State University history department, and titled "Property disputes in Israel come with a complicated back story – and tend to end with Palestinian dispossession," the article traces the history of Jewish property acquisition in Palestine from Ottoman times to the present.

It includes this assertion: "Landed property has long been a crucial part of Zionism – a settler colonial movement that pushed for the establishment, and then support, of a Jewish state" (italics added).

The offhand insertion of settler colonialism – as though it is a simple reality – was jarring in a supposedly fact-based news article, so one of us (Lubet) raised the issue with editors, noting that the passage was contrary to The Conversation’s policy:

The characterization of Zionism, and thus Israel, as a "settler colonial" enterprise is political, derogatory, and highly contested. It is not an objective description of Israel’s origin or current population.

The editors’ response was not reassuring. They explained that they had discussed the phrase before publication: "We determined that what Alff was presenting – in this and all other parts of her essay – was not opinion, but a factual assertion based on her historical research and the historical research of others."

The editors also provided a response from Alff, who stated: "I chose in my article to be as faithful as I could to my own scholarly analysis and terminology that I see fit," and noting that "The Jewish Colonization Association was the first major land purchaser" in Palestine.

In other words, The Conversation has apparently endorsed the "settler colonial" story of Israel as fact, rather than opinion.

The insistence on framing Zionism as a colonial project has always been a stretch at best.

The first 100 houses in the pre-state farming community of Rehovot, 1918Credit: Australian War Memorial

From the time that Athens established an outpost at Ephesus, colonies have related to a metropole, or a mother country. The Puritans saw themselves as English, Afrikaaners as Dutch, Muslim conquerors as Arabs, Algerian Pied-Noirs as French. They spoke the mother country’s language and attempted to transfer its culture to their new land. The Puritans, as Perry Miller famously showed decades ago, were trying to set themselves up as a City On A Hill to transform England, where their political program was focused.

The early, pre-state Zionists, however, sought to escape Europe, not to replicate it. They rejected Yiddish and adopted an old Middle East language – Hebrew – which they updated for modern purposes, while changing their German or Russian-sounding names. They created no "New Odessas" in the Holy Land.

Central to the Zionist enterprise was the conviction that they were returning home. No other transplanted society made such a claim. Jews had lived in Palestine continuously for thousands of years. The Hebrew language is Semitic, not Indo-European. Ancient Jewish artifacts could be found everywhere. When Great Britain’s Joseph Chamberlain proposed settling Jews in Uganda in 1903, it was overwhelmingly rejected by the Zionist movement.

It is therefore more accurate to see Zionism as a form of nationalism – and Zionists as refugees, rather than settlers – fulfilling a people’s aspiration for self-determination in what they regard as their own land. That does not justify every Israeli policy, or make the claims of Palestinians less urgent, but it does make the most sense historically.

None of this matters to advocates of the settler colonial paradigm, who quickly dismiss all differences between Zionism and settler colonial societies as irrelevant.

Members of Kibbutz Amir in pre-state Mandate Palestine cutting down papyrus thickets to drain the Hula swamp, 1940Credit: קלוגר זולטן / לעמ

Patrick Wolfe, for example, perhaps the most important of settler colonial theorists, contends that settler colonialism is characterized by a "logic of elimination." This explanation is contradicted by the Zionist acceptance of partition plans, including Great Britain’s Peel Commission in 1937 and U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 in 1947, which are simply ignored.

Going through the table of contents of Settler Colonial Studies, a prominent journal in the field and where Wolfe's seminal essay was published, one searches in vain for discussions of the Muslim conquests in the 7th and 8th centuries, or the Mughal invasions of the Indian sub-continent, Morocco's settlement schemes in Western Sahara or even the Chinese attempts to remake Tibet demographically from the 1950s onwards. There is much on Australia and New Zealand, and lots and lots on Israel.

That is not because "settler colonialism" is just a modern formation. The Routledge Handbook of the History of Settler Colonialism includes two ancient examples: Assyria, and – of course – ancient Israel.

When applied to modern-day Israel, advocates of "settler colonialism" do not engage in scholarly analysis but rather the political contention that Zionism is morally illegitimate. That is their right, but the mainstream press must not be fooled (or intimidated) into presenting it as a purely scholarly conclusion.

Consider Alff’s justification that "the Jewish Colonization Association was the first major land purchaser." This not only erases the crucial difference between "colonization" and "colonialism," but it also ignores the historical context of terms and the way they have been used over the years.

The "Amana Colonies," for example, comprise seven Amish villages in Iowa, founded in 1856 by pietists who escaped persecution in Germany. The "Oberlin Colony" was the original name for both the college and the town, founded in 1833 by Presbyterians seeking to establish a utopian community of "selected, consecrated souls." Wikipedia lists 65 "Arts Colonies" in the United States, dating back to the MacDowell Colony, established in Peterborough, Vermont, in 1907. The escaped slaves Henry Bibb and Josiah Henson founded the "Refugees’ Home Colony" in Canada in 1851.

The "Jewish Colonization Association" – founded in the 1890s in response to Russian pogroms – had no more connection to the colonialism of empires than any of these other nominal colonies. Prof. Alff singled out one word – which in fact, meant "refuge" rather than outpost – to make a political argument.

Don’t take our word for it: take Professor Alff’s. This May, a group called Scholars for Palestinian Freedom issued an "Open Letter and Call to Action," repeatedly referring to Israel as a "settler colonial state," advocating the work of "centering decolonization," and endorsing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The signatories – including Prof. Alff – pointedly announced that it is "no longer acceptable to conduct research in Palestine or on Palestinians without a clear component of political commitment."

An op-ed cannot definitively resolve the settler colonial model’s validity. We believe that we are right, as do the numerous scholars who agree with us. The important point, however, is that there is a highly charged political argument that should not be represented as a simple statement of fact.

Prof. Alff’s political commitment unmistakably extended to her gratuitous description of Zionism in The Conversation, which could have been lifted directly from the "Open Letter and Call to Action." Newspapers identify opinion sections for a reason, but the editors at The Conversation sadly failed to realize that ideology had been smuggled into their fact-based platform.

That is how the corruption of language works, embedding false characterizations one small step at a time, and it is a bad precedent for American journalism’s future coverage of the Middle East.

Jonathan Zasloff is an ordained rabbi and a professor of Law at UCLA

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law

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