Opinion

Israel Is a Settler Colonial State - and That's OK

Repulsed by UC Berkeley’s 'Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis' course? ‘Settler colonialism’ may have been eagerly adopted by the BDS movement – but early Zionist leaders weren't shy about identifying with it either.

Conference Settler Colonialism in Palestine 13 August 2016 in Edinburgh
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Appalled and outraged posts appearing on the feeds of pro-Israel advocates announce that this coming fall semester, UC Berkeley students can attend a course titled “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The course, offered as part of Berkely’s “DeCal Program”, will be taught by a undergraduate student named Paul Hadaweh, and supervised by Dr. Hatem Bazian, one of the most vocal and industrious anti-Israel scholars in American academia.

The fact that a one-unit course headed by an undergraduate student is creating such waves is telling of the level of anxiety that the term “settler-colonialism” evokes when the Israel-Palestinian conflict comes up. This shouldn’t be the case.

For almost a century, Zionism’s intellectual enemies, especially from the left, have considered it part and parcel of European colonialism. In recent years, the addition of “settler” to colonialism has gained much traction among scholars who engage in anti-Israel activity, particularly BDS, as well as intersectionality activists. Settler colonialism conveys an unarguable sense of delegitimization, racial exclusion and financial exploitation. If anything, it sounds more biting (perhaps because Israel still actively sponsors settlers) and acerbic, but it also tends to be incorporated willy-nilly into research and public commentary.

Often this writing evinces an erroneous understanding of the concept as a form of “colonialism on steroids”.  The temptation to blur the distinction between colonialism and settler colonialism could stem from a desire to see history repeated and Zionism vanquished through glorious anti-colonial struggles such as those that kicked the French out of Algeria or the British out of Kenya.

In reality, neither Algeria nor Kenya approximate an ideal-type settler colonial project. Without entering into all the rich theory behind the concept, settler colonial states are those that have been established through the movement of settlers from one part of the world to another, transforming that territory into their own independent country – separate from an imperial center. In all historical cases, this transformation was achieved through forms of violence committed against indigenous culture, indigenous land possession, their political standing and their very physical existence. Many prosperous and democratic nations fall within this rough definition, most notably of course, the world’s only superpower – the United States of America.

Taking this into account, arguing for the comparability of Israeli history to that of the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, pulls the rug from under the agenda of singling out Zionism and its deeds as particularly evil. Furthermore, it would be hard to think of a more morally inconsistent location than California, where American settlers arguably perpetrated a genocide of Indians, from which to demand Israel dismantle its settler colonial legacies.

In fact, rigorous scholars who study the applicability of the settler colonial framework for the history of Israel/Palestine need not subscribe to a political agenda committed to the end of the State of Israel. Moreover, claiming that structurally, Zionist settlers are comparable to American pioneers or South African Voortrekkers, does not necessitate the denial of a historical connection between Jews and the Holy Land, the unique nature of European anti-Semitism, or even requires having sympathy for the Palestinian armed struggle against Zionism. As a matter of fact, even prominent Zionists made explicit comparisons between their own political movement and those of settlers around the world.

Don’t believe me? Go ask Haim Arlosoroff, who in 1927 wrote “I think it is worth trying to find an equivalent to our problem in the annals of settlement of other countries”. According to Arlosoroff comparisons with the US, Australian and New Zealand cases were unhelpful for the particular question he had in mind but 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”.

Arlosoroff is too much of a leftist? Fine! Zeev “the-Iron-Wall” Jabotinsky himself had no problem comparing the Zionists to “the Pilgrim Fathers, the first real pioneers of North America” and the Palestinian-Arabs and Eretz Yisrael to the “Sioux and their rolling prairies.” In fact, Jabotinsky’s fundamental revisionist argument – that a peaceful resolution with the Palestinians is not possible – was based on his frank recognition that “all natives resist colonists”.  

My suggestion that Zionists and Israelis shouldn’t be afraid of the label settler colonists, does not mean that it has no negative implications or that settler colonial studies is uncritical of Zionism and Israel. In the main, this analytical framework imposes on us an understanding that Palestinian displacement, in one form or another, was inherent in all forms of Zionism. If however the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in fact a history of settler colonialism, it may also suggest possibilities for moving forward.

Unlike colonial rule, which is premised on the forceful domination of colonizer over the colonized, in settler colonial regimes there exists a tendency to maintain settler hegemony but progressively forgo oppressive forms of rule and achieving a modus vivendi between settler and native, as perhaps happened within Israel before it expanded its borders in 1967.

Had the two-state solution been implemented, it would have represented a precedent in which an indigenous political leadership recognized settler rule over 78% of what they consider their historical homeland. The decline of the two-state solution and improbability of another massive flight of Palestinians from the territory under Israeli control, suggests that Israel will not follow the path of the U.S., Australia and Canada which have all accommodated their indigenous communities within semi-sovereign reservations.

Israel, though, is probably heading more towards an arrangement similar to that of South African settler colonialism: a consolidation into a democratic republic in which the Whites are recognized as sons of the land and yet still enjoy many of the privileges they accumulated during Apartheid. In Israel, from the left (Haaretz’s own Gideon Levy and Rogel Alpher) and right (President Reuven Rubi Rivilin, MK Yehuda Glick), there is growing sentiment in favor of pursuing this particular one state settler colonial road.

Arnon Degani is a Phd candidate at UCLA’s Department of History. In the coming academic year, he will teach an undergraduate seminar entitled: “This Land is My Land: The Global History of Settler Colonialism”.