Opinion |

The Big Denial of Zionist Colonialism

Zionist colonialism was not motivated by an aspiration for economic gain, but one that stemmed from Jewish distress and was fulfilled by people who could be described as refugees

Ishai Rosen-Zvi
Ishay Rosen-Zvi
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Members of kibbutz Kfar Etzion on their way to work, 1943
Members of kibbutz Kfar Etzion on their way to work, 1943Credit: GPO
Ishai Rosen-Zvi
Ishay Rosen-Zvi

Zionism developed as a colonialist movement. Today it is forbidden to speak of it, but that was not always the case. I’m not talking about a few bleeding-heart liberals who raised “The Hidden Question” on the dispossession of the Arabs, but about the main leaders of Zionism who wrote of it in simple terms and saw it as an unavoidable necessity. David Ben-Gurion, writes Tom Segev in his new biography of the first prime minister, claimed in a meeting of the Provisional Executive Committee for General Zionist Affairs in 1919, “There is no need at all for Mustafa to know Hebrew. … In practice, he doesn’t care at all if the Jewish farmer who is exploiting the Arab worker knows Arabic, nor whether the Arab who kills the Jew knows Hebrew.” (From “A State at all Costs – The Story of David Ben-Gurion, page 156, in Hebrew)

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And here is how the young Moshe Dayan writes about the brawl that broke out between the young men of Nahalal and the those of the neighboring Bedouin tribe, during which a young Bedouin man named Wahed, who was a friend of Dayan’s, hit him in the head: “For generations the Bedouin have habitually grazed their flocks in these wadis and watered their sheep in the springs that have now become our property. As far as I’m concerned this was redemption of the land, but in Wahed’s eyes things looked differently. They were told to remove their tents from the wadi where their fathers and ancestors lived.” (Mordechai Bar-On, “Moshe Dayan: Israel’s Controversial Hero,” page 25, from the Hebrew)

A Jewish inhabitant of Palestine in 1937Credit: GPO

Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein write ironically against the historians who see Zionism as colonialism: Zionism was a colonialist phenomenon in every way, similar to other colonialist phenomena – except for it being a national movement which was not motivated by an aspiration for economic gain, one that stemmed from Jewish distress and was fulfilled by people who could be described as refugees because the settlers did not have a colonial motherland, and the connection with the Land of Israel was part of the historic and traditional identity of the Jewish people.” (“Israel and the Family of Nations: The Jewish Nation-State and Human Rights,” page 96, from the Hebrew.)

But they are twice mistaken. First, in not differentiating between the colonialism of the powers (the British Empire, for example) and colonialism of settlement; and second, because they assume one “pure” colonial model, and then they claim the local model is inappropriate. But in practice, in various nations – the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Algeria, Rhodesia and other countries – the colonialism of settlement had different points of origin, different motivations and different ideologies. What is shared by all of them is the arrival of settlers from the outside, with a story of chosenness and purpose that leads to the dispossession of the local population.

Zionism may have been a national movement that gave birth to a colonial project, and not the opposite, but if we divert our view for just a moment from the justifications and internal logic of that process, the outlines of the colonialism of settlement are exposed. In all of the well-known cases – beyond the ideological justifications, the nature of the group and the type of connections with the imperial regime – the settlement groups had aspirations to establish a sovereign political entity of their own, in which the natives would not have a part. The justifications and ideological underpinnings, as strong and ancient as they may be, do not change the patterns of relations and the practical reality. The natives expelled from their land do not care about the justifications of those dispossessing them, even if they are brilliant. The fact that Zionism was other things too, for example a movement of anti-colonial national liberation against the British, as historians such as Derek Penslar stress, did not aid the Palestinian natives.

Members of kibbutz Re'im mounting Tel Jama in the Western Negev, 1949Credit: GPO

There is nothing new in any of this. Critical historians and sociologists have claimed this at least since Gershon Shafir’s book, “Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914,” came out in the late 1980s, and have debated the counterclaim, that the Zionist case is different and unique. But if that is the case, why is such a claim still taboo in the Zionist discourse? Why does saying it make you an outcast? This is not a rhetorical question. Every book of American history begins with the recognition of the colonial past of the United States. For example, the new book by historian Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” opens with the following statistics: Between the 16th and 19th centuries, 2.5 million people from Europe immigrated to the American continent, they brought with them, by force, 12 million Africans, and in doing so caused the deaths of some 50 million natives in various ways. This does not prevent the book from celebrating America’s achievements – the rule of the people, a revolutionary constitution and battle for freedoms – and becoming an overnight best-seller read by countless American patriots (who, one can assume, will remain patriots even after they read the chapters on colonialism).

So why not here in Israel too? The reasons is not only the time that has passed; after all, we are willing to argue about other episodes of oppression that occurred 50 and 60 years ago. Neither is it a question of the refugees, because it does not involve the issue of 1948 at all and is not about a specific solution either, but is about the very essence of recognizing the injustices done to the local residents from the beginning of Zionist settlement.

The issue here is not in the historical minutia and not in the exposure of the original sin or the efforts of delegitimization. It is about our future. If there is something we have learned from the struggles of excluded groups, it is that the path to rectification and reconciliation comes through recognizing the injustices.

The reason for the denial is to be found elsewhere: In order to recognize the colonial past, we need to see it as the past, in other words to write about it in a different spirit, more inclusive and equal. The recognition of American colonialism was written from within the awareness that we live in a different world today, with a different spirit of equality of citizenship (a damaged and problematic equality, we know, but what is important in this context is the philosophy itself). To be able to speak about the colonial past we need to recognize the injustices and strive to correct them.

A country is not the direct continuation of a national movement. It can adopt an ethos of equality and inclusiveness. But in Israel this ethos of differentiation and dispossession continues – and is even strengthening – thus the feeling is that every expression on the early period of Zionism will pull the rug out from under the Jewish state. So, in the country of the nation-state law, of half a million settlers, of Judaizing the Negev and Galilee, how is it possible to speak about the colonialism of settlement as something that belongs to the past? What civil, egalitarian ethos could make it history?

It is clear why we all need to cooperate with the concealment and silencing. Why do everyone – diplomats, historians, teachers and parents – need to lie all the time, forever, to our students, to our children, and most of all to ourselves.

Zionism began as a colonialist movement. This does not determine its fate – that matter is in our hands.

Prof. Ishay Rosen Zvi is the head of the Talmud and Late Antiquity section in the Jewish Philosophy Department at Tel Aviv University.

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