The choice is between Israeli colonialism vs. decolonial justice

“When we say that the Arabs are the aggressors and we defend ourselves – that is only half the truth. As regards our security and life we defend ourselves…. But the fighting is only one aspect of the conflict, which is in its essence a political one. And politically we are the aggressors and they defend themselves.”

David Ben-Gurion in a 1938 meeting of his political party Mapai [1]

According to the Israeli state and pro-Israel groups, the Palestinian critique of Israel ultimately stems from a disposition of evil and hate. Pick any of these groups, and you’ll find repeated ad nauseum the assertion that this critique is geared towards the “vilification” and “demonization” of Israel, as if that is the end goal of Palestinian critique and resistance, and as if that goal is driven by antisemitic hatred of Jews. This response has been on full display in Israel’s reaction to Ben & Jerry’s decision to boycott Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, calling this decision “a new form of terrorism” and as “antisemitic.”   

Opposite the fictional and simplified worldview of “a land without a people for a people without a land,” “Jewish return to the ancient Land of Israel,” “the Palestinians are terrorists who fight for the sake of death and destruction,” “the Palestinians are the real conquerors and squatters on the Indigenous lands of Jews,” “Israel is merely acting in self-defense,” along other myths, is the reality of the Zionist settler-colonial conquest of Palestine, where Israel and the Zionist project has always been the aggressor, a fact that Ben-Gurion understood even prior to 1948.

Emerging from that reality is a complex Palestinian critique of Zionism and Israel that understands the Zionist Israeli drive to eliminate and erase Palestinians as a problem of colonial modernity, and not the result of the “evil” of a particular ethnic, religious, and/or racial group. When contrasted against one another, the picture is rather clear: the Palestinian critique I’m talking about is much closer to reality than the mythological discourse of the Israeli state and its supporters. It is also much closer to reality than accounts we find in the mainstream of Zionist scholarship in Israel and beyond. 

A century of Zionist and Israeli settler-colonial aggression 

More subtle and sophisticated but still operating on the same ground as Israeli state propaganda are Zionist academics who either out rightly reject the settler-colonial framework for explaining Israel or, as some so-called progressive academics do, downplay its explanatory power. The core of the Palestinian critique is its centralizing of the fact that in order to achieve the goal of exclusive Jewish sovereignty, the Zionist project expels the Indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the land of historic Palestine and replaces them with Jewish settlers largely from Europe at first but eventually from other regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. This feature of elimination and replacement is the key characteristic of all settler-colonialisms. 

While there are no serious academic debates about the veracity of the basic fact of the expulsion of Palestinians, Zionist scholarship attempts to challenge the Palestinian critique’s framing of the expulsion as settler-colonial. I’ll highlight a few arguments against the settler-colonial framework here and show why they rest on flimsy grounds. 

First, there is the general assertion that Israel’s case is different from and “more complex than” the “classic” cases of predominantly British driven settler-colonialism (for example, USA, Canada, and Australia) and therefore cannot be viewed as part of the same phenomenon. [2]  But to render those cases as the standard against which all settler colonies are judged is very much an Anglo-centric and superficial viewpoint, which misses not only the numerous differences across all settler colonies, but also differences within each case across historical eras. For example, the idea that the settler colony must be part of the same larger project of Empire is not an essential characteristic. In the case of Israel, we can see that an alliance with a major Empire, the British and then the American, will suffice in establishing and expanding the settler colony. 

Almost always omitted or downplayed in dominant academic and public discourses is a point that Palestinians have understood in the clearest terms and have been loudly articulating since at least the early 1900s: that this state would be established in the land of historic Palestine at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Another argument is the notion that Zionism was primarily a nationalist movement and not a settler-colonial movement. [3] While some of these assertions are more sophisticated than the first, this also fails to convince. And the reason is simple: nationalism has been an important factor in all settler colonies. In fact, the most famous theorist of nationalism, Benedict Anderson, traces the emergence of modern nationalism to the settler colony! It is not a question of either nationalism or colonialism, but rather their complex combination which operates in all cases of settler-colonialism. 

Then there is the assertion that whereas, for example, British settler-colonialism was based on a greedy thirst for more land, Zionism rested on the idea that stateless exilic Jews desired a land to which Jewish people held a divine sovereign right, or to which they held a special emotional and historical connection. [4][5] Putting aside the outrageous claim that the incredibly diverse, long, entrenched, and rich Jewish life and tradition in Europe was “undesirable” or only marked by “directionless wandering,” this idea of divine sanctioned exclusive sovereignty is in fact not unique to Zionism. Settler-colonial projects that were conceived across Europe since at least the 15th century rested on divine justifications to claims of sovereignty over lands already inhabited by sovereign Indigenous Peoples, as well as assertions that religiously and ethnically persecuted populations in Europe needed refuge in the “New World.” Again, there are differences across these contexts, but that does not mean that they do not belong to the same larger paradigm and project of colonial modernity, which among other things, placed the needs, stories, desires, lives, and projects of varied European populations over and above those of the colonized across the globe. 

This brings us to the final and perhaps most important point: many Zionist scholars assert that Zionism is ultimately a project for Jewish security, self-determination, and even liberation. The main problem here is that such claims simply mimic and repeat the violences of a racist worldview that accepts the supremacy and primacy of one group’s liberation at the expense of another group. Zionists, historically and to the present, continuously justify the erasure and elimination of the “uncivilized” and “violent” Palestinians because for them, only Jewish history matters. 

The Zionist dream of building a Jewish state for the Jewish people has always been entangled with a basic fact: the land that is to become Israel is already inhabited by non-Jewish Palestinians. Settler-colonialism is not the means through which Zionism can achieve its dream of “nationalist liberation,” but rather settler-colonialism is rooted in the dream itself. Almost always omitted or downplayed in dominant academic and public discourses is a point that Palestinians have understood in the clearest terms and have been loudly articulating since at least the early 1900s: that this state would be established in the land of historic Palestine at the expense of the Palestinian people.  

A quest for decolonial justice

Underlying all of the academic arguments against settler-colonialism is the assertion that this paradigm is ultimately about delegitimizing Israel and not presenting an accurate account of Israel’s reality. This is why I link them to the less sophisticated (though still strategically effective) discourses of the Israeli state and pro-Israel groups. When you read these academic arguments, you quickly discover that they operate on a crude understanding of settler-colonialism, colonialism, postcolonialism, and decolonialism. They reduce these paradigms to solely a moral perspective that seeks to delegitimize colonial and settler-colonial Euro-American states and societies, and not as paradigms that reveal the violent and brutal reality of those states and societies. Everything is reduced to the simple and fictional premise of: these purely moral critiques primarily want to delegitimize, vilify, and demonize. 

This premise is a continuation of colonial modernity’s attack on the knowledge that the colonized have created and cultivated over centuries of resistance. But this is not solely an activist or moral knowledge as is often the charge. It is a knowledge that has reached far closer to reality than the discourse of empire, and because of its ability to reveal settler-colonial power, it has built in and for itself the conviction to assert its moral, ethical, and political positionality. It is a knowledge of the world that unabashedly seeks to transform the oppressive world it unveils.

To be clear, this Palestinian critique is not Palestinian because only Palestinians propose, articulate, and advance it, but rather because it stems from the positionality of the colonized and as such it is the critique from which conceptions of decolonial justice emerge. There are certainly Israeli academics and activists as well as people from all over the world who have also exhibited and advanced this Palestinian critique. What opposes the “pro-Israel” position, therefore, is not a “pro-Palestine” position, but rather a decolonial justice position. A position that reaches far closer to capturing the reality of the foundations and conditions in Palestine/Israel and seeks to transform them into something new, something just.  

This critique sets us on the path of dismantling apartheid rule and its ongoing settler-colonial processes and foundations. Only then can we reimagine how Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and all other faiths, can live together on the land of historic Palestine under shared and layered sovereignties, not exclusive Jewish settler-colonial sovereignty.   

Notes

  1. Morris, Benny (2001). Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001. New York: Vintage Books. (P. 676)
  2. Penslar, Derek. (2020). Toward a field of Israel/Palestine Studies. In B. Bashir & L. Farsakh (Eds.), The Arab and Jewish questions: Geographies of engagement in Palestine and beyond (pp. 173-197). New York: Columbia University Press.
  3. Levene, Mark (2019). “Harbingers of Jewish and Palestinian Disasters: European Nation-State Building and Its Toxic Legacies, 1912-1948.” In Bashir, B., & Goldberg, A. (Eds.), The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Piterberg, Gabriel. (2008). The returns of Zionism: Myths, politics and scholarship in Israel. London & New York: Verso.
  5. Raz-Krakotzkin, Amnon. (2017 [1993-1994]). Exile within sovereignty: Critique of the ‘negation of exile’ in Israeli culture. Trans. A. Ben-Or. In Z. Ben-Dor Benite, S. Geroulanos, & N. Jerr (Eds.), The scaffolding of sovereignty: Global and aesthetic perspectives on the history of a concept (pp. 393-420). New York: Columbia University Press.

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