38. Israel: A Settler Colonial State?

Lately there has been a vigorous debate over whether Israel should be labeled as a settler colonial state. Does the Jewish state deserve, in fact, to be categorized with the nations generally so labeled?

No. But this is basically a semantic question, the most useless exercise with which academicians entertain themselves. The answer obviously depends on the definition of "settler colonialism." Defined broadly enough, it covers Israel as well as all other states in which massive influxes of people have over time changed the demography. That is, in most nations of the world.

So let's go with "as generally so labeled," recognizing that this is a matter of semantics. The early Jewish settlers in Ottoman Palestine did in fact refer to themselves as "colonists" and to their settlements as "colonies," in line with the general vocabulary of the time ("colony" was not yet such a negative term). They soon adopted the Hebrew term "moshava," generally translated in English as "settlement," but cognates of "colony" remained in other languages. In French the West Bank settlements are still usually labeled as "les colonies."

So it would be fair to refer to this process as colonization, according to general usage of the term. But by the same standard, "colonialism" is usually taken to include three elements that are conspicuously missing in the Jewish movement to Palestine.

The first of these is a metropole, a mother country of which the settlers are an extension and whose culture they represent. Jews who came to Palestine, first from Ruissia and later from elsewhere, generally fit the accepted definition of refugees who were escaping persecution (at least 80 percent of them by my calculation). In no sense (despite Turkish suspicions) did they represent Russian interests. They sought rather to leave their Diaspora baggage behind and build a new society based on ancient Middle Eastern roots, including a revived Semitic language.

Secondly, unlike the classical colonialist powers, Jewish settlers did not include the existing population in their basic design, except as incidental beneficiaries. The presence of another people was first and foremost a major inconvenience, which the early Zionists tried their best to ignore and minimalize, not to dominate or reshape. They did not recognize the Arab population of Palestine as another people with their own collective claims, arguing that as individuals Arabs would benefit from the progress that Jewish settlement would bring.

Finally, Jewish "colonists" were not entering a terra incognita to which they had no historical connection. Whatever weight one assigns to ancient ties, they were seeking to restore to this space the same language, religion, culture, and ethnicity that had prevailed there 2000 to 3000 years earlier.

None of this is said to excuse the indifference of early (or contemporary) Zionists to the existence of another people in the same territory with their own valid historical ties. Nor does it justify injustices inflicted on Palestinians in the past or the present.

But this was not "settler colonialism" as usually defined. Better examples can be found in all the countries of the Western hemisphere, Australia, New Zealand, much of Oceania, and historically in Africa and Asia. Or in China's rule in Sinkiang and Tibet. If there is to be a debate on settler colonialism, let's expand the sample size.