Opinion

Debunking the claim that Israel is a ‘settler-colonial project’

The history of the Jews in the Middle East is still not widely known.

A group of Iraqi Jews who fled to the British Mandate of Palestine following the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad. Credit: Moshe Baruch via Wikimedia Commons.
A group of Iraqi Jews who fled to the British Mandate of Palestine following the 1941 Farhud pogrom in Baghdad. Credit: Moshe Baruch via Wikimedia Commons.
Paul Schneider
Paul Schneider is an attorney, writer and member of the Board of Directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), an affiliate of B’nai B’rith International.

Anti-Zionists, especially Palestinian activists, often try to delegitimize Israel by calling it a white supremacist, European-style, settler-colonial project. According to the Palestine National Charter of 1964, “Zionism is a colonialist movement in its inception, aggressive and expansionist in its goals, racist and segregationist in its configurations and fascist in its means and aims.” As Israeli historian Benny Morris says, “From this original sin stem all the evils of Zionism and all Palestinian suffering.”

The settler-colonial claim is especially popular with Palestinian think tanks like Al Shabaka. And it’s central to the work of writers like Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi. Indeed, Khalidi titled his latest book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017. He has called Zionism a “classic 19th-century European colonial venture.”

There are several problems with that argument.

Responding to Khalidi, Morris notes that “colonialism is commonly defined as the policy and practice of an imperial power acquiring political control over another country, settling it with its sons and exploiting it economically. By any objective standard, Zionism fails to fit this definition.” The European Jews who populated Palestine were refugees, not colonizers. They came to escape oppression, not to further the interests of a mother country. They also came to reclaim their homeland, not to widen the boundaries of European influence. Even Khalidi acknowledges the historical Jewish connection to Palestine.

Khalidi and others cite the 1917 Balfour Declaration as the catalyst of the Arab-Zionist conflict and the beginning of Jewish settler-colonialism. That allows them to characterize Britain as a colonial mother country. But the Zionist immigrants were not British and not economically tied to Britain. Moreover, the Jewish return to Palestine, and the resulting conflict, predate the British mandate. As Morris points out: “The story of Zionism, and its conflict with the Arabs, actually began in 1882, with the arrival of the first Zionists in Palestine.”

By that time, Jews had already regained their majority in Jerusalem. And it was a group of those Jerusalemites, not European refugees, who established the first Jewish agricultural settlement, Petach Tikvah, in 1878. By 1914, there were between 90,000 and 100,000 Jews living in Palestine.

In any event, the British endorsement of Zionism was brief. Indeed, over time, Britain became the main opponent of Zionist immigration.

One integral part of the settler-colonial claim is the argument that, unlike Arabs, Jews are not indigenous to Palestine. But that turns history on its head. Jews populated Palestine at least a millennium before the advent of Islam and the subsequent Arab conquest. They have lived there continuously ever since.

Moreover, a report by Moshe Aumann, Land Ownership in Palestine, 1880-1948, shows that Palestinian Arabs are not as indigenous or historically connected to the land as people like Khalidi would have us believe. Aumann cites studies showing that most Palestinian Arabs are the descendants of immigrants from other countries who arrived after 1882. That included large-scale Arab immigration into Palestine between the two world wars. The main cause of that immigration was “Jewish development, which created new and attractive work opportunities and, in general, a standard of living previously unknown in the Middle East.”

Aumann concludes: “The constant influx of non-Palestinian elements, Arab and non-Arab, even before 1882 and certainly after that date, puts an entirely different complexion on the alleged and largely assumed ‘antiquity’ of the Arab element in the Palestinian population.”

But the biggest problem with the settler-colonial argument is this: At least half the Jewish population of Israel is made up of Mizrahim, whose families were expelled from Arab countries before and right after the founding of Israel. They are non-European and just as indigenous to the Middle East as any Arab.

Lyn Julius details the history of those expulsions in her seminal book, Uprooted. She writes that “after the Second World War, Arab states passed Nuremberg-style laws to undertake the wholesale eviction of their Jewish citizens and the theft of their property.” Hundred of thousands of Jews were then expelled from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. In every one of those countries, the Jewish community predated the Arab conquest by centuries.

Altogether, 850,000 Jews were expelled from Arab countries. More than half a million fled to Israel. Those expulsions were largely inspired by the anti-Semitism of the Nazi collaborator and propagandist Amin Al Husseini who, at the time, was the leader of the Palestinian national movement. Thus, Arabs are hardly in a position to complain that Mizrahim sought refuge in Israel or to claim that Mizrachi immigration to Palestine was a settler-colonial project.

The history of the Jews in the Middle East is still not widely known. As Julius notes, “the story of the forgotten Jewish refugees is invariably omitted from Western coverage of the Israeli-Arab (or more commonly, Israeli-Palestinian) conflict.” Moreover, “Propagandists eagerly exploit this ignorance to perpetuate the lie that Israeli Jews are all from Europe and America.”

Khalidi is a good example. In The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, he mentions Mizrahim twice, very briefly, referring only to those who were indigenous to Palestine. He fails to acknowledge those who were refugees from Arab countries. That lets him maintain the falsehood that Israel is a European-style, settler-colonial project. It also helps him avoid the fact that half the “colonists” in Israel are there because of Arab anti-Semitism.

That’s not historical analysis. It’s intellectual dishonesty.

Paul Schneider is an attorney, writer and member of the board of directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), an affiliate of B’nai B’rith International.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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