Deconstructing the demonization of the ‘settler’

The Israel-haters may not like it, but everyone, at some point, was a settler.

A woman and her children walk towards Kochav Hashachar in Judea and Samaria on June 4, 2009. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90.
A woman and her children walk towards Kochav Hashachar in Judea and Samaria on June 4, 2009. Photo by Abir Sultan/Flash90.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

The words “settlement” and “settler” have decidedly nasty connotations these days. I am not speaking only of the discourse on Israel and Zionism, in which the settlers in Judea and Samaria are routinely portrayed in the most negative possible terms. On a global scale, “settlement” and “settler” have become not only pejoratives but synonyms for absolute evil.

It is only fair to say that there are some good reasons for this. The dominant “post-colonialist” paradigm sees settlement as inherently colonialist, imperialist and often genocidal—the brutal oppression of indigenous populations of color by white Western empires. And indeed, this has often been the case.

Thanks to the prodigious efforts of Israel’s enemies, much of the world’s elite has applied this post-colonialist paradigm to the Jewish state. Israel, they claim, is a “settler-colonialist” society created by foreign conquerors who stole and continue to steal the land of “Palestine” from the indigenous population.

A great many people have dealt rather summarily with these charges, and I will not reiterate their arguments here. I will note, however, that once one begins to unpack the post-colonialist paradigm—with its metaphysical dichotomy of “settler” and “indigenous”—it becomes much more problematic than it appears at first glance.

One could argue, for example, that with the exception of a handful of sub-Saharan Africans, no one is indigenous to anywhere. The theory that different species of Homo sapiens rose up more or less out of the ground in various parts of the world—which was the foundation of 19th- and 20th-century racism—has been thoroughly discredited. It is now universally accepted that Homo sapiens arose in Africa and then, largely driven by climate change, spread across the world.

What this means is that—if we employ the paradigm of the post-colonialists—more or less everyone is a settler or a descendent of settlers. Settlement was the means by which Homo sapiens established itself as a global species, and without it, humanity as we know it could not exist.

Moreover, if we use the term “indigenous” to mean a people that has been present in a single place for a very long time, then we are faced with a remarkable paradox: In order to be indigenous, one has to have been a settler.

One can see this very clearly, and ironically, in the history of the Middle East. Despite the presence of earlier peoples such as the Jews, Kurds and Berbers, it is now taken for granted that the Middle East is, more or less by definition, Arab. Yet with the exception of Saudi Arabia, the entire Arab presence in the Middle East is the result of settlement.

The Arab armies burst forth from the Hejaz in the 7th century, conquered the entire Middle East and North Africa, as well as parts of Europe, and “Arabized” them via settler-colonial means. There is nothing uniquely evil about this. All empires have been built in precisely the same way. But it is nonetheless the case, and a matter of historical record.

If we accept this more complicated paradigm of settlement and indigeneity, we can see that the Jews are an unusual and perhaps unique case. Their forebears came to the Land of Israel, likely in prehistoric times, as settlers and eventually became “indigenous.” Some thousands of years later, the Roman Empire, via conquest and ethnic cleansing, dispossessed the Jews of this “indigeneity” and took the land for itself.

The long history of the Jews since then was one in which they lived in perpetual hope of reclaiming that indigeneity. But in an irony inherent in the paradigm, they were forced to go through the entire historical process all over again. With the exception of the remnant that had never left, the Jews had to first become settlers in order to reclaim their indigeneity. They had no other choice, because no one has another choice.

The question, then, is not whether Israeli Jews are settlers or descendants of settlers. Everyone in the Land of Israel, Jewish or not, is a settler or a descendant of a settler. It cannot be otherwise. The discursive violence of the post-colonialists and the anti-Zionists, then, is not simply wrong, it is irrelevant. The principle they cite is not what is at stake.

What is at stake is the more essential question of what exactly the Jews are supposed to do. There are only two choices: Remain in exile, or empower themselves by reenacting an ancient and inevitable process common to all peoples the world over.

The pro-exile forces refuse to acknowledge this binary dilemma, which is, in fact, not a dilemma at all. No one on Earth believes exile and powerlessness are desirable, however passionately they may claim otherwise. The Jews are many things, but we are not stupid, and we will not accept for ourselves what the rest of the world would never accept for itself. And we certainly will not do so on the basis of principles that are not merely tendentious and abusive, but contradicted by the entire history of the human race.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.

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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