Israel is among history’s greatest anti-colonialists

The story of the modern Jewish state is not one of colonialism but of indigenous self-determination.

Young Israelis from Ben Shemen pose for a picture in a harvest field ahead of Shavuot, on May 18, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
Young Israelis from Ben Shemen pose for a picture in a harvest field ahead of Shavuot, on May 18, 2023. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90.
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.

One of the most common attacks on Israel’s legitimacy is the false accusation that it is a “colonial settler” state. 

This slander misunderstands the definition of colonialism, as well as, ironically, the Jewish people’s role as one world history’s greatest opponents of imperialism and colonialism.

Over the course of Jews’ 3,000-year history in their indigenous homeland, they established three commonwealths—two in biblical times, one today—which often defended against colonial invaders. Remember Masada? Remember the Maccabees?

Today’s State of Israel liberated its homeland from the British and Jordan. Upon Israel’s declaration of independence, it also fought back imperialist attacks by Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and, again, Jordan.

The Jews’ victory in those conflicts has allowed them to live in the Land of Israel as a sovereign people for the first time in 2,000 years. Today, the Jewish state only seeks to control land to which it is legally entitled. Moreover, it has shown its willingness to exchange land it controls for peace with its Palestinian neighbors. 

Colonialism means foreigners conquering and ruling indigenous people and their lands. Common definitions of indigeneity list six characteristics: Unique language, religion, laws, culture, bloodline and historical connection to a specific land. Jews possess all these characteristics. 

Prior to 1964, Palestinians never self-identified as a people. They have always claimed they were part of the greater Arab nation, and today are members of the Arab League. History books do not chronicle any “Palestinian” people, nor does the Koran. Palestinians also have no unique religion, language, laws, culture or bloodline. 

While some Arab Palestinians have lived in the Holy Land for generations, as a group they have had no sovereignty or ownership over any land anywhere. They cannot be considered indigenous, nor can they claim their land was “colonized.”

On the other hand, Jews have a bona fide indigenous identity, and have continuously populated the land of Israel. As such, they have also been the victims of colonizers many times over millennia.

Thus, by no definition can Jews be considered colonists. 

What’s more, during their millennia-old presence in Israel, the Jewish people have consistently fought against colonial powers. In biblical times, Israel was occupied by the empires of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. Later, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks and the British invaded. 

Most of these empires attempted to erase the Jewish people from their land. The Romans, for example, attempted to do so by slaughtering most of the Jewish population, destroying their temple—the focal point of their religion—and giving the country a new name: Palestine. 

Every visitor knows that Israel is piled high with the archeological remnants of its Jewish history, as well as that of the cities, forts, battles and harbors of colonial invaders. 

Many of these colonizers exiled the Jews, who were dispersed all over the world—especially to Africa, other parts of the Middle East and Europe. 

After defeating the Ottoman Turks in 1917, the British re-colonized the land of Israel—then called Palestine. Later, as millions of Jews were being slaughtered by the Nazis, the Jews of Palestine responded by fighting British rule until the State of Israel was born.

During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, however, the territory of Judea and Samaria was illegally seized by Jordan. In 1967, when Israel again defeated invading Arab states, Israel liberated Judea and Samaria—the heart of its biblical homeland—including eastern Jerusalem, which had been colonized under Jordanian occupation and from which all Jews had been ethnically cleansed. 

Ironically, while the international community never recognized Jordan’s sovereignty over Judea and Samaria—territory Jordan renamed as “the West Bank”—they didn’t condemn Jordan’s illegal occupation. 

Nor was there ever any demand by local Palestinian Arabs to form a state on Jordanian-held land. Only once Israel drove Jordan out of this territory did some members of the international community begin accusing Israel of illegal occupation.

Israel controls only legally acquired land. Israel’s capture of Judea and Samaria liberated a colonized territory to which Israel was legally entitled. International law dictates that a new country inherits the borders of the former entity. Judea and Samaria were previously the territory of the British Mandate of Palestine, meaning Israel was entitled to inherit it. 

Above all, Judea and Samaria was never legally part of any other country. An occupation only exists when one country occupies the territory of another. Therefore, there is no Israeli occupation, nor does Israel illegally control “Palestinian territory.” 

The Palestinians claim that they, not the Jews, are the indigenous inhabitants of the Holy Land. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas recently told the U.N. General Assembly that Palestinians are descendants of ancient Canaanites, a people that disappeared around 1150 BCE. 

In truth, most Palestinians are descendants of people who migrated to the region from Arab lands. While some Palestinian families have lived in the Holy Land for centuries, many, if not most, of these families originate from other lands. 

The prominent Al-Husayni and Shawish families, for example, claim direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, a native of the Arabian Peninsula. Hence, whereas Jews are the Holy Land’s indigenous inhabitants, Palestinians are part of an Arab colonial project.

Israel has nevertheless offered to exchange its legally acquired territory for peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world.

The U.N. Partition Plan for Palestine defined an Arab state in the Holy Land, which the Arabs rejected in 1948 in favor of war with Israel. The Jewish state made several offers of statehood to the Palestinians—in 2000, 2001 and 2008—all of which the Palestinians rejected, choosing instead unceasing war to destroy Israel.

In short, Israel has no interest in colonizing Palestinians. It already has two million Arab citizens. Indeed, Israel wants peace and has offered its land to achieve it. Unfortunately, the Palestinians seem to hate Israel more than they desire independence.

Israel is a legitimate nation state. It is a project not of colonialism, but of indigenous self-determination. Today, it continues to be a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution—also allowing the Jewish people to defend themselves from future colonizers. 

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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