Israel – The Last of the Settler Colonies

Rewind the clock more or less than a century and you will find a world teeming with settler colonies engaged in battle with ‘unruly natives.’ Today only one remains; Israel is the last of a dying breed, the last of the settler colonies.

American Progress by John Gast (1872)

“American Progress” by John Gast (1872)

The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is often described as unique – as a conflict with no historical precedent. But viewed through the eyes of an imperial historian it is on the contrary reassuringly, or rather, depressingly familiar. In a largely post-colonial world, colonial conflicts are certainly harder to spot. But there are also less savoury grounds for not recognising the events of today’s Middle East as analogous with those who took place in America, Africa and Australia in the age of imperialism: simply because the treatment of the indigenous peoples of these continents have been universally brandished as immoral and any comparison would reflect unfavourably upon Israel. Apart from the moral aspects, settler colonialism is also negatively perceived due to the dangerous precedent it sets within the sphere of international relations, since it affords legitimacy to ‘might is right’ realpolitik over any system of international law.

Settler Colonialism

History offers a reservoir of vicarious experience, and tapping into it presents a framework with which to analyse the dynamics between the two sides of the current conflict, namely that of settler colonialism. This particular mode of imperialism is hallmarked by the dispossession of land and the creation of a new state in which the original population is alienated of their rights by the incoming settlers. The indigenous people are cast as ‘others’ and dehumanised, written out of the settler state’s creation myth. Full citizen rights are commonly only the preserve of a particular ethnicity, namely that of the settlers themselves and their kin across the world which are welcomed into their new ethnically homogeneous polity. Secure in their just cause as the harbingers of civilisation and progress the settlers and their state will casually resort to the use of disproportional violence to quell opposition and indigenous resistance is simply branded mindless terrorism. This is often demonstrated when the state employs tactics of ethnic cleansing to expand territorially on land it has declared terra nullius. If demography is on their side it results in the creation of ‘successful’ settler states such as the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand where the native population is largely marginalised. But if the settlers are greatly outnumbered, there follows protracted and violent conflicts such as in French Algeria, Southern Rhodesia or indeed South Africa.

Critics of the settler colonialist analogy with regard to Israel point to the fact that it lacks a metropole, that Israel is not directed or controlled from an imperial centre that has transplanted its population onto foreign soil. Whilst this in a strict legal sense is true, America’s carte blanche military, economic and political support of Israel since the late 1960s would for all intents and purposes qualify. Whether a metropole is required at all for classifying settler colonialism is also doubtful. Although the African-Americans that settled Liberia and subjugated the local population between 1847 and 1980 did not have an imperial metropole, they were still settlers engaged in settler colonialism. Likewise with the Boer population in South Africa, after the Cape Colony had passed to Britain in 1806 and the Afrikaaners had been severed from their Dutch metropole. Even Algeria, the locus classicus of settler colonialism, which was settled by almost one million Europeans since the conquest in 1830, would not fit this metropole criterion. France defined the three northernmost provinces as integral departments of metropolitan France – hence the periphery was in constitutional terms also the metropole, although the distinction is purely semantic.

Another objection raised by skeptics to the analogy is that the motives of the Zionist settlers were markedly different from those of other settler colonies. In particular that the the Jewish immigrants to Palestine were motivated by a desire for protection in a national homeland, rather than economic gain – as were the case in many of the white settler colonies. But neither this is relevant for whether or not to classify the actions of a group as settler colonialism. The motives of settler colonists, either derived from nationalism, greed or any other reason, does not detract from or alter the basic components of this phenomenon: the dispossession of the indigenous population’s land and rights by a new population. Put in simple terms: whether you steal someone’s property due to your own property having been stolen, or simply for economic gain does not change the fact that you have engaged in theft.

Liberia proves an interesting parallel to Israel in regard to both motives and the righteousness of the settlers’ cause. Settled by the American Colonization Society (part of the ‘Back-to-Africa Movement’) in the early decades of the 19th century, one could easily conclude that the formerly enslaved African-Americans were a persecuted minority in the US. As apart from outright racial discrimination, millions of their ethnic group still suffered slavery in most states of the union. Courtesy of the slave trade the African-Americans, in similarity with the Jews, constituted an diaspora with arguably as many territorial rights to a portion of the continent from which they originally came as any Zionist claim to Palestine or ‘the holy land.’ Likewise they were not motivated by greed, but rather liberty (hence the name Liberia) and security from persecution in their own, new homeland. Also in parallel to the Jewish people, the African-American freedmen of the early 19th century had either themselves or their ancestors suffered through atrocities comparable in scope and brutality to the Nazi Holocaust – the Atlantic slave trade is estimated to have displaced more than 11 million people between the 16th and 19th centuries and killed, only on board ship, an estimated 1.5 million. Certainly the figures would be higher if those who died upon capture or during work as slaves would be included. This is obviously no competition in suffering, but it does offer a historical precedent. But could this suffering be invoked to legitimise the oppression of the native population that inhabited the territory which would form modern-day Liberia? And regardless of motives and ‘claims’ to African land, were the African-Americans not also settler colonists engaged in settler colonialism, creators of a settler state in which the indigenous population were alienated of their rights?

Settler Colonist Movements

The Zionist Movement, the precursor and basis of modern Israel, led by the Austrian atheist Theodor Herzl, was far from either God-given or particularly unique. It was simply one of the many settler colonist movements that grew out of the late-Victorian imperialist zeitgeist. In the 1880-90s it seemed like almost everyone had some sort of colonial scheme for Africa or any part of the world deemed suitable for European colonisation. Croydon’s great son, Verney Lovett Cameron, wanted to set up an abolitionist colony in modern-day Zambia, whilst Harry Johnston, on a mission for Kew Gardens to collect botanical specimens at Mount Kilimanjaro, also came home with signed treaty forms. A gentleman named Carl Peters, fresh history PhD in hand, found inspiration when looking through British colonial files during a visit to the Public Record Office to secure Germany a ‘place in the sun’ – so he founded German East Africa, modern-day Tanzania. Even a group of socialists couldn’t resist the bandwagon and set up the British Freeland Association in order to settle in British East Africa. But today only Herzl has a mountain named after him; the other colonial ventures were never as successful in the long term of alienating the rights of the indigenous population.

Desperate to make British East Africa remunerative with exports of cash crops grown by European settlers, the Balfour government offered in 1903 the Zionist movement a patch of land in the Rift Valley on the border between Kenya and Uganda. This so-called ‘New Palestine’ was to be a Jewish settlement had it not been refused at the last hurdle in 1905 by the World Zionist Organisation. Even then reservations were made by British authorities: ‘It is not likely that non-Jews will much frequent the Jewish settlement, but their rights should be carefully reserved. When circumstances permit the persecuted to become persecutors, they are apt to find the change very enjoyable…’ Sadly Sir Charles Eliot’s words still ring true over a century later.

A Victorian witnessing Israel’s bombardment of Gaza would doubtlessly have deemed it a ‘pacifying mission’ instituted in order to ‘teach the natives a lesson.’ Because to precisely describe this conflict a vocabulary from a more imperial age is required. The Germans present in 1880s East Africa were all too familiar with the use of excessive force or ‘wholesome severity’ in order to impose their will upon the perceived troublesome natives. In one incident reported in 1888, a German soldier had been fired upon, to which the Germans in retaliation burned the offending village and killed most of its inhabitants. To add insult to injury the Germans labelled those who resisted both ‘fanatical and stranger-hating.’ The parallel to the current Israeli tactics and rhetoric regarding Palestinian resistance is striking. Although most people today would snigger at the assertion that the native East Africans resisting German encroachment were simply fanatical and xenophobic. Strangely few would question the similar Israeli designation of the Palestinian resistance movement, not akin to South Africa’s ANC or Algeria’s FLN, but as ‘worshippers of a death cult.’

Israel’s Kith and Kin

Another striking parallel is the support settler colonists received from metropolitan public opinion – what were deemed their ‘kith and kin.’ Despite the concept’s banality, people have a preference for people who resemble themselves. British supporters of the white settlers in both Kenya and Southern Rhodesia invoked this argument. And no matter the atrocities committed by the pied noir in Algeria, the French could find no fault in the actions of their countrymen (although most were Spanish, Italian or Maltese). That is to say until Charles De Gaulle finally had had enough and pulled out after uttering the now famously ambiguous words ‘I have understood you!’ to the settler population in 1958. A peculiar example of this clan-mentality came with the Boer Wars, since suddenly the white Boers were cast as natives by the British and ‘Germanic Europe’ were in an uproar – once the ‘indigenous’ population were white they were also valued as equals or indeed ‘real people,’ the courtesy did however not extend to the coloured tribes of Africa.

Israel’s kith and kin are the American public, largely uninformed and subject to the hasbara spin of Israeli public diplomacy, right-wingers, evangelicals and other pro-Israeli groups and media-outlets. Its trump card is the fervent Christian religiosity of Americans, which ensures divine sanction for Israel’s oppressive policies in contravention of international law. Incredibly, the campaign has been so successful that it has managed to clad a simple land grab in the guise of a ‘timeless’ civilisational war between Judeo-Christianity and Islam.  As long as this support is forthcoming then Israel can pursue its policies with impunity however atrocious they may be. But sadly for settler colonies, change rarely comes from within. History has shown that the only ways in which to stop a settler state from pursuing oppressive policies against its indigenous population is either through abandonment by the metropole combined with international isolation or successful indigenous resistance.

But even when support for the settlers fade, as happened in Southern Rhodesia, the settlers continue their imperialist project – in this particular case with the unilateral declaration of independence and the creation of a white minority ruled state. This hawkishness is yet another hallmark; the settler colonists usually have a far more expansionist and reactionary agenda than their metropolitan supporters which also find its parallel with US-Israel relations today – the Israeli pit bull tugging on old Uncle Sam’s leash.

From its inception Israel sought to remove the native Palestinians and build upon all their land a settler state, an Eretz Israel. In 1937 the secular and left-leaning leader of the Jewish state-in-waiting David Ben-Gurion had revealed his plans to his son Amos: ‘We must expel Arabs and take their place.’ His vision has now in large part been realised, but the Palestinians remain in their bantustans. However as the late Professor Tony Judt suggested in 2006, there will likely come a day when Israel cannot rely on the unquestioning support of the US, when Israel becomes a strategic liability rather than an asset. When the horrors of the Holocaust cannot be invoked to justify atrocities committed against a different people in a different time and at a different place. Or when the ad hominem ‘anti-Semitic’ cannot be invoked in an attempt to invalidate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. There will come a day when a US President also will utter those ambiguous words of non-support.

Israel’s position today is more analogous to Apartheid South Africa or French Algeria than it is to its settler state counterparts the United States or Australia. Although the Palestinians are oppressed they are still present on their native land. Their struggle for the right of self-determination is a just cause, and if equality is not granted them the conflict is likely to carry on undiminished. If Israel wants to avoid walking in the footsteps of the pied noir or indeed the white minority regimes in Kenya, Southern Rhodesia or South Africa, it should decolonise the West Bank, remove its blockade of Gaza and grant the right of return to Palestinian refugees. Israel should either earnestly support a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 borders with the Palestinian people or adopt a one-state solution in which both Israelis and Palestinians enjoy equal civil rights within a consociational model of governance – these are the only ways in which to ensure an equitable and lasting peace for both peoples, Israeli and Palestinian.


About J.F. Gjersø

PhD in International History, LSE.
This entry was posted in Imperial History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Israel – The Last of the Settler Colonies

  1. Pingback: Colonial Kettle Logic: The Antithetical Rhetoric of Settler Colonialism | Novel Alliances

  2. Ahad Haadam says:

    Reblogged this on Dancing With Palestinians and commented:
    This is an extremely well written and well articulated analysis and should be read by everyone who wishes to understand the ongoing, 100 year old colonial conflict in Israel/Palestine.

  3. Pingback: Le palestinien Mazin Qumsiyeh démonte la « hasbara  (propagande) israélienne | «alcovesergioderosemont

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