Perhaps, but with Lots of Provisos
by Bennett Muraskin
Peter Beinart, in an article in the September 26, 2013 issue of the New York Review of Books, wrote: “Virtually every Palestinian I’ve ever met considers Zionism to be colonialist, imperialist, and racist. When liberal American Jews think about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they think about Isaac and Ishmael: brothers reared in the same land, each needing territory their progeny can call home. Palestinians are more likely to think about South Africa: a phalanx of European invaders, fired by religious and nationalistic zeal, dominating the indigenous population.”
If this is, indeed, the dominant Palestinian perspective, what is its validity?
A colonial settler state is generally seen as a country established by white Europeans among an indigenous, non-white population with the intent or effect of seizing their land. The best known examples are the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Each of these were colonies that broke away from their mother country and became independent — while continuing to displace or oppress the natives.
Zionism first arose in the 1880s in response to European anti-Semitism, in particular pogroms in Tsarist Russia. Most Zionist leaders had negative perceptions of Arabs, based mainly on European colonialist ideology. As far back as 1891, Ahad Ha’am wrote that Jewish settlers “treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty and deprive them of their rights . . .” Herzl wrote in The Jewish State (1896) that Jews in Palestine should “form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism,” whose existence would be guaranteed by European powers. In Herzl’s novel, Old-New Land (1902), he depicted a society in which Arabs would enjoy full equality, but in his diaries he proposed to “spirit” the Arab peasantry across the Jordan River.
With the permission of the controlling Ottoman Empire, European Jews first began arriving in Palestine in large numbers. From 5 percent of the population in 1880, the Jewish proportion of the total in Palestine rose to 10 percent by 1917.
After World War I, the League of Nations declared Great Britain the “mandatory” power over Palestine. Pursuant to its 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British government sponsored Jewish immigration to Palestine with the goal of establishing a “Jewish national home.”
During the Mandate period, Jewish National Fund purchased land from Arab property owners. Consistent with the prevailing Labor Zionist philosophy, the Jewish colonists sought to create an exclusively Jewish economy, using only Jewish labor. Through a myriad of institutions, including the Jewish-only trade union federation (the Histadrut), Jewish-only agricultural settlements (the kibbutzim and moshavim), and the Haganah militia, the Zionist movement acquired Arab land and built the infrastructure of a future state.
There can be no doubt that the immigration of hundreds of thousands of mostly European Jews to Palestine under the British mandate was opposed by the native population, who had no say in the matter. In 1939, however, in response to the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, the British issued a “White Paper” that rescinded the Balfour Declaration. On the eve of World War II, the new policy limited future Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the next five years and proposed the creation of an independent Palestinian state that would maintain an Arab/Jewish demographic balance of 2:1. In defiance of this White Paper, the Zionists organized illegal immigration of Jewish refugees and survivors of the Holocaust into Palestine — and after World War II, the Zionist forces launched an armed struggle to oust the British and establish a Jewish state.
In November 1947, in response to the Zionist struggle for independence, the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate into Jewish and Arab states. By then, the Jewish population stood at about 600,000, a tenfold increase since 1917. However, it was amounted to only half of the Arab population of 1.2 million, according to the 1945 British census. Yet the UN awarded the Jewish state 55 percent of the land, drawing its borders in such a way as to create a Jewish majority. It also included a large Arab minority, however, because thousands of Arabs lived close to Jewish population centers.
The Palestinian Arabs, with the exception of the communists acting under instructions from Moscow, opposed the partition. Their stated alternative was a single state in which further Jewish immigration and land purchases would be forbidden. The Zionists, on the other hand, were totally committed to bringing hundreds of thousands of Jews languishing in European Displaced Persons camps to settle and develop the land in the new Jewish state.
A third alternative was a binational state in which power would be shared. There were two Jewish organizations in favor of it. The Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair, based in the kibbutzim, and Ihud, made up of Jewish intellectuals, including Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. Neither could find partners on the Arab side.
The ensuing war, initiated by the Palestinian Arabs in December 1947, expanded into a war between the new State of Israel and surrounding Arab nations in May 1948. In the early stages, the Israelis fought for their survival, but by mid-1948, the better armed and disciplined Israeli army went on the offensive. By the war’s end in 1949, Israel had expanded its territory to 78 percent of the British Mandate and created over 700,000 Arab refugees.
Did the Zionist forces from the beginning plan to seize more territory and expel Arabs in order to rid itself of a large Arab minority and secure additional land for Jewish settlement? Or did it do so in response to battlefield conditions? This question may never be answered, but nothing pleased the Israeli leadership more than to see most of the land emptied of the native population.
Zionism is described by its supporters as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, but it must be recognized that until the 1947 UN Partition Plan, the land it sought to liberate had a minority of Jews, consisting mainly of recent Europeans immigrants living under the protection of an imperial power. When the British turned against the Jewish colony, the Zionists succeeded in liberating themselves, but in the war it fought with the Palestinian Arabs and Arab armies, the Zionists dispossessed the native population.
In this sense, Israel is a colonial settler state.
Yet this is not the entire story. There was a small pre-existing Jewish population in Palestine dating back at least 1,900 years to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, and arguably to more ancient times than that. The Jewish Bible considers Israel to be the “Promised Land,” and Jewish liturgy is full of longing for a return to Zion. There is no parallel of cultural memory and desire in the histories of other colonial settler states. These factors do not justify Zionist claims to (re)-establish a Jewish state after such a prolonged long absence, but they do explain the intensity of Jewish attachment to Israel.
There are other distinguishing features. North American Indians, Australian aborigines and black South Africans had no previous experience with Europeans, but Arabs were quite familiar with the Mizrakhi (Eastern) branch of the Jewish family, many of whom spoke Arabic and shared certain cultural attributes with their Arab neighbors. There were significant Jewish minorities in Arab lands whose treatment ranged from toleration to hostility. At best these Jews were treated as a protected subordinate minority; at worst, they were periodically persecuted. After 1948, they were subject to persecution in reprisal for the creation of Israel. For example, all of Iraq’s 135,000 Jews were expelled by 1951. Egypt’s 75,000 strong Jewish community was driven out in stages first in the late 1940s and then in 1956, after the Suez War.
Arabs might tolerate Jews and befriend them, but the idea that Jews could comprise a national group with a right to self-determination was totally alien their thinking. Based on their experience and their religious texts, Jews were strictly a religious minority. Christian Arabs, who had a significant presence in Palestine, also had deep-seated prejudices against Jews based on Christian religious teachings. Although Ashkenazic Jews arriving from Europe were understandably perceived as Western invaders, their arrival is not sufficient to explain the Palestinian Arab rejection of any proposal, prior to the creation of Israel, to share the land through partition or to share power with Jews through a binational state. In fact, the Arab authorities did not even accept the British White Paper issued in 1939, as obnoxious it was to Zionists, because it did not totally ban Jewish immigration.
As an aggravating factor, many Arab leaders and mass movements have been influenced by European anti-Semitism in their opposition to Zionism. Haj Amin Muhammad al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is the most notorious example. Based on the dubious principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” some Arab leaders like him looked to the Nazis to assist them in opposing the Jewish colonization of Palestine. With their connivance, Nazi Germany spread anti-Semitic propaganda throughout the Arab world in an effort to undermine the British. To this day, anti-Semitic screeds such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as well as Holocaust denial, have credence among many within the Arab world.
European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust are key factors that differentiate Israel from other colonial settler-states. After that catastrophe, who could blame Jews for wanting to live in their own country? No other European colonizers came from a people that suffered such a fate.
Some may ask, Why did this state have to be in Palestine? But where else could it have been? In the 1930s, the Soviet Union offered Birobidzhan, but that was a false promise from the start. In 1903, some Zionists led by the British Jewish writer Israel Zangwill were ready to take up a British offer of Uganda — which was in essence another colonial project. During the 1940s and 50s, a movement of “Jewish Territorialists” explored the potential of the under-populated Australian province of Kimberley and the South American Dutch colony of Suriname as Jewish homelands. Some Jews had hopes for a homeland in the pampas of Argentina. None of these proposals came to fruition, and none were designed to provide a homeland for more than a fraction of homeless Jews.
For decades Arab states refused to recognize Israel. Egypt was ostracized from the Arab world for a decade after it signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. The PLO took the plunge in 1993 and Jordan followed suit in 1994. But Hamas and more extreme Palestinian factions and Islamic fanatics throughout the Arab/Muslim world still call for the “liberation of Palestine” from Jewish control. As a practical matter, the majority of Palestinians have accepted that a state on 22 percent of the Mandatory Palestine is the best they can hope for, but their hearts are still in Jaffa and Jerusalem.
It is worth recalling that in 1947, the UN decided to create not just a Jewish state, but an Arab one as well on 45 percent of the territory of Palestine. It was not an ideal solution for the Arab majority, but no other native people was ever offered such a deal. The American Indians, for example, lost an entire continent. Israel, by contrast, occupies only a sliver of the Arab Middle East.
Yet this sliver has expanded. Since June 1967 Israel has occupied the West Bank, in violation of international law. Anchored by over 400,000 Jewish settlers, this is a clear case of “white settler colonialism.” Whether this description also applies to the State of Israel in its 1947 partition borders or its pre-June 1967 borders is less arguable. There are many mitigating factors, especially the legitimacy conferred on Israel by the UN Partition Resolution in November 1947.
In addition to the imprimatur of the United Nations , the Zionist project in Palestine/Israel differs from European settler colonialism in the following ways. To take the example most frequently cited by anti-Zionists — South Africa:
- Jews lived in the region for millennia, albeit at times as a small minority. There was no white presence in South Africa before the 1700s.
- Jewish immigrants from Europe had a strong attachment to the land of Israel based on Biblical sources and tradition. Not the case with whites in South Africa.
- European Jews were not safe or secure in their old homes and in many cases were forced out due to escalating anti-Jewish policies and violence. The role of the Holocaust in convincing Jews that a Jewish state was a necessity cannot be underestimated. The Dutch immigrants known as Boers and the later British immigrants faced no such conditions.
- Close to half of the Jewish citizens of Israel are from Arab/Muslim lands, not white Europeans. Again, no comparison to South Africa.
- The hostility shown by the native Arab population toward Jewish settlers was based, in part, on prejudice against non-Muslims and general and Jews in particular, drawing on their religious and political traditions of treating Jews as an inferior religious minority. Black African hostility toward European whites was based purely on their status as colonizers.
- The Jewish colonizers were willing to share the land with the Arab natives up through 1947 and Israel made offers to the Palestinians that went beyond “bantustan” solutions in 2000 and 2008.
- Arabs who live within Israel’s borders face discrimination, but are still citizens of the state. The South African apartheid governments forced blacks into semi-autonomous enclaves, i.e. bantustans, and denied them basic citizenship rights.
Isaac Deutscher compared the relationship between Jews and Palestinians in Israel to that of a person who jumps from a burning building (Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe) and lands on someone walking below (the Arabs of Palestine). The analogy is not exact, but it speaks to the need for mutual recognition of the national rights of both peoples. This should mean two states based on the pre-June 1967 borders, including an Arab capital in East Jerusalem and compensation for Palestinian refugees.
Radicals on the left propose a one-state solution, which virtually no Israeli Jews would accept. Nationalist sentiment on both sides make it foolish to even contemplate. Unfortunately, there is not even a conversation about a binational state, which remains the most humane solution — but only in the long term, after a transitional period in which the two independent states form a cooperative relationship.
A fool’s errand? People tend to forget that an integral component of the same UN Partition Resolution that created Israel was an “economic union” between the Jewish and Arab state, with Jerusalem as an “international city” belonging to neither.
Now there is food for thought.
Bennett Muraskin is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents who conducts our “In Memoriam” column. He writes widely about secular Jewish thought and trends and is the author of Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore and Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories.