Thursday, October 26, 2023

Settler Colonialism

 The Israel-Hamas conflict has stirred up a great many stupid claims and comments. One that I have seen multiple times -- usually among progressives trying to justify antisemitic comments -- is that Israel was a settler colony. For various reasons 'settler colonialism' is one of the Big Bad Systems of the current left; modern progressives, rather than proposing positive visions, have a tendency to justify their actions in terms of Resistance to the Big Bad System. There is no completely accepted account of what settler colonialism is, but the most commonly accepted idea is that you have it when an imperial power incentivizes the establishment of a framework of colonial settlements in order to replace or exploit the native population. 

Israel was not, contrary to the claims, formed by a settler colonialist policy. For one thing, the Jews are a native population in the area. The beginning of the formation of Israel is often traced to the British Empire's nineteenth century policies regarding Mandatory Palestine, but Palestine under the Mandate was already about ten percent or so Jewish. A significant portion of Jewish Israelis have at least some Jewish ancestors who were in the region long before any imperial policy could have had a significant effect. Second, the major waves of Jewish immigration to Palestine were not settler waves but refugee waves. The Third Aliyaha (immigration wave -- the first two big immigration waves happened before the Mandate was established) is associated with World War I; the Fourth with an economic crisis in Eastern Europe and a European wave of antisemitic persecutions; the Fifth is associated with the rise of Nazi Germany. The last of these became so massive that the British, far from encouraging it, tried (and failed) to impose a massive set of restrictions on immigration to the area. The result was an increasing friction between the local Jewish population, which sympathized with the refugees, and the British government; this eventually broke out into a guerilla war, and the Jewish population lucked out -- by the time things came to a head, the political landscape had changed enough that the British thought it better to cut a generous deal rather than crushing the resistance as it had done with previous resistances. Thus was the State of Israel born. In short, Israel was formed due to

(a) an original portion of the native population
(b) massively increased by repeated influxes of refugees from war and persecution
(c) which spawned resistance and revolt against imperial restrictions on immigration
(d) in such a way and at such a time that they were able to negotiate significant concessions.

There is literally nothing about this story that is consistent with settler colonialism. This becomes even more obvious when you compare to a state like South Africa, which pretty clearly was created through settler colonialism, or even policies like Israel's handling of the West Bank, which meets at least some definitions of settler colonialism and has at least the right general structure for it. Israel itself was never a settler colony; it was not formed through settler colonialism. To fit it in, you have to stretch literally every element of any plausible definition of settler colonialism beyond the breaking point. 

Likewise the claim that Zionism in the lead up to the formation of Israel was a 'settler colonialist' movement is simply wrong. Zionism was a nationalist movement, one of many, many nationalist movements that developed in the nineteenth century; it chose, like all nationalist movements, to focus on a traditional homeland, which no one can deny Israel is for the Jews, who are as a population (and certainly in the Zionist view were) indigenous to the area; and Jews, while a minority in the Mandate, were nonetheless already a visible population there. Because so much of the immigration consisted of refugees of various kinds, Zionist organizations in practice largely helped refugees to immigrate and develop connections with Jewish populations already living there. Most of the immigration was also not driven by Zionism itself at all. And Zionism's primary contribution to the development of the Israeli State was building social infrastructure that meant both that the Jews were well entrenched when the British tried to crack down on them and that they had institutional capacity ready to go when they got independence. The claim that Zionism is settler colonialism is straightforward antisemitism; it requires the false assumption that the Zionists were a quasi-imperial power and in control of the process. There is of course no doubt that many Zionists did not have any regard for the non-Jewish majority in Mandate Palestine, but this kind of attitude is, again, not particularly distinctive, being a common pattern among nationalist groups who see themselves as trying to restore their indigenous homeland. People are usually quite indulgent of it; it's only when it's the Zionists that people bring out their knives. In any case, attempts to paint Zionism as a settler colonialist movement are, regardless of any ethical evaluation of Zionism itself, implausible, and pretty much inevitably given the actual context and development of Zionism.