Arab “Settler-Colonialism” in the Land of Israel

September 6, 2017 | Alex Joffe
About the author:

In contemporary academic circles, “settler-colonialism” has come to be considered among the gravest of sins. The term—which refers to one country taking control of another and sending some of its inhabitants to live there—is applied with particular frequency, and venom, to Israel, although the U.S., Australia, and others also qualify as culprits. But, writes Alex Joffe, it is not Jews but Palestinians whom this term best describes:

The settler-colonialism argument against Israel posits that Zionism was an imperial tool of Britain (or, alternatively, that Zionism manipulated the British empire); that Jews represent an alien population implanted into Palestine to usurp the land and displace the people; and that Israel has subjected Palestinians to “genocide”—real, figurative, and cultural. According to this argument, Israel’s “settler colonialism” is a “structure, not an event,” and is accompanied by a “legacy of foundational violence” that extends back to the First Zionist Congress in 1897 or even before. With Zionism thus imbued with two forms of ineradicable original sin, violent opposition to Israel is legitimized and any forms of compromise, even negotiation, are “misguided and disingenuous.” . . .

The idea of Jews as “settler-colonialists” is easily disproved. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that Jews are the indigenous population of the southern Levant. . . . As for imperial support, the Zionist movement began during the Ottoman empire, which was at best [ambivalent] toward Jews and uncomfortable with the idea of Jewish sovereignty. . . .

Ironically, the same cannot be said for the Palestinian Arabs. . . . [M]odern Palestinians are, in fact, [descended] from two primary groups: converts from indigenous pre-[Islamic] Jews and Christians who submitted to Islam, and Arab tribes originating across the Middle East who migrated to the southern Levant between late antiquity and the 1940s. . . .

[None of this means] that Ottoman Palestine was “empty” when the Zionist movement began. It was indeed populated, albeit unevenly, but those populations had immigrated into the land over the previous centuries, a process that accelerated precisely because of the Zionist movement and the British Mandate. Palestinian settler-colonialism took place, ironically, under the aegis of both a Muslim and a Christian empire.

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